Bully Pulpit: Kill the Cripple

It seems the image of the ideal American woman begins with a standard of beauty that is either naturally unattainable or cosmetically enhanced. In this skin-deep world, positive traits other than physical beauty get pushed far into the wings, and all women — but especially those who use wheelchairs — are diminished by it.

We see it most emphatically in our mainstream media images. Once in a blue moon a wheelchair-using female character appears in a leading role in a movie. Almost without exception, she is played by a nondisabled actor. In 2004, Hilary Swank’s “Maggie” — in Million Dollar Baby — got a lot of attention, but not for her beauty. And certainly not for any “inspirational” quality she brought to her role as a high-level quad. So pathetic was her contrived surrender to hopelessness and despair that, like a crippled horse, she had to be put down. What a waste of talent. An Academy-Award winning actress lies in bed and gives up.  We don’t even get to see her imitation of an authentic quad in a power chair.

Then last year a movie, My Own Love Song, came out that might have helped us forget that unfortunate image. Renee Zellweger, another Oscar winner (Best Supporting Actress, 2004), plays Jane Wyatt, a 30-something paraplegic woman who goes on a road trip with Joey, a mentally confused man she met in rehab (played by Forrest Whitaker). As they wander from one unlikely scenario to the next, we learn that Joey has a secret plan — to reunite Jane with the young son she abandoned several years earlier. Why did she abandon him? Because of her paraplegia, of course. How could a woman in a wheelchair possibly raise a child?

French writer-director Olivier Dahan’s screenplay works like a straitjacket, forcing Zellweger to portray a plain, poor, depressed and sloppily-dressed woman-in-wheelchair, with little or no energy or ambition. Just about everywhere she goes on her purposeless quest she is either carried or pushed, thanks to the other characters, all of whom are witless poor souls. This is the life of a paraplegic woman: Her chance to succeed will only happen in her imagination.

And that is Dahan’s excuse for Zellweger’s character’s inner motivation: He tells us it’s a movie about dreams. In the rambling, confused plot, Jane gets a chance to resurrect her abandoned singing career (she has abandoned everything, it seems), so she magically appears on two inaccessible stages and a lift-less bus. No need for reality in a movie about dreams. Worst of all, in a sappy monologue, she wonders, “Will I ever walk again?” Then we cut to the grandest dream of all — Jane, walking in the starry heavens: “I am walking, I am walking.”

I’m glad this movie never found a distributor and went straight to the DVD market. The fewer people see it, the better.

Why do so many producers, writers and directors still have their heads buried in the sand? It’s way past time to kill the pathetic, outdated “wheelchair-bound” stereotype.

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