Allen Rucker's Archive - Columnist Extraordinaire (Allen's words)

Allen is a regular contributor to ABILITY Magazine and we thought it was a good idea to archive his articles for easy reference.

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Just about the time that this arrives in your mailbox, the Los Angeles-based Media Access Awards will be presenting its silver anniversary show. At the annual event, trophies are handed out for outstanding performances by actors with disabilities, or for TV and film work that portrays the disability community powerfully and accurately.

What? You’ve never heard of the Media Access Awards? You’ve heard of the Oscars, the Emmys, the Golden Globes, the People’s Choice Awards, the Latin Grammys, the NAACP Image Awards, the GLAAD Media Awards and the Razzies (Golden Raspberrys), but the MAA’s don’t ring a bell? Twenty-five years and you’ve never seen one gushy backstage story about them on Entertainment Tonight?

Therein lies a huge problem about the visibility of those with disabilities, not just in Hollywood, but in life. In fact, America, Hollywood and real life have a lot in common. Why do you think all of those people are lined up to get on American Idol or The Biggest Loser? Because, in this country, if you’re not on TV, you may not exist. Or, conversely, if you are on TV, your life has meaning and your friends will have something to say at your funeral. “Bill was a wonderful bowler. Who can ever forget the time he didn’t win a dime on Wheel of Fortune? He was sure Mr. Big Head after that. He often said that high-fiving Pat Sajak was his proudest moment…”

Well, if media acknowledgment is the way that you gauge your worth as a human being, then the disabled are screwed. They—or should I say we—are barely a blip on the big, flat screen of American reality. We are invisible. In gross media terms, we don’t exist. Hell, guys with three wives get more love on TV than the disability community, and though we can all admire, if not envy, a man with that kind of erectile function, there certainly aren’t 50-plus million of them to draw upon for story material. Who knows if there are even 50, and yet they’ve got their own show on HBO.

Hard, cold statistics underscore how few fictional characters with disabilities actually show up in American TV and film. Among the people in Hollywood who care, these pathetic stats are scripture by now. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) commissioned a study in 2004 to see exactly how many characters with disabilities popped up on any screen in that year. The indefensible bottom line: less that one-half of one percent (.005) of all speaking characters in American film and TV were disabled. In other words, roughly one-sixth of the American public is portrayed .006th of the time.

These are not the high-profile celebrities such as Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s or Teri Garr, who has MS. These are fictional characters, made up by writers and producers who have a lot of leeway to make up whatever they want. Why don’t they make up more characters with disabilities? Most likely because it doesn’t cross their minds, and because the people that they might pattern these characters after are—you got it—invisible!

It’s probably not a grand conspiracy of bigotry and crip-hating at work here. It’s more likely a conspiracy of laziness and force of habit. Even for those creators who think to include a character with a disability in their soap opera or buddy movie, it’s a big damn deal. It’s a lot like what writing in an African-American next-door neighbor must have been like in the 50’s—a bold, courageous statement to the world that you cared.

Almost every time a central character is disabled in a major film or TV show, it gets a big award. Rain Man. Born on the Fourth of July. My Left Foot. All well-deserved, of course, but the story’s focus on the impaired and damaged certainly didn’t hurt, if only for the novelty factor.

The disability community is so invisible in Hollywood, I’ve come to discover, that it doesn’t even count among the people who feel left out of the system aka the diversity crowd. Last May, at a press conference, the Writers Guild presented the Hollywood Writers Report, its latest survey of who gets all the writing jobs in Hollywood. I was there, along with my writer friend, Ronnie Konner, waiting to hear how writers like us have been criminally ignored and marginalized, so I could spend the rest of the day pumped with righteous indignation. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to get my juices flowing because, in an exhaustive rundown of 50 pages of findings, writers with disabilities were never mentioned. Not once!

Over-40 writers, women writers, black writers, Hispanic writers, Asian writers, gay and lesbian writers—they were all present and accounted for, and had been since the first such report seven or eight years ago. But only in 2007, at the end of this press conference, did they announce that—next year—writers with disabilities will be added to this underrepresented universe. Next year, it seems, 18 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act, we will finally make it to the starting line.

Why are things this way? Hell if I know. It probably has something to do with long lingering superstitions about the vitality and reliability of the disability community. Or maybe because Hollywood is essentially a high school for grown-ups where friends hire friends, and the posse of actors and writers with disabilities has yet to be admitted into the clique. Or maybe it’s because most Hollywood product is fluffy, fantasy crap, made for teenagers and adult teenagers to escape into a Paris Hilton wet dream, and who wants some guy with a prosthetic leg, let’s say, hobbling through their wet dream?

