April 29, 2016

The Very, Very Worst

This is Schuyler.

Schuyler is sixteen years old. She plays percussion in her high school band. Schuyler participates in Miracle League soccer and volunteers with Miracle League kids who play baseball, helping out with their practices and their games while wearing a Wonder Woman cap. She takes an art class and writes stories about dragons and monster armies and evil queens. She's a huge Star Wars fan and loves Rey the most, although she's got a soft spot in her heart for Sabine and Ahsoka, too. She vacillates between carefree atheism and curious agnosticism. Schuyler's ambition in life is to help others, particularly people with disabilities, those who have "little monsters like my own", as she puts it. The little monster of her own that she's referring to is the brain malformation called Polymicrogyria, which is the root of most of her struggles and will be for her entire life.

And at this stage of her life, the thing Schuyler wants more than anything in the world is close relationships. With friends, yes, but also more. Schuyler wants to date. She wants to find someone to share her life with, at least the life she's in right now. She can't tell you what that looks like, not even for sure if it's a boy or a girl she's searching for. She only knows that she wants to explore love, and one day soon, as much as it makes me twitchy to say it, she'll want to explore physical relationships as well. Finding that in her life, breaking her loneliness and leaving her too-long lingering childhood behind, these are of paramount importance to her, in ways that can be heartbreaking to watch.

So here's my question to you, reader. Do you think that idea is gross? Do you find it ridiculous to even imagine? Do you find the idea of Schuyler and young people like her with intellectual disabilities having physical and romantic relationships to be something that just cries out to be a punchline, not just of a joke but of a whole comedy routine?

Comedian Gary Owen does.

Apparently BET and Showtime do, too, since they've invested in giving his act, including his disability-related material, a home in their television lineup.

I'm not going to embed his routine in this post; the thought of his face anywhere near my daughter's makes me want to set things on fire. But I will link to the excerpt on YouTube. I encourage you to go watch it, because I want you to understand how much is at stake here, and exactly how bad it can be for people with intellectual disabilities in our popular culture. But if you choose not to go watch it, I'll understand that, too. I watched it halfway through once and then finally got the stomach to see the whole thing earlier today. That's enough for me; I'll never watch it again. It really is the very, very worst.

If you're not inclined to see it for yourself, I'll give you the salient points.

1) Gary Owen tells a story about his cousin, who is, as he says, "retarded". If you miss him sharing this with you, don't worry. He repeats this information, and that word, many times throughout his comedy bit.

2) The story involves what he believes is the unbelievable revelation that his cousin is sexually active. Even more shocking to Mr. Owen is the fact that her partner also has an intellectual disability. This conceit forms the core of his comedy routine. Two people with intellectual disabilities have a sexual relationship. Isn't that disgusting? Isn't it hilarious?

3) To illustrate this point, he impersonates what he imagines his cousin and her partner's behavior might have been like. Not just the courting, but the actual act of sex.

4) If you're imagining this to be the most awful thing you're likely to see someone perform in mainstream pop culture, I'm going to warn you. It's probably even worse than you're imagining.

5) All of this is okay, Mr. Owen assures us, because it's his cousin. That familial relationship gives him license to make her the butt of his comedy routine, to insist that her sex life must be an awkward joke, and to impersonate both her and her partner in the act. Also, and this is very important, he claims to have volunteered for Special Olympics for ten years on her behalf. (He notes his sacrifice in this regard, since, you know, Special Olympians run funny. He had to endure that, you see.) So, you know, he's one of us. He has license.

When he began to get some negative reaction to his material, shockingly so since he sees himself as such a beloved member of the disability family, he responded by posting a link to an interview with comedian Louis CK, in which Louis says, "Saying that something is too terrible to joke about, that's like saying a disease is too terrible to try to cure. That's what you do with awful things, you joke about them. That's how you get through it."

What Gary Owen doesn't appear to understand is this: It's not his thing to get through. He doesn't have an intellectual disability. No one is suggesting that his life and his own sexuality is a disgusting idea worthy of about five minutes of cruel, grotesque jokes and impersonations. Joking about it doesn't help him deal with the pain because there is no pain for him. Only a target. The fact that he may or may not have worked with Special Olympics doesn't make it any better. It makes it exponentially worse. When he suggests, through the Louis CK quote, that intellectual disability is an "awful thing", he should know that in this case, the "awful thing" about their disability is in fact Gary Owen.

I don't know Gary Owen's comedy; like many who are becoming familiar with his body of work because of this particular comedy bit, I knew nothing about him until now. (Nothing like a first impression.) I can't say whether he's funny or smart, except on the evidence of this one routine, which would strongly suggest that he is neither.

But Gary Owen has figured something out that is fairly insightful, and he's using it to earn some cheap but loud laughs. Gary Owen knows that our society doesn't see people with intellectual disabilities as whole human beings, and subsequently many people find the idea of these people having sexual lives to be uncomfortable. Schuyler and her friends can be cute, and they can be inspiring, even. As long as they remain forever children, forever without adult agency, they are allowed a place in our society.

