All posts by dereknewmanstille

Derek is a PhD ABD in Canadian Studies at the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies, Trent University. Derek's research is focussed on representations of disability and alterity in Canadian Speculative Fiction. Derek is a 7 time Prix Aurora Award winner for his website and associated radio show Speculating Canada.

What Is It Like To Be Represented in Film, Television, and Books?

What is it like to be represented in film, television, and books?

By Derek Newman-Stille

When I see myself in a character, when I encounter a character who is like me – queer or disabled (or maybe even both like I am?)… but written in a way that represents those identities, not filled with tropes meant to reduce us to symbols… I feel a sense of ecstasy. My heart starts to race. I start to connect with the character, start to feel their passions.

And I think to myself – is this what it is like for straight, able-bodied, cis, white people to read?

I imagine what it would be like to live in a world where one is saturated with representations of oneself…. where every magazine, every book, every film, every television show is like a mirror.

This is what we under-represented people feel when we encounter representation of ourselves, when we finally see something in our media that could be made to reflect (even slightly) ourselves. Suddenly our world is opened up to potentials. When I see people like me represented, I finally feel a sense of belonging, a sense of really being part of the world and not it’s dirty little secret that no one wants to talk about. I feel a sense of community, a welcome, an invitation to participate, to be part of the world.

I feel like I can exist.

I wonder if this is something that other under-represented people feel when they see themselves reflected. Do they also feel like a world of possibilities has opened up? Do they get the same heart-racing, open-eyed, pausing breath sense of excitement and wonder? Do they feel that weird, uncanny, tingling magic through their bodies at the moment that they see the potential for representation, the possibility, the cusp of belonging? Do they feel the clouds of isolation break? Do they feel the sense of excitement that for once our stories are THERE are HERE… that our stories are shaping something, carving out a space for us, a tiny cave in a wall of ignorance and oppression?

Do others sigh with relief that the character that we are told is like us doesn’t end up being a shallow reflection of society’s bigotry? Do they bite their nails as they see the words “And he/she was Queer/Disabled/Trans/Indigenous/Black/Of Colour/An Immigrant/Fat” and wonder if this is going to the the time that someone sees deeper than the portrait society paints of us and see that we are standing right behind that portrait, trying to push it aside so we can EXIST?

I crave representation. I crave good representation. I crave deeper thought about what people like us are like. I crave creators like us creating characters like us. I want… I need to feel like our marginalized stories are out there.

And I know what happens whenever I say I want marginalized voices represented. I know I will hear from people some suggestions of “have you seen this one show that was on for half a season that had a character who was Queer?” and “before the author kills off this character in this book, you should see how much like you they are” and “there are so many marginalized people represented out there that it is really the straight, white, able-bodied, cis man who is underrepresented”. I know I will hear them because it happens every time. I know I will hear them because people in positions of privilege always want to believe that token representations are enough. They want to believe that if they just show us ONE image, we will go back to complacency… that we won’t still crave MORE. They want to share that one representation of us because they enjoyed it. Because it was new, innovative, different. But if so many people like our representation, like our stories, why aren’t we given much of a platform? Why aren’t there more representations of us?

It feels like we are always being told “isn’t that enough?” Well, no, it’s not enough. We still feel that sense of isolation when we are surrounded by an ocean of representations of the straight, white, able-bodied, cis man even when we can see that one speck of a life raft of representation out on that ocean. That one, precarious, uncertain, singular representation isn’t enough to hold onto in a world where we are drowning in representations of people in power, people who make decisions about our lives.

We crave representation because we not only WANT it…. we NEED it. Because it is rare, because it is precarious, but mostly because it makes us feel a sense of possibility and wonder, a sense of belonging.

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Disability Tropes 101: The “Tiny Tim”

Another of my guest posts over on the Spoonie Authors’ Network – here I discuss the problematic Tiny Tip Trope of Disability as part of my Disability Tropes 101 series

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Disability Tropes 101 featured image Loose leaf paper with the trope topic: The “Tiny Tim” (by Derek Newman-Stille) Heading above it reads: A Spoonie Authors Network Series, Disability Tropes 101. The O of tropes is the wheel of the accessibility symbol.

The trope that I call the “Tiny Tim” is the creation by an author of a disabled character whose exclusive role is to be an object of pity and in need of charity. I have used the name of the best known of these figures from Dickens—”Tiny Tim.” Tiny Tim doesn’t have a life outside of his role as an object of pity, and his entire existence is about teaching an able-bodied man to be more charitable and share his wealth. 

These figures are obviously not limited to literature and, frequently, charities rely on this image when they launch funding campaigns, trying to evoke sympathy from possible donors. Charities have frequently relied on…

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Disability Tropes 101: Manipulative Sympathy

Here is another of my guest posts over at the Spoonie Authors’ Network – Disability Tropes 101: Manipulative Sympathy

Spoonie Authors Network

featured image Loose leaf paper with the trope topic: Manipulative Sympathy (by Derek Newman-Stille) Heading above it reads: A Spoonie Authors Network Series, Disability Tropes 101. The O of tropes is the wheel of the accessibility symbol.

I recently watched the musical Wicked, and one scene particularly stood out to me as problematic. It tied into a few other problematic representations of disability that I have encountered in literature, film, and television.

