04 February, 2010

The harder fallacy

I keep thinking about something my friend said after we watched Precious and I was talking about how the portrayal of the child with Down Syndrome was offensive. (I'm going to refer to the character as Quishay, which is the name of the little girl who played her.) My friend kept saying, "Well, it IS harder to raise a kid with Down Syndrome." I said "Do you actually know any people with Down Syndrome, because if you did, I think you'd feel differently." My friend was like, "What do you mean, do you think I wouldn't think it's harder to have Down Syndrome? It's a DISABILITY. It's not a good thing. Are you saying it's not harder?"

I'm probably caricaturing this in my mind because it was a while ago and also it made me really mad. When I quote people who made me mad I tend to repeat the things they say in this particular voice that's both monotonous and overdramatic. I know this is a problem. I should be mature enough to disagree with people without being shitty about it. But it's really hard not to be shitty about it! Plus I hate the "it's harder" strawman even more than I hate the "but bad things will happen to you if you don't pass!!" strawman (#3 in the linked post).

So, I will just say what I wanted to say to my friend, but couldn't get out very clearly. Here are two facts about disability:

1. For whatever reason, nondisabled people tend to get grossed out or uncomfortable around disabled people.

2. By definition, all things being equal, it is harder to be disabled than it is to be nondisabled. Also, it's harder to be the guardian of a kid who is disabled because it often costs more money and the kid might have to live at home longer, or forever. Also, it's sometimes harder to be close to a disabled person (as a friend/significant other, as part of your job, or as a family member) because you are used to relating to people in a particular way that doesn't work with this person, or because you had built them up in your head as a person without a disability.

Some parts of #2 are not inherent aspects of disability. For example it isn't fair that it costs more money to raise a kid with a disability. That shouldn't be the case. But the fact that it's not inherent doesn't make it less real for the people for whom it's real. If a person is spending all their money so that their disabled kid can go to school, because public school does not do what the kid needs, it IS harder for them. So, yes. I'm saying it is harder to raise a disabled child.

But that's not the only thing in the world that is hard. And hard is not the same thing as repulsive or tragic.

In Precious, Precious has two kids. She is a young teenager. Her kids are the product of nonconsensual incest. Having kids as a young teenager is really hard. Getting raped by your father isn't just "hard," it is horrible, evil, and tragic. There aren't enough words to describe what it is. It's a lot worse than having a kid with Down Syndrome or any disability.

Now I guess it sounds like I'm on a track of saying Down Syndrome is okay because being raped by your father is worse. That's not my intent. What I'm saying is, Precious has two kids. The second kid she has, who has no disabilities, changes her life. She loves him tremendously, right away, and her love for him gives her the strength to fight back against her abusive mother and seek help. There are other factors that give Precious this motivation; it's not just the baby, it's that she has gotten support from her teacher and classmates. But still, this thing that is very difficult--a baby born to a single teenage mother--ends up being AMAZING. This exact thing happens to girls in real life, sometimes. Situations that are objectively really hard are experienced as wonderful and joyful.

So, harder doesn't equal bad or gross. And I would say that the portrayal of Precious's older child is as something bad and gross. It is totally unrealistic for Precious to have a baby with Down Syndrome. Down Syndrome isn't an inherited condition, it's a genetic mutation, so incest doesn't increase its likelihood. An older mother increases its likelihood, and Precious is very young. I believe that this plot development, which belongs in a sci-fi movie, is just meant to add to the atmosphere of tragedy and gloom around Precious's life so far. She's physically abused! She's sexually abused! She can't read! She's poor! She had a baby and is pregnant again...AND, her kid has DOWN SYNDROME. WORST THING EVER. Quishay is not shown smiling or interacting with Precious and is not filmed in the loving way that her second child, Abdul, is filmed. (It's true that Quishay doesn't live with Precious for most of the movie, but number one, no one forced the writers to write the story that way; and, number two, we could have had shots emphasizing Quishay's cuteness and lovability when Precious gets her back at the end of the movie.)

The movie Precious is hateful to people with Down Syndrome because it uses Down Syndrome as a shortcut to say "Precious's life is horrible." At the beginning of this post I listed two facts about disability. This movie exploits fact #1, nondisabled people's discomfort and revulsion about disability. That is an immoral thing to do. It is incredibly disingenuous to claim that the portrayal of Quishay is somehow legitimate because "it's harder to raise a kid with Down Syndrome." This isn't about difficulty, it's about prejudice and using a disabled child as a horror-movie monster.

