Tag Archives: disability

“I Have a Voice”: Deconstructing Power in The King’s Speech

Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter in The King's SpeechI will be honest.  I did not expect to like The King’s Speech nearly as much as I did when I saw it this weekend.  The previews generally left me with the following impression:  handsome, wealthy heterosexual white man has speech impediment, undergoes Eliza Doolittle transformation, becomes King of England, triumphs.  Also, Geoffrey Rush acts outrageous.  What I was surprised to discover (though perhaps I shouldn’t have been) is that while this was a film about a wealthy heterosexual white man with a speech impediment, its narrative arc–while borrowing many of the conventions of the “makeover” film–is hardly that simplistic.  After all, this is really a film about disability and about abuse and about the permanent impact of both.  And as such, it is a film that subtly deconstructs power without tell you it’s doing so.  Fair warning:  spoilers below.

By way of a brief summary, The King’s Speech , directed by Tom Hooper and written by David Seidler, depicts the life (with some deviations from actual history) of Prince Albert (Colin Firth), the man who eventually becomes King George VI.  The film opens as he is set to deliver his first public address at Wembley.  Afflicted since childhood with a debilitating stammer, he is shown in obvious agony as he prepares for the appearance, and indeed, his radio audience is met with near silence and brief spurts of unintelligible speech as he attempts to choke his way through the speech.  The scene is positively excruciating.

As the film progresses, Albert’s wife Elizabeth (the fabulous Helena Bonham Carter) solicits the services of a–you guessed it–quirky and unorthodox speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian Pygmalion (rhyme both unfortunate and irresistible) who helps him prepare for public appearances whilst also acting as a kind of psychotherapist, gradually getting to the bottom of Albert’s intense emotional pain, brought on by a lifetime of what amounts to emotional and occasionally physical abuse at the hands of his parents, brother, and caregivers.

Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in Lionel Logue's office in The King's SpeechThis would all still have a “poor little rich boy” feel to it if the story were not accompanied by a rich and emotional documentation of the British Empire in decline.  Both the interior and exterior sets are marked by a palpable sense of decay.  Everything–even the lavish fixtures in the royal palace–looks positively ancient and creaky, a monument to faded glory.  I was hoping to find a better image of Logue’s office, but this will have to do.  You can see the layers of paint coming off the walls and a corner of this sad old Victorian sofa, a piece of furniture on which the camera fixates–centering it in a particularly prolonged shot, when Albert first meets Logue.  Upon entering the room, he sits down on one side of it and seems almost swallowed by it.  The shot makes his diffident, snobbish attitude seem immediately ridiculous.

And, in fact, there are many scenes that make ridiculous the entire notion of royalty as the British monarchy is steadily moving toward a more ceremonial and indeed nearly irrelevant role.  There is a scene where George V, Albert’s father– previously seen terrorizing his adult son by forcing him to read the speech the King has just delivered in hearty, stentorian tones, berating him for his cowardice and inability to even spit out one word (Colin Firth’s ability to telegraph repressed emotional pain is pretty astonishing)–is shown near death, demented.  He is so weak and unaware of what’s going on that a servant has to hold his hand to help him sign an official document.

I was initially leery of the film’s portrayal of Wallis Simpson, the woman Albert’s brother, Edward VIII, abdicated the throne to marry.  Twice-divorced and *gasp* American, she was the target of some pretty vicious gossip.  Yet the film is really portraying the monarchy’s prejudices against Wallis and reveals their snobbery for what it is.  Albert is, perhaps, justified in his concerns that his brother cannot get his head out of his own ass long enough to even think about this dude named Hitler who is proving to be a bit more of a problem than anyone had anticipated, but there is something almost pathetic about the way Elizabeth (the future Queen Mother) brushes past her at a party dressed in the frippery of the Victorian era while Wallis stands there statuesque and stylish and looking much more like the person I would like to have a drink with.

In other words, this is a film capable of creating sympathetic royal characters without necessarily celebrating or glamorizing the system they represent.  It has its share of “prince imprisoned by his royal duties” moments, but most of these come from Albert’s insufferably self-involved brother and are played as a kind of laughable melodrama.  Yes, the royals are constrained by tradition, but the film manages to make this revelations more profound than it usual is.  We discover, for example, that Albert’s insistence that Logue respect royal traditions–even to the point of calling him a traitor to the crown at one point–this is largely because the Throne absolutely terrifies him.  The Sceptre is both the destiny he is eventually forced to embrace and the rod that was used to beat him into submission as a little boy.

