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Monday, December 15, 2008

David Paterson, SNL, Humor and Disability

Based on my reading of various newspapers and blogs there are plenty of people angry about the SNL skit that mocked David Paterson. As always, the local newspaper headlines about Paterson are too clever for me, for example the NY Post headline "Paterson in a Blind Rage over SNL Skit", was misleading. For those that missed SNL, the skit in question was part of the "Weekend Update" segment and featured Fred Armisen as David Paterson. Armisen imitated Paterson's wandering eye, voice, unassuming presence and admitted, though dated, use of drugs and extra marital affairs. All this is fair game and as always SNL made good use of this stock political fodder. But this was not enough for SNL. No they had to take standard political comedy to another level and mock Paterson's blindness. To me, SNL crossed the line when they had Armisen unable to orient himself to the camera location before he spoke, hold a chart upside down, and then once the skit was over wander aimlessly around the set. None of this was funny. This was humor based on hopelessly antiquated stereotypes about blind people. If I were blind, I would have been deeply offended.

I take exception to the SNL skit for good reason. Go ahead and make fun of Paterson--he is not immune from political satire. In fact, Paterson effectively uses humor in many of his speeches and he is known for being an affable sort of person. This has served him well as he is the polar opposite of his intense predecessor Eliot Spitzer whose bellicosity was legendary. The point here is that Paterson can not only take a joke and deliver one as well. What SNL did had little to do with humor and much to do with ridicule and disability based bigotry. The SNL skit premise was that Paterson was not competent because he was blind. By extension, SNL assumes viewers consider all blind people to be incompetent as well--lost wandering souls in need of assistance. How can blind people like Paterson hold a job? How can a blind person be competent? What comes first in asking these questions: blindness. The disability, that is a physical deficit, is foremost in the minds of viewers and the writers of SNL. This is a problem and where SNL truly failed. SNL is better than stock humor; they are supposed to take satire to the next level. Thus I see the SNL skit as a double failure because they relied on bigotry based humor and missed a golden opportunity to highlight profound flaws in our culture that prevent disabled people from such ordinary things as employment, access to mass transportation, and routine social interaction. Surely the writers of SNL know that 70% of all blind people are unemployed. I am equally sure the writers of SNL read many of the headlines and articles about Paterson when he was named governor and are aware he has repeatedly demonstrated his competence.

The above leads me to ask why did SNL take the easy way out and ridicule a man for a physical deficit when there were so many other possibilities? Perhaps Chris Danielsen, spokesman for the National Federation for the Blind, is correct when he points out that SNL has a long history of mocking the blind. When I first read this I was skeptical but then thought back to some of Eddie Murphy's mean spirited impressions of Stevie Wonder. This in turn led me to think that not much has changed in the last twenty years when it comes to disability humor. It is socially acceptable to mock people with a disability on TV, in films, and at school. The incompetence of disabled people is inherently funny and I am forced to agree with Danielsen that some things need to be taken a little more seriously. I am not opposed to humor but as Danielsen pointed out "When you have a perception problem like we have..." and "70% unemployment its not because we can't work. Obviously the governor of New York is blind, and he's doing the job. Whenever you have a portrayal that calls the basic capacity of blind people into question that's a potential problem". Yes, it is a problem and it is not one bit funny. Do not take my words out of context: I am not humorless. Humor has place in society and can be an effective means of social change. Yet humor can also reinforce baseless prejudice and that is exactly what the SNL skit did.


Becs said...

I'd like to get your take on the locally infamous LIRR disability board. 93%+ of the LIRR's retirees are on disability.

Here in Jersey, it seems that the day a driver turns 60, he's issued a handicapped placard. Yes,I know there are invisible disabilities, but being old doesn't necessarily mean disability.

...Just getting a few things off my chest.

william Peace said...

Becs, It's off point here but I have followed the LIRR story with regard to disability. I am torn on this issue. One part of me thinks this is an an outrage, a clear violation of disability rights. Yet on the other hand I think this has nothing to do with disability and the only concern is money. Then I think about the work involved and wonder are the jobs risks nearly 100% dangerous. At some point I have thrown up my hands in frustration and thought I am never going to get to the bottom of this controversy. Hence, my silence on this topic.
I get frustrated about parking. In fact my son calls handicap parking "old people parking" and wonders why no "wheelchair dudes" are ever seen. I too wonder about this but ask myself who really needs the spot in question. If I can ski and kayak for miles on end do I really need the space? So I bite my tongue often and try and take a broader view of the need for such spaces. And when I get stuck parking far, far away I comfort myself with the knowledge my car has very few door nicks.

Terri said...

In my experience, no one outside the disability community knows that people with disabilities have a 70% unemployment rate, or anything about the other barriers faced. I was speaking to a group of other-issue activists about disability issues in my town even recently and these savvy folks were stunned by the figures I presented. The unemployment rate in my town for eligible African-American males is 39.5% which is still disgraceful, they were stunned that our number was higher. These folks had never heard ANY disability statistics.

The narrative that sticks about disability right now in our society is very emotional and not reality-based. The things that could stick never get into the papers or get presented as "the problem with disability" rather than as "problems society creates."

Sorry, half-writing my post at your house!

william Peace said...

Terri, I agree people unfamiliar with disability have no idea how grim the unemployment rates are. This is not acceptable. I find it hard to fathom why the media consistently fails to discus disability rights and instead spits out one dreadful story after another about how a person "overcame" their disability. The fact is the most disabling part of a physical deficit is the social obstacles placed on top of it. When I tell this to people they are either shocked or simply don't believe things could be so bad.