What can I say? I have a soft spot for Hollywood films that attempt to counter pervasive stereotypes of disability.
Love and Other Drugs (aka LOD) stars hotties Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway—and both of their characters have disabilities. Who woulda thought? Nowhere in the film’s promotional campaign will you find clues about disability, except for a five second blip in this two-minute-long movie trailer. The brief synopsis on the DVD case says nada about disability or illness:
“Academy Award Nominees Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway co-star in the “smartest, sexiest and downright best sceen-melting romance of the year.” Hathaway delivers an unforgettable performance as the free-spirited Maggie, who meets her match in a charming Viagra salesman named Jamie (Gyllenhaal). Maggie and Jamie leap into a no-strings-attached affair, but no matter how hard they try to keep things “casual,” they can’t help falling under the unfluence of the ultimate drug…love!”
Little does the viewer know, Maggie has early-onset Parkinson’s disease, and Jamie has Attention Deficit Disorder: both impacting the characterizations of Maggie and Jamie and the film’s storyline in significant ways. I guess disability is supposed to be the unexpected twist—the clencher, the all-revealing “tragedy” as the true test of love.
I could write about the nudity in the film, like Entertainment Weekly, NY Mag, Newsweek, or the Huffington Post. Perhaps I should talk about the movie’s hot crip sex (like when Jamie makes love to Maggie while she convulses in symptomatic tremors), or about Maggie’s experience with disability identity at the “unconventional” support group for folks with Parkinson’s. Both issues of representation are important and worth considering, but I’ll leave that commentary up to Disability Arts Online blogger Alison Wilde in her review of LOD. Wilde also touches on other prominent disability justice themes, such as reciprocity in love and care, mutual respect, and interdependency.
But what about healthcare, medicine, and science? Maybe the authority of medicine is so normalized that few people care to expose it. Not to discredit Wilde, I like her framing of the film’s approach to healthcare inequality:
“…the lampooning of the relationship between drugs salesmen and medical professionals and their power also shaped a number of poignant scenes, a number of vignettes powerfully illustrated the consequences of inequalities in health care. For me this added extra power to minor details of the film.”
Yet, I disagree with Wilde that such relationships or vignettes illustrating healthcare inequality in LOD are “minor details.” For me, the myth of control and the authority of medicine are major underlying assumptions of the movie that enable the nondisabled viewer to leave the flick with a sense of relief—a relief of anxiety that is all too prevalent throughout mainstream Hollywood films portraying disability.
So, I just mentioned three things: 1) the myth of control, 2) the authority of medicine, and 3) a relief of anxiety. Let’s break these three concepts down so I can expose how the film relies on, rather than undermines, ableism.
- The Myth of Control: “A major obstacle to coming to terms with the full reality of bodily life is the widespread myth that the body can be controlled” (Wendell 93). The bottom line here is that we think we can control our bodies—and we’ll do whatever we can and whatever we have to in order to control them: especially from disease, illness, accidents, pain, disability, and death. The myth of control makes us think that if we try hard enough, if we raise enough money for more scientific research, that we can and will somehow be able to prevent things like disease, illness, accidents, pain, disability, and death. In a more subtle sense, we try to control our curly and frizzy hair so it’s straight and smooth, we try to make wrinkles in our face disappear, we try to control the appearance of cellulite, we try to control the color of our teeth so they’re glowing like Ross’ Chiclets on Friends, we shave our face, our legs, our underarms in attempts to control hair growth. These attempts to control and perfect our bodies are typically effects of cultural standards that determine what is desirable, ideal, or even, normal. Normal? Some might call this normalcy, some might call it normality, others might say normativitiy, and few might throw down the phrase “compulsory able-bodiedness.” Regimes such as your entourage and application of toiletries every morning is an example of the compulsory nature of normativity, and self-care/control. How does this relate to disability? Feminist philosopher Susan Wendell puts it this way: “The disciplines of normality…are not only enforced by others but internalized. For many of us, our proximity to the standards of normality is an important aspect of our identity and our sense of social acceptability, an aspect of our self-respect. We are unlikely to notice this until our ability to meet the standards is threatened in some way. An injury or a prolonged illness often draws the attention of non-disabled people to this previously unnoticed facet of their self-images” (88). Medically speaking, the compulsion for The Cure (the end-al be-all Cure for disease, sickness, ageing, injury, pain) drives seemingly all funding and resources in scientific research for the purpose of fixing what we fear might happen to our bodies. You might be wondering, what’s so bad about trying to find a cure? Why I’m glad you asked. This leads me to my next point. But one more thing—don’t forget why it’s called “The Myth of Control.” It’s because, it’s a myth, and maybe some things just can’t be controlled. Disease happens, illness happens, pain happens, accidents happen, zits happen, yellowish teeth happen, curly hair happens, and death is inevitable. Why are we so afraid of these things happening to us?
