Disability Representation – Part 1: TV Shows

The representation of disability in the media, through TV shows, movies, comics, video games has always interested me so this blog will be an examination of a few disabled characters in the media I’ve seen recently or throughout my life that I feel are influential for me as a disabled person.

Recently I finally watched all 5 seasons of Breaking Bad. The story arcs of each character were incredibly detailed and the world building was brilliant.

The way Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) evolved from a family man (ironically like a follow on to his character Hal in Malcolm In The Middle) into a psychopath was superb, the change was slow so I felt somehow I was changing or sympathizing with him. However, Walter ultimately still remained a family man as he performed every bad act to provide financial security for them, this subverted the family man stereotype brilliantly. Where does the line start or end? How far can you go for your family? All the family answered these questions differently so Walter’s family thought he crossed the line but he thought it was acceptable so showing that perspective is subjective. The way his cancer was handled was great, it demonstrated the difficulties of chemo but strangely, I am glad his cancer did not remiss fully, it would have ruined the shows tone and ending.

Jesse (played by Aaron Paul) grew as a person; his character was in juxtaposition to Walter, illustrating how people can be redeemed after bad decisions. The show seems to show the binary good vs. bad but in my opinion, it demonstrates that life is lived in the grey.

The character Walter White Jr (played by RJ Mitte) was a revelation, having a disabled teenager who has cerebral palsy with speech problems and crutches was something I have never seen before on TV. I was quite cynical at first, thinking the writers would use his character in a ‘being disabled is a negative’ way but he was portrayed in a naturally, still doing ‘normal’ activities. RJ Mitte has become an actor who happens to be disabled rather than just a ‘disabled actor’. Breaking Bad is progressive in the representation of disability in the media and we need more shows like this on TV, to make the public aware that people can live happily with a disability.

(Spoilers for the ending) The ending with Jesse deciding against shooting Walter and then driving away was emotional and leaving it open guaranteed Jesse a second chance at life. Ending with Walter dying due to his bad decisions rather than through his cancer was a masterstroke, all his decisions in the show were in order to escape accepting his cancer and ultimately he did escape it. Maybe the show was ultimately a metaphor for breaking the bad stereotypes around disability/acceptance, through Walter White Jr and through the evolution of Jesse as a character who slowly started to accept his bad decisions/depression in order to live positively and finally deal with his issues.

Next I wanted to explore season 1 of the Netflix series Daredevil (based on the Marvel superhero of the same name). Background of the show: As a child, Matt Murdock (played by Charlie Cox) was blinded by a chemical spill in a freak accident. Instead of limiting him, it gave him superhuman senses. Now he uses these powers to deliver justice, not only as a lawyer in his own law firm, but also as the vigilante Daredevil, the man without fear. His blind mentor Stick taught him to fight as a way to stop Matt becoming bitter over the accident.

Charlie Cox worked with blind consultant Joe Strechy in order to authentically portray being blind. This suggests that the producers find Daredevil’s blindness an important part of his character, rather than just a gimmick putting Charlie in glasses or just using a cane. The show does illustrate his blindness and how it affects him practically through filming him reading braille, using a cane, being disoriented by loud sounds, his apartment is always dark with lack of furniture. His colleagues Foggy Nelson (played by Elden Henson) & Karen Page (played by Deborah Ann Woll) treat Matt like anybody else, they argue with him but also help him to navigate new areas or find doors when necessary.

This series portrays disability in an empowering way rather than using it as a gimmick (which could have certainly happened) as Matt has utilized his ‘blindness’ as a useful superpower, instead of limiting him his disability enables him to see the world in a unique way. Furthermore the show demonstrates that disabled people can hold high-powered jobs like a lawyer or learn to defend themselves. I hope Marvel continue doing Daredevil justice in season 2!

Part 2 will be evaluating disability in comic books & videogames.

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