“Special” – Netflix series chronicles the life of a gay man with cerebral palsy
Note from Michael McNeely: Today’s column is, in the spirit of accurate representation, written by a friend of mine who is better able to indicate whether or not Special (currently on Netflix) is true to the experience of living with Cerebral Palsy. Please enjoy!
This TV Series is Indeed “Special”- By Guest Contributor, Mark Langenfeld
I waited with bated breath for the premiere of Ryan O’Connell’s new TV show on Netflix, Special, a fictionalized chronicle of his life as a gay, disabled man with Cerebral Palsy (CP). As a fellow man with CP, I was eager to see what the show had to offer, and excited that a disabled person would be given a starring role.
The show is vastly significant in terms of what it does for our representation in the mainstream culture. As a librarian, archivist and historian, I view this representation in an archival manner. Dr. Michelle Caswell has written about an archival concept called “symbolic annihilation”, namely, when a community is systemically erased from mainstream media except as stereotypes or caricature. According to Dr. Caswell, the antidote to symbolic annihilation is representational belonging- an accurate representation of a community by its insiders that reflects its rootedness in the past, present, and future.
Disabled people have been symbolically annihilated from the mainstream for too long. When we do appear in film or TV at all, it’s as villains, sidekicks, or minor characters shoehorned into “Very Special Episodes.” The other common media stereotype of disabled people is that we are pure, angelic creatures too good for this world, like Tiny Tim proclaiming “God bless us everyone!”
Whether angelic or villainous, disabled characters in movies and television are uniformly depicted as sexless beings. The pure, mystic angel solely exists to inspire or assist other characters, and is shown as being too innocent for sex, while the evil murderer, plotter or criminal is usually unloved and venting his rage. More often than not, these disabled-character roles get filled by able-bodied actors. But all these stereotypes make life as an actual disabled person the most challenging when they operate to deny personhood and agency to the handicapped community. Our community contains a range of humanity, good, bad, and indifferent, but we can’t really advance in society if we aren’t seen as equals, nor if the gaze of that society is intent on transforming us into the freaks and inspire-bots it wants to see.
Therefore, Special is a refreshing push-back to all of this and provides me, and other disabled and marginalized people, with a much-needed piece of representational belonging. I was astounded, gratified, and profoundly humbled to see so many of the circumstances of my own life displayed in living colour for the world to see, singing back at me while affirming my own existence. Like Ryan’s character on the show, I too feel regularly awkward and wonder if other people like me or merely tolerate me. I also feel misunderstood and excluded from the circle of well-coiffed men with perfect bodies and expensive clothes, and sometimes feel weirdly defensive about my disability. I’ve felt the same mixture of love and resentment towards my mother, had unintentionally hilarious sexual experiences, and formed unlikely bonds with endearingly bizarre friends and coworkers.
When I think about how my own mother has had to deal with my disability, I feel a lot of compassion for Ryan’s mom, Karen. The dynamic between Karen and Ryan definitely felt heartbreakingly familiar. Karen wants to see Ryan succeed as an adult, but she is also afraid to let go, worried that he will fail or that her own life will change in ways that unsettle her. She sees herself as her son’s first defender, standing between him and a hostile world. Ryan yearns to explore that world, which causes Karen to resent him and accuse him of ingratitude for her sacrifice. It’s a classic family conflict, intensified by CP.
My favorite scenes with Ryan were his sex scene with Shay, and a hostile confrontation with his new love interest, Carey. Shay, a handsome and kindhearted prostitute, gently guides Ryan through the mechanics of losing his virginity as a bottom during anal sex. It’s a groundbreaking scene for many reasons. Merely by portraying a disabled man having intercourse, “Special” breaks through the celibate portrayal of handicapped people like a sexy rocket- a big, long, powerful rocket. The scene is equally brilliant for daring to show an authentic portrayal of the awkwardness, humour, lube and mess involved in a real first-time sexual encounter between two people. It’s not airbrushed to pornographic perfection, or antiseptically romantic. The episode fearlessly spotlights Ryan’s post-coital insecurity. Shay calls Ryan cute. Ryan mumbles uncertainly, “I don’t know.” Shay, bless his heart, gently replies, “You don’t have to know, come here,” and snuggles Ryan’s worries away. It’s sweet, it’s beautiful, and it’s everything I needed.
The other stand-out scene was an antagonistic tableau between Ryan and his new man-crush, Carey. Carey notices that Ryan is wearing regular lace-up shoes and hasn’t tied the shoes properly. Carey is unfazed by this and bends down to tie Ryan’s shoes, reassuring him that he doesn’t mind helping. Ryan becomes angrily defensive, snaps at Carey for interfering, and shoves him so hard that both men fall on the ground. Ryan picks himself up and leaves hurriedly. I cringed sympathetically in response and felt that I deeply understood Ryan’s complex, contradictory emotions in this moment. Ryan wanted to appear competent to his new crush, and relate to him without acknowledging or involving disability. Carey, by tying Ryan’s shoes, brought Ryan’s insecurities to the surface by calling attention to the messy laces, unwittingly questioning his competence ( “Here, let me do this for you!” ), and infringing on Ryan’s autonomy by not asking first. In the aftermath, Carey reassures Ryan that he understands these reactions, but does he really? Time will tell if Carey is a man of substance or just another pretty face, a “free scone person” in the show’s terminology.
Finding sincerity and respect in our relationships and the working world is a difficult task for everyone, but can be even more difficult, random, and weird for those of us with disabilities. I look forward to watching this trailblazing show continue to tackle these issues in an honest and uncompromising way. Stay tuned.
Now streaming on Netflix.
Mark Langenfeld is a librarian, archivist, and foreign-language aficionado. He is also a scholar, and a part-time singer, drummer and actor. He lives in the United States.
About the Author
Michael McNeely law student graduate, entertainment and accessibility critic; filmmaker; and aspiring actor. He enjoys meaningful representations of LGBT folks and those with disabilities in the popular media, and is waiting for the day where nuance, instead of stereotype and prejudice, is the norm. Michael is deaf-blind, meaning that he enjoys the presence of subtitles and other accessibility features.