Disability and Pop Culture: Alice Wong on Finding Dory

Last week I wrote about Finding Dory and hoping it was good. Although complex and not without its issues (more on that in a second), Alice Wong (founder of the Disability Visibility Projecthas mostly very positive things to say.

People with disabilities do not see themselves very often reflected in popular culture with authenticity steeped in the lived experience. Not only are many disabled characters played bynon-disabled people; the storytellers are usually non-disabled who craft narratives about disability by using stereotypes and cliched tropes, robbing disabled characters and stories of agency and diversity.

Finding Dory has multiple characters with disabilities that live in the community (the ocean) and in institutions (the aquarium, the quarantine section of the aquarium). The characters are part of ecosystems (the coral reef) integrated with non-disabled aquatic creatures. Best yet, Dory, voiced by Ellen Degeneres, is a disabled character that is front-and-center. She is the hero on a journey.

 Also read – Elizabeth Picciuto on Finding Dory.

I’ve been thinking about pop culture and disability a lot this weekend. I tried to play “Tommy,” by The Who, for the kids while they were having breakfast, only to discover that I just can’t listen to it anymore. I suspect there’s room for sophisticated analysis of the use of disability by Townshend and lots of discussion (I’ll blog about this soon), what I mostly found was that I just couldn’t listen to it. I can’t watch Veep because of the constant use of ableist slurs in casual banter among the staff. I stopped watching South Park at some point. I made the mistake of looking up how often Buffy uses the r-word. Here’s one.

Jack: (not amused) What are you, r—-ded?

 Xander: No! No, I had to take that test when I was seven. A little slow
in some stuff, mostly math and spatial relations, but certainly not
challenged or anything. (points down) Can I get you another soda?

I rarely make relatively few claims about whether you should or should not see something (though showing content to kids that perpetuates stereotypes of any sort is dangerous. Your kids should not watch South Park and I once lost a friend over that argument). Just that these words strike me, almost physically, and make it impossible for me to process the broader cultural product (see this on This American Life for an example of how such language triggers). This is especially true when I hear the words, rather than reading it in text. All of this is to stay that I can no longer listen to Pinball Wizard (or anything else really in that album).

Culture matters. Language and image matter. Having a kid’s movie portray a sophisticated approach to disability culture has a kind of power that transcends almost any other kind of outreach.

Still haven’t seen it!

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