Friday, November 11, 2011

Ableism and Adelaide in American Horror Story

Every week, American Horror Story manages to grab our attention, with it’s gripping story of a family living in a house that is colloquially known as the murder house. We have been introduced to a plethora of interesting characters, who each have a unique story and history, that is intimately connected with the house. One of the most interesting is the character of Adelaide, played by Jamie Brewer.  

In the pilot episode, we are first introduced to Adelaide as she stands outside of the murder house, delivering the dire warning of “you’re all going to die in there,” as two young twins enter the home with baseball bats.  As it turns out, Adelaide is quite correct.  Adelaide enters the house at will and is able to see and recognize the ghosts for who and what they are at any given time.

Adelaide stands out not only because she is one of the few disabled characters on television, but because she is actually disabled herself. Quite often, when disabled characters appear on television, they are played by able bodied people. The only other disabled actor that I can think of playing a disabled character is RJ Mite, who plays Walt Jr, on AMC’s Breaking Bad. It is seen as convenient for an abled bodied person to play disabled in order to effect the miracle cure.  We have seen this time and time again, when a blind person suddenly gains sight, or a paralyzed person is suddenly able to walk.  A recent example of this phenomenon happened on Glee, in the episode Dream On, where the disabled character Artie, not only walks, but appears in a dance number.

At first, it was wonderfully refreshing to see the character of Adelaide, but whatever joy we experienced quickly became lost in the rampant disableism that has been constantly aimed at her.  It first began when her mother, Constance, played by Jessica Lange, referred to her as the Mongoloid, and makes it clear that she sees Adelaide as her burden to bear, in a conversation with Vivien, played by Connie Britton -- who owns the murder house. To be clear, American Horror Story goes to great lengths to ensure that it is understood that Constance is an evil person; however, this does not remove the ableism from her statements. Simply being an evil and unpleasant person, does not mean the words the character says instantly lack impact, or are understood to be cruel, unacceptable, prejudiced or otherwise wrong. For her actions to be truly thought of as wrong, it is necessary for Ben and Vivien to actively make it clear that her language is unacceptable, rather than positioning themselves to appear uncomfortable in Constance's presence.  In fact, Constance’s general unpleasantness makes it hard to differentiate distaste for her ableism, from simple distaste for her as a person.

Ben and Vivien are also guilty of ableist behaviour.  Frustrated with Adelaide’s constant intrusion in their home, Ben calls her a freak, though he is immediately corrected by Vivien, she follows this by grabbing her physically. Though Vivien can be credited with correcting Ben, the very fact that she chose to lay hands on Adelaide speaks to how little regard she has for the young woman’s bodily integrity.  The people that are most likely to be subjected to unwanted touch are marginalised people. Vivien has expressed rage with several other characters, and outside of hitting Ben in a fit of rage over his lecherous behaviour, Adelaide is the the only person that she has touched in anger.  What is it about Adelaide that separates her from the other characters?

Constance is a deeply unpleasant person; however, this doesn’t change the fact that some very specific ableist tropes are portrayed on a weekly basis and in fact, Constance’s negative personality encourages the viewer to disregard the degree of ableism that they are being shown. It is absolutely imperative to take note of this, because Adelaide is one of the very few representations of a disabled people we see in prime time. Adelaide is infantilised (note: the childish clothing, though she is clearly and adult) and the fact she is portrayed as a burden to her mother (to name two) - are both classic ableist tropes; we cannot avoid the fact that marginalised people are constantly dogged by the same insults, the same tropes and the same stereotypes.

In episodes four and five, the ableism reached it’s zenith with Adelaide’s desire to be a pretty girl for Halloween and her subsequent death. The furor began with Adelaide flirting with Constance’s boy toy Travis. Constance makes it clear that she will not compete for a man in her house. In search of the elusive beauty that she seeks, Adelaide turns to Violet to get her face made up. When she looks in the mirror, she is thrilled, but this quickly comes to an end when Constance demands she wash the makeup off her face. Constance couldn't even let her have that, she makes it all about her, reminding Adelaide that her father wanted to put her in a home. She tells Adelaide that she makes other people feel lucky - lucky to be "normal" that is, thus further stigmatizing her based in disability.  If one is not “normal,” then one is clearly to be pitied and forced to hide away from others.  

Adelaide is purposefully de-sexualised, which is a common tactic of able bodied people, because sexuality is one of the things that defines who we are as people. We know Constance is far from a good mother, but very few people with disabilities are told:
  • People with disabilities are sexual
  • Having a disability does not make you less attractive or desirable.
  • Sex is not just intercourse and your disability can make you more creative and in tune with your body
Constance’s entire speech was a negation of personhood and also was very similar to the shaming and denial that have lead to sterilisation of disabled people.

In the end, Adelaide is given a mask to wear to become a pretty girl for Halloween.  Everything about who Adelaide is, is ugly to Constance and therefore, she assumes that the same is true for the world at large. In the end, Adelaide is killed, and though we are meant to see it as a simple traffic accident, when put into context of her treatment on the show itself, it reads as punishment for being a disabled woman; something she is constantly made to suffer for. It is only upon her death that her mother becomes slightly cognizant of her worth, and finally accedes to the point that Adelaide is indeed beautiful.

This brings the viewer no comfort, because in episode six, we learn that Constance did not manage to drag Adelaide to the lawn in time and unlike her brother Tate, she will not be free to come and go. Because the house is what makes ghosts visible and able to act in the real world, this has raised the question of what role is left for Adelaide on the show? Could it be that after only a scant five episodes that we have already lost this tortured character for good?

It is wonderful to see a disabled person on prime time television - and doubly so to see a disabled character actually played by a disabled actor. However, as we say time and again, inclusion is not enough. Adelaide is haunted by constant tropes and stereotypes and her character is constantly attacked and denigrated. It’s inclusion, but it could be a lot more.