April 25, 1997
Seeing Is Believing: Negative Effects
Of Popular Media On
Society’s Views of Disabled People
Social Therapists teach that much of what we learn is the result of observation, in which we pay attention to what people do and say, and notice the consequences of their behavior. Also, Richard MacCann shares that “the best method to begin [sic] discovering the truth about something is to observe that thing and the circumstances surrounding it”. The latter, however, certainly appears to be lacking in popular media’s portrayals of people with disabilities. The manners in which they are depicted are oftentimes distorted, and thus encourage society’s members to exhibit acts of pity, fear, ridicule, and discrimination. From the eyes of filmmakers and writers, some of the images in which disabled people are created include: helplessness, violent and/or criminal, child-like, and crazed. Joseph P. Shapiro confirms that these images result from portrayals of characters in popular media. Examples of two movie characters that can cause society to respond with pity and fear are Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol”, and Lenny in “Of Mice and Men”. “Tiny Tim is depicted as a helpless crippled boy who is in need of cure or care from a nondisabled person”, and Lenny’s mental retardation and child-like behavior cause him to commit acts of murder because he has no sense of his body strength or the value of life. Tiny Tim’s and Lenny’s character are presented is not completely falsely presented, however, because some physically disabled people do need our assistance, and some mentally retarded people do cause harm on themselves and others. But it is our own individual responsibility to learn and realize that all things of which the media presents is not necessarily the total truth. Miller (1985) shared her opinion of literature’s regard for the depiction of disabilities when she stated: The writer’s eye is supposed to spy out what no other eye can, and the poet’s eye is supposed to be particularly free from prejudice. Yet sometimes they hold up the mirror, not to nature, but to society. Of course, they can do it, fully aware that the mirrored image is warped (iv). This statement, without doubt, clearly evidences that literature is not exempt from shaping our images of disabled people. In essence, that which popular media presents contributes to societal views of people with disabilities.
It is not surprising that some people who work in the world of film and literature would not agree that what they convey to the public could influence the behaviors of society’s members. One reason for their refute could like with the views of Irving Thalberg who believes that movie should be judged on the basis of their “value of entertainment” presented, for it is the “basis of foundation upon which the movie industry was built”. On the other hand, however, he defines entertainment as a tool to “engage people’s attention”, and “bring about” pleasing arousal. While I agree with Thalberg’s view about judging movies, I disagree with the purpose of entertainment, particularly in regards to the portrayals of people with disabilities. Disability of any type should not be used as a means for anyone’s enjoyment.
Not so long ago, it was not uncommon to associate mentally retarded people with words to regard them as being less than human and without emotional feelings. Sandra Kaufman wrote that some of the categories used were: “‘moron’ for persons we now refer to as mildly retarded, ‘idiot’ for people with moderate retardation, and ‘imbecile’ for severely or profoundly retarded individuals”. When popular media uses such language, it demonstrates high regard for public entertainment satisfaction, but yet little regard for the people of which such connotations are referenced. Are we as individual beings so caught up in learning about others and ourselves to where we rely on construed...