The Saccharine Sweet Lies of Special, a Netflix original series
The Saccharine Sweet Lies of Special
D’Arcee Charington Neal
Content notes: rape, sexual abuse, self-loathing, internalized ableism, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts
If you could’ve told me that here in the year of our lord 2019 that there would be a tv show about a gay man with cerebral palsy on Netflix I would’ve told you to stop making up ridiculous fantasies. If you then told me that I would in fact, hate Special, I’d simply stare at you dumbfounded. Why? As a gay man with cerebral palsy myself, shouldn’t I be beside myself with unbridled joy and wonder at the cinematic triumph disabled people have achieved? Meh. I should stop and say that it may not be fair to say I hate Special, because in reality I haven’t seen it. But I don’t plan to and after excitedly viewing the trailer, I despise the concept. To understand the reason why however, you’d have to know the story of a man I’ll call Justin.
Several years ago, when I moved to the District of Columbia, I’d arrived by myself, broke, jobless, and perpetually single. While the prospect of being without a job or money in a city ridiculously demanding of both terrified me, after living with my family for nearly 20 years in North Carolina unable to freely date, travel, or exert my independence, I was ready for the void of the unknown. DC was an exciting space filled with fast talkers, faster men, and the fastest attitudes I’d ever seen. The sheer number of queer people so close to me, so available all the time was exhilarating and I was giddy with the idea that here, maybe away from the soul-crushing isolation often present for queer disabled men down South, here with so many options, I’d finally be able begin to live my life on my terms.
To date, it hasn’t given me what I’ve wanted. I remain perpetually single but hey it isn’t for lack of trying. For that reason, I’d say that living in the city was a gift. And it was here in DC, that I met Justin. Or rather, Justin met me, after he relentlessly chatted me up for weeks online, sending beautifully chiseled pictures, scruffy square jawlines and curly hair reminiscent of the late Heath Ledger. In fact, thinking about it, I realize now that they look awfully similar. Or used to. The truth is, Justin completely lied to me. It isn’t that he doesn’t look like Heath. He does. But in a shrunken malnourished body, large unwieldy hands and feet turned at impossible angles, and patches of golden hair strewn around on his balding head. It was this Justin that appeared after he’d lied to me for weeks and after I came an hour and a half one way to meet him for coffee in Virginia, one balmy afternoon in July.
I remember coming to his apartment building feeling so impossibly uncool, my best wool pants paired with a wine colored Hugo Boss sweater and matching sneakers, sitting in my wheelchair wondering how on earth someone who looked like Heath would be totally cool with me. I got my answer when I knocked on the door, and Justin’s mother opened the door taking me in instantly with a slight apologetic smile and a wave. I hadn’t understood. A moment later, I did. You see Justin’s mother knew he’d lied to me. She told me so, later that afternoon. But she also explained that until I’d told him I was in a wheelchair with cerebral palsy, he’d never intended to invite me over. At that point, no other man had agreed to visit in the years they’d lived there.
And herein, lies the root of my anger against Ryan O’Connell’s black comedy. In truth, I’ve directly been on the receiving end of the deception he propagates in the show; subsequently, I’ve seen the kind of damage it can do, physically and mentally firsthand.
First however, I am grateful that the show exists. Let me be clear. In a world of endless victims, presupposed youthful geriatrics, body shaming and outright invisibility, I am happy that something exists to buck against the status quo. Disability is nearly 1 in 5 people within the US, but makes up less than 2% of screen time in media. And nearly every time, the person with the disability is played by someone who is able-bodied in an awkwardly award-winning display of inspiration porn. In that regard, Special, based on O’Connell’s memoir, is a breath of fresh air. Like Issa Rae, I’m rooting for errybody disabled…in theory. But that’s about where my praise begins and ends, because I’ve learned that it’s more than simply about representation.
In the black community, we say “all skinfolk ain’t kinfolk.” That rings more true than ever after seeing the trailer for the show being lauded across social media as “smashing barriers” and “groundbreaking.” My reasoning for a lukewarm reception bordering on outright rage stems from the way in which it is portrayed. At its core, Special suggests that Ryan’s character is so ignored by gay men, his family, his coworkers and essentially the universe, that he resorts in a moment to lie to a potential date, reframing his cerebral palsy as merely a car accident; the result of which changes his entire fortune as hot men, friends, respect and the world open before he ultimately realizes the gravity of his lie and what it costs him. It is a darkly humorous morality tale introducing a cute disabled protagonist in a quirky, self-deprecating style and I don’t give two fucks to see a second of it.
Unlike Ryan’s character, when I talked to Justin, I learned that he suffered from a traumatic brain injury incurred a few years beforehand, while high on a binge of cocaine and alcohol. The pictures he’d sent me weren’t a lie per se, it was indeed him….just pre-accident and in his words, “reminiscent of cosmic justice.” He told me that before his accident, he’d believed himself to be a terrible person, sleeping with and rejecting anyone he wanted, openly admitting he would’ve never give me a second thought and then, only because of my wheelchair. Fate it seems, is not without a sense of irony. Justin’s comments merely mirror the intense feelings of inadequacy that I’ve felt for years, compounded by 20 years of rude, mean, and insensitive comments that the gay community constantly throw against gay men and women with disabilities. Having spent years of my life rejected—and before you suggest that everyone gets rejected, I’ll counter that it’s the way we disabled people get rejected, in that men think I’m attractive and witty and fun but all this evaporates merely from seeing my wheelchair—I’ll admit that seeing Justin openly experiencing schadenfreude in the most extreme way was, for a moment, satisfying if inappropriate. He learned the lesson that so many of us with disabilities already know. It is never about what someone looks like. It’s about who they are.
