Mass Media, #allyfail, and Disability

by Wednesday.

Trigger warning for discussion of institutionalisation and abuse of PWDs.

You should read this Online Citizen article about the media portrayal of persons with mental disabilities, you really should.

What annoys me is the pathologisation of mental illness in Channel 8 dramas, something which is extremely common and which has irked me for a very long while already. Does anyone remember Joanne Peh’s character in 《小娘惹》, who went insane after multiple sexual assaults, ate rats, and tried to kill her baby? (Because there is no such thing as surviving sexual assault, in our media, either. One is a victim, never a survivor.) There was another drama, whose name I forget — it might have been the one with the English title of Love Carriage — where the antagonist suffered a psychotic breakdown after she was raped and disbelieved (because she was a slut dontcha know). Well and good, except that everyone tiptoed around her and kept trying to get her ‘cured’, and then she stripped in public. That’s what crazy people do. Crazy women, in particular. Their bodies are common ground.

Many of our Chinese TV dramas often portray psychiatric patients who are violent, harm people and are trouble makers. During prime time, these programmes reach out to about 1 million viewers and because of it’s mass appeal, it can sway peoples’ thinking. This does not help in any way to de-stigmatise mental illness- a growing problem here in Singapore.

I have also noticed that insensitive language is being used in many of the Mandarin programmes on Channel 8. By using the word, sern chin ping (“crazy), freely in both dramas and variety shows, it will hurt the patients who are trying to recover. I raised this issue in the Straits Times on 20 June 2005, but such insensitive dialogue is still be used. Why?

I can only agree with the article’s author, Raymond Anthony Fernando, on these points. It’s also a brilliant point to address the use of language, because ableist language is something that is hardly ever scrutinised in this country. For crying out loud, the Chinese term for PWDs is still 残疾人士。 (残 = spoilt/damaged, 疾 = illness/disease. Literal translation would be something like damagingly-diseased person.)

However, Mr Fernando also mentions in his letter that he is an ally, not an actual PWD. With this in mind, I want to take him to task for some of the other language he employs. He writes of his ‘wife who was first stricken with schizophrenia and depression‘. If that is the language she chooses to use in framing her self-identity, I have no problems with it; what I do have issue with is how Mr Fernando, who presents her as neurotypical, so casually uses the word ‘stricken’. Now, ‘stricken’ is something like ‘afflicted’. It posits disability as a tragedy, rather than a condition that many people manage and live with.

He writes that his wife is ‘recovering from this major mental disorder, and going on to lead a normal life‘. One doesn’t recover from conditions like schizophrenia and chronic depression, I hasten to clarify. Mental disabilities can be lifelong. Recovery is not an end-goal. Management is. It is fucking irritating when people treat disability as a phase that one must go through in order to — what was it? — lead a normal life. The wonderful s.e. smith capably tackles this patronising, disablist attitude in ou’s amazing essay Who Defines (And Controls) ‘Normal’? as well as in ‘Normal’ and the Dominant Narrative.

And the term that Mr Fernando insists on using throughout his letter? ‘Psychiatric patients‘? Not all of us are patients. Many PWDs are undiagnosed whether by circumstance or by choice. ‘Psychiatric’ is a clinical word, one that’s hardly preferred and shouldn’t be imposed on PWDs by an NT or TAB person, rather like — let me think — well-meaning, straight people using the word ‘homosexual’ with all its attendant pathologised baggage. Words. Mean. Things. Intent is not fucking magic, fwiw, and certainly not even with #allyfail.

So I, too, as an actual honest-to-God disabled person, want the media portrayal of us crazy folks to be fairer and not at all ableist, and I totally welcome allies getting on board, but, hey. Watch your words, or y’ain’t no friend of mine.