It’s depressing, actually, but as Tony Soprano would say, “Hey, whadda ya gonna do?” In the grand Hollywood entrepreneurial tradition, you just keep pitching ideas, schmoozing with power brokers, and searching for a small crack in the monolith. Or maybe the more than 50 million disabled Americans will rise up spontaneously, storm Fox Studios, kidnap Bill O’Reilly (just for kicks), and demand that for every five characters in a movie or TV show, at least one of them must be disabled. Also no one in the room can call that character a hero or a victim.

Hey, dream on, brother.


Allen Rucker Column

A very funny episode of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm—one of many—had hangdog comedian Richard Lewis complaining bitterly about not getting creative credit for the ubiquitous phrase, “The (Blank) From Hell.” He thought he should get a royalty check, or at least a “as Richard Lewis once famously said...,” every time some barfly in Cleveland announced that he had the wife or the propane tank or the pit bull “from hell.” This would be like copyrighting “Have a good one,”“Been there, done that,” “Forgetaboutit,” or “Duh.” Not that anyone would ever claim authorship of these grating clichés.

Which brings me to the subject at hand: the faddish phrase, “(Blank) is the new (Blank).” It’s all the rage as in“50 is the new 40”—popular among aging Hollywood sexpots. Or “Biloxi is the new Vegas”—currently in style among degenerate Southern gamblers who can’t afford the bus fare to Nevada. “The new” or “Is the new” is a shibboleth of our times, maybe the shibboleth of our times, if you discount, of course, the dozens of mind-numbing banalities that ooze out of Washington daily to gum up the public dialogue. “Is the new” can’t really compete with “They hate freedom,” “It’s your money, not the government’s,” or one of my favorites, “Just a few rotten apples.” Abu Ghraib was just a few rotten apples. Corporate fraud and thievery was just a few rotten apples. Hell, the entire Iraq insurgency is, yip, just a few Christian-hating, freedom-hating, death-loving rotten apples.

A famous commercial-maker once defined “pure advertising” as simply renaming or “repurposing” something to attract a different audience. For instance, if you took Johnson’s Baby Shampoo—which is, duh, shampoo for babies—and repitched it as a gentle shampoo that adults can use everyday, you might hook in adults obsessed about clean hair. And it worked. That’s what “is the new” is all about: relabeling. And except for the occasional misguided analogy between Biloxi and Las Vegas, it is mostly a relabeling that excludes a vast majority of people from the new label. It is snob talk.

Take “50 is the new 40.” Who really thinks being 50 today is just like being 40 was a generation ago? Do you think any of the 50-year-old women who punch in every day at the Wal-Mart Superstore in Marietta, Georgia feel 40? What about the paunchy, 50-year-old Xerox salesman huffing and puffing his way around Northern Ohio trying to make his sales quota for the month? Think he’s waking up, saying, “Man, 500 sit-ups and I’m out of here!” Actually, for most people, the calculation runs the other way. Fifty is the new 60, not the new 40. They’re tired. They’re under constant stress from an economy that demands that most middle-class people work 50 to 60 hours a week just to get by. By the age of 50, the world has pretty much beaten these people into an age-specific stupor.

Of course, if you have plenty of money, work out everyday, stick closely to the South Beach Diet, maybe splurge for a little nip/tuck and are always ready with the right pill for the right moment, you probably do look and feel younger than your mom or dad did in the ‘50s or ‘60s. But by and large, that’s the stuff of ads, whether they are ads for celebrities, called Access Hollywood and People magazine, or ads for youth-enhancing products, called ads. By this point in American consumer culture, if you’re 50 and don’t feel 40, you’re a loser. The worst thing that could happen to a post-menopausal Boomer is to announce your age—“I’m 53”—and have someone reply, “You know, you look exactly 53.”

The most egregious use of the “is the new” cliché was an article in the LA Times about the insanely inflated housing prices in Southern California. The headline was Ten Million Is The New Million. Meaning the million-dollar house, a far-flung fantasy for virtually everyone alive in Southern California, not to mention the whole world, will now cost you 10 million dollars. Who did they write this article for? The four people in the market for a $10 million fixer-upper? Or the eight million salaried breadwinners who know that if they scrimp and save for decades and maybe, just maybe, become the millionaire next door, they’ll still be nine million short.

What about a new “is the new” adage, one that demeans status, privilege, and money? “Modesty is the new vanity.”



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