Visually countering the complexly embodied disabled character
Watching three recent comedies which feature characters with disabilities, I notice a similarity in the techniques which seek to address a mainstream, able-bodied tension around the disabled body. Speechless, is an ABC sitcom about a white family with a teenage son – J.J – with cerebral palsy, who needs an aide to communicate. Kenneth, his aide, whom J.J chooses because he sounds ‘cool’, is played by Cedric Yarbrough, a tall, imposing African American man. The white appropriation of black ‘cool’ is thus openly signalled, but it is Kenneth’s visual presence, rather than his voice, that is used most strategically by the programme. Madhu Dubey argues that African Americans have been fetishized for their bodily presence, particularly given the ways in which ‘the hyperreality of post modern urban existence attenuates bodily experience’ (8). In this case, it is the visual ‘lack’ of the disabled body, that the black body, which ‘alone continues to shimmer with the aura of presence’ (8) is brought in to counter.
In Jerk, Tim Renkow’s series on BBC3, his character also has cerebral palsy, and in this case it is his mother, played by Lorraine Bracco, who alleviates the visual difference of his disability. Bracco is famous for her roles in Scorsese’s Goodfellas and the series The Sopranos, and is associated with an earthy Italian-American physicality. As well as the glamour around her previous roles, Bracco’s big hair, big laugh and very distinctive raspy voice are all strategically brought into play in order to counteract the tension around Renkow’s disability.
In Don’t Forget the Driver (BBC2), Fran, the mother of the disabled character, Kieran, is also plushly substantial, big bosomed, with a big laugh. She supports her son in the hydrotherapy pool while he and others with disabilities splash around joyously, their delight intercut with shots of the main character, Pete (who is unable to act upon his desires for Fran) waiting outside, bored and ill at ease. It is very pointedly Pete, the able-bodied character, who suffers from an attenuated bodily existence. When he does finally come in to the poolside, he gazes at them playing, his expression a complicated mixture of longing and delight. The trope of the extravagantly physical able-bodied counterpart to the differently embodied disabled character is therefore in play, but the series is also doing something different, subtly positioning Kieran far from any idea of lack, instead rich in physical affection and intimacy.
As a technique the pairing suggests a nervousness about what an able-bodied audience can handle, whereas Don’t Forget the Driver is doing something bolder in addressing disabled bodies in such a forthright and positive way.
Dubey, Madhu. Signs and Cities: Black Literary Postmodernism. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
© Emma Sullivan, University of Edinburgh, 2019.