CLASS ESSAY – DISABLED REPRESENTATION IN CASUALTY (BBC 1)
Disabled people are one of the most underrepresented groups on British TV, therefore for many media commentators it is a sign of progress when mainstream TV dramas such as Casualty feature them as central characters. However, when disabled people are featured, often lazy stereotypes are utilised which can have a very negative effect upon the audience.
In the sequence, the main focus is on Alex, who is in a wheelchair who is shopping with his brother. The mise en scene establishes Alex as a middle class man; his well-spoken voice, use of standard English and clean and neat appearance and brother who is a doctor all serve as cultural codes for the audience.
Initially, the sequence is a slightly alternative representation of a disabled man because he is represented as an unlikable character because he is often rude to the shopkeeper and his brother. When asked by the shop assistant if he would “like to try one on”, the camera abruptly cuts to a high angled close up of him which highlights how weak, angry and upset he is particularly when he criticism his brother in a very blunt fashion. Moreover, the low angle over the shoulder shot which focuses on the shop assistant highlight her dislike of Alex. However, because he is disabled, the other characters don’t admonish him; this therefore conforms to the stereotype of disabled people as victims and as a special case. Cutaways clearly indicate his brother’s hurt and disappointment and these anchor the preferred reading that Alex is unfair to his brother and that the audience should feel sympathy for him.
It could be also argued that Alex is demonised because he is stereotypically represented as a burden and someone who always needs help. In particular, the brother helps him empty his urine catheter which is made more unpleasant because the director chooses a close up (that lasts quite a long time) and prominent diegetic liquid sounds to demonstrate the yellow liquid being released into the toilet. The sequence has high levels of verisimilitude and it appears that the director chose to encourage the audience to be shocked and saddened by the life of Alex. This is very much in line with Paul Hunt’s research in 1991 which found that disabled people were not represented as normal, instead they were portrayed constantly with the medical model whereby the representation is always centred on the disability. This sequence also serves to represent the able bodied brother as somewhat of a saint because he helps his brother despite his rudeness and lack of gratitude.
Yet, the representation does change and the ideology of the final scene encourages audiences to see beyond Alex’s disability and understand that he is an intelligent and commanding man. Alex is shot from a low angle and takes control of the emergency situation. A medium close up of Alex helps focus the audience on what he is saying on the phone and to a bystander – he speaks clearly and issues instructions. A cutaway to his brother demonstrates his pride in seeing his brother triumph over adversity. The shots in this sequence are edited to last only a short period which accents the drama and excitement for the audience. It offers a real feel good factor because the two brothers are working together and Alex’s disability is not important when he is faced with a difficult situation.
To conclude, the extract represents disability in a safe and inoffensive manner. It perhaps does so because it is scheduled on BBC1 which has to adhere to the Royal Charter which stipulates that the institution should educate, inform and entertain a diverse audience. The representation of Alex is initially negative but becomes very positive by the end, thus it is quite a well-rounded representation and Alex is neither idealised nor demonised. For the target audience of Casualty, the representation will do little to challenge stereotypes but at least the final preferred reading is that disabled people are not entirely useless like many representations suggest.