This story first ran on the excellent podcast Pod Delusion, where my friend Tannice Pendergast (@tannice_ on Twitter) read it aloud for me. I recommend that all of my readers go to iTunes and subscribe to this terrific program. I write about disability issues for Pod Delusion and am very happy to have a mainstream forum to discuss issues that face our community.
Sex, Blinks and Video Tape
I have a total vision impairment. Which is to say, I cannot see anything, no light, no shadows, nothing.
I, therefore, prefer radio to television and, given the vast Internet, I find podcasts, even those with terrestrial radio analogues, to be very convenient, interesting, entertaining and informative. In addition to “Pod Delusion,” I enjoy a number of skeptically oriented podcasts but I also often listen to a number of comedy podcasts, my favorite of which is “The Nerdist with Chris Hardwick, Matt Mire and Jonah Ray.
A few months ago, I listened to an episode of The Nerdist featuring Levarr Burton, the terrific actor who played Geordi LeForge on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (STNG) as well as having appeared in the legendary miniseries, “Roots” and on the children’s program, “Reading Rainbow.” Burton has had a terrific career and I admire him greatly for his life and his work.
Burton did say one thing in the interview that caused me to pause.. He stated that the reason Geordi was the only STNG character to never have sex in an episode was because “television is afraid of African American male sexuality.” I don’t want to question Burton’s statement as African Americans are a minority of which I am not a member and I really don’t know the history of black men on television. I did, however, wonder about how people with disabilities, my people, were portrayed in the world’s most popular entertainment medium.
Like me, Geordi was blind but, unlike me, could use his visor device to be able to see via a fictitious technology. What Burton’s comment ignores is the near complete lack of sexuality afforded characters with disabilities on television and how people with disabilities are rarely portrayed as anything approaching complete humans. Burton does not self identify as having a disability but he played one on TV. I’m curious if he has ever asked himself how blind and people with other disabilities are portrayed in televised fiction.
Racking my brain, I could think of exactly one television character with a disability, played by the wonderful and beautiful deaf actor Marlee Matlin in her television show, “Reasonable Doubts” who had sex scenes written for her role. Today, in addition to her performance career,Marlee, an actor with a very real disability, spends a lot of time on Twitter talking about issues regarding civil rights, technology and other aspects of life with a disability and is a leader in our community.
I thought hard trying to think of another character with a disability with a sex scene on television. I intentionally ignored sexy scenes containing characters with mental illness as these examples are quite abundant. These characters tend to be depicted as either cutely quirky or as homocidal monsters but they are allowed to explore physical intimacy.
I thought about shows I’ve seen with characters with disabilities and, although such characters are rare, there are a few. On “Breaking Bad,” one of my very favorite programs, Walt Jr., the son of the protagonist, has cerebral palsy and is played by an actor, RJ Mitte, with CP. The Walt Jr. character goes to high school but the only person with whom he associates outside of his family is his friend Louis and, in four seasons, he hasn’t had a single date.
Wikipedia, the ultimate reference for lazy bloggers, told me that”Facts of Life,” a long running American sitcom that I can’t say I enjoyed much, became the first television show to feature an actor with a disability (Gerri Jewell, who has CP) when they added a character with the disease. Jewell’s character, unlike her teenaged co-stars, never has a date.
While trying to think of examples of sex and people with disabilities on television, I found myself talking to my 16 year old niece on the phone. She told me that the current television program, “Glee,” has a character in a wheelchair (obviously the producers couldn’t find a single person with a disability, of the billion or so of us on the planet, who could play the role) but this character, on a program where everyone else gets laid, is never included in any hot scenes.
A few days ago, I sent out a tweet asking if any of my followers could think of a television character, other than one played by Marlee Matlin, with a disability who has also had a sex scene. A lot of my friends replied by saying, “Good question” and a few mentioned a television show I had never heard of called “Becker” that starred Ted Danson. Apparently, Becker had a blind character named Jake, played by Alex Desert (a fully sighted actor), who actually had some romantic interludes. So, in addition to Marlee, a whole bunch of people with disabilities could only find one character of their kind who has been allowed to have sex on television.
I then when to Google, if a bunch of people with disabilities couldn’t think of any sex scenes involving our population, then the vast Internet must know. Sadly, the only references I could find were to a BBC dating reality show that introduced a couple with downs syndrome and an item about the two mentally challenged characters on LA Law (who have a sexual affair.
I think that gives us five total incidents on television in which characters with disabilities are allowed to explore such an important aspect of human life. Only three of the actors we could think of or find searching the web actually have disabilities themselves and the others, for all intents and purposes, are played by actors in the 21st century version of blackface.
I cannot tell you why television producers have such discomfort with making characters with disabilities into fully formed humans or at least as fully formed as any television character can be. I have many friends with a wide variety of disabilities and most of them lead lives that one might describe as normal, given that “normal” has a pretty broad definition. These people have jobs, they are researchers, therapists, software engineers, electrical engineers, teachers, pastors and even a few CEOs. These people have families, interests, desires and aspirations. And, yes, television, we have sex.
So, television, what are you afraid of? Maybe if you hired writers and actors with disabilities, you might learn that we aren’t scary and most of us are pretty average in most ways.