The Transcontinental Disability Choir: Disability Archetypes: The Good Cripple
The Good Cripple is a classic disability archetype that shows up again and again when people with disabilities are depicted in books, films, and television. Good Cripples are the flip side of the Bitter Angry Cripple; think Tiny Tim facing off against Dr. House.
These tropes are so familiar to many readers and viewers that it's actually kind of astounding when a disabled character doesn't fall into one or the other (or into the realm of the Supercrip or the disabled character who gets superpowers, like Geordi la Forge in Star Trek). The tendency for writers to write disability in highly limited ways is one of the most frustrating things about the depiction of disability, for me, because these tropes are kind of limited. There's only so far you can go with a Good Cripple, and when you reach the end of that road, the character basically has to be discarded.
When we talk about not seeing well-rounded characters with disabilities, these are examples of the types of characters we are thinking of, characters who are wholly characterized by their disability. As opposed to, say, characters who happen to be disabled, characters who can be disabled without letting it consume them.
The Good Cripple is the safe, comfortable depiction of disability. Good Cripples don't want to rock the boat. They are quiet, and patient. They are stoic. They never complain. Not about pain, not about lack of accessibility, not about the piles of medication they take every day, not about anything. Indeed, the Good Cripple is cheerful. Upbeat. The Good Cripple will do well in spite of disability, the disability is an obstacle to be overcome, but cheerfully overcome. Preferably in an “inspiring” way.
Cheerful at all times. Good Cripples tend to show up as one-offs. Medical dramas feature a few every season. The bright, plucky kid with terminal cancer who makes everyone on the ward smile. The girl with scoliosis coming in for surgery who's constantly pranking and making jokes. The adult wheelchair user who comes in with a smile. There's an entire genre of young adult books which basically consists of Good Cripple stories. The Good Cripple storyline is usually called “touching.”
The problem with this characterization is that people expect it to play out in real life. People with disabilities are expected to be silent and submissive because people are used to the Good Cripple archetype, and it makes them uncomfortable to be confronted with other, real, representations of disability.
Needless to say, this is extremely harmful, because it tends to perpetuate ableist attitudes. Since people with disabilities are expected to be quiet, non-complaining, patient, and cheerful, when they speak up, they become objects of distaste. How dare that wheelchair user complain that a restaurant is inaccessible? Why isn't that cancer patient being cheerful about chemotherapy? Why is that disabled child fussing and crying and refusing to take medication?
Why can't the people with disabilities just be quiet and sit in the corner, like they do on the television, if they don't have anything nice to say? The expectation that people with disabilities be good cripples is one of the factors which forces them out of society, because society expects them to be one dimensional tropes devoid of character or colour.
Writers fall back on the Good/Bad Cripple archetypes because they are familiar; they're depictions which are widely present in the media, and thus writers feel comfortable writing in this zone. So, how can we get pop culture to start depicting disability more honestly? How can we get pop culture to start pushing away from these tropes and exploring fuller disabled characters?
There's a pretty easy solution, actually. Get more people with disabilities writing, and short of that, get more people with disabilities consulting. Most television shows which feature disability storylines have able casts, writers, and producers, and many of them apparently never consult people with disabilities when developing these storylines.
There's been a great deal of attention in the media lately over the backlash from the disabled community about shows like Glee and their depictions of disability. The media is painting this criticism as new, which it is not. It's been going on for years, and nothing has been done about it. Which tells me that there isn't much interest in depicting disability honestly, just as there's not a lot of interest in depicting race honestly.
There's an easy way to integrate better depictions of disability (and race, and gender, and class). The question is: Are the arbiters of popular culture willing to do it?
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