Yesterday I read Rosemarie Garland Thomson's Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature, one of the most major texts in disability studies. It's heavily academic, so if you're not used to that kind of writing, you might want to pick some other way of learning about the history and sociology of disability. Thomson writes,
To be granted fully human status by normates, disabled people must learn to manage relationships from the beginning. In other words, disabled people must use charm, intimidation, ardor, deference, humor, or entertainment to relieve nondisabled people of their discomfort ... If such efforts at reparation are successful, disabled people neutralize the initial stigma of disability so that relationships can be sustained and deepened. Only then can other aspects of personhood emerge and expand the initial focus so that the relationship becomes more comfortable, more broadly based, and less affected by the disability. Only then can each person emerge as multifaceted, whole.
This was interesting to read after watching last week's episode of "Lost," in which the concept of "who is special" was a key theme. "Special," of course, means set apart from others, whether that setting-apart is on the grounds of unusual ability or disability. (Every man named Ed who fancies himself a comic sooner or later tries on the nickname, "Special Ed.") Ben, Locke, and Hurley--astutely identified by the latter as the craziest guys on the island--were the central characters.
Ben is an interesting case of disability because he is not disabled, except perhaps morally, but acts as though he is. Ben "manage(s) relationships from the beginning ... [using] charm, intimidation, ardor, deference, humor, or entertainment" to achieve his goals. Unlike a disabled person who uses these methods to convince others of their full humanity, Ben uses them to keep others from realizing his full humanity. For him, ordinary human vulnerability, falling short of omnipotence, is a disability.
Hurley is not physically disabled, but he is fat and mentally unstable and feels the stigma of these two things strongly. There really are no words for how much I hated what was done with Hurley in this episode. THE FAT GUY MUTTERS "MALLOMARS" IN HIS SLEEP??? Wow. What was particularly offensive about that is that Hurley hasn't ever been shown before to have a particular sweet tooth--he likes the salty, greasy, protein-rich foods. But hey, I guess all fat people love all unhealthy food, so no need to keep the character consistent. I wish Jorge Garcia had protested against Hurley's Mallomar dreams, but "Lost" has a history of killing characters off that probably works well to keep the actors compliant.
The candy-bar-sharing scene between the disabled-in-his-own-mind Ben and disabled-in-the-eyes-of-others Hurley was kind of good and kind of awful. It was great to see the most hateful and most lovable characters sitting on a log sharing a chocolate bar. The setup, however, left a lot to be desired. Ben does not look longingly at other people's candy bars. Ben never begs or asks for anything unless it's a tactic to make himself appear less dangerous than he is. And Hurley would not have needed to be asked to share, even wordlessly. Just because he's fat doesn't make him a food hoarder. Hurley is a forgiving and empathetic person who can express love more easily in actions than in words. He understood how Ben was feeling--he, too, has lost people, has been destroyed by self-doubt, has known the hurt of being sidelined from the action. He understands Ben's disability. He would have split that candy bar with Ben before Ben had even allowed himself to realize he wanted it.
I would love to hear from any members of the disability community about the portrayal of former paraplegic Locke. (Comments are open on this post.) I think it's good. For the first couple of seasons, the question "How did Locke get paralyzed" was, like, THE question about Locke. And when you finally find out--it doesn't really matter. The able-bodied tend to see disabled people entirely in terms of their disability. Their disability is their story, what else in their life could possibly compare to that? Locke's character arc sets us off down that path, and then neatly diverges. Turns out Locke's story is that of a lonely, gifted yet vulnerable man desperate for something to believe in, something to belong to. The wheelchair just happened for a while. And his fierce desire to stay on the island that healed him isn't because he fears going back to the wheelchair, it's because he's finally found that thing to believe in and belong to. The disability has been pushed to the periphery of Locke's story, just as it is in the stories of many real-life disabled people. It's just the set and props, it's not the play itself.
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