If you listen to or read pop culture reviews, you’ve probably stumbled upon a conversation about tropes, which are basically plot devices, themes or recurring character types. It’s impossible to tell a trope-free story; even our most basic story-telling devices are tropes, like having a beginning, middle and end, or the classic struggle between good and evil. Without them, stories are just random strings of images.
When overused, tropes become clichés (Will they or won’t they?) or even offensive (“What do we do now?”). And sometimes, there are just so many of them going on at once that the result is referred to as a trope salad. Exploring tropes is fun, and entire websites and wikis are devoted to cataloging them.
When disability gets represented in life and culture, plenty of tired tropes surface. My Twitter feed was lit up last month with a debate around professional conferences that feature inspiring, overachieving people with disabilities, aka supercrips, a pop culture staple. Lately I’ve been irked by a reality TV home makeover show for a “needy families” willing to share their desperation and tears on cue so that they can be rescued by “angels” (no joke) and we viewers can feel blessed and generous. Representing disability in pop culture can be a bit of a landmine and I appreciate it when writers call out disability clichés.
As a special needs parent, my antennae are always up for tropes about parents like me. One of my first blog posts was about my love/hate relationship with Mamma Bear. I’m sure that I could find plenty of examples for clichés that I’ll just call Disengaged Dad, Super Mom, the Invisible Sibling, the Parents In Denial, and the Pity Family.
If we suddenly become special needs parents and we don’t have any other role models, there’s a risk that we actually adopt these personas. I personally auditioned for several of those roles. Sometimes I even got the part for a season or more. Award worthy performances.
Luckily, I also met plenty of parents who showed me that I didn’t need to play a cliché, because life was too complex and interesting. Parents who were strong and vulnerable. Who had their crap together most of the time, but didn’t apologize when they lost it once in a while. Who were incredibly creative problem solvers, except for that one area that was a total blind spot. These folks defy stereotyping and two-dimensionality. Just like all parents. Just like all people. Just like everyone, we contain multitudes.
Have you cast yourself in a role that was just too flat for real life? Are you doing it now? Do you know someone who is defying typecasting? How might you allow yourself to be a little bit more complex?