Today's Evil Beet Gossip

The Ability Barrier in Television

Daryl "Chill" Mitchel in October 2009

After watching St. Louis get their asses handed to them by the Titans this evening, I left the TV tuned to Fox– something I almost always regret. But after the NFL broadcast concluded, some show called Brothers came on, and I watched it for a little while.

In spite of having an all-star cast, the show was pretty terrible. The episode I watched guest-starred Snoop Dogg as a chess playing bartender, if that gives you any idea. It’s regular stars include former NFL pro Michael Strahan, CCH Pounder (a briliant actress with a ridiculous, giggle-worthy name) and Carl Weathers, one of the few cast members of the movie Predator yet to obtain a governorship. (Think about that.)

But what really struck me about the show was that one of the main characters is played by an actor with a disability– Daryll Mitchell.

I was surprised at how surprised I was to see a disabled main character. Granted, I’m no TV junkie, but after thinking about it, I could only name one other main character on television right now that has a physical disability (House) and that’s a disabled character being played by an able-bodied actor.

That got me wondering why we don’t see more disabled main characters & actors on TV. It’s kind of odd. There’s a glut of one-shot guest starring roles where able-bodied actors play disabled characters in episodes with plots that usually focus on, or revolve around the disability itself– as if the disability were the star, and not the person who has it. And there have been more than a few plot lines where able-bodied main characters are “tragically afflicted” with a disability and spend a few tear-filled and angsty episodes learning to “deal” with their disability before being miraculously cured. But there are very few main characters with disabilities, even fewer characters for whom those disabilities are not their defining characteristic, and almost no main characters played by actors who are disabled themselves.

With the exception of shows that fetishized differences in ethnicity and sexual preference by making race, class, or sexual orientation the “theme” of the show, it wasn’t too long ago that everyone on primetime American television was white, straight, and upper class– as if anyone that deviated from that definition of “normal” didn’t belong on your standard sitcom. There was only a place for them if they were neatly packaged in a show whose concept called for such differences.

I can also remember being severely annoyed by how the commercials would change based on what type of audience the tv execs believed were watching a show. During  Friends, there was nary a black man or hispanic woman to be found in ads for burger joints or insurance companies. But tune in to Girlfriends, and suddenly the background music changed to R&B and everyone in the Burger King commercial was black. I found it insulting to my intelligence, and downright annoying. It was as if the advertising executives not only believed that the audience watching Friends was all white while Girlfriends’ audience was all black, but also that white audiences wouldn’t want to eat at Burger King if shown a commercial featuring black burger eaters, and that black viewers would be turned off by fictionalized white patrons. It’s bullshit. If I’m not going to eat at a Burger King, it’ll be because their food is fucking disgusting– not because I saw a commercial with a black person in it.

It has taken a while, but slowly and surely, we’ve seen the barriers of class, ethnicity, and sexual preference weakening in American primetime TV. There are still plenty of all-white and all-black casts, but there are also plenty of shows that include characters of different ethnicities and sexual preferences as common parts of their fictional worlds. These are complex “normal” characters, no longer reduced to maudlin distillations of single superficial aspects like race or sexual orientation. And more often than not, the people in the Burger King commercials nowadays represent a wider variety of races and ethnicities (but their food still sucks).

Perhaps the “ability” barrier in television will be the next one to fall, and disabled characters and actors will finally be added to television’s new idealization of the American norm. It’s a little confusing to me that this hasn’t happened already, but talented actors like Daryl Mitchell are working hard to see that it happens soon.

31 CommentsLeave a comment

    • Yeah, but the union for performers with disabilities was upset that they cast a non-disabled actor to play the paraplegic high school student. They’ve got a point. You can’t tell me that there isn’t a disabled guy who can sing.

      • The actor who plays Artie made a really good point – they don’t choose actors to play parts based on other characteristics if they act it. One thing I can think of offhand is an accent – they choose the right actor for the part, and then let the person “act” the qualities they do not have.

    • Yes, but the boy in the wheelchair is NOT disabled in real life, unlike Daryl. Neither was Raymond Burr (der people).

  • I never really watched Ed but I remember him from 10 Things I Hate About you. He was hysterical as the teacher. And you are right, this is one of the main barriers to be broken still. The only other big parts I can remember recently are in Glee and Joan of Arcadia and both parts were played by people without a disability.

  • Great post! And yet another example of why you are my favorite writer on this site. I remember hearing about this show and this particular actor and was interested to hear that he was in fact actually disabled. I recognized him from other small and mediocre parts that he has played here and there when he wasn’t disabled. I believe he was in an accident several years ago, and it’s cool that his desire to keep acting hasn’t been restricted. I agree the show isn’t very funny, but who knows….American’s seem to like dumb unfunny shows.

  • Check out an HBO series called Deadwood, not only is it an AMAZING show, but there is an actress called Geri Jewell who has cerebral palsy. She plays a character called Jewel and through her you get insight into how people with special needs were treated in the american gold rush days. She was originally a comedienne.

    • I’d forgotten about Deadwood! She was really good as Jewel and the episodes where she asked Doc to get her a brace to help her walk were really touching.

