Bobby’s Mobility Issues in Supernatural Season 6: the portrayal of people with disabilities in popular culture

Minority groups in the public sphere - including on Tumblr - demand accurate representation for various sexualities and racial groups frequently, so why can’t people with disabilities be afforded the same sort of fair portrayal? In this specific piece of writing, I address the issues raised in Season 6 of Supernatural.

The issues I’d like to address in this piece of meta are:

Disclaimer: I’m not the fucking PC police. I’m lazy with politically correct terms because I don’t really believe in them (I think that if you isolate a term and give it a negative label, it makes people more aware of the issue and even more uncomfortable about it, thus perpetuating negative behaviour). I refrain from calling people ‘ableist’ because I think very few people are intentionally discriminatory - most simply don’t understand - and I think it’s a strong term to throw around. I also don’t really care what labels people give me, either - disabled person, person with a disability, physically challenged, whatever. I even refer to myself as a one armed freak. I don’t like blowing up issues when I don’t think they actually exist. This is a sensitive area, and it takes a lot for me to get frustrated. But Supernatural basically pushed me past my limit (not really the show’s fault - other TV shows, movies and media outlets are equally to blame as well). Also, this is just my opinion. I DO NOT speak for other people with disabilities. These are MY THOUGHTS. Assume that everything I write here is based on my own experiences, and thus I will make generalised statements. Nothing here is intended to offend. Feel free to engage me in discussion or disagree with anything I write here. It takes a lot to offend me.

Hi, I’m Ella. I’m a 20-something year old white female who is completing a double degree in International Relations/Politics and Law at a University in Australia. I’m also missing half of my right arm. This, by technical definition, makes me ‘disabled’.

I’ve faced my own challenges in regard to other people’s perception of me because of my arm. I’ve been bullied and called a variety of names (‘half a person’, ‘monster’, to state a couple. I have essentially been told in not so many words that people wouldn’t like to be served in a shop by me because of it, and also that my job prospects will be narrowed, because even in academia, who would employ a disabled person over someone with no mobility issues). I’ve participated in a variety of social justice campaigns/movements and personal projects to try and raise awareness about both physical and mental disabilities, since there is so much negative stigma surrounding them. And the media - including television shows - are perpetuating these. For example, there was an episode of Grey’s Anatomy where a woman had to have her arm amputated. She proceeded to spend the rest of the episode wailing about how she ‘would never be able to hold her unborn child’, and a variety of other things that I found offensive. I laughed at the melodrama of it all; my family called me insensitive, because she had lost her arm and I had merely never had one, and thus our situations were apparently vastly different. I disagreed with that, to an extent; rarely does a day go by where I don’t wish I had another arm, but one learns to adapt. Surely by the end of the episode, she would have come to terms with the loss? Nope. She was still acting ridiculously, and it made me wonder if this is how writers view us - as people who are bitter and torn up over what we’re missing or have lost, unable to move on and appreciate what we have. There was even an episode of Cold Case where a woman’s husband came back from Iraq missing an arm, and she said that she wasn’t sure if she could love him any more because of it. Are people really that shallow? (Yes, they are - I’ve experienced that first hand - but nor does it make it right for a TV show to validate that opinion).

Anyway, I’m focussing specifically on Supernatural in this post, so I’ll shut up about myself, and Grey’s Anatomy. Basically, I saw this gif set the other day, and it got me thinking about Bobby’s loss of mobility in Season 6. It also reminded me how annoyed I was by his attitude towards it, and how his comments to Cas really rubbed me up the wrong way.

Bobby’s bitterness:

So I’ll begin by saying that I entire understand why Bobby was so upset by his loss of mobility. I’m not belittling how much he went through, or the trauma of learning that one will no longer be able to walk, or run, or move without the aid of an apparatus. I completely understand why he was angry and bitter and acting downright awful about the entire ordeal for the first couple of episodes he was in the wheelchair, but after that, it just made me angry. Sure, his quality of life was severely compromised, just as so many other people’s lives that have a disability are. I’m not disputing that. But why didn’t he try to figure out ways of adapting, especially since he lives in a universe that allows for miracles such as fixing someone’s ability to walk instantly, rather than moping around for half a season? And never have I met anyone with a disability who has used it against someone else the way that Bobby used it against Castiel. Sometimes, when you’re feeling particularly shit, you want to make someone feel even a tenth of the pain that you do, just so they might understand. But it’s not a repeated occurrence. People with disabilities do not use them to guilt trip other people, like Bobby repeatedly did. He was depressed, sure, and blamed Cas for not being able to heal him, but that is no excuse for that exchange, nor many of the others that occurred. Disabilities are sensitive areas. They’re perpetually raw wounds. Rather than using Bobby as an example of a character overcoming his disability and becoming a stronger person because of it, we were shown how it destroyed him. I’m not saying that there aren’t people out there who let their pain consume them, but most of the people I have met have been inspirational. Despite their problems, they have fought through and adapted. They do not blame other people for their misfortune, and are not volatile. They are grateful for what they have; what they can be given. Bobby is a minority, therefore misrepresenting a large group of people for the point of the story. He could have been used as a motivating point for other people who have lost the ability to walk, to show that there is light at the end of the tunnel. To show that one can overcome circumstance to see the silver lining and become a stronger person because of it. But instead Bobby was used as a victim. He saw himself as a victim. And I know very few people with a disability who constantly view themselves as such. The entire situation was constructed so we would feel sorry for Bobby, and that makes me upset in unto itself.

