Disability Portrayal in Malcolm in the Middle

2 May

Initially I planned to write my paper about the portrayals and representations of disabled characters in network television shows in general. Due to the lack of characters with disabilities on TV my options were limited. I had two shows in mind for my analysis; Brothers and Malcolm in the Middle. However, the show ‘Brothers’ was canceled after last season so I decided to focus in on just Malcolm in the Middle.

Malcolm in the Middle aired from the year 2000 to 2006. Malcolm in the Middle has won numerous awards including five Emmy awards, a Grammy, and an American Comedy award.The show ran for quite a while and developed a popular young actor in Frankie Muniz. Even though Malcolm (Frankie) is the center of attention in the show, I analyze the show from the perspective of Stevie Kenarban.

Stevie Kenarban is Malcolm’s best friend, played by Craig Lamar Traylor. Stevie plays the role of a disabled young character, who is in a wheelchair. In reality Craig is not in a wheelchair, so his character is a complete acted out portrayal of a disabled boy. Stevie also has severe asthma so he talks very softly and puffs his inhaler frequently. The show never explicitly identifies what exactly his condition is but according to Wikipedia online sources, he only has one lung.

Malcolm in the Middles attempts to portray Stevie’s character in ‘typical’ manner. Stevie met Malcolm through their shared interest in comic books, and Stevie is considered a regular teenage boy, not letting his disability get in his way. However, there are many instances where Stevie’s disability becomes a factor and focus of certain scenes. There are many disability stereotypes that play out in the show such as, the sympathy role, or the disadvantaged role. Other characters sometimes express sympathy for him because he is in a wheelchair and is considered to be at a social disadvantage. Many critics disapprove of the sympathy role because they feel that being handicapped is not a disadvantage but rather a different lifestyle. In the show, Stevie uses his disability to his benefit by using his handicap to get favors done for him and getting things from his parents using techniques of guilt. He also uses his disability identity to get attention from girls at school and pull pranks, getting other kids in trouble. This is a portrayal that is not typically common in other television series with handicapped characters. There are certainly images of sympathy, guilt, and fear of disability on network television, but Malcolm in the Middle is unique in its form of presenting Stevie in a comedy series.

In the episode displayed below, Malcolm is about to get in a fight at at school, but Stevie ends up taking the punch instead. There is an intense reaction to a small incident simply because the boy ‘hit’ a “crippled”. This episode shows some of the stereotypes common in the media. The clip also challenges the stereotype by incorporating a comical reaction by Stevie himself, who exaggerates the event to receive attention from his peers. What is the message being sent about having a disability? It is possible for kids to view disability as a advantage rather than inconvenience. The question is whether or not this representation is realistic due to the fact that there are many disabilities that do affect teenage life, possibly making it difficult to fit in.

The show, Malcolm in the Middle plays with the role of disability in media. The show challenges some of the stereotypes placed on disability such as disability as a disadvantage. In my paper I also relate Stevie’s character to some of the topics discussed in the class readings. I analyze the text through the medical/ individual model from the reading. The medical model basically focuses on pity or awe and the ‘supercrip’ concept of views on disability. I also touch on the concept stated that representations of disabilities are more about the reactions of the non- disabled instead of the disability itself (class notes). This concept is demonstrated in the video link, where the non-disabled characters react dramatically to a soft punch,  rather than the disability itself representing the incident. Stevie wasn’t hit because he is disabled, but the reaction was dramatic because of his disability. The reaction of the non- disabled characters was the comical part; this is where the text challenges the representation of the disability as stated before.

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One Response to “Disability Portrayal in Malcolm in the Middle”

  1. mmiller88 May 2, 2011 at 4:19 am #

    More often than not, then media is the window through which people see how the world works. We gather our beliefs, our vocabulary, our trends, and in some ways our identity from what we see in the media. A common theme today for companies is to sell sex and people commoditized by sex, but with the statistics being that one in five people lives with a disability (Rilley), I feel that the disabled community is not only misunderstood in many circumstances, but also greatly under-represented. Often in television shows or movies a disabled person is played by a popular heart-throb or well-respected actor that is in fact not disabled. For example, in the 1988 movie Rain Man, award winning actor Dustin Hoffman plays Raymond, a severely autistic man, but in fact, Dustin Hoffman isn’t autistic at all; he isn’t even disabled. This raises the question of why the media industry chooses not to cast truly disabled individuals to represent themselves. Surely there are disabled individuals who can act or have talent, but the media’s choice to misrepresent disabled people shows a lack of authenticity, sincerity, and respect to the disabled community. Can they not be trusted to behave and perform like a non-disabled individual would? Are they incapabable of understanding or completing a task? I have to wonder how often disabled people ask themselves these questions, and in my paper I intend to look at disability in the media and evaluate the different sides to this issue.
    Because of my admiration for Marlee Matlin and her activism in the deaf community, I chose to look at her representation on the show The Apprentice. This season she is competing on a team of high-powered, opinionated women and her constant struggle to appear able, rather than DIS-abled is something that is very apparent when watching the show. In the second episode of this season, Marlee’s team has the task of creating a children’s book and presenting it to an audience. Marlee feels that the book should be about a lion that finds its voice, but the team quickly shuts her down and one of her fellow cast mates, Dionne Warwick suggests that the idea would make children sad or pity the lion. Marlee is very offended and defends not only her idea and her own disability, but all people with disabilities that are still capable human beings. When I was watching this episode, I couldn’t help but feel that Marlee not only had no hearing, but she had no voice. It made me sad to see how her teammates stereotyped people with disabilities, and it made me realize how little representation that disabled people get in the media. Whatever images and stereotypes that we have are most likely developed from the media, not from the disabled community itself. I find it inspirational that Marlee is not only so brave, but so passionate about bringing to light the rights and dignity that disabled people have.
    In my paper I want to look at how the disabled community is not only represented, but also how the media portrayal has influenced our stereotypes about disabled people. I am going to examine the audience/media consumer, and also the voice of the disabled. I want to gain a better definition of what disabled means especially to disabled people. I also want to evaluate what the future in the media holds for the disabled community and how that will affect society and our cultural views of disabled people. Because the media often portray such a slim part of the disabled community, I am going to look at how the media uses the “supercrip” and the helpless, or pitied individual to represent such a slim part of the disabled population. With that I also want to look at how these stereotypes are being challenged today and how not only the media, but us as consumers of the media we can be more inclusive to such a largely under-represented group.

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