In Wicked: The Musical , the main character’s sister, Nessarose, is a wheelchair user. During the performance, she, at various times, sings about deserving sympathy (which is a problematic disability trope itself), but what stood out to me was the fact that the character Boq is convinced to be her boyfriend because he believes that she deserves sympathy and needs extra care. He is portrayed as being tricked into a relationship with him because he feels bad for her. This…

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Deaf Planet

Deaf Planet

A review Kelsey M Young’s “Understanding” in Tripping the Tale Fantastic: Weird Fiction by Deaf and Hard of Hearing Writers (edited by Christopher Jon Heuer, Handtype Press, 2017)

Imagine a planet entirely populated by Deaf people. Imagine all of the possibilities for Deaf inclusion and accessibility with an entirely Deaf planet. Now imagine that there is one city where the oral method is forced on everyone. That is where Kelsey M Young situates the story “Understanding”.

“Understanding” brings attention to issues with schools who forced the oral method of communication on Deaf students. It is a reminder of the power of audism and the history of banning students from using signed languages. Although situated in a science fictional world on a distant planet, Young’s story is about the oppression Deaf students have experienced in school systems that force their audist ideas of language on the population. Young brings up issues like teachers hitting the hands of students for using manual languages, students being forced to sit on their hands to avoid signing, students struggling with comprehension when their teachers only use vocal languages, and the feeling of isolation that comes from being constantly othered.

“Understanding” is situated in a place called Milan, where signed languages are forbidden and the people who use them are called animals and subject to deportation. Even though Eyeth is a colony planet for Deaf people, the community of Milan treats sign language as a crime and forces its Deaf population to use a combination of hearing aids and speech reading. Young hints at the possibility that at some point in the past of this planet, it was ruled by people who used American Sign Language (ASL or Ameslan as it is called in Young’s story) and therefore ASL carries a lot of stigma.

Young’s tale is about a teacher who risks everything to teach a student manual languages since he is struggling with oral language, bringing attention to issues with our own history of forcing Deaf students to learn by oral method and also bringing attention to the teachers who resisted school policy to help their students succeed. This is a powerful story of Deaf Futurity that also recognizes the continuing presence of past (and continuing) oppressions.

To discover more about Tripping the Tale Fantastic: Weird Fiction by Deaf and Hard of Hearing Writers, go to http://handtype.com/books/tripping/

Disability Tropes 101: The Outsider

Here is another of my Disability Tropes 101 posts – this one exploring the trope of disability as Other and the problem of othering disabled bodies. Check it out over at the Spoonie Authors’ Network

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The Outsider featured image

Scholar Isabel Brittain brings attention to the trope of “The Outsider” in her article on “An Examination into the Portrayal of Deaf Characters and Deaf Issues in Picture Books for Children” (Disability Studies Quarterly 2004, Vol 24, No 1). In this trope, “the character with an impairment is portrayed as a figure of alienation and social isolation” (ibid). This is a common trope of disability where the disabled character lives in a position of irreconcilable Otherness, socially ostracized and viewed as perpetually incapable of belonging. 

This is a complex trope because there are certain aspects of it that speak to the disabled experience, after all, we are socially rejected on the basis of our disability and even our buildings exclude us since they are made for an assumed able body. But this trope contains several problematic aspects as well. Generally the Outsider disabled person is portrayed as…

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Deaf in the Desert

Deaf in The Desert

A review of Nilah Magruder’s M. F. K. (Insight Comics, 2017)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Nilah Magruder’s M.F.K. Is another comic that features the trope of the lone Deaf person in a hearing world. Magruder emphasises the image of Deaf isolation by opening her comic with her character Abbie wandering alone and lost in the desert because the creature she was riding through the sand dunes had just died. She is discovered in the desert by hearing people Jaime and his grandfather and brought back to a village that is resistant to outsiders.

However, the small, conservative village that Abbie finds herself in doesn’t discriminate against her because of her Deaf identity, rather they fear her because she has otherworldly powers. She is from a select group called Parasai, a small group of people who are capable of wielding special powers. Abbie finds herself at the centre of a conflict between various Parasai rogues and the villagers, and that sense of isolation is made even stronger as she realizes that she can’t fit in with either of them.

Rather than being culturally Deaf, Abbie uses a hearing aid, which serves as a contrast to the rest of the world that Magruder creates that doesn’t seem to be technologically advanced enough to produce a hearing aid. Yet, somehow one of the villagers is able to fix her hearing aid without having any knowledge of the technology or what it does.

M. F. K. Is a comic of complexities and uncertainties, exploring ideas of social isolation and rejection.

To find out more about Nilah Magruder, visit http://www.nilahmagruder.com

To find out more about M.F.K, visit http://www.mfkcomic.com

Disability Tropes 101: Karmically Disabled

In this Disability Tropes 101 Post, I explore the trope of the “karmically disabled” person, a trope that seeks to construct disability as a form of punishment.

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Karmically-Disabled

I recently finished watching Season 2 of Dirk Gently and have been reflecting on the huge number of problematic disability tropes in the show, particularly around the invented disability “Pararibulitis,” but for this post, I want to focus on one particular trope that frequently appears in representations of disability, what I call the Karmically Disabled Trope. In the Dirk Gently TV show, the character Todd fakes having a disease called Pararibulitis, an invented nerve disease where the affected person experiences hallucinations that feel completely real to him/her/them. Todd pretended to have the disease throughout his childhood to gain sympathy and money from his parents, but later his sister Amanda actually developed the disability and couldn’t get access to all of the supports she needed because Todd had used up all of his parents’ resources. At the end of the first season of Dirk Gently, Todd gets the disease as…

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