On Monday, Technician published a review of the film “Don’t Look Up.” The writer, Caryl J. Espinoza Jaen, articulated a number of criticisms toward the new Netflix comedy/drama from writer-director Adam McKay. Among critiques of the movie’s aesthetic choices and storytelling techniques, Espinoza Jaen made a rather tasteless remark to poke fun at McKay’s dialogue.
“And as far as the dialogue goes? So ham-fisted it makes me crave hearing loss,” Espinoza Jaen wrote.
This line jumped out at me, especially because the editorial staff used it as the article’s pull quote for social media. What’s even more striking is that the paragraph following this sentence is a criticism of the film’s portrayal of marginalized communities. Pairing an ableist joke with a message of social commentary is problematic from a journalistic perspective.
When I was the associate features editor of Technician from 2014-2015, I was known more for being the resident pop culture guru than for being the only wheelchair user on staff. I had been writing for the paper since my freshman year, but I didn’t start writing about my disability until I was a junior. Even then, I only wrote an occasional op-ed about this subject.
I have lived with a neuromuscular disability called spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) for my entire life. I acquired my first power wheelchair at the age of two, but even I didn’t fully grasp the concept of ableism when I was growing up. Though I knew that comments such as, “don’t get a speeding ticket” irked me, I didn’t know there was a term for this type of ignorance.
The Center for Disability Rights defines ableism as “a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual or psychiatric disabilities and often rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be ‘fixed’ in one form or the other.” Like many prejudices, ableism permeates our society through large institutions such as government and education, but also through social interactions and seemingly harmless jokes.
When I read Espinoza Jaen’s “crave hearing loss” line, it brought up memories of my elementary school peers saying things like, “Wow, I wish I could sit in a wheelchair all day!” Even some of the most kind-hearted and sincere people I’ve known in my life have made ableist remarks. And in all honesty, I don’t blame them. Since ableism is institutionalized, our society is woefully ignorant of its effects.
And hey, when I wrote negative movie reviews, I made jokes as well if the material was especially bad. Criticism and humor often make great partners. Nonetheless, there are myriad ways to joke about what one deems bad dialogue in a screenplay that doesn’t potentially trigger deaf individuals.
I won’t label anyone as ignorant or write in a spiteful manner. Rather, I wish to urge Espinoza Jaen and the rest of the editorial staff to be more cognizant of disability language in the future. Technician is responsible for representing the entirety of NC State’s student body, and that includes disabled members of the Wolfpack.