Friday, November 11, 2011

Ableism and Adelaide in American Horror Story

Every week American Horror Story manages to grab our attention with it’s gripping story of a family living in a house that is colloquially known as the murder house. We have been introduced to a plethora of interesting characters who each has a unique story and history that is intimately connected with the house. One of the most interesting is the character of Adelaide, played by Jamie Brewer.  

In the pilot episode we are first introduced to Adelaide as she stands outside of the murdering house, delivering the dire warning of “you’re all going to die in there,” as two young twins enter the home with baseball bats.  As it turns out, Adelaide is quite correct.  Adelaide enters the house at will and is able to see and recognize the ghosts for who and what they are at any given time.

Adelaide stands out not only because she is one of the few disabled characters on television, but because she is actually disabled herself. Quite often when disabled characters appear on television they are played by able bodied people. The only other disabled actor that I can think of playing a disabled character is RJ Mite, who plays Walt Jr, on AMC’s Breaking Bad. It is seen as convenient for an abled bodied person to play disabled in order to effect the miracle cure.  We have seen this time and time again, when a blind person suddenly gains sight, or a paralysed person is suddenly able to walk.  A recent example of this phenomenon happened on Glee, in the episode Dream On, where the disabled character Artie not only walks, but appears in a dance number.

At first it was wonderfully refreshing to see the character of Adelaide, but whatever joy we experienced quickly became lost in the rampant disablism that has been constantly aimed at her.  It first began when her mother, Constance, played by Jessica Lange, referred to her as the Mongoloid, and makes it clear that she sees Adelaide as her burden to bear in a conversation with Vivien, played by Connie Britton, who owns the murder house. To be clear, American Horror Story goes to great lengths to ensure that it is understood that Constance is an evil person; however, this does not remove the ableism from her statements. Simply being an evil and unpleasant person, does not mean the words the character says instantly lack impact, or are understood to be cruel, unacceptable, prejudiced or otherwise wrong. For her actions to be truly thought of as wrong, it is necessary for Ben and Constance to actively make it clear that her language is unacceptable, rather than positioning themselves to appear uncomfortable in Constance's presence.  In fact, Constance’s general unpleasantness makes it hard to differentiate distaste for her ableism, from simple distaste for her as a person.