In general, I tend to view the entirety of the internet as a compost heap. Made up almost entirely of shit, yet producing things that are truly beautiful, amazing, and worthy of stopping to spend more time with. Somehow, between the comment trolls screaming obscenities as if they are legitimate debate points, and the cute cat videos that I admittedly love and share here often, there are people who find a way to use the internet to enlighten us, by helping us see the world from a new perspective.
Teal Sherer is one of those people.
The first time I saw Teal was on the Felicia Day web series, The Guild, where she played Venom, a member of a rival guild lead by the most douchebag version of Wil Wheaton possible. I’d be polite if I called Venom a hateful, terrible, human being. She was mean spirited, cruel, loud, aggressive, manipulative, vicious and straight up hateful.
I loved her. I mean, seriously loved her. I thought she was the most awesome person ever. That may say more about me than it does the character. Regardless, what I loved about the character was her take no shit, give no shits attitude. She didn’t apologize for anything, and used everything in her considerable arsenal to get what she wanted.
Obviously, there’s gonna be those who look at me funny, but seriously think about it for a minute. Society makes us think women are suppose to be docile, demur, to ask for things politely, but not be angry if they are refused them. To accept what little they are given, and act thankful for it. To be there as eye candy, people shaped objects that exist solely for the amusement of men.
Then, there’s Venom. Who flipped that attitude off and took whatever she wanted. In my life, I’m surrounded by women who are like that, and to me, that’s normal. I’m aware that it is not the norm, of course, because I have eyes and a functioning brain, so when I say normal, what I mean is, that’s how I perceive the world as it is suppose to be, rather than how it is.
From my girlfriend, to my sister and her wife, to my closest friends, all the women I know are outspoken, foul mouthed, punch life in the throat and take what they want types. I never see them in media, however, and it’s caused me to be brutally aware of how society thinks women are suppose to act. It isn’t something I care for, so when I saw Venom, it was more like seeing reality finally being accurately depicted in media for me.
In other words, I loved it, and her, because that’s what I expect to see more of.
What I didn’t know at the time was that Teal was an actress. I assumed she was a friend of either Felicia Day or Wil Wheaton who had come in and done the part for kicks. Likewise, I didn’t know that she really was in a wheelchair. It’s so typical to see someone who isn’t disabled playing a disabled role, we rarely, if ever, expect to see an actual disabled actor.
About a week ago, however, a friend of mine from the comment community over at The Mary Sue told me that I was wrong about what I’d thought. She directed me to Teal’s own webseries, My Gimpy Life, and from there, I learned a great deal more about her.
The series, co-created by Teal herself, borrows elements from her own real life to tell the story of a disabled actress trying to find work in Hollywood. Like any show about actors trying to get their big break, it’s got the ups and downs with auditions, working with weird directors, trying to improve their talent, all while making ends meet so they have food to eat and a roof over their head.
There’s another side to the show, however, that comes directly of Teal being in a wheelchair, and the completely different kind of struggle that entails. Right here, I’m going to admit, despite having known a lot of people who were in wheelchairs, how they see and interact with the world had never really crossed my mind. Like most people, I assume, the challenges they face just simply didn’t occur to me.
They do now, that’s for sure. Seeing the world from Teal’s perspective is a very eye opening experience. Not just the difficulties of navigating a world that wasn’t designed for people in wheelchairs, but in how those of us who aren’t interact with them. The things we say that we don’t realize are condescending, thoughtless, or hurtful.
One episode of My Gimpy Life really drives this home as people keep calling Teal inspirational and brave. While I admit, I do find her inspiring, and there’s even a time I would have told her as much, it never occurred to me how that must sound. As if getting up in the morning and going about her life was somehow an accomplishment, just because she’s in a wheelchair. As if she has overcome Mt Everest to do that.
To be clear, what I find inspirational about Teal is her acting talent. I love watching actors work, and it was even a career I seriously considered pursuing at one point in my life, till things took me a different way. I never get tired of watching people bring characters to life, infusing scripts with real emotion, and making the written word become reality. Make no mistake, Teal is a gifted actress, and I love watching her work.