- The Authority of Medicine: So, what’s so bad about trying to find a cure? In my view, there is nothing intrinsically bad about it. I like how Wendell frames one way of thinking about it: “Ironically, by creating a culture of individual responsibility for illness and accident, the myths of individual control and medical control through cure discourage any search for possible social and environmental causes of diseases and disabilities, thus inhibiting efforts to prevent them” (106). It is not the prospect of a cure in and of itself that is up for debate, but it is how the cure functions in the context of medical authority and the myth of control. For instance, how might dominant culture’s emphasis on the cure reinforce stereotypes of disability? This is where the medical model of disability, or the medical model of bodies out of control, comes in:
Dr. Ken says: “I invent and administer tests to classify disabled people according to what I think are their impairments. Then I carry out experiments to try to make them more like me. If I fail, I try to identify and kill them before they are born.” Through the medical model and its authority, we believe that something like disability is an individual tragedy, a pathological case to be officially diagnosed, viewing impairment as something that is inherently wrong with someone that needs to be fixed, or, cured. Diagnosis: difference. Critiquing the authority of the medical model and departing from it, disability justice activists and scholars utilize the social model of disabilityto understand how insidious dominant meanings of disability are produced and enforced:
Xena Warrior Disabled Barbie Activist says: “I fight against prejudice, discrimination and disabling environments. I fight for equal rights legislation and better health and social care provision. I also fight to eliminate the poverty, abuse, violence and war that cause the majority of impairments.” The thing that I want to call attention to here is the normalization of medical authority: we take third-person scientific fact as natural, objective truth (Wendell 121). These supposed truths frame how we understand our own bodies, and our complex experiences and realities of embodiment. Wendell writes that “those of us who have chronic illnesses and disabilities, and those who are dying of incurable illnesses, symbolize the failure of medicine and the Western scientific project to control nature” (96). Fear of disability is rampant because the very presence of people with disabilities is proof that the myth of control is a myth. Given that the myth is so deeply embedded within dominant medical-scientific culture and our own psyches, it is hard for us to collectively acknowledge and value the fact that human existence and lived embodied experience occur in unlimited ways. We tend to measure humanity solely through the medical model’s fictitious norm of what it means to be healthy, of what it means to have a body that is “able.”
- Relief of Anxiety: In terms of film or literary analysis, “alleviating anxiety” is a device commonly employed in mainstream narratives when grappling with disability in the plotline. Code of the Freaks, a work-in-progress documentary film, discusses stereotyping of disability in Hollywood and its use of this particular device. More or less, this device functions to relieve our fears that disability or chronic illness will happen to us. It does this by projecting the supposed “tragedy” back onto the individual, away from us. I think of the “relief of anxiety” device as effecting a film’s plotline in four different manifestations: 1) the disabled character/person is killed off by society because s/he is so hideous and monstrous that it must be done (e.g. Frankenstein, 1931), 2) the disabled character kills her/himself, commits suicide, due to the all-too-common terrible sentiment that “I’d rather die than live with a disability” (e.g. Million Dollar Baby, 2004), 3) the disabled character/person dies from complications due in part to their disability (e.g. All of Me, 1984), and 4) the disabled character is cured (e.g. Heidi, 1937). What do all four aspects have in common? Disability is somehow eliminated. What does the elimination of disability subliminally convey to the viewer? That disability is so repulsive, awful, and miserable to the point that we must get rid of it entirely—which links back to the first two concepts: The Myth of Control and The Authority of Medicine. Whether we realize it or not, this movie and several Hollywood films portraying disability, carry and deliver these concepts through the device of alleviating anxiety.
