When I was ten years old, I wanted to be Alex Mack. Alex Mack was the fictional lead heroine in Nickelodeon’s The Secret World of Alex Mack played by actress Larisa Oleynik. The main plot focused on Alex, a teenage girl who acquired special powers after being involved in a truck accident where a chemical known as GC-161 was spilled on her. She could morph into a puddle of liquid, shoot electricity from her fingers and move objects with her mind. Although the show itself had nothing to do with disability, it was the first show that introduced me to the concept of female empowerment and it felt refreshing to watch a young woman hold her own in the face of danger.
So much of the media we consume today reinforces harmful, negative stereotypes about disability and how disabled people are perceived. The most recent controversy is the upcoming film Me Before You, which not only cast non-disabled actor Sam Claflin but also reinforces the damaging stereotype also seen in Million Dollar Baby. It’s better off to be dead than disabled.
Stereotypes about disability spread like rampant wildfire in mainstream media from those feel good stories on social media where some kind hearted person will take a disabled person to the prom to other types of inspirational “overcoming” narratives that further reinforce fanciful ableist notions about portrayals of disability.
So where’s MY narrative?
Before discovering The Secret World of Alex Mack, I felt alone. I felt isolated from the media, which praised and honored the non-disabled body, which set it on a pedestal in all its perfect able glory. There was no one like me. I sat in front of the television bombarded by images that were of little importance to me, images that reinforced the notion that my body and all of its imperfections did not belong in a society where all types of people from all different backgrounds and walks of life exist.
I felt invisible.
Perhaps that is why years later when I thought of that feeling, I created a paraplegic character whose power is invisibility. Her arms are covered in colorful tattoos and her hair is streaked with shades of dark purple. She has a girlfriend and is working towards a PhD in Sociology. I created this character, like several others before and after, to fill a void in my own narrative.
After Alex Mack, there were other female characters I gravitated towards: Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Tru Davies (Eliza Dushku) and Audrey Parker (Emily Rose) to name a few. Each character had come in at a pivotal time in my life when I most needed that character to help me shape my understanding of the world, to construct meaning from images I see on screen. Though none of these characters are visibly disabled, watching them on screen guided me on the path to forging my own identity and writing my own narrative. Watching them influenced my abilities to create fierce, multi-dimensional disabled females who save the world (a lot – thanks, Buffy!).
Though my own narrative still remains unfinished and I still don’t always see the types of strong females on screen that are reflected in my writing, I believe that the more disabled women writers share their narratives, the more we have the power to override the stories written on our bodies for us by non-disabled people. We can take that power back and tell our own stories.
And maybe, someday, we can find our own ways to save the world.