Beyond that, however, people with intellectual disabilities run into trouble. Having awareness of their own adult emotions and bodies, and enjoying the agency to engage in relationships and live sexually active lives, these are the things that human beings do. It's not something that children engage in, and to so many in our society, people with intellectual disabilities are forever children.

In his heart of hearts, I think Gary Owen understands that the targets of his grotesque humor deserve better. He makes excuses and tries to cover his own culpability with his past volunteerism. He knows that what he's doing is terribly, horribly wrong. But the tragedy and the danger of the matter is simply this: Gary Owen may know better, but judging from the howls of laughter in that video clip, his audience doesn't.

In the past, I've written about the use of the word "retarded" in pop culture, but this time, I wish that's all that was going in. If Gary Owen stood up and simply said, "Retards, what are you gonna do, am I right?", I don't think I would do much more than link on Facebook and say, "Hey, look at this asshole." Watching Owen's wretched comedy routine makes me ill, and it makes me angry. It hits so much deeper than other comedians have in the past because he's not just being cruel. He's not just making fun of young adults like Schuyler, calling them less.

Gary Owen is attacking the very idea that someone with an intellectual disability deserves to be a human being at all.

I'm not sure what I should do, and I'm certainly not sure what I think you should do, either. There's a change.org petition to get Showtime to remove this particular segment from his comedy special, which is a start, I guess. I don't think they'll do it; I'm not even sure they can, legally. Remarks he's making on his Facebook page suggest that Gary Owen has zero intention of trying to make any of this better, and his fans seem to be fiercely loyal. I'm not sure there's much to be done in winning hearts and minds.

But I do know this. I need to do something. I need to know that lots of people feel that same impulse. I need to make some noise. I need to shake some trees and kick some walls. I need to howl at the sky and grab people by the shoulders and tell them about this. I need to expend energy in trying to fix this unfixable problem, because my daughter deserves a full, rich, human life experience. She does, her friends do, and the adults they will all become deserve to have their humanity recognized.

Words matter. Media acceptance of what is, in this case, undeniably hate speech, this matters. It matters that executives at BET and Showtime watched that comedy bit and said, "Yeah, that's great stuff. Let's put our brand on that and sell it to our subscribers." It matters a very great deal that many, many people are okay with that choice.

Schuyler and people like her live complicated and difficult lives. People like Gary Owen make those lives much more complicated and much more difficult. If I could say one thing to Mr. Owen and to the people in that audience laughing so hard and to his online fans defending him, it would be this:

Please stop. Please, just fucking stop.

EDITED TO ADD: When I tried to explain the comedy routine to Schuyler (without actually showing it to her, because I'm not a monster), she was obviously pretty pissed off. She asked if she could make a video in response. I said yes. Well, of course I did.


alexandra said...

I'm on it.

alexandra said...

It's easy for comedians to punch down. I never make jokes about things people do not chooses. Someone chose to wear something inappropriate to Walmart; free reign. A person born with a mental or physical condition? All of the nope.

abby g said...

I believe that most human beings want and need to be part of a caring, loving group of other humans. For most of us, living a life alone is just untenable. And, too, most humans want and need some one person with whom they can trust with their heart, with whom they can share their greatest joys, their darkest fears, their most anxious hopes, their wildest dreams, their finest accomplishments and their gut wrenching failures. Connecting sexually to another human is as natural as breathing, its physicality often making its presence known way before the emotional tools needed to control and understand it are fully formed.

And all this living can be incredibly challenging, daunting and frightening even for those without the physical and neurological obstacles many are dealing with on a daily, hourly basis.

What those people working hard to get over or around those extra speed bumps do not need, is anyone using their "disabilities" as fodder for their humor and derision. They don't need anyone using their struggles to further strengthen the biases and stereotypes too long embedded in our culture about "those people".

Anyone who stands on the heads of others in order to look taller seriously needs to be knocked to the ground.

Jamie said...

Rob I don't even know what to say. I have been following this blog for quite some time after randomly happening upon it. Part of my interest has, I suppose, been that your ideas of disability are at times quite different to mine and yet your love for Schuyler is so intensly obvious in your writings.

As someone with an obvious physical disability I have gotten comments about how I should not have children but at least those comments suppose that I have the right to a sexual life (as long as I don't make any more gimpy girls like myself). I think there is this fear that people with disabilities will procreate and perhaps our offspring with become a resource sucking plauge upon the land. Certainly there may be times when a conversation needs to be had about competency to consent, need for safe sex, whether or not parenting is something a person/couple want to do or are capable of. But some variation of those conversations are just a typical part of healthy adult lives.

I don't know what if anything someone like me can do. I have had two cousin's with Down Syndrome but neither was ever at a point of being able to give consent. The most I think I can do is have conversations with the people around me about these issues. Sometimes it seems like their assumptions about disability (intellectual or otherwise) are simply there for lack of any alternative knowledge. There are some people like that comedian who will likely never care what any of us have to say but I would hope that by continuing to have conversations about these issues both in our private lives and on larger media platforms we could provide those alternative paradigms for the people who may be more ignorant than asshole-y.