Jamie loves Maggie, Maggie loves Jamie. Despite the sometimes awkward acting, cheesy sentimental music, and redundant clichés of love expression (such as the climactic bus chase scene, and the “I’ve never told anyone I’ve loved them before” panic-attack-inducing line), I appreciate the film’s attempt to challenge stereotypes of disability, and to reconcile the complexities of chronic illness and intimate long-term relationships. However this reconciliation at the end of the movie, when Jamie says he’d carry her around if he had to (which honestly, so sweet and potentially powerful), is only reconciliation: the action of making one view or belief compatible with another. To me, this is somewhat analogous to the sentiment: “I tolerate gays; I accept them for who they are.” For example, the toleration of “gays” is compatible with the reformist agenda to legalize gay marriage. Similarly, Jamie’s ableist assumptions are reconciled with Maggie’s harsh realities of embodied experience: he will tolerate her disease, even to the point of thinking he accepts her for “who she is.” This is where the film is enormously disappointing: Anne Hathaway’s character seems to have so much potential to undermine ableism. I kept waiting for it, and waiting for it, but ultimately the framing of the film from Jamie’s perspective takes the cake.
For me, there are two main aspects of the film that may seem like “minor details” to others which reinforce ableism rather than uprooting it. The first and more obvious aspect is the sequence of scenes where Jamie searches for clinical trials and scientific research with fervor. He will do anything to cure, fix, make better his love, rather than focusing on how to make her life more livable with incurable illness. Maggie and Jamie drive hours to the next major city, they fly across the country, they spend lots and lots of money. Wendell’s point relates to this part of the movie all too well: “For people with life-threatening illnesses, pressures from their loved ones to seek a cure can consume their remaining time in medical and quasi-medical quests” (98). The strain of these quests on their relationship is evident when Maggie pushes back, and questions whether or not Jamie can love her if she shows no hope of ever getting “better.” I wish the plot lingered here, and rendered more complexly the realities of this struggle. But apparently a bus chase is supposed to suffice.
And then they live happily ever after, right? Maybe to some. But think about it: the movie ends with Jamie quitting his job as a Viagra salesman, in order to apply and attend medical school. This is my second point. The movie ends with Jamie as a med student. A future M.D., a doctor, a researcher, a person with authority in charge of clinical trials. This end-of-the-movie twist, an epiphany if you will, reinforces the myth of control and the authority of medicine over the ways that we experience and understand our bodies. Wendell argues that the “very availability of a virtually unlimited number of treatments protects the myth of control from evidence against it, because there is always another method of control to be tried. People with disabilities or incurable illnesses often find that long after they have accepted the conditions of their bodies, their friends and acquaintances want them to continue looking for cures” (97). Jamie becoming an M.D. is an indirect way for him to continue searching for a cure without directly forcing Maggie to attend an onslaught of trials and doctor’s visits. By becoming an M.D., Jamie takes a different avenue in attempts to control that which in uncontrollable. Moreover, by becoming an M.D., Jamie relieves the audience of its anxiety, its fear of disability, with the promise that he will triumph with his new life endeavors—of curing (fixing, making better) Maggie, who he loves. It is touching. But I wish Jamie would just stay a Viagra salesman, and face the perhaps harsh but necessary reality of bodies out of control.
“We need to recognize that scientific Western medicine’s quest for prevention and cure has prevented and relieved, but also caused, a great deal of suffering. We need to recognize that most people experience disability in the course of their lives. We need to demand that medical practice devote more attention and resources to improving the quality of patients’ experiences, to helping people to live with incurable physical limitations and suffering, and to enabling those who are fatally ill to die as well as possible. We need to integrate the experience and knowledge of people with disabilities and those who are dying into the mainstream of our cultures, into our concept of life as it is ordinarily lived. We need to learn to accept that people are not always able to control their bodies and to stop holding them responsible for doing the impossible. In short, we need to become more willing to face the realities of bodily life.”
—Susan Wendell, The Rejected Body
Work Cited: Wendell, Susan. The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. New York: Routledge, 1996.