Ultimately, the film argues, the King of England is a man who has never been able to get past the age of five, when his caregiver deliberately starved him without his parents even noticing, when his father encouraged his brother to verbally abuse him for his stammer, when his knock-knees were placed in excruciatingly painful metal braces, and when he was forced to use his right hand instead his left.  The Throne, which Logue in a more brilliant-than-it-seems-on-the-surface scene shows to be a just a chair in which people have irreverently carved their names, represents a power so monolithic and impenetrable, so layered in arcane traditions and pieties that it eclipses the subjectivity of everyone in its shadow–even that of the man who sits in it.

The film opens with text that talks about the fact that King George V ruled a quarter of the world’s people, and the film visually telegraphs the fact that this is about to come to an end, that the dominance of the British monarchy is pretty much over, but that it’s ability to terrify, to abuse and oppress remains very much alive.  Ultimately, Firth’s character says, he only has power because the people believe that he speaks for them, and he cannot even do that much.  But as Logue eventually gets him to say, he deserves to be heard not because he is royal but because he is a man with a voice just like every other man.

Insofar as this is a Pygmalion narrative, we get plenty of conventional “makeover” tropes, including a montage in which Firth, Rush, and sometimes Carter go through vocalization exercises and moments of intense personal revelation (still tear-jerking even though we’re conditioned to expect them).  What I did appreciate, however, is that though this is a Pygmalion narrative, there was no Eliza Doolittle “Rain in Spain” moment, no sudden or permanent transformations.  Albert continues to struggle with his stammer throughout the film despite moments of progress and frequently reverts back to square one in times of intense emotional stress.  The climax of the film hinges on whether or not he will be able to successfully deliver a radio address about the newly declared war with Germany, an address that is meant to comfort and encourage its listeners.  And even though convention and history dictate that the speech must be delivered successfully, that success qualified and incomplete.  It is a reminder that the King is living with an essentially permanent disability, that the scars of his childhood will never completely be healed but that ultimately the demystification of the monarchy and even the British Empire would wind up being a pretty good thing for everyone concerned.

That soundtrack for that scene is the Second Movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, easily one of my favorite pieces of music.  While its drama probably seems overwrought and heavy-handed, there is a poignancy to the juxtaposition of Albert’s haltingly delivered speech with the music of Beethoven, also an abused child, a piece of music composed while he was almost completely deaf.  It would be easy to say something very trite about the power of the human spirit or something here, but ultimately I actually think it is a statement about human frailty and damage and the moments of grace that emerge from the wreckage.

I won’t claim for a second that this is a perfect film, either as a film itself or as a commentary on the dynamics of power.  The moment when Logue’s lack of formal credentials emerges the day before his coronation feels slightly contrived, though to Seidler’s credit this is played off as a momentary tension between the King and his therapist rather than a cataclysmic rupture.

And of course, this is a film about the royal family that centers the royal family’s experiences, and as such we see little of the people they supposedly rule.  The scene in which Albert delivers his climactic speech shows the faces of all those listening–middle class, military, servants, factory workers–which serves as the film’s only real commentary on the vast structural inequalities in Britain.  Lionel Logue, an Australian, is our only representative from the wider British Empire, though we are repeatedly reminded that the British snobs think he is a backwoods rube not good enough to play the role of Richard III for a local amateur theatre society (though the scene in which he auditions sets him up as an interesting foil, a man who is capable of delivering the lines of a king though not with the right accent/breeding).  This was, of course, the time in history when British imperial authorities in Australia were rounding up indigenous children and taking them from their parents and native cultures in order to be educated (indoctrinated) as Europeans.

But then again, the film isn’t trying to comment on that, so it’s hard to criticize it for not doing something it never claimed to be attempting in the first place.  It is, all in all, a very small story about personal problems and personal relationships that serve as metonymy for the larger dynamics of power and abuse.  I won’t argue that this is a subversive or even a liberatory film, but it is much more than it appears on the surface, and it richly rewards a careful viewer.

The Story Only You Can Tell

I was a little bit surprised that my last post on what I affectionately and long-windedly call the “How a PWD made me count my blessings by being like the very incarnation of Baby Jesus” genre of admissions essays turned out to be one of the more popular posts on this blog.  I was immensely gratified by the thoughtful and honest comments, where we semi-debated the risks vs. benefits of writing about various topics.  My hypothesis there was that this particular type of essay is ubiquitous because high school students and those who advise them, writing about that one week where you volunteered to work with children with disabilities or built an orphanage in Mexico and had a totally transformative experience seems like a good way to pander to the bleeding hearts who tend to read admissions essays.  They stress the more impressive parts of the student’s record and come instantly packed with a certain kind of drama.

