During my semester in Ireland, I took a class called Bodies In Irish Literature. On our first day, our teacher explained to us that she was writing a dissertation on disability in literature. Prior to this class, I’d never known that there was such a thing as disability studies. Come to that, I’d rarely focused on the disabled characters in the books I’d read or the stories I’d heard. Throughout the course, we discussed the human body at great length: as a thing of beauty, of decay, of temptation, of corruption, as a burden…. the possibilities were endless. I began to see disability, and, moreover, to NOT see disability, in a new light.
Last night, I was watching the Walking Dead for the first time (I know, I’m behind), and it’s safe to say that I have a new obsession. The characters, the writing, and even the beautifully rotting zombies all contribute to a horrific and, by the same token, magnificent collapse of humanity. I love post-apocalypse stories, be they about vampires, zombies, or straight up economic/environmental collapse, but have found that these stories will often ratchet up the gushiness to an almost unbearable level(*cough* Warm Bodies, which I loved, but is the zombie equivalent of cheesecake). The Walking Dead, developed by the extraordinary Frank Darabont, exchanges sentimentality for sentiment and maintains the grittiness that makes it so brilliant. However, while watching Rick Grimes and his followers’ quest for survival, I began to feel an itch in my brain not unlike what I imagine the beginning of the zombie virus to feel like: at the end of the world, what will happen to those of us who need daily meds to survive?
I have congenital hypothyroidism, which essentially means that I do not understand what a life without medication feels like. I have taken supplemental thyroid medication since I was a week old, which has saved both my life and my future. My noninvasive meds allow me to live life to a normal** standard. I take a pill every morning with breakfast (I have every morning: when I was little, my mom would grind it into a powder and mix it with my juice), and I am able to function in the same ways as everyone else. I’ve been able to learn when my dosage needs adjusting based on how I’m feeling (physically and emotionally), but it’s allowed me to lead a full and active life. What I have could, at most, be termed an inconvenience, but I would never call it a disability.
However, should the zombie apocalypse come, it’s an inconvenience that would eventually prove fatal. When I came up for this essay (while watching the Walking Dead) I decided to call my physician father and ask him to tell me, in detail, what would happen to me should there come a time in which I couldn’t get my thyroid meds. He said that my energy would slowly and consistently drain away until I was bedridden with racking muscle pains. My digestive system and pituitary gland would shut down, and eventually (probably within a month) I would die. When I said to my dad, “So, I’d be useless against the zombies?” He replied, “absolutely useless. Also, you’re incredibly weird.” Thanks, Dad. Love you too.
Now, the chances of a zombie apocalypse are slim to none, but when I discussed this essay with my other loving parental unit, she said to me “do you think that prospect never occurred to me? What I might do if I couldn’t get you your meds?” She took a beat to think, and then suggested we get a year’s supply of my pills to keep in the safe. Thanks for helping me prepare for the apocalypse, Mom!
Typically, in apocalypse and post-apocalypse stories, the weak are always left for cannon (or zombie) fodder. If disabled characters are mentioned at all, they are invariably within this group. And I never saw someone with my condition. The closest example to this problem I’ve ever seen was in the first season of Lost when Shannon’s asthma inhaler ran out. If characters are sent out to look for medicines and medical assistance, in nine cases out of ten it’s because a character was shot or otherwise grievously injured, and they need to be stitched up and administered antibiotics.
This lack of representation is not limited to stories about cataclysmic events. Although popular culture is slowly becoming better about representing minorities, there is still an unfortunate amount of cases where disabled characters are forced into a mold of either being angelically virtuous or demonically evil, a problem that also faces storytellers when they attempt depict women and those of racial and sexual minorities.
In my life, I can recall one instance of my condition being mentioned on TV or in a movie: a single episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch in which Sabrina states her opinion that Libby is such a bitch because she has a thyroid problem. The line got a huge laugh from the computerized audience, but at nine years old, I turned off the TV and went crying to my mother, insisting that I wasn’t mean just because of my condition. In my Irish seminar, I made a friend by the name of Dave Joyce, a remarkably intelligent young man with cerebral palsy who is now getting his Master’s degree in English literature. In our unit on Christy Brown, he talked about how bothered he was that Mr. Brown is discussed as a pioneer in disability representation and studies, but he is rarely discussed in art or literary circles simply based on the merit of his work.
We, as a society, are inching our way towards more equal representation in our storytelling, but as a storyteller myself, I know that we have miles to go in improvement. In one meeting with my writing partner, she looked up from her computer and said to me “there’s something wrong: our characters are too whitewashed.” I realized with a shock that she was right, and that I had fallen into the trap of our society.
Tomorrow night are the 88th Annual Academy Awards, and this year, none of the acting nominees are non-white, and none of the nominated directors are women. This is extremely problematic, as discussed often (but not often enough) in the news. Knowing personally how easy it is to fall into this trap of not being representative enough, I know that moving forward, constant vigilance will be key.
- * I hate the word and idea of “normalcy,” but it works the best for our purposes.
- P.S. If you don’t watch the Walking Dead, do yourselves a favor and start.