It has taken me some time to decide whether or not to comment on BBC4 “Superhuman – Yes I can” advertisement for the Paralympics, because I know that any critique I make will be misunderstood. But it’s airing on the Gruen transfer last night has tipped my hand.
So let me say upfront that it’s a brilliant advertisement, the Paralympics are much more interesting than the Olympics, and I do appreciate the value of disability getting the attention that it does in this advertisement. More often than not, disabled people are represented by able-bodied actors in film and television, so it’s great to see the real bodies of disabled people on the screen.
Like almost every other public mention of disability nowadays, the add buys in to the positivity myth. I’ve written on this topic a number of times before (here), but in sum, the positivity myth insists that a positive attitude will enable a person to overcome every barrier they face in life. While it might be a motivating sentiment, it’s just not true.
Indeed, the great insight of disability advocates has been that disability is not primarily a medical or psychological problem – it’s not about individual capacity or attitude. On the contrary, disability is a social problem. People are disabled when the built environment keeps them out of public and private spaces, when transport systems prevent them from being able to travel, when cultural attitudes such as disgust and paternalism result in social alienation and exclusion.
“Okay,” you might ask, “what’s that got to do with BBC4’s ‘yes I can’?”
The problem is that people think the advertisement is about disability, but it’s not. The vast majority of disabled people cannot do the things shown in this advertisement. Of course we celebrate all of the achievements represented on screen, but the statement “gee I’m afraid to go on has turned into yes I can” is downright insulting; and gets to the heart of the problem of the positivity myth. I’ve never met a disabled person who is afraid to go on, but I’ve met some who can’t go on because in one way or another the world in which they live in has said “we want nothing to do with you.” And no positive attitude can solve this.
The advertisement is entitled “the Superhumans,” which is an advance on being called “freaks.” But the truth is, that disabled people aren’t superhuman. On the contrary, disability is about what it is to be human, at one and the same time strong and weak, confident and fearful, successful and failing – occasionally triumphing, but most of the time wanting the same thing as everybody else; to be treated neither as freakish or superhuman, but as a family member, friend, and colleague.
Having said this, I still like the advertisement. I’m glad it was made, and I’m glad it’s being circulated, because disability is normally a marginal topic that is now given prominence, and people with a wide range of disabilities are being celebrated rather than pitied. Further, I don’t think it falls into the trap of inspiration porn, because it’s not saying to nondisabled people “if this cripple can do this, what’s your excuse?” Rather, it’s celebrating the hard work and the achievements of people who warrant our applause – not because they are disabled, but because their accomplishments are impressive.
Perhaps I be happier if the video had a different title and a different set of lyrics. I look forward to seeing what they do in four years time.
I woke up last night at about 3 AM in pain. Well, in more pain than normal. It’s been almost 6 years now that I have lived with permanent pain, a span of time I remembered this week when I spoke to a fellow quadriplegic who said he’s also been in pain since his injury, forty-three years ago (but still, he insists, he has had a great life). It seems an awfully long time. To greater or lesser degrees, it’s a problem for many people with a spinal-cord injury, and it sometimes worse for people whose damage is incomplete (as is mine). And I know we’re not alone.
Nerve pain is hard to describe. Imagine a sheet of finally grained sandpaper, which is rubbing lightly over your skin, pushing a little harder on your hands, feet, bottom, and groin. It burns, although it’s not excruciating. But it continues without pause for minutes, hours, days, years. It moves in waves, gentler in the morning, but increasing in intensity as the day wears on. If you’ve ever had a urinary tract infection, nerve pain in the bladder is like that desperate feeling that you need to urinate, but there is no relief and no antibiotic that will bring it to an end. In addition to nerve pain, some of us are also rewarded with stabbing aches (whether real or phantom, they feel concrete); imagine the ache of arthritis in your hip or back, but you can’t easily move to relieve it.