Pitying Bobby:

So feeling pity for Bobby initially is understandable. We feel sorry for him because, as the idiom goes, “It’s like losing a limb” - or, in Bobby’s case, his mobility. We can’t think of many things that would be worse than losing such an integral part of ourselves, so feeling sorry for him is a natural instinct. The show plays on this, however, and I don’t like it. Coming from my own experiences, I do not like to be pitied. I like people to understand that while I have suffered hardships because of my missing arm that they perhaps haven’t, and although I may wish for another arm, I do not want pity. My disability does not define who I am. Sure, I may be in a worse position than the majority, but I’m also fucking lucky in a lot of other regards and am grateful for what I do have, and what I can manage, and that I can adapt at all. I want understanding, not pity. Pity can become condescending. Pity often belittles experience. People think that feeling pity for someone is enough. It really isn’t. I’ve met no other people with disabilities that want pity, or to be felt sorry for. They, too, just want understanding. Acceptance. To be seen as ‘normal’. So the show should have worked on gaining the audience’s understanding, not its pity. It should not have isolated the person with the issue and showed them as different, or more fragile, or unable to overcome their hardship. Bobby was a strong character, in terms of his emotional capacity and ability to cope. That should not have been belittled.

Why this is an issue and how it could have been fixed:

So many people are fighting for the accurate representation of minority groups, and I often think that people with a disability are overlooked because we just want to get on with our lives as best we can. We don’t want to draw attention to our disabilities, or be viewed as lesser people. We don’t want to be viewed as the bitter character that Bobby was portrayed as, lashing out because of frustration. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t want accurate representation. Supernatural’s writing validated the idea that it’s okay to pity people with disabilities, and also asserted the idea and perpetuated the stereotype that we’re all angry about our circumstances and that we let the bitterness consume us. So many other television series do the same thing, and I’d just really like one of them to introduce a character that overcomes their differences and doesn’t let their disability define who they are. They allow it to be a big part of who they are, but they do not let it control their lives. There are TV shows and books that manage to do this, but sadly Supernatural is not one of them.

I addressed how this could have been fixed in the paragraphs above, and to certain extent, those below.

Why I don’t think that the writers are discriminatory or ableist:

I think it’s really hard to understand the mindset of someone with a disability if you don’t have one yourself. I do not blame the Supernatural writers - nor the writers of any TV series - for writing differently abled characters the way that they do, just as I don’t consider someone who stares at my difference ableist. You may hold a different opinion - you might even think that there’s nothing wrong with the way Bobby was written in Season 6, and I fully respect that. You are not discriminatory for holding that opinion. The Blame Game is pointless. I think that in the writers’ cases, though, it’s simply a lack of awareness and understanding. It is not their fault. People are generally ignorant when it comes to disabilities, and that isn’t necessarily their fault. We’re continually portrayed incorrectly in the media – either shoved on a pedestal and labelled ‘inspirational’, or looked down on and pitied (to name a couple of examples). We’re real people who just want to be viewed as such. We want to be as normal as possible, just as you do. So I’d really like Supernatural to not only support the LBGT community by acknowledging Dean’s bisexuality textually in canon, I would also like them to support people with disabilities (or disabled people, or differently abled people - whatever we should be called) by writing a strong character who overcomes their disability and doesn’t let it control their life (either that, or they shouldn’t write any in at all). We’re in this together, at the end of the day.

Also, I completely understand that the show cannot be completely politically correct in every regard, and nor do I expect it to be - especially if it would be at expense of the quality or integrity of the show. I just want fair representation because I’m tired of the stereotypes and stigma that surround this particular minority group (as well as all others. Labels are so fucking awful).

Thank you for reading!

Saturday, 6 of April, 2013 with 15 notes
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