Sunday, November 16, 2014

American Horror Story's Mat Fraser is not your 'inspiration porn'

Mat Fraser, one of the many disabled actors in American Horror Story: Freak Show, does not want to "inspire" you. 
I first saw Mat perform as a guest drummer for Coldplay at the London Paralympics closing ceremonies (I watched the YouTube simulcast; video embed's at the bottom of this post). 

It wasn't a great concert because he performed, or that it was the Paralympics, but that it was a great show, even better than the London Olympics ceremonies. Sure, it had a smaller budget and fewer pyrotechnical displays. But they featured Sir Ian McKellen and a dazzling array of performers in a much more deftly produced spectacle. 
Currently, Fraser is part of another amazing ensemble cast in the series created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. the two have explored disability, dismemberment and grotesquely stylized depictions of the human body in multiple ways, mostly with violence and horrific imagery.
A gay couple in Italy
In the comparatively innocuous Murphy/Falchuk show Glee, their depiction of disabled character Artie is portrayed by a non-disabled actor. That's raised more disdain from disabled people than the gruesome stories in the AHS series. 

Even the visualization of gay male disabled people is scant in media. My perhaps "artsy" use of plants on the cover of my two recent novels was in part practical. I did not find imagery that didn't seem tokenist or contrived (unlike this candid real photo, at left, from an article about an academic study of disabled people in Italy's LGBT community).

So, why is that? And why do a few off-point amateur reviewers of my recent disability-themed novels think they know better than me how to depict disability?

My viewing the first few episodes of American Horror Story's Freak Show series was shared with a few friends, one of them U.K. choreographer Marc Brew. He lit up with joy to see his longtime friend in a big-time show, and told us about Fraser's racy vaudeville show Beauty and the Beast. In it, Fraser and his wife perform a sexy and sexual show that includes full nudity. 

Marc Brew. photo: Andy Ross
Brew works with disabled and non-disabled dancers for his own and other dance companies, most recently in residence and on tour with Oakland-based AXIS Dance Company. I've written before about how their work has "inspired" my fiction writing.

By "inspired," I do not imply the condescension many disabled people get from the rest of us. I'm talking about the practical movement of bodies, the daily utility of life, personal perspectives gained from interviews and research, and just being aware of other peoples' lives.

Yes, differently-abled people can lead interesting sexual lives. A quick online search will show you some images that show Fraser as quite hung and open about showing off in his show. And no, the tattoos in Freak Show are not his. (Not to be confused with the powerlifting crossfit champ Mat Fraser.)

The actor Mat Fraser, who's been in show business for more than two decades, is now considered an "overnight success" to American TV viewers. He discusses that, and other issues, in a great Q & A for The AV Club.

Among the issues he talks about is the concept of "inspiration porn," and how he rejects the belief that disabled people overcoming obstacles, literal and social, are somehow ours to enjoy vicariously.

"What I don’t dig is people telling me, just because I’m disabled and think I have a right to equality, that should make me inspiring."

Fraser also mentions the non-disabled actor problem:

"We know we’re not allowed to play ourselves in contemporary dramas, because apparently those are reserved for able-bodied actors who want to get Oscars. Statistically, and we know this is a fact, the quickest way to an Oscar is to play a disabled person."

Compare that to a recent reader review of my novel Every Time I Think of You, where the fact that the book won a 2012 Lambda Literary Award was, in that person's opinion, mostly because I made a character disabled.

The reader doesn't need to know that I only decided to make a lead character disabled when I was halfway through the first of the two novels. I hope she reads the sequel, Message of Love, to see that there is much more to the books than arbitrarily adding a wheelchair to the story just to get a Lucite plaque with my name on it.

Further, that reader should check out the hundreds of other romance and gay fiction -even straight fiction- novels with disabled characters that haven't won awards. I've read many of them, and not only do they get numerous things wrong, they fall for the 'inspiration porn' angle all to often. Sometimes they don't, as in Bonnie Dee's straight romance New Life (Here's a thoughtful review on that book, and this subject, by Jackie C. Horne, who actually trashed one of my novels, but she's otherwise insightful on her blog).

a nude male photo by Russo Bruckert
Similarly, I want to respond again to an insidiously spiteful review by a Jason (I'm not linking to it directly), who seems to think he knows better than I do about the depiction of disabled characters in general. 

By (apparently) having a completely different (mental) disability, he seems to think he's an authority on all fictional portrayals of disabled characters. His rant about needing an anguish-laden depiction of injury and paralysis is similar to other new critiques of American Horror Story's freak show performers as "exploitative."

Is that any different than the participation of disabled people in the nude photography of Russo Bruckert (photo, left)?

Self-absorbed amateur critics can be expansively pedantic and verbose, yet immensely misguided. 'It's not written my way!' they shriek. 'These people are not depicted correctly!' Hey, my two recent books are romantic fiction, not medical journals (several of which, by the way, I read as research).

That myopic perspective -similar to critiques of American Horror Story- most often comes from those who do not know about the current state of casting in TV and film, nor the history of freak show circus performers as not being so much exploitative as an opportunity. At least that's what Fraser says in his recent interview.

But to compare actors in film and TV to authors' characters, should authors only write about what they know and have experienced? 

Of course not. Many of the books in the same M/M romance genre with disabled characters are written by straight women, and non-disabled writers. The authenticity -or lack of- depends upon the quality of writing and research. (Check out this GoodReads list, and do consider voting up my books).

Certainly a book written by a disabled person about his/her own experience can be compelling. I just downloaded Kurt Shead's Able, about a young man with cerebral palsy who befriends a troubled girl.

 Even though a few laudatory reader's and published reviews have cited my two novels as "inspiring," more of them are inspired by the love between boyfriends Reid and Everett. 
Kurt Shead's Able

Speaking of porn, inspirational or otherwise, some recent reader reviews offer warnings about the graphic sex scenes. Well, I'm aware that many romance novels "fade to black" when the lovers go to bed. But I was not interested in ignoring the least discussed and least depicted aspects of such a love story. 

Like Fraser's sexy vaudeville show, it's up front, with all the fumbles and sometime funny aspects of two guys -one of them a paraplegic- simply trying to enjoy each other sexually. The scenes are not gratuitous, but show how Reid and Everett's relationship grows and evolves.

Mat Fraser and Julie Atlas Mus in Beauty and the Beast
The ranting Jason (yes, him again) also derides this depiction in Every Time I Think of You; as if two gay men from ages 17 to 22 are not going to be overly interested in sex. I'm not going to apologize for a frank depiction of gay sexuality, or disabled sexuality, because the norm of the genre is a PG-cutesy soap opera style of love. If you don't want sex scenes, my books are not for you.

In an upcoming post, I'll share capsule reviews of the dozens of books I read as part of the work on these two novels. In the meantime, enjoy Mat Fraser and the cast of "freaks" (including a few surprises) on the TV show, enjoy his drumming (video below) and read my books without preconceived perspective as to what they should or should not include. 


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