I am so tired of this. I call it "the harder fallacy." It sucks because when you're trying to point out that someone is being prejudiced, you get totally knocked off balance by a bogus argument about whether the victim of the prejudice, or their parents, has a hard time. But it's not about that. They're two totally different things.

eta: I'm pretty bad at science, I apologize. Apparently it's not as unlikely as I thought for a teenager to have a baby with Down Syndrome. However, my points about the portrayal of Quishay still stand, and would stand no matter what disability she had.


  1. "It is totally unrealistic for Precious to have a baby with Down Syndrome"

    Not necessarily. Down's being more likely to occur in older mothers doesn't mean it *can't* occur in younger mothers. I used to know someone with DS who was the oldest in hir family and had at least one non-disabled younger sibling, and i'm sure i've read a few blogs of parents raising kids with DS who had the same birth order. OK, i don't think any of those mothers were teenagers, but it is possible for the duplication of the chromosome to happen at any age, just likelier for it to have happened by the time a woman is older.

    I completely agree with the rest of what you've said here tho.(I haven't seen the movie of "Precious", but i did read the book it was based on (which, by the reviews i've read, the film's pretty faithful to), altho it must have been at least 10 years ago. I do think it's very possible that the author of the book (whose name i can't remember offhand) was under the false impression that Down's could be caused by incest. May well be worth a re-read now that i have the disability-studies "lens" i didn't have 10 years ago...)

  2. yes, but it's still very, very unlikely. A 20-year-old woman has a .1% chance of having a kid with DS, and it's probably even less for a 15(?)-year-old girl. I'm trying to think of an analogy but I don't know much about genetics--seems like a non-Jewish kid having Tay-Sachs, or something? It's jarring enough that I think it's worth questioning.

    Besides, although the unlikelihood of the kid having Down Syndrome really makes it clear how lazily ableist the author is, it's not like it would be any better if the kid had a disability that could actually be caused by incest. The child's status as a tool for creating a scary atmosphere, instead of an actual character, would be awful no matter what disability she (or he) had.

  3. I haven't seen "Precious" yet, but this is a fantastic post. I was bothered by this aspect of the story when I first heard about it, and this is the first analysis of the movie I've seen which talks about the ableist angle.

    BTW, though, I think Tay-Sachs does occur in non-Jewish families. Tay-Sachs in Jewish families is much rarer than it was once thought to be because of genetic testing--and even before that, centuries-old systems of tracking families with the gene.

  4. oh well. I wish I was good enough at science to come up with a better analogy.

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  6. Genius with a Parachute talks about Precious.

    She makes the point that Sapphire, as the author:

    took all the bad things that could happen to a teenage girl, then added all the good things that could happen as well, and just sort of piled it all on to see what would happen, like a complicated math equation. Every time Precious starts to make her life better, something bad complicates things again, sometimes but not always due to her own increasing assertiveness.

    (Which is done a lot in YA literature from my own observations, and I do it myself when I write about it, because the emotions are so intense!)

    The Quishay thing is probably a little bit like changelings and archetypes. (Two years ago or thereabouts Ettina and Shiva discussed this: Ettina in Swedish fairytales and Shiva used the model of Martin Luther King's witness/acquaintance).

    And with Quishay, it's possible the writers wanted to avoid a stereotype (Stereotype Aversion, as the Tropers say). Which is to say: all people with Trisomy 21 are happy and loving, one that you swallow with your breakfast, coffee and the daily paper.

    In the Precious review, Anemone mentions two things she liked. That Precious is good at maths, and that because she is HIV+ you don't really know what's going to happen to her in the future.

    Her situation is not easily solved, and this is presented honestly.

    What do you think of the fantasy sequences in Precious? How do you think they work, and how do they make you feel? Are they integrated with the 'real' parts of the film?

  7. Hi there - I like your post, thanks.

    The issue of a young person having a child with Down Syndrome is a little misrepresented, though. The chance of Down Syndrome goes up per birth as mothers, age; however, since most babies are born to younger women, the majority of babies with Down Syndrome are born to women under 35, with the average age being 28.

    The chance of any given pregnant teenager having a baby with Down Syndrome is around 1 in 1200 to 1 in 1600 - only around half the risk of a 32 year old woman, and not exactly vanishingly rare.

  8. The Disability Studies Quarterly gives us a perspective from a young woman in Kenya, who would be a few years older than Quishay:

    Martha: a star is born (written by her mother)

    There are things like 'mixing in the fraternity of youth' and how she keeps up with current affairs and housekeeping.

    And it sort of cuts across what would happen to people with disabilities in Third World countries, such as the attitude touched upon here:

    Five Blessed Years