Saturday, June 7, 2008

disTHIS!: using disability to talk about ability

Last Wednesday was yet another fabulous night of diTHIS! where my partner and I went to see the feature-length film Quid Pro Quo. This film advertises itself as exploring the identities of people with Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), through the fictional plot of a wheelchair-using public radio employee trying to interview people with BIID. BIID is, roughly, a mental identity where you believe yourself to have (and perhaps you do have) a physical disability despite the fact that you do not appear to have a physical disability. Some BIID people may try to acquire that identity through surgery, some may not. This website, TransAbled, is run by people with various forms of BIID, so I trust it for accurateness in case you want more info.

However, the movie never did talk about BIID, or what it would mean for a person with a physical disability to interview a person who wants – or has the need to have – a physical disability. Instead the movie used the theme of obtaining a physical disability to discuss issues of revenge, grief, and shame. Physical disabilities became the trope through which mental struggles were discussed. Luckily, I am reading a fantastic journal right now and found a great quote in the essay Audre Lorde and the Power of Touch, to describe my anger. In an essay discussing Audre Lorde’s identity with vision impairment, Sarah E. Chinn quotes Naomi Schor on the use of blindness as a trope in Western culture:

“…Western culture has leaned on the “myth of the moral blindness of the sighted…[and]the moral superiority of the physically blind upon the sighted.” a myth that turns disability into a convenient metaphor for the sighted and refuses the complex meanings (let alone the day-to-day ramifications) of blindness for blind people themselves.”
Quid Pro Quo turned physical disability – specifically paralysis and wheelchair use – into metaphors for mental disabilities such as BIID and the physical ramifications of extreme guilt. By doing this, the film undermined the reality of mental disability while ignoring the “complex meanings and day-to-day ramifications” of wheelchair use for wheelchair users themselves. An extreme guilt that results in physical trauma, or the intense desire to be disabled are real disability identities that deserve the same standards of care that any identity deserves. Being someone who is diagnosed as having Gender Identity Disorder who is also diagnosed as bi-polar and has previously had eating disorders I take mental disability and wellness very seriously. So when I see a mental disability displayed as something universal in the old “you need to just buck up and have a stiff upper lip” mode, I get upset. For my friends and co-workers with physical disabilities I can only imagine the reaction to a film that portrays physical disability as a trope to explore universal human identities. As an audience member put it, this movie is for able-bodied people. It has no complex understanding of physical disability identity, and is incredibly harmful for people with any form of mental disability.

I am going to turn to a quote that I relied on for much of my college work to finish up this discussion of disability as a means to reach universal themes. In his essay, As Good As it Gets: Queer Theory and Critical Disability, Robert McRuer dissects the film As Good As It Gets. The main character, Melvin, is a white wealthy man with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as well as a nasty personality where he is constantly racist, homophobic, and sexist. The film ends with Melvin being "cured" by taking prescribed medication. As he chooses to take this medication he also "wins" by finding friends and a romantic partner (white and female). McRuer has this to say:
“the assumption is that overcoming his disability would improve his character: his sexism, ableism, homophobia, and racism can be treated with a pill. By representing Melvin’s disability, or “ailment” as his character flaw, the [movie] positions his story firmly in already pervasive cultural discourses of disability.”
So Quid Pro Quo was unfortunate. But I would have never seen it had it not been for the space of disTHIS! where I could not only see the film for a song ($5 yo!) but also engage in a wonderful talk-back, a privilege most viewers of this film will not receive. After all, how many cinemas are actually accessible? How many people with physical or mental disabilities will be able to truly see this film in theater? Without a talkback session I fear many able bodied viewers will continue to see disability as a thematic trope and not as a lived reality.

* The essays I quote from were found for about $13 on (although I usually urge readers not to buy corporate…) GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Special Edition: Desiring Disability: Queer Theory Meets Disability Studies. 9.1-2 (2003).

1 comment:

Sean said...

Thank you for this review. I am the founder and main author of Some of the information I had read about the movie led me to believe that some of the lines from the "heroine" had been lifted straight from my website. Obviously, any movie that touts itself as discussing BIID will raise my keen interest.

I am not surprised to hear that the movie is missing the mark both for people with mental illnesses and those with physical disabilities. {sigh} I had great hopes for it.

Hopefully I'll get a chance to see it at some point in the near future.