Representation in Media is a highly debated topic in many circles. That’s why as a White Cis Autistic man I figured I’d give my VERY unique take and toss the ol’ hat in the ring.
A little background on me. I have a Diploma in Broadcast Television and have an approximate knowledge of many things’ multimedia. I also have Autism, Bipolar, CAP, and not enough paper to write my diagnosis on. I’m no expert in these topics but as a member of the Disability community I feel like I have y’know, SOME say on these things.
There are many amazing people who can explain better concepts relating to race, religion, and gender representation in Media. However out of respect I am going to stick to what I personally know, and that is the base-level, mental health representation across media platforms.
Before we jump into it, we need to talk about two particularly important terms when talking about these topics. Those would be the ideas of Inspiration Porn and Trauma Porn.
Inspiration Porn is the act of portraying Disability as something solely to be overcome, using our stories to “inspire” neurotypical people. This tends to cast us in the role of “burdens” with little to no redeeming qualities except for our ability to inexplicably “cure” ourselves of our disabilities when the need arises; rarely focusing on the actual societal issues that cause these circumstances.
Another form of Inspiration porn portrayal is viewing people with Disabilities as “less than” who’s stories of doing tasks or activities should be used as motivation for “normal folk” to be able to do it since those “lesser folk” can do it. (eg. Using this with quotes like “what’s your excuse”)
Trauma Porn is on the other end of the dial and is rampant in many communities represented on screen. It’s any type of media that exploits traumatic moments or suffering in order to gain attention, views, and income. This is often used by non-marginalized groups to gain fame and pats on the back for “portraying” the stories of marginalized groups; usually with little to no say from said groups.
In the case of mental health, this has been used mainly as a way to demean us, and simultaneously show how “awful our life is” and at the same time profit and win awards using scenes of our suffering.
I’m going to say this revelation right now. We. Are. Human. Beings. There are negatives to our Disabilities, and there are positives, just like every other trait in nature. I love the way my brain works, and at the same time there are things that make my life difficult. However, societally there are many things that negatively impact us solely because of stigma and systems that only benefit specific traits.
One person’s quality of life isn’t the same as another’s, and assuming somebody’s life must be awful because they’re not living your best version of life is a shitty attitude that needs to start changing.
One of the biggest issues with these stories is they often portray a small group of us; and while still deserving of representation, we need wider ranges of stories actually created by people in the community. Right now, many stories created about us and our stories of ‘triumph’ or our ‘lowest moments’ are written, filmed, directed, and starring all Non-Disabled people.
The majority of people you see on-screen who are supposed to represent us aren’t even Disabled. Nobody on the team is Disabled. So, nobody at any point in the production really looks at it and says “damn, is this offensive?”
In Trauma Porn these people play caricatures of us, acting it up for those awards. Often playing up very offensive stereotypes about us so that they look “more Disabled on-screen.” Often the character is abandoned by everyone else and thank god that a hero came to save them and fix their lives for them. Often what ensues is a story about how “wow they taught each other something, maybe Disabled people aren’t AS awful as I thought because they can teach me something”
Inspiration Porn may not usually have the more overt Ableism, but the caricature is that of somebody who inconveniences everyone around them, until they find something they’re good at; then they miraculously hold worth to others. If not this, then finding a miracle cure for their Disability, that just involves trying harder or drinking more water or some sh*t.
The common factor in both of these is that it continuously pushes the message that people with Disabilities only have value when
a) We offer something to Non-Disabled people
b) We completely overcome our own Disabilities.
While these are things that also happen in real life, pushing only these narratives in a wider array of stories about us continuously teaches these kids that we MUST only have value when we fit into these categories. We can’t just exist as we are, growing, changing, and learning like every other human being. Every story about us HAS to solely revolve around our Disability and how it impacts the Non-Disabled people around them; not that we are autonomous beings just like everyone else.
The other reason these stories are often problematic? The complete and utter lack of actual diversity in the writing rooms, film and television crews behind and in front of the camera. Most of these scripts are written with absolutely no consultation from us, with absolutely no involvement from us. This is an issue in multiple communities, but it is so damn hard to get actual Disabled people into Disabled roles.
There is one more idea that I want to touch upon before we move on. That is the use of stereotypes in media. Cameos, gags, bits, caricatures, whatever they may be; we need to stop using negative stereotypes associated with being ‘slow’ solely for the sake of ‘comedy.’ (In the loosest term)
Positive stereotypes don’t really get a pass in this either. While yes, ‘technically’ a positive stereotype includes something that is deemed useful or adds value to someone because of their group; it still causes overall damage and stigma to communities. It creates a precedent that a Disability is only ‘good’ if they hold these stereotypes. Which is impossible because every human being is different and attaching somebody’s sole value to a small group of traits is so incredibly damaging to the people that exist outside of that stereotype.
One that KILLS ME, is that Autism only appears in two ways in media. (usually) Autism is either a terrible ‘whoa is me, burden’ to their family if they are non-verbal without any ability of self-sufficiency, or Autism is a white man somewhere between 20-40 who is also part supercomputer. Autism is such a massive spectrum, and we should hold many different representations, and ones actually presented by us.
Never in my life have I seen numbers and calculations for the world around me, like sure I was decent at math, but I also have a memory of a goldfish.
I’ve seen and heard behind the curtain enough to know some things being said, gatekeeping us for ridiculous reasons. The amount of times I’ve heard “Well how are we supposed to deal with THEM on set?? It’ll just be too much work.” Then don’t try to profit off our lives. “Where are we supposed to find Disabled actors/Actresses? That could take additional months that we just don’t have.” We’re not Unicorns, there are many of us who try to get acting roles, but unfortunately all these roles tend to be filled by non-Disabled people!
It’s like sitting in a room full of people with your hands over your eyes, ear plugs in, screaming “THERE IS NOONE ELSE IN THE ROOM,” ridiculous.
Just think about what you’re consuming. Who made it? Is there more than one Disabled person on the production? How does the story frame the person with Disability? Is the Actor ACTUALLY Disabled?
I don’t write this as some kind of attack, or to shame people. What I want is actual, meaningful change and we need to continue talking about Representation in Media because that is one thing that shapes societal views. Different people exist, and ‘Forced Diversity’ feels like a ridiculous term when we force media to only represent a small demographic of people.
Anyway, hope you have a fantastic day.