‘The Sessions,’ Disability, and Pity In Popular Culture

I loved The Sessions (then titled The Surrogate) when I saw it at Sundance, and I wish the trailer captured a little bit more of the movie’s tart humor. What’s unusual about The Sessions, which is based on an article by the late Mark O’Brien, isn’t just that it deals with the sexual lives of disabled people, an almost untouchable subject in modern popular culture, but that it’s a movie that is directly about the disparate experiences of people with disabilities without encouraging the audience to pity the main character:

Mark is funny, in the movie. He’s smart. He’s eloquent. He faces something he’s anxious about — losing his virginity — directly and with a lot of self-awareness. He’s not a saint, which is a relief. Mark gets to make mistakes and cross boundaries, but he also takes responsibility for those errors and grows from them. In other words, he’s a specific person, rather than a stand-in for a set of traits or the means by which able-bodied people learn tolerance and get to be awed by Mark’s perseverance and hope.

I think we need a lot more of this in pop culture. People with disabilities have different experiences of the world than able-bodied people do, in a whole range of areas. Folks with disabilities have higher unemployment rates than able-bodied people, and a lack of adaptive technologies can make it harder for them to access educational opportunities and appropriate housing. But the fact that our society and political system have been slow to accomodate disabled people, and that disabled people live involve different challenges and frustrations, doesn’t mean that people with disabilities are pitiable or saintly, or that their experiences are wholly different from able-bodied people’s. Mark’s intimacy issues and fear that he’s unlovable may spring from different wells than your standard romantic comedy heroine’s, for example, but the movie is a variation on a conventional romantic comedy structure. He is definitely not your Judd Apatow-style schlub — he’s an accomplished poet, as O’Brien was in real life — but his conversations with his priest (a very funny William H. Macy) and his caregiver (Moon Bloodgood) are funny in some of the same frank ways. It’s depressing to watch pop culture, and people more broadly, get caught up in disabilities such that they fail to see the people, and the characters, who have disabilities but are hardly the sum of them.