Freaks, Redux

Back in the day, people were so squicked out by disability that governments felt compelled to make ordinances preventing citizens who had disabilities from being in public places. They were called "ugly laws," not referring to the laws themselves, but to the state of appearance which they were intended to curtail:

"No person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object or improper person to be allowed in or on the public ways or other public places in this city, or shall therein or thereon expose himself to public view, under a penalty of not less than one dollar nor more than fifty dollars for each offense."
- Chicago Municipal Code, sec. 36034, repealed 1974 

I've written about the freak label before and at that time, it was in connection to a story about how a BBC children's show host with a disability prompted a number of formal complaints from the public. Today's post is a bit different. It's prompted by a complaint from a disabled member of the public against CNN.

The story in a nutshell: CNN posted a photo gallery "showcasing disfigured children and stillborn babies affected by Agent Orange in Vietnam," as they say. ('showcasing"??) This came with a warning:

"Warning: the following photographs contain graphic content of severely deformed children. Viewer discretion is advised." 

This made Penny Loker of Waterloo, Ontario angry. Born with — in her words — "a facial difference," she thought that warning people that they were about to see someone with a disability and it might be icky was wrong. (As you may be able to tell, I agree wholeheartedly with her). She e-mailed CNN and they changed the warning. It now reads:

"The following photos depict the devastating effects on humans believed to be caused by Agent Orange. Please be aware that the story of these innocent children contains images that some may find unsettling."

Really, CNN? This is the exact same thing, just using nicer language!

We may not have Ugly Laws anymore, but have we really progressed that far? Now we have warnings that people are about to see a human being who does not conform to the image of perfection and therefore might be "unsettling." Wouldn’t it be nice — even mature and reasonable — if CNN had issued a statement that went something like this:

“CNN believes that placing a warning on photos of children – or indeed anyone – who lives with a disability is misplaced and sends the wrong message. We recognize that people come in all shapes, sizes and levels of ability. To assume that seeing someone with a disability could be offensive or distressing is, in fact, offensive. We are therefore discontinuing the practice of placing warnings on content related to disability with immediate effect."

They didn't, though.

CNN did step up in terms of bringing attention to the story and in inviting Penny to host a CNN chat. However, as I'm already not completely embracing their response, I'd like to point out an additional moment of "WTF?" Because CNN went on to perpetuate the offense when they wrote their story about Penny. Compare this story on the Canadian CTV with the CNN story. Only halfway through the CTV’s video of the story — and towards the end of the written story — is there a mention of Penny never having had a boyfriend; instead, they focus on her interests, her being bright, funny, and gainfully employed and oh yes, the story itself. CNN, on the other hand, commits the first four paragraphs of their story to her romantic status. Because this is, apparently, the most important measure of a woman's normalcy? But that's a post for another day…

You get used to being a freak. To being someone who gets stared at when you're out in public. You may even get to a point where you understand, in a way. Humans are hardwired to notice differences, it's part of how we interact with the world. Noticing the difference is not offensive. What is offensive is when that difference gets labeled as something negative, disgusting, distressing or unsettling. In this day and age, working to remove unnecessary emotional labeling is something that media should aspire to. Not perpetuating the stereotype.

Thank you, Penny, for calling CNN on their crap. I'm sorry they didn't completely get it, but I hope your story will go a long way to others challenging their own preconceived ideas.


Pony said…
Thank you for this! I always feel so many eyes on me when I am out and about on my crutches/wheelchair, limping about. I'm getting much more used to it, but sometimes I feel like I am on display. Like you said, noticing differences is fine, it's claiming those differences as negative that is offensive.

I like to look to my 11 year old brother, who does happen to have a developmental disability, as inspiration. He saw a man who had an amputee arm. My brother thought this was the coolest thing EVER, he actually said that this man was a super hero. He was also pretty jealous of my wheelchair and crutches when I got them. I don't know if it's exposure to me and my disability, or his unique mind inventing cool stories to go along with disabilities, but I love his outlook!
Anonymous said…
People can't help but look with curiosity at someone who is different than they are. Manners are always fquestionable when it comes to human beings. Some people have tact and some do not. Children, as Pony mentioned above have the most honest ans sincere responses and are most often not takes offensively, because the are children and they are curious. Don't you wish we could all see the world from the eyes of children? :)
I have been recently struggling with the attention of the public and medical anomolies. This is kvery difficult to get used to. I try very hard to remember that people are just curious and mean no harm, but is is hard to be under the microscope when you prefer to be a wall flower.
AlisonH said…
I'd like to think, naively, that on the second go-round they were assuming people would be upset not by the disfigurement but by what was done to the innocent: Monsanto, Agent Orange, there's a lot to get angry about there. But kudos to Penny for taking them to task--they were wrong. Then they stayed wrong, darnit. Stupid American entertainment complex. Not everything is about sex and power.
mom said…
Thank you Lene for this post. Lots of love, mom