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Breaking Bad hailed as ‘empowering’ by people with disabilities

waltjnr-200Breaking Bad which aired its final episode in the US on 25 September 2013 was consistently described as the best show on television . It was also recognised by Australian television viewers with a disability in a recent survey investigating representations of disability on television and the opportunities the new digital environment offers in terms of accessibility features, writes Katie Ellis.

20 November 2011

The survey revealed that people with disability notice their presence onscreen and that the effects of their impairment impact on their engagement with this medium. For example, one third of respondents agreed that watching television was difficult due to the effects of their impairment and that accessibility features such as audio description, captions, clean audio, sign language and lip reading avatars or simply large or colour coded remote controls would make viewing television easier.

Even those for whom watching television was not difficult indicated a preference for the availability of accessible technologies.

Respondents were also asked a number of questions about 29 specific television shows and eight television genres in terms of how stigmatising/ empowering to people with disability their representation was. While the majority of respondents believed television was not doing a good job of representing people with disability, Breaking Bad ranked in the top five empowering television shows.

In their book Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse, David T Mitchell and Sharon L Snyder argue that unlike other minority groups, people with disability suffer a problem of over representation – disabled characters are used like a prosthesis, to prop up stories and give viewers more information about what’s going on.

Throughout Breaking Bad’s duration and since its conclusion, a number of commentators have mused about the show’s deeper message. For Timothy Bauer, Walt Snr suffered the consequences of a squandered life – he was a brilliant scientist but did not work hard enough and wound up a high school chemistry teacher working part time at a car wash.

Bauer described Walt Junior as a person maximising his life – the opposite of Walt Snr.  For Bauer, Walt Jnr’s cerebral palsy is a clear narrative prosthesis or “the writer’s way of showing viewers that everybody has it bad”.

However, the representation and choice of disabled character works beyond simple narrative prosthesis. Breaking Bad offers a new template for representing disability on the small screen.

Early episodes in the first season recognised the difficulties and discrimination people with disability experience in public life in a particularly memorable scene when Walt Snr confronts teenagers for bullying his son in a clothing store. As Walt pushes the ringleader to the floor stepping on his head, the teenager describes him as ‘psycho’ foreshadowing Walt’s future metamorphosis to notorious drug lord Heisenberg.

As the series progressed, however, Walt Jnr’s disability became secondary to his character. When Walt went missing in the second season, Walt Jnr handed out flyers like everyone else, his cerebral palsy was not at all emphasised, he was a son concerned about his father. This was an unusual approach for television which often emphasises disability or impairment for emotional appeal.

Survey respondents recognised the importance of disability in this innovative television show:

“The kid with cerebral palsy is great, and it is a gripping story.”

Australian media personality with a disability and editor of the ABC’s Ramp Up Stella Young – wrote about a phenomenon she described as inspiration porn, where people with disabilities are used to make the nondisabled feel better about themselves. The majority of survey respondents recognised this as a stereotype often occurring on television.

These storylines reassure the community that disability can be overcome. In contrast, Breaking Bad broke many of the rules of television and actually dealt with what would traditionally be considered inspirational themes by subverting them through a story about a meth-cooking cancer patient/drug lord and a teenager with cerebral palsy who acted like a teenager.

One respondent commented on the “brilliant storytelling” in Breaking Bad and added that Walt Jnr was a very normal character:

“reflecting the fact that people with disabilities don't need to be portrayed as inspiring... Sadly, I can't think of many other shows that do this.

Some respondents viewed Breaking Bad as “normalising disability” while others appreciated the “exciting” storyline and good acting.

Breaking Bad is notable as one of the few television series to hire an actor with disability to portray a character with disability. Recent studies into the employment of actors will disabilities [pdf] demonstrate that it is rare for actors with disabilities to be cast in roles, even those which portray characters with disabilities.

However, RJ Mitte, who portrayed Walt Jnr, has cerebral palsy. With commentators arguing that people with disabilities should be portrayed on television just like everyone else, what’s the significance of a show like Breaking Bad? Mitte says it’s proof that Hollywood producers are embracing diversity.

However, the numbers of series regular characters with a disability on television are patchy at best. Research by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation over the last three years has seen this number drop from six in 2010 to four in 2011 then rise to eight in the most recent count of series regular characters on American television.

Are stand-out characters like Walt Jnr enough? Could they begin influencing future representations? Or is time to stop making these counts and look at what the shows themselves are doing and how people, especially people with disability are interpreting them?

Breaking Bad taught us of the consequences of a life lived with regrets and encouraged us to question why some things were considered bad and socially unacceptable.

It also taught us that disability can be part of the diversity of an interesting character and a game-changing television show.

Dr Katie Ellis is a Senior Research Fellow at the Curtin University Internet Studies Department. She is conducting research into people with disability’s use of digital television. She is also writing a book about disability and popular culture.


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