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When a Netflix Film Mocked My Disability

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Living with my strain of muscular dystrophy means some days I have huge fatigue for no apparent reason. It’s just something I have to live with. Yesterday was one of those days, so I decided I’d go back to bed for a while before I had to leave for college. I did what I normally do when I want to zone out from the pain and fatigue — I  watched something on Netflix.

I had seen there was a recently released Netflix film, “Isn’t It Romantic,” and thought it would be something soothing to watch for a while. Under 10 minutes into the film, 9:26 to be precise, I was completely and utterly shocked to hear the line: “What about how there’s always some main chick and she’s always super clumsy like ‘oh whoops’ and everyone’s like ‘ahh she’s so charming!’ No! In real life people would think she had muscular dystrophy!”

To say this took me by surprise is an understatement. So many different things went through my head: shock, hurt, disgust, anger, disappointment and indignation, but the main thought was confusion. I couldn’t understand how on earth they had made the correlation between muscular dystrophy and clumsiness. Muscular dystrophy? The context in which it was used is so wrong, so misleading and so bizarre. I have had muscular dystrophy all my life and have never ever heard clumsiness being used in relation to any strain of MD, so how did the writers even come up with that?

Using someone’s medical condition as the butt of a joke is in very poor taste. This was not even a joke, but more of an exclamation that appearing to be someone with MD was something terrible, something disgusting, the opposite of “charming.” It is so derogatory to refer to someone’s physical difference in such a way. Did they really need a punch line so badly that they resorted to using disability as the subject? Out of all the things they could have said, they chose a rare muscle wasting disease which is life-altering? And to use it in a negative manner? Why not use it in a positive light?

I feel so disappointed in Netflix. Netflix is a huge, popular platform millions of people all over the world use on a daily basis. They must have people reviewing each series and film before it airs. So how on earth did this line get through? How did no one question its morality? Its significance? Its effect on those of us with not only MD, but any form of disability or physical difference?

I just don’t see its relevance in this context.

It’s 2019, and there are so many things that we have managed to overcome, to change, to pioneer for. We aren’t in the 1920s where these sorts of comments were commonplace and acceptable. I honestly thought the days of people mocking the way I walked/moved were behind me. This is the sort of comment I had to put up with when I was in school, from children and young people who for whatever reason didn’t understand disabilities and physical differences. I thought after surviving those comments and moving into the real world, a platform like Netflix would never condone the mocking of a disabled person in such a blasé way.

Netflix needs to realize that what may seem like a simple line actually has far more potential repercussions for the disabled community than they could ever imagine. By allowing this sort of comment in its content, Netflix increases the likelihood it will be copied by other platforms, other writers, other actors.

How did Rebel Wilson not think perhaps this isn’t something she would want her fans to hear? How was she OK with uttering those words? Unless someone has lived with disability or bad health, they will never really know what it is like — but they can do their best to be aware and be kind. If Netflix seems to be condoning mocking the way someone with a physical disability walks, I believe it’s only a matter of time before someone with no understanding of disability uses those comments to mock a real disabled person.

As people with disabilities, we have to fight for accessibility to buildings, venues, housing, education and other places the average person doesn’t have to consider. If mocking of disabled people is accepted and condoned by large international platforms such as Netflix, how are we ever going to get the disability equality we so badly want and need? The fight for disability equality is not just about accessibility measures, but also the mindset of society.

We need films and series to set an example, to help educate the public about the truths and realities of disabilities. Entertainment can be a tool to inform and raise awareness about different disabilities, about a rare disease such as muscular dystrophy. But this line in Netflix’s “Isn’t It Romantic” only reinforces antiquated stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding disability.

There are over 30 different types of muscular dystrophy, and most are very rare. Each strain of MD has different symptoms, though some overlap, and each person is affected differently. They cause progressive muscle weakness in various areas of the body, and can affect organs in some cases. As for clumsiness, the weakening of muscles means someone is more likely to fall over, but it in no way could be labelled as clumsiness.

I’ve always thought whenever MD is mentioned in the media it means more acceptance, more understanding, more people being aware of it as a rare disease. I feel proud that my rare disease has received a mention. But this! This is so derogatory and incorrect. If writers are going to use disabilities, rare or not, in their content, they should make sure they are referencing it correctly and using it to help raise awareness and educate the viewers.

I felt so strongly about this that I tried to contact Netflix. There was no email address, so I used their online calling service. I was told they were only a technical support service and that they had no information on how I could contact Netflix over my concern. Nothing. I then used the online chat to raise my concern and was met with cold, soulless replies:

“Netflix is an on-demand service so members can choose what to watch based on detailed descriptions of the titles.”

“You can block the show on your account if you do not want to see that particular show.”

“We can only help you block the show on your account if you do not want to see it.”

“At the moment we do not have any other way to directly relay this to the content creators, but we will note your feedback about this particular show.”

I cannot put into words the exact feeling I felt when I heard those words. My whole body was in shock. I still have this dull ache inside because the Netflix team, the writers, the actors, the producers, the directors, the whole team thought it was acceptable to air such a degrading comment about a human being.

I am someone who lives with muscular dystrophy. It is in every single part of my body and there is no escaping it. I move differently due to my MD. Over the years I have used TV as a way to distract myself from pain or fatigue. Yesterday I was reminded of it all too harshly by one line in a film. I feel so disappointed in Netflix.

I just hope if anything positive can come out of this unfortunate line in this film, it is that we can raise awareness of the importance of correctly representing health conditions, disabilities and diseases in films and series. I hope Netflix will be more considerate when writing and producing content in the future, and use its influence for good instead of harm.

Image via YouTube.

Originally published: March 31, 2019
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