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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.