Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Disability Past-Tense: Embodiment, Masterpiece Theater, History

Is it just me or is someone at Masterpiece Theater suddenly interested in disability studies? This Spring's plethora of disability-related plots certainly makes me think so. [SPOILER ALERTS!]

First, there were the juxtapositions of disability and queer identities on Downton Abbey, that I discussed in a previous blog post here.

Then, there was the sister with Down Syndrome on the new Upstairs, Downstairs

Finally, there was the mother with severe, incapacitating mental illness on South Riding.

And it's got me intrigued. What are these multiple representations of illness and disability doing on venerable PBS shows of historical fiction?

In some senses, each show is examining what differently embodied people experienced in the past, and in that way these 'disability' story lines work counter to the dominant, primarily romanticized overarching narrative of each story. In Downton Abbey as well as Upstairs, Downstairs, disability story lines poke holes in the otherwise glamorous worlds of early 20th century British aristocracy. In South Riding, the institutionalized, mentally ill character is more of a trope - but she similarly complicates the otherwise hearty story of stoic, salt-of-the Earth rural community.

Each of these narratives approach historical treatments of disability through the lens of shame. Now, don't get me wrong, these aren't gritty, realistic portrayals of institutionalization like Unforgotten: 25 Years After Willowbrook (the film exploring the notorious Staten Island institution for mentally disabled individuals.) But each does explore, to some degree, the historical notion that individuals with disabilities should be personally ashamed, and made socially invisible. What is unfortunately a bit romanticized, by each narrative, is the way these story lines are resolved. Although each show is actually quite well written and grapples in nuanced ways with complex issues such as class, gender, labor, and nation politics, each feel somehow compelled to wrap up their disability story lines with a neat and tidy, romanticized bow. In this way, each show in some ways undermines its own important work of showing historical disability in the first place.

The way that these portrayals break down along gender lines is actually fascinating as well. As I've mentioned before, Mr. Bates, the war-injured valet who uses a cane on Downton Abbey, is initially ostracized and ridiculed by his fellow 'downstairs' staff - who doubt his ability to physically fulfill his duties. However, except for the notorious 'evil gay footman' (see previous post) who is placed in conflict with Mr. Bates to seemingly re-emphasize the ex-soldier's intact masculinity in the face of disability, every other character in the show - both 'upstairs' and 'downstairs' eventually becomes superbly enlightened about disability. When, seemingly motivated by shame and social messages about masculine 'normalcy', Mr. Bates purchases a horribly painful leg brace in the attempt to 'correct' his limp, the person who encourages him to throw the brace away  is the previously doubtful housekeeper. Shame, prejudice against the disabled, and ableism are portrayed, but ultimately (and a bit easily) overcome in the narrative - which is a recurring, if highly improbable, theme in each story.

If Mr. Bates is a fairly three dimensional character, with some other story lines beyond his disability, the disabled women in Upstairs Downstairs and South Riding are hardly subjects at all - they are acted upon rather than actors in and of themselves. In the last of the four-part remake of Upstairs, Downstairs, the unfortunately named Sir Hallam Holland discovers, by chance, that Pamela, the younger sister he had always thought dead, is *gasp* in fact well and alive. She was locked away from girlhood because she has Down Syndrome (in a shockingly swanky mansion - er - mental institution). Now, yes, except for the super fancy digs, this is probably a historically accurate description of what might have happened to such a child in an aristocratic family. Down Syndrome - or any such developmental or physical embodied difference - was considered not only a personal 'shame' but a familial one and would undoubtedly have resulted in the family being socially shunned and familial marriage prospects, etc. harmed. Yet, after introducing this important historical  narrative, the program resolves it with laughable ease. Lady Holland, Hallam's mother, tearfully admits to her deception, Lord Holland seemingly easily accepts his sister into his family and life, and Pamela is next shown enjoying a Merry Christmas with her family at 165 Eaton Place.

Muriel Carne is the absent wife and mother who haunts the hero Robert Carne and his daughter Midge on South Riding. Shown primarily only in flash-backs, Muriel is the impetuous and perhaps already mentally imbalanced young woman who ensnared Robert's heart, only to sink into a severe, ultimately untreatable post-partum psychosis after - wait for it - she gets pregnant because Robert rapes her. Yes, highly problematic, I know (this is the one program of the three that is based on a novel) - particularly in light of the fact that the show portrays Muriel as loose-moralled - right before the rape, she is shown entertaining several soldiers while dressed only in a neglige. In some sense, the non-aristocratic, down to Earth, loyal Robert is shown as more noble than aristocratic Muriel - and in these ways his rape is seemingly condoned, or at least pardoned, by the narrative. The viewer is not encouraged to think that Muriel sinks into incapacitating mental illness because she was raped, but rather, that she was raped because, in some part, she was already sinking into mental illness.

Yet, this plot line too is resolved somewhat easily. Perhaps as a sort of moral punishment for his past violence, real-time Robert is not only depressed, standoffish and unable to consummate his newfound attraction to the town's new girl's school headmistress, but he eventually dies of a riding accident. And just in the nick of time too, because his insolvency was risking Muriel's ongoing care and treatment at her (also) surprisingly posh mental facility. (I know - convenient, right?) In the end, the 'hidden away' Muriel is brought back to her home at South Riding - which has --- wait for it --- been turned into a home for the mentally ill. Hooray! (No need to worry our pretty little heads about things like violence against women and rape within marriage, eh, PBS? As long as we wrap up the disability storyline neatly?)

Fiction helps construct our collective cultural memories. Thus it is important, even in historical dramas, to include those stories and voices that might otherwise have been shut away from view - lest we replicate the same invisibility in our narratives that people with disabilities experienced in their lives. Yet, introducing such storylines without affording them the same complex treatment as, say, gender and the historical role of women is often given in these PBS dramas - is a disservice. Prejudice against the disabled and ableism is an oppression just like any other, and doesn't so easily disappear. People have - and continue to - struggle against it with their lives and work and words. Resolving these story lines so easily hides these struggles away - out of view.

Inclusion is important - and I'm delighted PBS shows are including individuals with disabilities in so many programs. I look forward to them taking the next step, and drawing out these plots with more complexity and nuance.  



  1. I could not STAND "South Riding". I saw the twenty minutes of so surrounding the rape scene and then I had to leave, because I found it disgusting. I strongly, strongly felt that the way the scene had been framed was telling the audience that the rape and the woman's mental illness was present only, only to explain why this poor guy felt so bad. Like, he raped her as she pled for her sanity because he was so upset, and then he felt so bad about it, and it's such a shame that such a nice, sensitive man accidentally raped his already vulnerable wife because now he has to feel bad about it forever! Oh no! Don't we love him so much!


    I just had to get that out.

    Good post!

  2. Thanks, Claire - I know it's SOO problematic! The way the rape is excused/explained and even justified, and then in the context of the "mad woman in the attic" type plot is really awful... And then, ironically, the show is actually in many ways dealing with the changing role of women - particularly the lead character's championing of girls' education. But how can you portray one feminist construction while simultaneously portraying another so sexist???