To write about pain is fraught. It is open to narcissism and overstatement – “look at me, look at my courage and resilience.” But there is nothing inspiring about dealing with pain. Mostly, we just do our best to ignore it – to pay attention to other things. And when it ratchets up, I’ve learned to curse; a grumbled sheet, folk (my voice recognition software is protecting your eyes and ears), which doesn’t really accomplish much, but sometimes you just need to let it out. It’s not spiritual, or courageous. It is a fact of life, but not the whole of it.
Pain is meant as a warning mechanism, but there is no warning in nerve pain. But it turned out that I should have listened to my body last night. The pump on my pressure mattress had switched off, I didn’t realise it, and my bed had gone flat. When my carers arrived in the morning, we discovered a pressure mark. Nothing substantial (I hope), but enough to keep me in bed. And that really gets my goat.
I love my church. Why? It’s vibrant, energising, and interesting. It has slightly strange “Techno” music which, if it’s not really my preferred style, at least enables me as an old man to pretend I’m young. But mostly I love it because it is welcoming and inclusive.
It just so happens to be the case that my pastor, Sebastian, has two disabilities (well, three, actually, but we probably should label my attendance as an impairment rather than a disability). He doesn’t make a big deal of them, but neither does he hide them. The first is a long-term mental illness and the second is a slight speech impediment – a stutter that probably goes unnoticed by most people (in mentioning it, I hope I haven’t condemned him by bringing it to the surface?)
It is unusual in this day and age for a pastor to admit to a mental illness. This is because leadership is generally understood as “leading from the front” – as modelling the perfection that Christianity is supposed to achieve. Even more challenging, society as a whole, and Christians in particular, are suspicious of people with mental illness. We think of them as unstable and dangerous, and Christians assume they must lack faith. So people living with the illness, and especially leaders, tend to keep their impairment hidden. Sebastien manages his illness by following the medicinal and psychological advice of his psychiatrist, and he is stable and doing well, although as anyone struggling with the mental illness knows, its challenges are never entirely absent, and life has its ups and downs. More to the point, he is entirely open before the congregation about his illness.
As to his stutter, it largely goes unnoticed, mostly because he devotes preparation time to ensuring his communication is free-flowing. Indeed, most people who have heard Sebastien speak would be surprised to hear that he struggles with a stutter, because he is an exceptional communicator. He has a natural stage presence, he is quick-witted and funny, and his messages are well constructed. But I love the fact that he is a great preacher and has a stutter. The best communicators are not robots, but people willing to be authentic.
So why am I telling you this?
For me to say someone has a disability is not to diminish them, but to pay them a compliment. But that is neither here nor there. I love my church, not because of Sebastian’s disabilities, but because he has allowed them to inform the way he relates to his congregation. Gone is the pretence of perfection that too often categorises church leadership. In its place is a radical inclusiveness that allows people to truly be themselves. And if the gospel means anything, it is that God loves people as they are, no strings attached, no perfection expected.
I’m certainly not the first disabled person to celebrate the X-Men franchise for its positive representation of disability. The central character, Xavier, is a wheelchair free cripple, and while I might wish that they’d used a disabled actor to play the part, I love that the moral centre of the series is a man whose spinal-cord injury fades into the background. We know he is disabled, but he’s never presented as being “trapped” in a wheelchair. And his message? People may think you’re a freak, and treat you like an outcast, but it doesn’t matter what you look like, what others think of you, we will accept you. Your mutation is not a curse but a gift.
I’ll admit that X-Men Apocalypse is not a plot and character driven masterpiece. And this particular film has its absurdities. Not the superpowered mutations; these are the ‘given’ of the X-Men universe that have to be embraced by anyone hoping to enjoy the films. The problem with this offering in the franchise was that whole cities are turned into rubble (and I’m not giving away any spoilers here, because this was apparent in the trailers, which showed our beloved Opera house disintegrating), but there’s not a dead body to be found. I mean, millions upon millions must have been killed as skyscrapers disintegrate and cities are destroyed, but there is nary a visual clue nor a second of dialogue that faces the horror of what slaughter on an unprecedented scale.