Which brings me back around to something I said earlier, about how we have come to accept non-disabled actors playing disabled roles. Watching Teal work leaves me asking why that is. Of course, I know the answer. I’m as aware as anyone else how superficial our society is. Still, I am occasionally stunned by the sheer depth of it, as a genuinely talented actress is passed over for roles, just because she’s in a wheelchair.
My Gimpy Life even dealt with that, as Teal is offered a role in a series titled, horrifically enough, Cripple Cops, and has to spend a considerable amount of time considering whether or not she wants to take the role, especially after she learns she’s competing for it against a friend who is also in a wheelchair. Because media, even when they are trying to be inclusive, usually does it terribly, and fails completely to think beyond the mode of, “Hey, we’ve got one person in a wheelchair, that’s enough!”
Which is what the series brings to life sharply. Not just how often gifted, talented performers are overlooked because they have a disability, but the way in which our media marginalizes them further by making them tokens, even in a show that should be about them. Even then, when they, and and their talent, should be front and center, they are treated as accessories, interchangeable, little more than gears easily swapped out for another, because they are seen as identical.
Recently, when I did my write up comparing the two RoboCop movies, I pointed out how, in the 2014 version, there is literally only one black actor we know for certain isn’t playing a character who is either a criminal, or corrupt. ONE. Likewise, it presented Arabic people as thinking suicide bombing was a good way to protest against the oppressive use of robots as enforcement, and doing so in front of a live camera feed would deliver their message best. Even though the move had told us, minutes before, the robots only attacked people who threatened them.
Crazy thought here, but wouldn’t holding up signs and peacefully protesting have gotten them on tv just as easily, all without the shooting and dying? Was that just so outside the realm of believable that the script writers couldn’t even consider it a possibility? That maybe not strapping bombs to their chest and running at those robots with machine guns might send the message a little bit more effectively?
This is the Hollywood problem, though. People of color, women, and yes, the disabled, are all seen as fitting into a nice, tidy, little box. Script writers use them as shorthard for things, rather than actually using common sense. Black people must be corrupt, with that one exception so they can say they weren’t racist. Arabic people must think the solution to a problem is suicide bombing. Disabled people perform a heroic task to go out of the house every day, and as such, are automatically inspirational.
And we buy into it. Sometimes, because we don’t know better, or because we accept the movie shorthand. Sometimes, because we’re horrible people who think those things are accurate. All too often, because we just don’t think about it at all. It isn’t our perspective, it isn’t us being represented that way, it doesn’t affect our self image, or how people treat us.
The scene from My Gimpy Life that hit me the hardest revolved around that very thing. It’s something simple, really. The act of going to a restaurant. In the scene, Teal is meeting a blind date, who’s sitting at the back of the dining room. The looks of irritation from the other patrons as she tries to make her way there is like a kick in the gut. As if she is putting them out by being in a wheelchair. Her disability is an inconvenience to them.
Uh, yeah, I figure it’s more of an inconvenience to her, but thanks for being self centered as hell, folks. That’s what I actually thought while watching it, then immediately wondered if I’d ever done the same thing. That I can remember, I hadn’t, but that’s the thing, isn’t it? It isn’t something any of us would remember. A moments irritation that we were mildly inconvenienced, forgotten almost as soon as it happened.
Yet, for Teal, and anyone else in a wheelchair, it’s humiliation. Being on the receiving end of those looks, the disgruntled comments, the annoyance. It’s another example of how we have made cruelty towards anyone even slightly different than us the mainstream way of thinking. How accepting we are of being thoughtless, hurtful, and selfish. How little we consider kindness, empathy, and consideration as the values they are suppose to be.
That is the biggest takeaway I had from Teal Sherer’s My Gimpy Life. To try harder to be thoughtful. To try harder to think of how my words and actions affect those around me. To try harder to be a better human being.
Most of all, though, to treat the people around me with the respect they deserve, as people.
Thanks, Teal, for reminding me that I’ve still got room to grow, and can always be a better person.