Photo by: Johny Linder
My black disabled body is not the body reflected on screen
by Keah Brown
I am curled up in bed, sorting through my DVD collection of romantic comedies and dramas to find the movie that fits the sad but still hopeful mood that I am in. I turn to James McAvoy in Atonement, or James McAvoy again in Becoming Jane. Nothing says heartbreak like the scene at the end of Becoming Jane, when Jane Austen and McAvoy’s character, Tom Lefroy, meet again for the first time in years. His lips set themselves in a thin line, but his eyes give him away. They are glossy and apologetic under the weight of what could have been. He has named his daughter after her. The surprise and shock is evident on the author’s face; she locks eyes briefly with him. His voice cracks and a strangled “Jane!” leaves his lips, as his daughter pesters the author to read from Pride and Prejudice. It’s this palpable emotion that makes the tears come easy and Becoming Jane one of my favorite movies.
On the DVD cases before me, the cover stars stand in an array of positions my body will never find itself. Their hands are on their hips challengingly; they laugh and gesture. Most are happy, clutching a co-star with a wide smile. Others are sad and pensive, their hands clasped neatly in front of them or placed behind their back. But it would take me a while to get my right hand to cooperate long enough for me to put it behind my back. I cannot pull off the sexy and dangerous pout either. My black disabled body—with its aching bones and bent fingers, a right leg that is an inch shorter than the left with its limp and limited motor skills—is not the body reflected on screen.
I fantasize about being able-bodied. I’d love to spend a week without having to pretend I don’t see strangers so caught up in watching me limp that they nearly run into things, a week where my bones don’t crack and I don’t hold my breath while walking. I’d get out of bed and catch a glimpse of a right hand that looks exactly like my left; I’d walk without limping down the hall to my sister’s room. After years spent in a body that gave out in college lecture halls, restaurants, and clothing stores, I’d be free of embarrassment. This dream body and I could do anything; together we wouldn’t just fly, we’d soar.
Oftentimes, my fantasies extend to the idea of a love life. I could meet the man of my dreams in a coffee shop in Los Angeles while I order an iced coffee: one cream, two sugars. He laughs at my joke about the moon and the stars walking into a bar even though it isn’t that funny. At a wedding in Boston, our eyes meet and he lets three songs come and go before walking over to say hello; he isn’t great at dancing but he’s better with words. We meet after he steps off the stage at a reading in New York City, his work is beautiful and I wish to tell him as much but I am too afraid to shoot my shot.
I cast myself in lead roles. I am the presumably heartless boss who is about to be deported to Canada, like Sandra Bullock in The Proposal. An escort that I paid to attend my sister’s wedding will fall in love with me the way Dermot Mulroney’s character falls in love with Debra Messing in The Wedding Date. I am the skeptical and loyal friend who spends a night in New York City with a stranger and his band, searching for my drunk best friend, like Kat Dennings in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. I am desired, complicated, and seen as the ideal woman for someone.
I am not afraid of heartbreak. The heartbreak is often my favorite part of these movies. I would not complain if I found myself standing alone in the rain. I am willing to stand in the rain confused and angry, like Elizabeth after Mr. Darcy confesses to loving her for the first time in the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. I would not be bitter if at the end of my life I found myself separated from my true love, like Keira Knightley inAtonement. I could not be upset with such endings when the true joy is in the fact that I had them at all.
These days, romantic comedies are making small steps toward inclusivity and feminism. They are poking fun at the idea that a woman is nothing without a man, giving their characters depth and purpose outside of their impending romantic relationships and allowing their female leads to live in worlds where they are in positions of power with autonomy in their lives and workplaces. These are characters who aren’t looking for love, even though it finds them.
Still I know that, as a genre, romantic comedies are stunted by racism and ableism. When we were kids, my sister Leah and I saw our skin, noses, hair, and joy reflected back to us in Rodger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and the nineties remake of Annie. These movies temporarily quelled the feeling that I did not belong. But in most cases, when a black girl finds herself in a romantic comedy, she is almost never the lead; instead she is the sassy best friend wheeled in and out of scenes to shout, “Hey girl!” or some form of “ghetto fabulous” line to encourage her white lead to go after the male lead. She is almost never given a storyline that isn’t based on the “mammy” archetype. She is almost never given a chance to fall in love too.
The ableism in movies is so normalized that it isn’t often brought up in conversations about the things Hollywood needs to change. I have never seen a person with a disability as the lead or supporting character in a romantic comedy. In Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks’s Forrest literally runs until his leg braces falls off; he comes out on the other side with “perfect” legs, as if redemption only occurs from shedding his disability. Disability is portrayed as a running gag or as a thing to overcome, like in Penelope, in which Christina Ricci plays a young girl who has a nose like a pig. This nose keeps suitable bachelors from wanting anything to do with the girl in question. They go as far as jumping out of windows at the very sight of her. In the end she gets the guy, but only after the curse that gave her the nose is removed and she is conventionally attractive once more.
How are we, black girls with disabilities, supposed to see ourselves as worthy of romantic love, worthy of the chance to feel at home in our bodies and personalities, if the only representation we receive is that of a plot device or a joke? We have no choice but to see ourselves in the able-bodied, often white women who acquire lead roles. We have to find ourselves in their quirky or shy demeanors, their witty and quick humor, their hopes and dreams. We follow them on their journey to find themselves as they unlock an inner strength they’ve had all along. We see as much of ourselves as possible in these women—and still, it is never quite enough.