This prompted a comment from Anna about her doubts that she as a person from a non-privileged group would be able to successfully write about her experiences without also taking on the stigma of belonging to that non-privileged group. At the time, I agreed with her, but now I sort of want to back off from that.  For one thing, over the course of the intervening month, in which I read over 200 admissions essays, I became more aware of my gut responses to particular types of essays.  Let me just say here that my gut response isn’t the sole factor determining how I score an essay.  As I stated in the previous post, I do not come to these applications looking to have my political convictions reflected back to me.  The score is a measure of the quality of both the writing and the thought behind it.  I recently gave a very high score, for example, to an applicant who wrote about the experience of belonging to a political family, the political family in question being one that I pretty much despise.

That said, essays that adopt cliche approaches tend to receive middling scores because they lack individuality and depth, while essays that talk about intense personal experiences in an emotionally honest and nuanced way tend to be better simply because they reveal more about the student as a person and, because they are intense experiences, feature a more sophisticated emotional vocabulary.  In the past few weeks, I have seen excellent essays about dealing with the aftermath of parental abuse or abandonment, identifying as queer in a conservative community, coping with a chronic illness, and assimilating to U.S. culture as an immigrant.  All of these could have invited a certain type of stigma, but I responded to these students well both as writers and as people, and I do not think that this is because I am simply an exceptionally sensitive, social justice-oriented person.  I actually think that most admissions readers would respond well to these essays.

The fact of the matter is that in admissions training both at my own institution and on a national scale, readers are taught to look for evidence of pursuing challenges and overcoming adversity in addition to more traditional markers of achievement.  Because of the backlash against affirmative actions, these injunctions are a way of taking all parts of a student’s background into account without resorting to identity politics.  And while it’s probably true that most admissions readers–who tend to be ensconced within the Ivory Tower–are bleeding heart liberals, evidence of pursuing challenges and overcoming adversity appeals to bootstrapping conservatives just as much.  When asked to score applications for a pre-med scholarship program, my Reaganite father admitted that he tended to be more sympathetic with kids from less privileged backgrounds at least in part because they reminded them of himself (not that applications should be scored on the basis of personal identification either.)

The essential point I’m trying to make here is that anyone who drives a student away from talking about the more harrowing parts of their background is probably doing that student a disservice.  No one should be pressured into leveraging their trauma in such mercenary ways, but if a student feels moved to write honestly about an experience, I think that student should just go right ahead. Furthermore, no student should feel pressured to embellish their narrative in order to make their personal history more melodramatic than it is.  I have also awarded high scores to students who wrote about the ups and downs of their entirely healthy relationship with their parents or their first experience in a debate competition in original and nuanced ways.  Just because an experience seems mundane doesn’t mean it can’t be the source of an inspired piece of writing.  It just means that the story you tell should be a story that only you can tell in that particular way, because writing from a place of true honesty and sincerity is one of the most effective ways to connect with your audience.

Many people commented with their stories about why they chose the essay topics they did and what role they think that played in the fact that they did not get into their first choice institution.  I have one of those stories too.  It goes like this:

I had a pretty privileged upbringing, attending a private evangelical high school in a very affluent area.  That said, I did struggle with depression for most of my teenage (and subsequently adult) years.  One of the sources of that depression was a slow-burning crisis of faith.  Quite devout as a child, my skepticism about Christianity–particularly the conservative version of it that permeated my community–intensified throughout high school.  Though that crisis hardly made me an extra special snowflake, it was the most vivid part of my personal experience at the time, and I had an essay about it written before I threw it away at the last minute.  See, the problem with writing about that experience is that I didn’t feel I could show it to anyone as to do so would be to disclose the very thing that made me feel so alienated from everyone around me and that I feared would invite ostracism.  When I did venture to describe the essay to someone, I was discouraged from sending it in by someone who thought it sounded “whiny.”  So I wrote a generic essay about how I love books instead.

I can say with conviction that this was terrible advice, but I cannot say that sending the first essay would have guaranteed me admission to my first choice, where I was ultimately wait-listed.  The truth is that top programs and top schools turn down amazing people all the time, and usually there is no “one thing” that you can point to that makes one individual just a little bit less amazing than a person who was admitted.  So, basing one’s admissions advice on one’s personal rejection experiences is a bad idea.  As someone who has read thousands of apps and attended numerous admissions seminars, however, I am saying is that college admissions, for all its problems, probably is one of the few places where a student should take a few risks and be honest about who they are.    I know I would rather read an essay that chances a bit of exposure than yet another essay about how some person with vaguely defined characteristics inspired the student with generic positive feelings.