GB's Mom said...

My daughter has a similar future. And she sees no reason love and sex aren't in her future. It isn't her issue. It is society's.

Bev Sykes said...

I had to turn it off. Almost as offensive as Owen was was the delighted, hilarious audience eating it up.

Lori said...

Possibly one of the saddest aspects is that there is a transmissible infection as the starting point for his whole routine. It is entirely likely that the infection might have been prevented, had people around his cousin and her boyfriend really taken into account that they have the same desires and impulses as anyone else, and they deserve to be taught how to keep themselves safe and healthy in all aspects of their lives, including their love lives. Hopefully they will be treated successfully.

L said...

I can't bring myself to watch that. What a sad excuse for human being. I' be more concerned about *him* propagating. I'm sorry insecure people out there find that to be 'comedy.' :(

Ben Ward said...

I can't watch it. I don't have a kid with special needs, or any kids at all actually, but I am certain I would find it very, very upsetting.

For a happier story, in college, I worked as a counselor at a summer camp that invited adults living in group homes to come be campers. I worked as a cabin counselor for the adults. Usually, camp was pitched to the adults as "vacation", because most of them had jobs. I had never really experienced this world before and I was surprised to learn how many of them had jobs and boyfriends (I am a woman and it was a women's cabin).

Far from being grossed out, I was thrilled that they had boyfriends and would chat about them like my friends and I do! Or gripe about their boss at work. One lady had an engagement ring and was planning her wedding! Pretty normal stuff. Definitely not what I was expecting. Love, relationships, jobs and fulfilling lives CAN happen for all kinds of people.

Unknown said...

I'm an autistic standup comic. His bit wasn't that funny...some of it was downright hack. Regardless, if everyone who felt a comedians bit was too painful because it negatively touched on something personal to them or those they love had their say, we'd have no comedy. Promoting a petition to cut off his livelihood over hurt feelings is more offensive than anything he's said. You can turn him off or walk out of the show, or even engage him 1x1 via im or email or something if you choose...he however can't just start a new career...nor should he have to. All of us get made to feel like outsiders...particularly those of us who aren't NT or normal appearing. You can't protect us from that, nor should you try. As adults we don't have the luxury of mom & dad coming to our defense all the time...so better to prepare them for those challenges now than leave them surprised and incapable of handling it on their own later.
Frankly, the most offensive thing about his material is that he's getting cable specials using hack premises and low hanging fruit. There's way more funny, original comics out there who'd kill for that break

Robert Hudson said...

Mike, did you even read the petition? I even stated what it was asking for, but here's the short version, from the petition itself:

"Please join us in signing the petition to demand that Showtime remove this segment of the comedy special from their air and implore Gary Owen to apologize for his use of the R-word and take the pledge to not use the R-word."

There's nothing there, at all, about cutting off his livelihood. It doesn't even ask for the entire show to be removed.

As for the rest, I'm not sure I'm a huge proponent of "suck it up, buttercup" as a way to prepare people with intellectual disabilities for the Real World. It's defeatist, frankly. It posits that nothing can ever change, and that everybody had just better get used to being dehumanized for the rest of their lives. And this may very well be true. But I'd be a shitty father and a terrible citizen if I just gave up.

As a parent of a kid with a disability, you don't always fight because you think you're going to win. Sometimes you fight because it's important that your kid sees you fighting, and knows that they're worth fighting for. And if that's all I end up accomplishing for Schuyler, maybe that's enough.

abby g said...

Mikes Losers: This isn't about cutting off someone's livelihood, but rather getting them to use their talents in a more mindful way. Being that comedy is a very personal thing...one person's hilarious comic is another person's offending rube...the lines that are drawn over which no one should cross keep moving, as different cultural/social consciousness about wrong vs. right morph and even disappear altogether. There's a reason why the phrase: "Too soon?" is cause for both uproarious laughter and outright anger. Somewhere between "camp-let-yourself-go" and "be-mindful-of-hurting-others" is the answer and while I don't know where that is, I believe we should all keep trying to find it.

One last point here: yes, we can always walk out, turn off the tv, not go to a certain movie. But as people have less understanding between what's entertainment and what's socially acceptable, there are those who get their permission from such characterizations as Mr. Owen's to take what's on the stage and use it as the lens through which they'll see and act in their own lives. And sometimes that can be rather scary.

AZ Chapman said...

Great post Rob and Skyler

lijhe said...

"if everyone who felt a comedians bit was too painful because it negatively touched on something personal to them or those they love had their say, we'd have no comedy." Perhaps. But that's not what's going on here. Comedy is not defined by "punching down", nor dependent on it, not even a little bit. If you can't figure out how to do comedy without it, that doesn't mean you can't, it just means you're a bad comedian.