In an industry (and a society) hell-bent on erasure and uniformity, surely you’d assume that it could only ever be a good thing. Edward Norton, in his 2019 adaptation of Motherless Brooklyn, certainly seemed to think so.
Except … well. Sorry to burst your bubble, but there absolutely is a wrong way to go about it — and this is why:
Activist Stella Young coined the phrase ‘inspiration porn’ to describe the troubling trend of fetishizing the struggles of people with disabilities, usually for the benefit of those without them. It’s an irresponsible and dangerous pattern that I’ve seen all too frequently. It actually leads to misrepresentation and usually stems from a lack of self-advocacy.
And as a disabled person, I’m tired of it.
Many people who know me know that I live with Tourette Syndrome. But even these people often have an extremely misguided (and harmful) understanding of what that means. And movies like Motherless Brooklyn are amplifying the problem.
Motherless Brooklyn follows the story of a detective who is determined to investigate the circumstances around his mentor’s murder. Along the way, he meets a woman and falls in love — and together, they uncover some shady political secrets. Seems innocuous enough — but that’s not the part I’m concerned with.
The main character in this film — starring, written, directed, AND produced by Norton — is Lionel Essrog, a PI who has Tourette’s. You might have a basic awareness of the disorder: a neurological condition characterized by motor and vocal tics. But it has real physical repercussions, too.
Unintentional self-injury and chronic fatigue due to muscle exhaustion are constant. Because of my tics, I have difficulty performing many tasks that require complex use of my hands: everything from braiding my hair to playing the piano. And in many of us with Tourette’s, motor skills are poor and often performed improperly — aside from those that are impacted by our tics, we also tend to have a general inability to connect to and process how our bodies work. As a child, I damaged my teeth because I didn’t swallow liquids properly. I have had to consciously teach myself how to lift my feet correctly when I walk — and I often still get it wrong.
So to hear Norton — an able-bodied artist — reduce Tourette Syndrome to “twitching and shouting” is, quite frankly, insulting.
First of all, even these symptoms are more complex than this movie makes them seem. Motor tics aren’t so much “twitching” as they are tensing, straining, and even jumping. And vocal tics aren’t usually repetitions of random words, as Norton seems to believe. They can include things like humming, coughing, squeaking, and the slow, deliberate sounding out of syllables. (Sometimes I’ll even ‘write’ something I’ve said with an object I’m holding.) They NEVER (for the vast majority of us) include — as an incredible number of people seem to believe — compulsive, unrestrained swearing.
(Looking at you here, Norton. When I swear, it’s because I have the manners of a sailor. Please learn the difference.)
“It’s like an itch that has to be scratched.” Great explanation there, Norton. It’s almost like that’s exactly how you’ve heard someone try to describe it to you. Because you don’t actually know how it feels. You have no comparison for the physical signals — the unbearable sensation of emptiness in your joints and muscles when they finally relax. And you never will.
Aside from lazy research — wherein much of what his character experiences actually represents symptoms of other conditions; including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Schizophrenia, and Autism Spectrum Disorder — Norton has also managed to include an incredible number of damaging, overused disability tropes in the dialogue and storyline, including:
1) Idealizing your cool, abled friends for accepting you or ‘seeing past’ your disability
We don’t need abled people to ‘save’ us.
2) Abled people finding a way to make your symptoms useful
We don’t exist to serve you.
3) The ‘tortured intellectual’ trope
Making medical choices to relieve our symptoms is valid and okay — yes, even if it means our ‘special gifts’ are sacrificed in the process.
4) The awkward, nervous disabled guy who can’t talk to girls
Disabled adults who are so inclined are perfectly capable of flirting, dating, and having a sex life. We aren’t awkward teenagers in a rom-com.
5) Abled people knowing best and helping us ‘overcome’ our limitations
When a disabled person says “I can’t do this … It’s not a good idea” — as Norton’s character does — RESPECT IT. They know better than you on this, I promise.
6) Poeticizing/romanticizing our struggles
Motherless Brooklyn describes disability as being like music because, in both cases, it’s “taking over you.” So, let me get this straight — tortured artist = disabled person? I don’t think so.
7) A mother’s love cures all
You can’t love away a disability. Also, why would you want to? That’s kinda weird, to be honest.
I could go on (and on and on).
In an interview about the film, Norton described what he liked about characters like Lionel. “The character is a great character because of all of the complexity of his humanity that he shows you was there despite the condition.”
Like … is this news to abled people?
“He doesn’t make him a hero because he had the condition, he makes him a hero because he refused to be defined by the condition.” For one, we aren’t ‘defining’ ourselves by anything — but we are prioritizing our bodies and accepting our own individual limits. Also, you ARE defining us! You are setting the standard for how we (and our conditions) are understood, perceived, and treated. And worst of all, you’re not even doing it correctly.
In his creation of Motherless Brooklyn, Norton’s actions are actually in line with the abusers of power the movie intends to speak against — wherein white, abled men playing dress-up with delusions of grandeur and trench coats presume to speak and set the standards for the rest of us.
So maybe it’s time we got to tell our own stories. After all, someone’s got to do it properly.