Sunday, September 8, 2013
On CBS Sunday Morning today they previewed a story about a guy with Down syndrome who lifts weights. It was promoted as an "inspirational story," so of course I felt a little queasy, thinking here comes another one: somebody with a developmental disability being represented as a "superhero," probably in the midst of a very special program helping him to get to where he can be "just like everybody else."
And of course the story starts with that "superhero" trope, the reporter Steve Hartman beginning the whole thing with, "Unlike most superheroes, Jonathan Stoklosa lives with his parents," etcetera, but what happens in the 2:44 spot is pretty beautiful. Jon the weightlifter is shown in his home being a little cranky waking up, then corralling carts in the parking lot of the grocery store where he works, and then working out in the gym where he trains as a power-lifter.
Hartman reports that Jon is an "incredible competitor" who is "not just an incredible Special Olympics powerlifter, but an incredible powerlifter period." It turns out Jon can bench-press over 400 pounds, and competes and wins routinely in a regular old power-lifting contests. The story ends with an examination of Jon's work ethic, and the final image is of him unloading an old lady's groceries into the trunk of her car.
"Ever crush any eggs when you're bagging people's groceries?" Hartman asks.
Jon just looks at him and shrugs, "Oh please."
What happens in this little segment is metaphor and hyperbole being matched by reality and common sense. Jon's identity both as a weight-lifter and a person with Down syndrome creates a territory where meaning and symbol crash into one another, and what's left in the aftermath is a guy who works at a grocery store, works out a lot, lives with his parents, and is just a regular human being. The power-lifting/Down-syndrome representation melts in the presence of telling his simple non-nonsense bio. The "superhero" trope gets erased by an almost accidental focus on Jon's true personhood. We see him just doing what he does. There's not a lot of celebration in the piece, not a lot of jabber. Just everydayness.
Of course without the disability, Jon probably would not be depicted in the media at all. A story has to have a reason to exist, and unfortunately the disability thing was it for him. However, once you have that out of the way, and you just watch the piece you understand that Hartman is trying to critique the structure that imposes that disability rule; he is trying to give us a portrait of Jon that isn't steeped in obstacles he had to overcome, all the "special" people and programs who helped him, and the "miracle" of his accomplishments. It's pretty blunt and articulated clearly: this is Jon. He works at the grocery store. He's a really good power-lifter. His parents are proud. Move on.
When you think about how you yourself would want to be depicted, that seems like one of the best ways. Without heroics or maudlin violins or teary eyes. Just you out in the parking lot, helping some lady with her groceries. It's one of the best ways to rid the world of condescension and sentimentality.
Go on with your bad self Jon.
Here's a link to the story: Jon the Weightlifter on CBS This Morning.