Sadly, most of the gay community chooses not to know or doesn’t care to know. Nor will they find out. So I won’t say that Ryan’s character in Special isn’t justified for wanting to do what he did. My problem of course, is that he does. And that the show embraces it. When trying to explain this to other people with disabilities (most of whom are white heterosexuals) why I have such an issue, I’ll admit this is difficult to explain. The bottom line comes down to authenticity. In Special, you have a show that suggests an alternate reality of self-acceptance which isn’t even built on truth (this in itself, creates a problematic understanding of the acceptance of disability choosing to open our understanding through a trope). If in another world, people with disabilities were seen as fully realized, wholly capable adults who date, parent, fuck, cheat and lie, I’d probably have no problem with the show. However, with Special billed as one of the first semi-authentic undertakings of disability in mainstream entertainment and as the introduction of cerebral palsy to a potential legion of gay men who’ve never heard or experienced such a thing, it paints a terrible picture; and even with all of that, the 15-year-old me would’ve swallowed every word.
At 15, I was a horribly lonely, desperately emotional, teenager. Growing up in a deeply religious and conservative black household, I risked my personal safety (as my father would’ve beat me within an inch of my life) knowing full well what I was doing when I watched Queer as Folk muted with the subtitles on, on the family tv at 11:30pm Saturday nights desperately trying not to touch myself. Horny, full of loathing and misunderstanding, I leapt at any chance to meet or talk to another gay man and that circumstance would eventually lead me to being sexually abused at 19.
If I’d seen Special then the words would’ve embedded themselves inside me and completely warped and distorted my understanding of what it was to be queer, disabled, and proud. I would’ve done what he did, no shame. I would’ve happily swallowed myself in a veil of disgust and buried my truth behind an army of lies simply to go on one date because it was all I wanted. After all, society suggests that relationships are in fact the litmus test of normalcy and acceptance. In this, lies the damage.
I do not believe Ryan O’Connell meant to hurt anyone. I do not believe he created the show as a twisted sense of privilege, to showcase how “normal” he is in comparison to the rest of us. But his ignorance does not absolve him. Special is dangerous not because of what it does, but because of what does without a larger cultural context. It breeds a precedent of mistrust and warped intentionality already hinted against people with disabilities as welfare queens and entitlement crybabies. It says that we must consider someone’s view of own bodies before we allow our own minds to do so. And at 33, I have survived suicide attempts, rape, heartbreak, living overseas and endless rejection to present my most authentic self. I don’t merely do it when I’ve learned better, like Ryan’s character. I do it every day. All day. And here is where Special fails where we need it most. People’s pain is not a punchline. O’Connell may merely be presenting a singular narrative built on his own experience, but when it is magnified and introduced through the power of a platform like Netflix, the rules of what goes change. Furthermore, as a triple minority, neither white people nor their straight counterparts can dictate to me how I supposed to feel about something that is built in so much of my experience.
Though I remember many things from the afternoon I spent with Justin, one thing in particular sticks in my mind years later. We had finished talking as he was telling me that he was preparing to move away to Philadelphia in search of a new setting and he thanked me. When I asked him what for, he looked at me for a few seconds and responded “for showing me that life isn’t over.” His mother told me that it did a world of good of him for him to meet me and while I didn’t think that meant much, I see what she meant. It would be amazing to see a Netflix show about someone with CP who despite mounting challenges, manages to overcome all of the issues in the show: finding hot sex, a great job, good friends and a fulfilled life existing within his cerebral palsy, not in spite of it. No lying. No deceit.
Some people will tell me that I should be happy with what we have on screen and that baby steps are necessary to get it right. But this is too important to ignore. We are extra vulnerable. And if you tell me that I’m supposed to be happy celebrating everything that Special has to offer I’ll simply take a cue from Ariana Grande and tell you “thank u, next.”
D’Arcee Charington Neal is a disabled black gay essayist who shares The Advocate’s 40 Under 40 list with Miley Cyrus, and has appeared on CNN, the Washington Post and in the famed Kennedy Center. He is also a performer, award winning storyteller, and scholar with 2 Masters degrees in writing, focused on black disability rhetoric. Diagnosed with spastic diplegic cerebral palsy, and heading to Columbus Ohio this Fall to begin his PhD in English at The Ohio State University, he is avid lover of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, anime, Grey’s Anatomy, and cosmopolitans.
Basing much of his scholarship out of the work of James Baldwin, Sadiya Haartman, and Octavia Butler, race and actualization are pivotal focuses of the work he produces, which include: audio narratives, novels, short stories and feature length screenplays that center African-American and disability identities at the forefront; as a way to combat white media supremacy through the creative and academic worlds. You can find him on Twitter at @DrChairington or on Facebook at facebook.com/dprinze.
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