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seeing is believing

It took a long journey through my late teens to realise the extent that media portrayals of people like me (white females) affected my view of myself and those around me. The way that print and film represent different groups of people can have a huge effect on public impressions.

Watching one of my favourite television shows several weeks ago highlighted the representation of a group I hadn’t considered before. In episode 12 of the ABC’s Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, ‘Murder in the Dark’, Phryne’s intellectually disabled cousin Arthur appears.

When suspicious circumstances cause Arthur to discover a dead body, his innocence is quickly assumed. Despite his mother, the delightful Aunt Prudence played by Miriam Margoyles, being a regular character in previous episodes, it is only near the end of the series where we are introduced to Arthur as a plot device. At first, he is portrayed as a harmless and sweet man who Phryne has great (if patronising) affection for, and is looked at with derision by his charming brother and hidden from guests at a fancy dress party.

Later in the episode, Arthur decides to don a gorilla suit and take part in the fun. Now that he has begun making decisions for himself, evolving beyond the simple character of a man-child, his persona is transformed into something malicious, and he is suspected to be involved in the murder. Lighting, music and camera angles change Arthur’s profile to creepy and sinister. Later, the real murderer is found, and he returns to the harmless character who Phryne tucks into bed with a teddy bear.

I feel it is unfortunate that the only character in the series with a disability was portrayed as threatening and disturbed. The single other individual who may have had a mental illness was Jane’s mother; she was manic, depressed, and suicidal and shown as presenting a threat to her daughter in an earlier episode.

The creators of the show (and Kerry Greenwood, the author of the novels that the program is based on), are adept in hijacking stereotypes of ethnic groups or the working class to suit simplistic plot developments. However, the representations of characters with mental illnesses in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries have encouraged an atmosphere of fear, not acceptance, which reinforces social stigma.

While our ideas of the world around us are created by personal interaction within the communities we live in, film and television play a huge part in both creating and reinforcing ideas.  Social Learning is a perspective which claims that people learn behaviour and attitudes through what is modelled in the environment they exist in. The theory has a ‘symbolic’ level, which refers to the media – print, film and television.

“The media plays a role not only in how the non-disabled world regards us…but also in how we think about ourselves,” says Stella Young in her piece at The Drum. “Young people, with disabilities and without, are shaped by the media.”

In a paper on challenging disablism through media texts, Floris Muller writes: “Critics argue that when disability is represented in the media, it is mostly in a negative, stereotypical way as passive, hopeless, dangerous, perverted and monstrous, amongst many other things. Regarding misrepresentation of disability, the media are also seen to feed prejudice and disablism through the use of stereotypes.”

There is undeniable stigma surrounding people living with disabilities.The organisation Dignity for Disability admits that, “Australians with disabilities are often marginalised and should be respected and included as equal members of society” (emphasis my own).

The portrayal of Arthur as potentially monstrous in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries reaffirms negative cultural stereotypes, thereby adding to the difficulty of the ability of those with disabilities to live a fully integrated life.

Writing about disability on the small screen at Ramp Up, Clem Bastow asks, “Why are we, as an industry, dragging our feet when it comes to improving the diversity on our televisions?”

Why indeed? To change commonly held attitudes and stigma,it is imperative that portrayals in media represent a gamut of authentic characters, rather than lazily resorting to unhelpful stereotypes.

Article first appeared on Louise’s blog. Check it out here.

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