Monday, May 30, 2016

Let's Talk About Stereotypical Portrayals of Disability on TV

Hey T, Have you seen this season of Bones? It has been interesting and I wondered your thoughts about it.

I received this message from a friend recently along with a corresponding article detailing secondary character, Jack Hodgins’ paralysis in the show’s winter finale.  I was put off by many things in the article alone, and even though I was fairly sure about the kind of portrayal I would see, I checked out five episodes (11x12-11x16) anyway.

[Image is: a wheelchair at the top of steep steps outdoors.]


Disability as a Plot-Device:  Hodgins’ paralysis (as the majority of characters’ disabilities in media) exists exclusively as a ‘new challenge’ both for the character, and the actor who plays him.  In this sense, the lives of actual disabled people are viewed as an exercise, not as a reality.  Bones is apparently going to end after a 12-episode season 12.  Season 11 is already half done.  Chances of any depth or reality to this aspect is slim in my opinion.  This is dangerous and problematic because it objectifies disabled people.  Our lives as disabled people are viewed one-dimensionally, as a sad nightmare from which the character cannot awake, and an unimaginable challenge to grieve and cope with.  

Representation:  While absolutely not specific to this show, the issue of casting an able-bodied actor in the role of newly-paralyzed character, Hodgins is an issue.   We not only must contend with the inherent stereotypes coming from the able-bodied writers and directors, but the those of the actor (who uses words like “chair-bound” to describe his character.)

In order to get into character, actor T.J. Thyne, stays in the character’s wheelchair all the time on set, even when it is inconvenient for him (as stated in the linked article above.)  This is viewed as admirable and as proof of just how deep Thyne’s commitment to this new storyline is.  When I read that he was looking to portray disability accurately, I hoped he may discuss speaking with actual spinal cord injury survivors, but no, he chooses to remain in the chair at all times.  

I saw an example of this during a commercial during the last episode I watched via OnDemand.  The actors were a part of some good deed, and as it was on set, Thyne was in the wheelchair, though he clearly was not in-character.  I can’t quite specify just how seeing this resonated as “wrong” to me, but it did.  Perhaps because it takes my (and many people’s) legitimate identities as disabled people and minimizes them to a prolonged instance of disability simulation, which does nothing but promote pity and stereotypes.

The biggest issue I find with able-bodied actors portraying disabled characters is that it always comes off feeling like a mockery to me.  The reason for this is, there are specific things we do as disabled people (and more specifically, things that people who are paralyzed) do, that able-bodied actors do not.  

If you want a great example, watch the way Thyne pushes his wheelchair as Hodgins.  Now, watch Ali Stroker push her chair.  Thyne pushes the chair the way able-bodied people walk.  Using a wheelchair is not the same as walking.  We move differently. I have very rarely seen a person in a wheelchair “pace” for example, but I have seen able-bodied actors portraying wheelchair users do this. I very rarely see wheelchair users in motion who stop just to gesture while the speak and then keep going.  More often, we will use our heads to gesture, or park completely before engaging in a conversation that requires our hands.

It also needs to be said: this singular lens through which disability is viewed on television is limiting at best.  Paralysis is not the only physical disability that exists.  Cerebral Palsy, Osteogenesis Imperfecta and Muscular Dystrophy are just three examples of others that exist from birth.  Straight, white men are not the only people who are disabled.  Women are disabled, too.  So are people of color.  So are LGBTQIA+ people.  Many times, these minority identities crossover and a black woman is disabled, for example. But we rarely, if ever, see these representations on television.  I understand that it is the closest able-bodied people can likely come to envisioning themselves disabled, but it does those of us who have grown up disabled few favors.

This narrative, in particular, feeds the erroneous assumption that disability is the product of something tragic and that our lives post-disability are equally tragic.  

Also, in one horrifying moment, Angela confides in a co-worker that she is “trying to think of ways to kill my jerk of a husband.” It is played for laughs.  There seems to be a lack of knowledge on all parties’ parts that caregivers murdering disabled people in their charge is a frightening reality that we in the disabled community must live with.  (As well as living with the knowledge that those responsible are rarely if ever charged with a crime.)

If there were a disabled person in the writer’s room, or a disabled consultant present, “jokes” like these would never slip past us, and we would know just how chilling it is to hear a wife say those words about her newly-disabled husband.

Accessibility as a Non-Issue:  Perhaps accessibility was touched on more in previous episodes but in the five I saw, accessibility was basically a non-issue for Hodgins.  There is one moment where he meets his friends at a local diner and someone trips over his chair.  They briefly talk about going somewhere else but Hodgins insists that they keep coming to the same place because it’s tradition.

He goes back to work seamlessly.  Hodgins seems to be able to reach and access absolutely everything he could ever need without a problem.  He is able to continue doing his job with little to no accommodations, from what I could see.

Most glaring, for me, was seeing Hodgins navigate with no trouble around his own home.  Especially as his injury (and thus, the chair) is new, I imagined I might see a bit of struggle on his part over carpet, around furniture not positioned with a wheelchair in mind, and navigating doorways that are just too narrow.  

This may seem like I am being nit-picky but accessibility as a wheelchair user is not a given, and just as it is maddening to see fictional shows flagrantly disregard the existence of the ADA and insist that characters in wheelchairs are not provided accessible transportation, it’s equally unbelievable to see a newly paralyzed character encounter no difficulties navigating through his workplace, his home or anywhere else.