But, hey, this is a film about freaks and action, and I for one can look past the silliness to enjoy the visual effects and cheer the symbolism.
Let’s take the language, mutant. Just as “niggas,” “queers,” and “crips” have taken terms of derision and owned them as labels of pride, so does X-Men transform the disabling slanderer of “mutant” into an identity of power. It makes me want to claim the term for myself. Can I be a bad ass mutant too? What’s my superpower, I wonder? Does the ability to run over tossers with my chair count?
Importantly, the film resists the temptation to turn mutants into bland inspirations. There is something profoundly insightful in the fact that the mutants, who have all experienced horrible discrimination (a term too soft to capture what they have endured), respond in a variety of ways. Xavier may be the moral ideal, responding to hate with love, sympathy, and hope, but we understand the rage of Magneto, and can’t be sure that if we were in his place we would not respond as he did. I read a story recently by a paraplegic in New York who, after repeatedly being ignored and abused by taxi drivers who couldn’t be bothered dealing with his wheelchair, got into the habit of using a Swiss Army knife to puncture the tires of the cabbies who mistreated him (in Ruth O’Brien, Voices from the Edge). I’d like to think I’d respond as Xavier (or Jesus) would, but I’m not sure. In X-Men, Mutants and cripples are as strong, weak, moral, flawed, determined, and uncertain as the rest of us.
Finally, X-Men Apocalypse raises questions about gods and their actions, and while it doesn’t dig deep, it did get me thinking. If Apocalypse (the character) is the god of devastating authority and power, is Xavier a Christ figure, an alternate view of divine-like power, capable of knowing and controlling thought, but choosing to limit himself, to respond to evil with love and self-sacrifice, and embraces the outcast? I’m probably trying too hard, looking for metaphor when I should just be enjoying the action.
I think I’m right, though, in my judgement that the message of X-Men Apocalypse (and of all the films in the franchise) is:
be a mutant and be proud, develop your “gift” and use it – hopefully for good.
It’s a reminder worth the price of a ticket.
Well, I have capitulated to the trend and gotten myself a tattoo. I know they’re becoming so common as to be passe’, but I enjoyed the process nevertheless.
If you haven’t guessed, it’s a rendering of Mary (the mother). I’m well aware that the image is typically Western, and bears no resemblance to a first century Middle Eastern Jewish woman. But my interest is symbolic. For me, Mary is a potent religious symbol, provided she is not depicted with her eyes downcast in submission (a woman’s traditional religious role), but instead stares proudly at us, eye to eye. As patriarchy and pain in childbirth was the female curse in the Eden, so is it significant that that it is a woman who births the one intended to liberate us from the curse of oppressive power in all its manifestations.
I’m not sure whether men can be feminists, but at the least I am an ally; and feminism (especially feminist theology) has shaped my thinking. Indeed, it’s feminism that asked me to think critically about what it is to be a man, and what it is not. I’ve learned at least that I don’t need to be a stoic warrior, that vulnerability and strength can go hand-in-hand, and that the longing for beauty transcends gender.
“I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys” is a citation from Song of Songs 2:1. It is the female lover’s self-description that in Christian tradition has, strangely but also strikingly, been taken up as a symbol of Christ. And the dove, obviously, represents the Spirit. So if we allow Mother Mary to point to the Father, the tattoo hints at the Christian Trinity, without the all too common reified masculinity.
None of this explains, though, why I got myself inked. No doubt the answer is the same as it is for anyone; vanity. I am used to being stared at – that goes hand-in-hand with disability and wheelchairs – but since my accident I have fallen in hate with my body. While I had been tall, fit, and healthy (yes, I know, vanity), I’m now a potbellied hunchback with a disobedient lump of meat for a body. So doing something artistic with that lump of meat reaches toward self acceptance. It’s my way of saying, “hey, look at this, there is something on my body that is actually worth staring at.”