Skirting Around “Otherness”

There has been a lot of talk recently about the lack of diversity in the representation of people on television, especially women of color. It’s a valid commentary on the current landscape of television and its role in the cultural conversation, and how, even today, most shows revolve around the complex creature that is The White Man. The White Man’s Amusement, The White Man’s Sorrow and Tragedy, The Anti-Hero White Man and, obviously, The Heroic But Misunderstood White Man. It is difficult enough finding adequate representation of race, gender and sexual orientation on TV, but even lower on the totem pole fall the differently abled. Though the performing arts have moved past replacing women or black characters with men in drag or blackface (a concept some people still have problems grasping), having abled actors play differently abled characters is still more kosher than the effort of finding and directing an actor who could play the part true to life.

It’s a valid commentary on the current landscape of television and its role in the cultural conversation [that], even today, most shows revolve around the complex creature that is The White Man.
 Think of differently-abled actors on screen and most people are likely to name RJ Mitte from Breaking Bad. Though Walt Jr.’s cerebral palsy had no explicit effect on the central storyline, and an able-bodied actor could’ve just as easily played the role, the showrunners decision to shade the character as they did and picking an actor with the condition to play the role was not only the right step towards inclusion, but also implicitly layered character motivations.

Which is why the news that RJ Mitte will be guest starring on Switched at Birth gives me so much joy. When it comes to inclusiveness, Switched at Birth checks so many boxes that it can seem like overkill, but the showrunners usually hit the right balance. The deaf characters aren’t just defined by their inability to hear; even though their deafness is never played down, their personalities are as much a product of their condition as they are of their likes and dislikes and their circumstances. The initial episodes set up an introduction for the audience into deaf culture as it did for the Kennishes, both educating the viewer on sensitivity and allowing the characters to have a few personal victories along the way (specifically, that it’s OK for the hearing impaired to drive and play instruments well).

As much as the show educates on how much public space is occupied by the abled and how difficult it is for others to make a place for themselves, over time they’ve added more hearing people to support their struggle. It makes for an interesting analogy for the entertainment industry, on how these actors (and stories) need just as much support to be better represented and push for more visibility. Marlee Matlin may have broken the barrier for deaf actors in mainstream media, but it took decades for us to see such a comprehensive look at deaf culture and its integration in the world of the hearing (as well as the safety bubble it provides) on television.

Writing and portraying differently-abled people on screen is especially tricky when you don’t want to fall back on tired old tropes and give the characters enough shades to be intriguing. Which is why Michael J. Fox’s arc on The Good Wife was so fantastic, where his character actually uses his Parkinson’s disease to manipulate the jury into sympathizing with him and his client, which, in less capable hands, had the potential to really be offensive, but is a testament to how well-acted and well-conceived it was. (Mandatory aside, The Michael J. Fox show isn’t quite there as yet, however I do like this fictionalized version of himself who is kind of a jerk with bunch of very standard insecurities.)

I guess the real fight lies in places where shows such as Glee have specific characters tailor-made for differently-abled actors, but able actors take those roles often because casting directors do not look hard enough in a smaller pool of talent before settling for someone from a larger group of able-bodied talent. And as with most things, Glee gets as many things wrong as it does right; for a Kevin McHale playing wheelchair-bound Artie, there is still a Lauren Potter who plays Becky Jackson, a character with Down’s Syndrome tasked with being the only sympathy generator for cartoonishly evil Sue Sylvester, while also being pretty human herself.

Shows like Switched at Birth are pushing into mainstream media, showcasing the experiences different people have in a world skewed towards the needs of the majority. There’s a long way to go, but love and support from the viewing audiences certainly go a long way in ensuring storylines that deviate from the median get noticed and nurtured by networks. There are a great many more stories to tell, and here’s to having many more on screen that aren’t all always about the Complex White Man.



Shazia is part bionic, part crazy (parts not mutually exclusive), and would be happy conversing solely in TV quotes, forever hopeful she’ll be one-upped in her obscure TV references. She blogs here and microblogs here.