How Not to Write About Disability in Your College Application

Things that make me feel slightly better about the world:  in my current stack of 75 applications for a prestigious honors program at my university, four of the 150 essays have been about the use of slurs like “the R word” to describe people with disabilities.  That strikes me a somewhat encouraging ratio given the sheer breadth of topics available for these kids to write about.

Things that make my forehead scrunch:  more than a quarter of these essays have been about how a person with a disability taught the student A Very Important Lesson about perseverance, overcoming adversity, or being grateful for what one has.

I understand why essays about disability come up a lot, particularly among this cohort.  Just about every single one of us knows a person with some form of disability, and these kids spend many of their volunteer hours providing care at summer camps and group homes.  I think it’s tremendously commendable that they commit their time in this manner, but I want to caution students away from writing this particular kind of essay or, at the very least, only writing this sort of essay with some of the following problems in mind.  Teachers:  if you’re in a position to give advice about this sort of thing, feel free to pass it along.

1)  Almost all of these essays sound exactly alike.  The formula goes something like this:

First paragraph:  “I’ll never forget the first time I saw [name], who suffered from [disability].  Initially, I   thought [stereotypical and somewhat offensive preconceptions] about that disability, but [name] changed my perspective through her [remarkable qualities like innocence, perseverance, or courage].”

Second and Third paragraphs:  a chronicle of what you did for this person while working at [summer camp or group home for persons with disabilities].  This section is ultimately about how wonderful and generous you are for providing this sort of care.  There is often mention of having to help this person in the bathroom or shower and how that uncomfortable intimacy helped you grow as a person.

Fourth paragraph:  summary of how your life changed because of this experience (usually a single week or a semester of bi-weekly volunteering).  Usually contains truisms about counting your blessings and emulating that person’s cheerful attitude.

Essays that don’t clearly differentiate you from the pack won’t get you far with a selective college or honors program, so you want to avoid the formula essay as much as humanly possible.  I have seen spectacular riffs on the sort of essay outlined above, such as an essay on how a sibling’s disability made the student aware of the myriad accessibility issues in his school and church, but unless you can provide unique insights that stem from long-term experiences with disability, I would steer away from this topic.

2)  The essay is ultimately about how wonderful the applicant is.  Yeah, that’s sort of what you’re supposed to do in a college essay, but it’s icky to appropriate another person’s life in this way, and some application readers are going to be sensitive to that fact (your reader may, in fact, have or be closely related to a person who has a the same diagnosis).  Furthermore, you typically have to flatten that person’s personality traits in order to fit the narrative of what a kind, generous person you are and how you learned this important lesson, and that ultimately makes for writing that sounds (and is) disingenuous and uninteresting.

3)  Your essays are an opportunity to talk about something that either can’t fit into a resume line.  Your time volunteering at that camp one summer–most of your short-term volunteer activities, in fact–will come through on a resume just fine.  In fact, it’s sort of expected from the types of students who apply to selective colleges and programs.  In other words, write about something that is a bit closer to your own personal experience.

Nothing points to the need for a better public discourse on disability than the ubiquity of this particular sort of college essay.  A person with a disability is always presented as an opportunity for an able-bodied person to learn a lesson about how great they have it, about how to accept adverse circumstances cheerfully and courageously.  Furthermore, it strikes me as a problem that such individuals are subjected to inexpert care from a person they will never see again in order for privileged college juniors to have something to write about.  Ditto for impoverished children in the developing world, people who frequent soup kitchens, people with terminal illnesses, the impoverished child you tutored for a semester, etc.

I don’t necessarily read college essays looking to see my own political commitments reflected back to me.  I don’t expect seventeen year-olds to be able to deconstruct privilege or fault them for using a vocabulary that the vast majority of able-bodied adults think is compassionate but is actually pretty infantilizing and problematic.  I do score these essays based on the quality of the writing, which usually isn’t very good.  It’s the oh-so predictable homogeneity of these essays–the prosaic quality that emerges any time someone is trying to expound on something that they lack the long-term experience or intimate involvement to be able to adequately describe–that earns them only middling scores.  It’s the symptomatic nature of these essays that makes my forehead scrunch.