TelevIsm: Ableism, Appropriation, and United States of Tara
Image description: Toni Collette as Tara, a blond white woman wearing casual clothing, smiles at the camera. Around her face are masks with the faces of her alters Buck, Alice, and T.
United States of Tara, a show about a woman with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), recently wrapped up its second season. I haven’t yet seen it, but I thoroughly enjoyed the first season—I love Toni Collette and Diablo Cody, and there are not a ton of shows about women by women. There are even less shows set in my home state of Kansas. It’s a funny, well-written, and on some levels well-executed show.
But, after rewatching and researching the show’s origins and authorship in a critical context, I was perturbed to realize that the show’s portrayal of disability was not only sensationalistic, but inherently based on appropriation. In United States of Tara, DID is used as a metaphor, an analogy, a plot point—part of the human experience, yes, but also an opportunity to speculate, crack jokes, and make grand statements about Life (normal life: that is, with able privilege) and Being A Woman (an everyday woman: that is, one who is not crazy).
There are a lot of things that USOT does with its conceptual portrayal of disability that I like as a woman with disabilities. The producers did a lot of research—they consulted and worked with a DID specialist. In my [subjective] reading, main character Tara’s disability is not framed as a tragedy or particularly pitiable. It’s something that she lives with, and in my reading of the first season it’s explicitly used as a tool to cope with the repercussions of trauma. It’s something that she and her family work with and through on a day-to-day basis. She rejects medication that would “cure” her, reflecting the complexity of making decisions about medical care and pills. She experiences discrimination, and often argues against it.
But the show’s depiction of disability is inherently problematic because while it’s somewhat relatable, it’s not normalized. The point of the show is “look at this woman with multiple extra-wacky personae! Isn’t that hilarious and crazy and weird?” Furthermore, Tara’s form of DID is representative of only about 5% of all DID cases—instead of normalizing DID, the producers have chosen the most sensational form of the disorder.
It’s a show about DID for the fame, profit, and gain of able-privileged people. Cody and Spielberg explicitly identify their choice of a hook as a metaphor they’re using to express their own artistic goals. From an article tellingly subtitled “How To Make A Personality Disorder into a Comedy” in the New York Times:
Ultimately the creators and Showtime executives hope that the obvious metaphor in “United States of Tara” — that we all struggle with our fragmented selves — will be easy for viewers to relate to. (The show’s genesis was a conversation between Steven Spielberg, an executive producer on the show, and his wife, the actress Kate Capshaw, about the ways in which we compartmentalize our lives.)
I understand the need to show the different personae that women put on to do what we gotta do. This is an admirable (though not radical) goal, because the patriarchy puts a lot of pressure on even class, race, cis privileged women like me, like Cody, like Tara Gregson. But there are other ways to do that. We take on personae all the time, signaling them internally and externally. I dress and act very differently at my job outside the home than I do alone with my cats than I do at a party than I do with family. Using disability to communicate these multiple points of view is not necessary.
What’s wrong with just making a show about a woman who uses different parts of her personality to get through the day? Why can’t we write about the compartmentalization of suburbia? Why can’t creators be more, well, creative in telling these stories? Why is using DID necessary and integral to the story?
Static Nonsense’s post “Your Plot Device”, which is about USOT and DID, was essential to my analysis here, and I highly recommend it. They write:
I am not your plot device. I am not your idea to further develop your “character”, or your character’s “affliction” or “struggle”. Using me as your way to advance your story line doesn’t make your story interesting or unique. It makes it harmful. It contributes to society’s perception of us as dangerous, crazy or even nonexistent. It is what makes people stare at us with disbelief or shy away when a system tells them they are plural. It is what makes us afraid to come out, because of the sheer amounts of psychophobia in our culture and the emphasis on mental health and the schism between the neurotypical and neuroatypical. It is what gets us locked up, forced into treatment or integration in attempts to “cure” us of our “afflictions”. It is what makes my heart race as I type this.
United States of Tara tries. It tries to go beyond DID as a marginalizing side show. The creators have done research, and make an attempt to be accurate and not ableist. But this underscores the fundamental folly of able-privileged people using disability as their main point to accomplish an artistic goal, when it should be the province and privilege of people with disabilities to authoritatively create works about their disability.
If people with DID had been involved with the show from the beginning (which they have not, to the best of my knowledge)*, it might have made for a more nuanced depiction. But it’s still being used as a metaphor for able-privileged experiences. ”[The creators] see themselves and how the subject relates to them without seeing the effects on the people around them. And in turn, they typically defend that—their perspective is what matters,” wrote Static Nonsense in an e-mail conversation. “Having people around with DID would only help matters if the people they're working with are willing to listen.” It’s hard to say whether Spielberg and Cody would have.
Spielberg and Cody are not showing DID as a part of the wide range of human experiences. This is not about a woman who happens to have DID. This is about DID as a sensitive freak show, and it contributes to the fraught perception of DID. Using disability to communicate these multiple personae, when no one prominently involved in the production of the show has actually experienced DID, is appropriation.
*Correction 7/15: United States of Tara does have a consultant with DID, Leah
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