      • I’m gonna have to check that out. Deadwood was one of those series that everyone raved about that I just missed out on– too busy watching other stuff.

  • There’s also Robert David Hall on CSI.
    He’s a double amputee – has been so since 1978.
    He’s been both a national board member and chair on the Performers With Disabilities Committee.

    Also, Deanne Bray carried an entire series as Sue Thomas, F.B.Eye.

    Marlee Matlin can’t be left off the list too.

    There’s more disabled actors on tv than people realize. It’s not always paraded and displayed for a plot point or for the glory of having a disabled person on the show.

  • Jimmy from Degrassi: The Next Generation. It’s hardly like, classic television, but, he was a character that became disabled and stayed that way until he left the show, four seasons later.

  • you can’t complain that ads are targeted at certain groups- thats how ads work. you’re looking at it from the race angle, so you can see discrimination- but its not discrimination if sex, earning power, age etc are also filtered by ads. Would it be sexist to show an ad for tampons during a gilmore girls episode? or is it discrimination to show an ad for childrens toys during a cartoon? no, of course not. If you start looking for racism in advertising- it isnt racism. they arent saying one race is better- they are just showing a certain race ads of people from their race, to improve how the ad works. You might find it insults your intelligence- but you arent their target audience. the target audience of any ad is not the one who thinks about it, its the one who takes it as an ad and doesnt count the latinos to make sure its pc.
    Until all races start behaving in exactly the same ways, watching exactly the same shows and eating the same food, ads will always target us all differently. In fact, ad people are pretty careful not to do anything racist. They even put ridiculous proportions of races in ads- sometimes showing two white people, an asian and a black person smiling with their headsets as if picking a group of people at random would produce that proportion.

  • THe coomercials during those shows are based on modelling: you tend to be more likely to model what someone else does if you can identify with them (the more like you they are the more you identify with them). I doubt it’s about a white person not wanting a burger if they see a black person eating one, and vice versa. The fact that they assume that the people watching these shows are one race or the other, I don’t understand. I used to watch Girlfriends, and I hate to say it, but only then I realized that commercials were customized to the type of show. But also if you’re ever watching daytime TV they have all kinds of commercials about single moms that should get up from sitting at home and get an educatoin for themselves. What I think is the most racist thing there is that these people in these commercials are NEVER white. Always either black, hispanic, asian, etc. What the hell? There’s no white single moms sitting at home during the day who may need an education to provide them with a “better future for themselves and their child”? And another what the hell: who says that all people watching daytime TV need to get an education? Because I mean this commercial plays litterally EVERY other minute! BAH! I have just made a point to make fun of about 90% of commercials that I see on TV, but I find it sad that many people don’t see through them.

    As far as Glee goes? I love the show. I watch it all the time. But the black girl (yes I watch the show regularly but don’t remember any of their names…) is a MUCH better singer than the white bitchy girl, and yet she’s not the lead singer. Also, the lead guy’s voice is very pre-pubescent and yet he’s the lead… So even in a show like that…

    Sorry about the gianormous post, but Kelly I really liked this one!

    • Thanks! And I get what you and Ciara were saying about the commercials re: targeting them to an audience. But it’s not the same as running more commercials for tampons during Dawson’s Creek than Monday Night Football. What bothered me is that these commercials were for the SAME product, but the commercials run during the “white” shows were full of white people, and the commercials run during the “black” shows were full of black people. It’s not targeting different products to different audiences based on who’s more likely to buy it. It’s selling race to different audiences based on what race you think is watching the show.

      It also elucidates that ad execs believe we can’t identify with someone whose skin is a different color. If you’re trying to sell me tampons, it would be smart to put a pretty, well-dressed woman in the commercial, yes. But does she need to be white in order for me to identify with her? No.
      And is it completely the ad execs’ fault? Probably not. But they are the product of something unfortunate that they are, in turn, reinforcing. Hegemony is a bitch.

      • Hold on just a second – I have sat in on a few ad planning meetings for multi-cultural campaigns in my day, and advertising with unique creative is in no way intended to dupe the audience. It would actually be much cheaper for Burger King to run the same advertisement execution on all of these programs because now they need pay for two creative executions.

        Now, if the same product were advertised to different audiences with a different price, that is absolutely discrimination and it is wrong, but that is not what they are doing.

        There is a ton of research, including focus groups that points out that many cultural groups want to see people in advertisements who are representative of their likeness, their family, and their lifestyle. Believe me, there are all sorts of ad effectiveness test run behind the scenes including running both ads (a generic and a targeted ad) to see which one gets a better response. In my experience, the more relevant (and targeted) advertisement usually wins.

        So, just maybe the advertiser is actually trying a little bit harder than their competition to make as many people feel comfortable in their stores and purchasing their products as possible because they don’t want their brand to be representative of a polarizing or generic group of people.

  • Thank you for the wonderful post, Kelly. Not only are your posts funny, clever, and well-thought out, but they’re written beautifully. I always look forward to the weekends because I know I’ll get to see some of your fun, writing! So, keep it up!

  • Wonderful post!
    Disabled people are an integral part of our society and life and it’s only natural for them to be integrated into our TV too. I hope to see more of this in the future :)