Sunday, 1 May 2016

Prejudice and Representation

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This blog post is a part of Blogging Against Disablism Day 2016.  For more information and to read other work on the theme of disability descrimination, pride etc, see Diary of a Goldfish

Prejudice grows like mould; the smaller and darker the space, the worse the problem.  In an insular group, everyone is an outsider.  It's so much harder to treat anyone with bigotry when you're surrounded by a variety of voices, a variety of faces, a variety of hopes and dreams.  So one of the key tools in fighting prejudice is to feed people with broad and positive representation in fiction, film and television.

Thinking back to my own childhood, I remember very little about Grange Hill beyond the bullying which I recognised in my own school, and the character played by Francesca Martinez - the first person I saw with Cerebral Palsy.  I remember, in extremely white Surrey, programmes like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and their broad cast of entirely individual people of colour.  And I remember the bad, too - the disabled villains, stereotypical black men, and non-existant or entirely passive women of a hundred different programmes and films.
Comic book style image of numerous young people and an alarming sausage.
Grange Hill Theme
Of course, I am not a product solely of these things.  But they are some of the earliest cultural rungs in the ladder of my life.  And some of them appear to have been deliberately greased in the hope that I would fall back into prejudice.  Fostering an atmosphere of mistrust and prejudice, where the same kind of people play the same kind of roles, enables those who are already at the top of the pecking order keep their place.  It also maintains a bland and simple world which takes little imagination to navigate. If Francesca Martinez had never set foot in Grange Hill, viewers who had never and would never come into contact with disability would not have to think about it.  As it is, social awareness is talked about as if it is a chore; when the BBC hired Cerrie Burnell to present on the CBBC channel, parents were upset because “they were forced to discuss difficult issues with their young children before they were ready.”


In terms of narrative, it's obvious that, in the case of original stories like Grange Hill and The Fresh Prince, there are no barriers to inclusivity.  If someone had wanted to write one of the Banks family as disabled, that would have been possible.  However, there are also other situations in which people feel they have a genuine excuse for what amounts to disablist laziness.

Historical fiction is created with weight of fact to wrestle with.  This is further complicated when the history is ancient as sources become uncertain or contradictory.  In some ways this benefits the adapting author as they have numerous narrative options open to them.  But those with privilege (or those brainwashed by the powers that be into thinking that things are as they are because that is how things *should* be)  are restricted to the same old stories of Straight White Non-Disabled Men fighting their way to the top.  These stories, damaging to our cultural health, are immensely boring.  And, as Foz Meadows describes in this excellent post, it's missing something about what *really* happened in our history.

A line drawing of Richard the Third naked, looking none too well.
Richard the Third's death
An interesting example can be found in Shakespeare's Richard III.  At school, we were told that Richard's disability was merely a metaphor, that the Tudors had painted a hunchback onto the last Plantagenet king to symbolise his corruption.  Then in 2012, archaeologists discovered Richard's body buried under a car park and revealed he did, indeed, have substantial spinal problems.

It is true that historical figures are often 'tainted' with a disablist brushstroke by critical contemporaries.  But disablist caricatures only really work if we take those disabilities to be negative.  If there wasn't an association between hunchbacks and evilness, Richard's disability would be neutral. There would have been no reason for historians to be sceptical about its reality, if it wasn't being used to cast him as a pantomime disabled villain.

We've recently watched a couple of historical TV series which have made choices to show disabled characters.

The Last Kingdom (adapted from the Bernard Cornwall novels) tells the story of a Saxon boy surfing the political and social waves of Britain during one of its biggest upheavals.  In it we meet Alfred the Great (played by the great David Dawson). This Alfred, although viciously astute, is not a well man.  There is significant historical evidence charting the course of Alfred's health, enough, in fact, to allow G. Craig to attempt a diagnosis.  He demonstrates the high possibility that the king had Crohn's Disease or something similar.  He also theorises that the early-Christian audience for the original manuscript would feel more kindly towards a king who was struggling with great suffering.

An icon showing Alfred the Great in strong colours carrying a book, orb and sceptre.
Alfred the Great
The Last Kingdom uses Alfred's disability to contrast his razor-sharp mind with physical weakness.  It becomes a symbolic struggle – abstinence from the rich food he desires brings him to an equilibrium which is also spiritual.  In comparison, Uhtred, the main character, is relatively unsophisticated.  And the whole series has a huge problem with the presentation of women (there are four main female characters, three of whom sleep with Uhtred, the fourth being the harridan wife of Alfred).

Vikings, now in its fourth season, follows the story of Ragnar Lothbrok.  One of his sons, Ivar the Boneless, is disabled.  Given the comparatively weak historical evidence (other than his name, the other significant information is that he was carried on his shield by his men – an act of celebration which need not have anything to do with someone's ability to walk) it is interesting that the writers chose this route.  Vikings is a brutal programme with graphic violence and sex.  One of the theories for Ivar's epithet is that he was especially lithe and it was his graceful fighting which made him so successful.  This could easily be used – you can imagine his character now; the same as a million other white male warriors.
A small green train driven by a friendly looking welshman.  A dragon sits on the chimney.  No vikings.
Ivar the Boneless. Not to be confused with Ivor the Engine.

However, they've chosen to portray him with a condition like Osteogenesis Imperfecta.  He fits in well with the rest of the cast and as a young adult his condition is not talked about (or not as far as I've got in the series!).  We know from numerous examples that great military leaders need not be the strongest physical specimens (Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Nelson etc) so it doesn't preclude the historical narrative.  Diversity and flavour are added.  And the unlikely disabled character will, if the history is followed, eventually trick his way into a great British city and earn himself a huge following of warriors.

However, the young child Ivar has suffered from more prejudicial writing.  His disability is a symbol (perhaps not unfairly – Vikings is a series with a lot of symbolism) but his evilness has no historical backing that I can see and the extreme violence he meets out as a child is completely unexamined.  This is damaging and seems rather at odds with some of their other choices.


So what should writers do?  I'm certainly not saying that they should overturn historical facts to create a weak link to modern social justice*, but the truth is that the world has always been a diverse place. It has been our own prejudice which has mangled even the most reliable sources to fit in with our present day cultural narratives.

In order to make realistic fiction we have to include a realistic diversity in our depiction.  And that's especially true of disability at a time when cultural narratives are being written in big, thick marker.  Bad stories.  Stories that cast us as villains or helpless victims, stories which question our worth and which exclude us from significant roles.  Impairment is an inevitable part of life and always has been (in fact, increasingly so the further back in history one voyages).  Whether you're King of the Britons or executing one of them, your disabilities are a key part of who you are and are necessary in any good narrative that describes you.

* An interesting example here would be Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller – a very popular book which I can't stand.  It reworks the story of Achilles and Patroclus amidst the Trojan war as found in the Iliad.  Miller overwrites the original complex ancient sexuality with a modern soap-opera version of homosexual love.  The story of Briseis in the Iliad is replaced with a bizarre escapade of gay men rescuing women from the horrors of rape and slavery during war.  You cannot rewrite motives to make them understandable – the skill of a writer should be focused on making the unimaginable lives of ancient peoples understandable.