‘The Sessions,’ And Why Stories About Disabled Characters Aren’t All About Triumphing Over Disability

I agree that Hollywood often does a rather sappy job when it tries to tell stories about people with disabilities, but unlike Ian Buckwalter, writing on The Sessions, which I reviewed in February (when it had a different title), I don’t actually think the answer is that our depictions of disability need to get more despairing:

There’s no rule that says the tougher film has to be the better one, but the problem with Intouchables and The Sessions is that they achieve their sunny dispositions by pulling punches. Any hint of difficulty is immediately tempered so as not to upset the lightly comedic tone of both films. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the scene in The Sessions when a power outage causes a failure in the iron lung that allows Mark to breathe. While it’s in character for the devoutly Catholic Mark to greet potential death with the same beatific acceptance he carries through much of the rest of his life, that doesn’t mean the film can’t recognize the dire nature of the circumstances. This should be a tense moment, but The Sessions refuses to acknowledge highs and lows, tension and release. It flatlines from start to finish, even if Mark doesn’t.

Audiard strikes a better balance in Rust and Bone, demonstrating that one can take a pat inspirational story and infuse it with the hardship required to make that inspiration feel earned. Following the loss of her legs, Stéphanie is nearly as defeated as the stroke victim of Amour. As a whale trainer, she makes her living on her feet, and her character’s despair is palpable. More importantly, Audiard makes it impossible to turn away from that despair, unlike the glossed-over expository conversations in Intouchables and Sessions about how their characters dealt with that loss.

The thing is, there’s a difference between a story about someone learning to cope with a newly-acquired disability, and a story about someone with a disability doing something else, like having sex or falling in love. In that first category of story, the goal of the movie is presumably to communicate to a majority able-bodied audience that their negative expectations for what their lives would be like if they suddenly lost, say, the ability to walk, aren’t accurate or complete, and that joy, love, and physical pleasure are still possible. As much as I dislike the idea that movies about people with disabilities need be tragic, I understand why these categories of films include that register of emotions, because they’re a way of hooking in audiences who fear the idea of grave accidents or infections that suddenly change their capacities.

But I don’t think The Sessions is a movie about a man learning to cope with a disability—in fact, it’s a movie about a man who’s coped very well with the limitations in his mobility for years. The film explains those arrangements because it assumes that an able-bodied audience will be interested in how Mark gets around and makes a living. But it’s emphatically not about him coming to terms with the fact that he has to use an iron lung, or hire an aide, or even that in a power outage, Mark could be in considerable danger. Instead, The Sessions is a sex comedy with Mark’s experience with polio as the reason he never lost his virginity. It’s a more concrete explanation than The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and the tone is kinder and more emotionally attuned than that movie (Legit, which FX plans to put on its schedule at some point, has a pilot that is basically a glorious mashup of The Sessions and em>The 40-Year-Old Virgin). But it’s essentially a similar concept.

And I don’t see why a movie like that has to be dark, or despairing. In fact, way the arcs for a lot of the best sex stories work is that there’s a lot of anticipation, and then an anti-climax, rather than an enormous climb and an inspiring victory. The 40-Year-Old Virgin ends with relatively brief sex and a goofy sing-a-long: the emotional work’s done, the victory achieved. Rats Saw God, one of my favorite young adult novels, actually draws some wonderful drama from the main characters’ reactions to the first time they have sex: the fact that it isn’t a transformational experience leaves them feeling confused and somewhat alienated from each other. In The Sessions, the obstacles are Mark’s anxieties, premature ejaculation, his desire to give pleasure as well as to feel it. These are not the things of triumph-over-disability movies: they’re things that a lot of us experience, and Mark’s confinement to his iron lung is the particular thing that inflects his journey through them. But that doesn’t make these experiences and emotions unimportant—if anything, that Mark is concerned with giving pleasure even though it’s harder for him to, say, touch his partner, makes him a hero in comparison to less thoughtful people, whether they have physical limitations or none at all. Sex comedies shouldn’t have to automatically move into a tragic key because a person with a disability is involved in them. Rather, how persons with disabilities—not all of whom acquire those conditions dramatically or suddenly—navigate circumstances that they share with those of us who don’t have disabilities tells us about the universality of those experiences, rather than offering testaments to the resilience of the human spirit.

There’s something disquieting about the idea that the only uses of characters with disabilities should be to provide those testaments. As with, say, gay characters, telling stories about difference is only a first order accomplishment when it comes to diversity. By all means, tell stories about what it means to suddenly move into the ranks of people with disabilities, the legions of wheelchair users. But remember that people are born with disabilities too, and people who have disabilities do far more with their lives than accommodate themselves to the limitations and difficulties they face.