As a television viewer, what draws me to a particular TV series is my ability to identify with the characters on a personal level. Keeping an audience emotionally riveted is especially important in a television series because the viewer(s) should want to come back week after week and watch the series to find out what happens next. Does the heroine of the story find her love interest before it’s too late? In what ways does the villain trick the protagonist? Does something happen to a supporting character that alters the course of the hero’s or antagonist’s goals? For dramatic television in particular, it’s not uncommon to be left with a cliffhanger. Many of these questions and facets of dramatic television are what make it so palpable and real for me, piquing my interest and making me want to know more and not wait another week to find out what happens. I believe this type of long-form storytelling not only has ample opportunities in which stories about characters with disabilities can be told, but it is also through a few of my favorite television series that I have been forced to ask questions and ponder my disability identity.
When reading “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory” by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, she points out how feminist studies and disability studies can help one another by integrating viewpoints that could enrich understanding what disability studies means from a feminist perspective. However, as she has studied and observed, disability is often left out of this conversation entirely. What struck me the most was that she examines feminist theory through a disability studies lens, particularly when rooted in identity. “Feminism increasingly recognizes that no woman is ever only a woman, that she occupies multiple subject positions and is claimed by several cultural identity categories… Disability is one such identity vector that disrupts the unity of the classification woman and challenges the primacy of gender as a monolithic category” (Garland-Thomson, 335). Yet, the cultural and sociological stereotypes of disabled women still persist, which causes turmoil for disabled women who are on a never-ending journey to claim their own personal identity. It is vital for these women to find and claim their identity or else they risk becoming faceless, voiceless and powerless over circumstances that would otherwise be afforded to most non-disabled women.
Based on the Stephen King novella The Colorado Kid, the SyFy TV series Haven is a supernatural drama that takes place in the fictional town of Haven, Maine. It is a series developed and created for television by Sam Ernst and Jim Dunn. Many people in Haven possess supernatural abilities believing themselves to be cursed. They are called Troubled and their supernatural abilities are known as Troubles. On a mission to track down a serial killer, FBI agent Audrey Parker (played by Emily Rose) goes to the town of Haven, expecting to find him there. She finds him dead, but his death doesn’t stop her from leaving. Instead, she finds herself inexplicably drawn to the town and the people in it as she seems to possess an inherent ability to help those who are Troubled while being immune to the Troubles themselves.
While there, she meets local police detective, Nathan Wuornos (played by Lucas Bryant), and a smuggler/crook with a heart of gold, Duke Crocker (played by Eric Balfour). Nathan’s Trouble is known clinically as idiopathic neuropathy or the inability to feel anything including pain while Duke’s Trouble is that if he kills someone who is Troubled, he ends the Troubles in that person’s family for good. Audrey meets several others including Vince and Dave, two brothers who run Haven’s local newspaper, The Haven Herald. Though none of the characters have disabilities per se, these Troubled townsfolk are seen as misfits, odd, “freaks,” part of the “Other” that doesn’t really seem to belong. These symbolisms can also be applied to the way people with disabilities are seen in society as well as people belonging to other minority groups or to multiple marginalized identity groups. But what I can relate most to in the series circles back to the intersection of feminist studies and disability studies: the concept of identity.
As the series progresses, Audrey is in constant search of her identity. She’s an orphan and knows nothing about her family. She constantly asks questions such as “Who am I? Where do I come from?” How does she find herself when the people she comes to know and trust keep secrets from her? How does she help the Troubled when she can’t even find out answers about herself? Yet, what she discovers is not exactly what she set out to find and takes her completely by surprise. Still, she attempts to hold onto the identity that she knows (or thinks she knows): Audrey Parker.
Now concluding in the second part of its fifth and final season, the question of identity still looms over this character. A woman who has so much to still uncover about her identity, but in a completely different manner than when the series first aired back in 2010. I recognize that identity both as a social construction and as a personal journey is a complicated venture to undertake. It is advantageous that television in the supernatural/paranormal/fantasy and science fiction genres can ask and mold these complex questions, grappling with them on an entirely new, unique level.
Now that television has merged onto the Internet, it’s time to challenge this notion of identity in the creative decisions that are made by executives, producers and writers where women and disabled people can see themselves represented on-screen.
Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2013. 325-45. Print.