Women with Disabilities:
Understanding Media Representations to Empower one of the Most Victimized Groups in Society
by Joanna Chiu
1 in 7 people in the world have a disability.* Yet people with disabilities are often rendered invisible in the media, and when they do appear, the media’s portrayals of them are typically very bad.
So bad that when Jane Smith was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder nine years ago, she didn’t believe it. She couldn’t possibly be one of those deranged women she sees in television and movies.
Because women have been historically branded as “hysterics,” and women are oppressed in the media in general, women with disabilities report feeling particularly harmed by media misrepresentations of their realities. (See the theory of intersectionality on how oppressions like racism, trans-phobia and classism intersect.)
“I’ve almost never seen a positive or, at least, accurate portrayal of women with Bipolar Disorder,” said Smith (name changed for confidentiality). “Most people have grown up with this media saturation of ‘psycho’ people doing horrible, dangerous things without empathy.”
From the Joker in the Dark Knight to Angelina Jolie’s character in Girl, Interrupted, people with invisible disabilities (disabilities that aren’t physically apparent, including mental illness), are often portrayed as dangers to society who need to be contained and/or “fixed”. People with physical disabilities, on the other hand, are often portrayed as helpless victims, or people who heroically “overcome” their disability.
The trope of the “psycho bitch” is something that oppresses women and people with mental illness simultaneously.
The truth is, people with disabilities—and especially women and women of colour with disabilities—are often the most vulnerable to being victims of violence. And when they experience violence, because they are seen as crazy, or because they are not able to understand or communicate what happened to them, their attackers are rarely brought to justice.
There is still a huge research gap in the field of Disability Studies on violence against women, but in Canada, DAWN (DisAbled Women’s Network) first found in 1988 that 40% of women surveyed reported being abused, raped or assaulted. A more recent Roeher Institute study, “Harm’s Way,” (1995) found that 60% of women with disabilities will experience abuse during their lifetimes.
Smith was sexually assaulted two years ago by an acquaintance. Partly because she had a mental illness, she decided to not report the assault to the police.
“It’s like the usual shame attached to rape, but on a whole other level reserved for ‘crazy’ people,” she said.
When Smith considered what would happen if she went to the police, she thought:
“I just kept picturing their faces once I ran down my list of medications. They wouldn’t listen to a single word I said after that.”
Smith has a degree in journalism and sociology, and although she intellectually understands that portrayals of women with disabilities in the media are inaccurate, she still feels shame and blames herself for the rape, because she thinks that bipolar women are “supposed to be so hypersexual” that they bring it onto themselves.
Women with disabilities constantly face stigma and varying degrees of struggle to achieve legitimacy, and the absence or misrepresentations of women with disabilities in the media only further disempowers women with disabilities. It can have a very real impact on self-esteem and survival.
I talked to Raquel Baldwinson, a Masters level researcher on the “Rhetoric of Health, Illness and Medicine” at the University of British Columbia, to try to understand the reasons women with disabilities are one of the most victimized groups in our society.
The best introduction to these issues that I’ve seen.
You can read the whole issue online or listen to the audio.
As a woman with a disability herself, Baldwinson understands the flaws of Canada’s health policies intimately, and her work advocates for people with stigmatized illnesses who are most often discriminated against.
Raquel explained the different kinds of violence that women with different disabilities encounter:
“Women with physical disabilities who are physically unable to defend themselves tend to be abused by their caretakers, abused financially, and don’t have a system of community to report abuses, let along education from feminist blogs and other outlets to recognize when they are being exploited,” she said. But women who have physical disabilities like quadriplegia or blindness are considered more biologically legitimate than women with mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. There are moral judgments imposed on every illness, says Baldwinson, but women with mental illnesses are seen as “girls who get into trouble” who pose greater dangers to society.Women with mental illnesses are more likely to be taken advantage of when their judgment is compromised, and are more likely to have abusive relationships because they settle for anyone who would love a ‘crazy person,’” she said.
It is important to understand these patterns and hierarchies of ways that society stigmatizes people with disabilities in order to help build communities of support to help end all abuse, violence and exploitation.
As discussed throughout this blog campaign, media literacy is one of the first steps in creating widespread change. By analyzing and resisting against media representations of women with disability, we can help dismantle the ideas in society that perpetuate violence against women with disAbilities.
*I use the more familiar term, disability, in this post, rather than a less problematic term like “different-ability” in order to allow wider engagement with these issues.
Mock American Apparel ads draws attention to lack of women with disabilities in media.