Over at ThinkProgress, Alyssa Rosenberg takes issue with a reviewer of the movie The Sessions, a sex comedy based on the life of Mark O’Brien. O’Brien spent most of his life in an iron lung as a result of polio; the movie depicts O’Brien’s efforts to lose his virginity with the assistance of a sex surrogate. The reviewer in question wishes that the movie would have focused more on the fragility and despair that must be inherent in O’Brien’s life. Rosenberg disagrees:
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.
I haven’t seen the film yet, but Rosenberg makes a key point. Not every movie featuring a person with a disability has to be a story about struggling against the odds. Those of us who have lived with disabilities for years don’t typically perceive our own lives in such terms. We’re too busy with the prosaic details of our own lives, whether it’s going to school or hanging out with friends or trying to get laid. Our disabilities are sometimes the furthest things from our minds, particularly when we enter the realm of sex. When I’m having sex, I’m not thinking about my tenuous grip on this mortal coil. I’m thinking, “Hey, I’m having sex! This is awesome!” And when my partner has to reconnect my vent tube after accidentally disconnecting it with her foot (I’ll let your imaginations run wild here), I don’t curl up into a fetal ball and bemoan my fate. I simply thank my partner and get back to whatever we were doing. Because that’s how real life works.
Most people without disabilities (including those who work in Hollywood) have difficulty grasping how a disability can be anything other than an epic struggle that is by turns both tragic and inspirational. But there’s no reason why people with disabilities can’t be featured in sex comedies or science fiction thrillers or crime capers. We can be just another feature of the pop culture landscape rather than the go-to source for feel-good tearjerkers. Perhaps The Sessions is a signpost on the road to the movies I’m imagining.