20 April, 2011

some models and their applications in fiction

To me there are three ways of portraying disability in fiction--medical model, social model, and fake social model, with the first and the last being the most common. Although I wouldn't say it's the best movie I've ever seen, It's Kind of a Funny Story was impressive in its attempt to tell a story within the social model. It doesn't see the main character's problems--suicidal ideation and panic attacks--as a reason to avoid making a fairly typical quirky teen comedy with montages, huge amounts of voiceover, and animated sequences. And although Craig, the protagonist, is in a psych ward with people who have more severe problems than his, he ultimately identifies as "like them." The standard romantic conflict, where a boy must choose between the girl he always thought he wanted and a new girl he really should be with, is here about normalcy vs. visible psychiatric disability. The non-disabled girl Craig thinks he wants sees his hospitalization as "edgy," but is disgusted when his anxiety causes him to throw up; the girl he should be with cuts herself on her face. Reviews of It's Kind of a Funny Story insisted on reading it as either medical model or fake social model, and effectively criticized it for having a protagonist whose disability wasn't obvious or severe enough.

What medical model means in pop culture should be obvious enough. In this dour movie, Craig displays every textbook symptom of depression and anxiety, and the montages and fantasy sequences are excised because they're not appropriate for such a serious subject. Also excised are the major subplots about the academic pressure Craig is under from his friends, school, and family, and how this conflicts with his love of drawing. This might imply that society contributes to Craig's problems, which would mean he isn't really ill, just sensitive! Real disability is obvious and, when untreated, looks the same in all situations.

Fake social model is more fun to watch--a fake social movie could definitely include montages--but it's ultimately just as unsatisfying and lacking in truth. I call it fake social model because I think it's what people are responding to when they say things like, "In this case, the social model fails." Sorry, guys. Prophecies can fail, tongues can cease--but the social model remains applicable to every case there ever has been or will be. The thing is if we say "disability isn't real," we mean objectively. Many important things are not objectively real. The fake social model takes the perspective of, "Not only is disability not objectively real, but it isn't real, full stop." Of course, this is obviously not true, which means that stories in the fake social model which have more than one disabled-identified character often portray the main characters in fake social model, and other characters in medical model. The way this would work in It's Kind of a Funny Story would be to show Craig's anxiety and depression as entirely caused by external pressure, or even imagined out of nowhere because he lives in a society that is always "labeling people." The more severely, inarguably disabled characters would function as jokes--how funny that anyone would think Craig is like them, when he's clearly like us!--and possibly by tragic example they would convince Craig that, since he's not as bad off as they are, he must be normal. The girl Craig falls for would also be fake social model, and in all likelihood would not cut her face--self-injury is serious, you know, and a character who's Not Like Us is too sad or funny to be a viable romantic interest.

Fake social model is frustrating because, of course, it always fails when applied to all disabled people. So it ends up promoting a feeling which is even more offensive than the medical model--that it is wrong for our hero to be under pressure, overmedicated, involuntarily committed, stigmatized, or whatever else he or she faces, as a result of being mistakenly identified as disabled. FWD/Forward did a whole post discussing tropes of non-mentally ill people who end up in psych wards, and came to much the same conclusion. The implication is, invariably, "this is wrong because the hero isn't really disabled." Real disabled people, those ghouls, deserve all this, but fortunately it is not Our Life.

The third option, of course, is social model. True social model can be any genre, though pure tragedy or educational film often has difficulty understanding it. Life tends not to feel like either of those things. It's probably no surprise that I began this post thinking about Skins which awestruck me with its ability to hold two ideas in its head at the same time--a)JJ is genuinely disabled, and b)the stigma he faces is a problem. This is real social model writing, which pays attention to both impairment and outside pressure, as well as the ways the two can exacerbate each other. Though aspects of It's Kind of a Funny Story are very naive, and it doesn't reject fake social model as clearly as I would like, the movie cares enough to portray a complex disability experience and should be commended.


  1. Any story which holds 2 ideas in its story-head at the same time is pretty rich and a goldmine and other things.

    Especially if they are two complex ideas.

    And don't we choose people sometimes because of their sadness or funniness or the sadness/funniest around them? Or they might choose/find us?

    Some Sophie B Hawkins songs are social model in music: Did we not choose each other, The ballad of Sleeping Beauty and especially Right beside you.

  2. J'ai trouvé le post en question sur FWD forward: http://disabledfeminists.com/2010/12/07/it%E2%80%99s-only-wrong-if-you%E2%80%99re-sane-pop-culture-and-institutionalisation/