Becoming Disabled Makes Character a Jerk:  I have not seen Hodgins prior to his injury.  I’ve only had the word of fellow characters telling me he has changed to let me know he has not always been an absolute jerk.  He’s very dismissive to his co-workers, and specifically to his wife, whom he also works with.  He ignores her or makes mean comments.

Disabled Character Makes Awful Dark Wheelchair Jokes:  This may seem like a small issue but the way we speak about ourselves as wheelchair users is so important.  I have rarely if ever heard someone in a wheelchair balk at a legitimate comment from a co-worker/friend about out-of-line behavior with a retort asking that friend “what they call themselves for putting down someone in a wheelchair?”  

The reality is, we receive so much pity as it is that the idea of asking for more just seems absurd.  But Hodgins does this, drawing weird, dark attention with bad jokes about his legs not working, and accusing people of expecting him to come to them when he is in a wheelchair.  

Disabled Character Wants to Be Healed:  I understand (as best as someone who has been disabled from birth can) that a new injury later in life can be a huge adjustment.  It can take time.  But again, when the only portrayals we see on television are that of disabled people longing for a cure for their disability, it feeds the notion that we all lead miserable lives and none of us are happy.

Able-Bodied Heroes and SuperSpouse:  This show is full of able-bodied heroes!  Pretty much everyone other than Hodgins thinks they know better than him about what he needs or what should be done about this or that personal issue.  These five episodes are full of Hodgins getting put in his place by the able-bodied characters about how wrong he is to be coping as he is.

SuperSpouse is a variation of SuperParent, Angela, Hodgins’ wife is often the focus of storylines that should focus on Hodgins.  She is sad to be treated so badly (legitimate) however, her long-suffering “it’s just the way he talks to me now.” and “this is him on a good day,” just feed the notion that Hodgins is the recipient of so much love and sacrifice on Angela’s behalf.  He should be grateful and he is not.

In a totally strange example that is somehow both of these themes, Hodgins bonds with some rats, and is all about taking them home and not disposing of them now that they no longer have use in their current investigation.  Hodgins is also very excited about a possible surgery that might restore his ability to walk.

Angela talks to Hodgins at the end of the episode (very condescendingly) about how he seems to value the lives of those rats quite a bit.  (Sidenote: I don’t even know what to say to the idea that Hodgins is identifying with rats…)  Angela tells Hodgins that these rats undergo all kinds of tests that kill them because they are super risky, and isn’t he more valuable than the rats.  Hodgins agrees that he is and that he will be on the lookout for a different surgery which poses less risk to him.  Then they take the rats home.  Disgusting.

Disabled People as Props and Gawking Without Talking:  These two inspiration porn themes were huge in the episodes I watched.  Hodgins is often talked about by Angela outside of his presence.  One instance includes Angela discussing with a friend at work that he can still be intimate because everything still works.

While it is definitely common that women (especially those who are friends) discuss such things, adding disability into the mix creates a new layer that able-bodied people often don’t consider.  As disabled people, we are often objectified by the nondisabled public.  They often feel entitled to very personal information about us, including our diagnoses, how we use the bathroom, and how we have sex.  Angela discussing what Hodgins can still do in bed crosses that line, in my opinion.  If Hodgins were present and at ease with the topic of conversation, it would be another matter.  But I am fairly certain that this conversation would not have happened in his earshot.

In another episode, Hodgins is trying to make up for his previously mean behavior by severely overcompensating and buying Angela ridiculously expensive jewelry.  We see she is uncomfortable at the gifts’ cost, but Hodgins insists she have them.

At the end of the same episode, all of the Bones co-workers are out to eat, and they are toasting that Hodgins is out with them again.  At this, Angela elaborates that Hodgins is out with them because she has given the jewelry he gave her to a fellow female co-worker, and in order to “get it back” he has to go out with Angela three more times that month.

Hodgins is not angry at the fact that his wife gave her jewelry (from him!) to another woman.  He is not humiliated that she is treating him like a child by removing what he obviously deems valuable until he does what she wants.  Instead, Hodgins smiles at Angela and holds her hand without saying a word, as if her actions are the most romantic thing he has ever heard.


While I used the show Bones for specific examples, I find TV regularly misrepresents disability in these types of ways.  (Past examples include Glee and the remake of Ironside.)

I would love to see that change, especially as I know of so many Deaf and disabled actors who would love to represent characters like themselves in non-stereotypical ways.  As an audience member, I would love to see authentic representation, as well.

It’s my hope that, over time, this continues to change.


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  1. I have Cerebral Palsy and I write films here to change these exact stereotypes so thank you for writing this so I know what to be mindful of in my own writing. I particularly agree with what you said about this disabled character going back to work seamlessly being unrealistic. I met somebody who had a stroke as an adult which gave him a disability. This disability is invisible most of the time but if he overexerts himself he can have episodes of dizziness that can be dangerous(I witnessed one of his episodes) so he needed to have accommodations that allowed him not to have to do certain types of physical activity.

    1. I'm glad to know there are film writers with CP out there who are fighting to break these stereotypes!

    2. Hi, it's me again from Crip Video Productions(finally figured out how to type my name in here). Thank you so so very much! I hope you enjoy my films!