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Critics Need to Be More Critical of Stereotypes in TV, Movies

March 30, 1992|LAURA REMSON MITCHELL | Mitchell is a free - lance writer who has lived with multiple sclerosis for many years. She also has served as a volunteer peer counselor for others with the disease. and

If Times reviewer Ray Loynd thinks the CBS movie "In Sickness and in Health" captures "the big picture" of living with multiple sclerosis or any severe disability (" 'In Sickness and in Health' " Tale of Love and Betrayal," Calendar, March 7), he's badly mistaken. What's worse, he's bought into an all-too-common stereotype that communicates a message of worthlessness to disabled women.

The movie's basic story line is a love triangle involving a woman (portrayed by Lesley Ann Warren) with chronic progressive multiple sclerosis, her husband (Tom Skerritt) and the woman (Marg Helgenberger) whom Skerritt hires to help take care of his wife. The relationships here (including the relationship between Warren and her teen-age daughter) are complicated and stressed by the progression of Warren's MS.

It's not easy--either physically or emotionally--to live with MS, and the movie captures that part of the picture admirably. But the "big picture"? No way.

MS follows very different courses in different individuals. The majority of people with MS remain ambulatory throughout their lifetimes, though they often experience problems that aren't obvious to the casual observer, and may need canes or other aids.

It's not as though the movie's makers weren't aware of all this. I was one of several individuals with MS who was contacted in connection with this project. I spoke with co-writer Joyce Eliason and met with director Jeff Bleckner. I also provided written material about living with MS in particular and disability in general.

The "big picture" that Loynd accepts was manufactured by ignoring anything that didn't justify an ending to which the movie's makers apparently were committed from the beginning.

The movie cut out a scene from the script in which Warren's character tries to reassure a woman just diagnosed with MS by pointing out that the chronic progressive form is in the minority.

But the restoration of that scene wouldn't really solve the problem either. You could never tell from "In Sickness and in Health," but with the proper support services, individuals with severe disabilities are capable of living productive, independent lives.

The medical center-nursing home pictured in the movie is a total invention--one that is a far cry from the reality of life in a nursing home. But the idealized facility makes it easy for viewers--and apparently Loynd--to accept Warren's decision to "let her husband go" while choosing to remain.

Loynd's review praises this decision as heroic. The unspoken message is that "good" people with disabilities should voluntarily shut themselves away so that non-disabled folk don't have to feel guilty. It's a rotten message.

It's about time reviewers became more critical when it comes to stereotypes. As movies like "My Left Foot" demonstrate, there is real drama--not just melodrama--in the lives of people with disabilities. Maybe if critics start holding movies and TV to a higher standard, the entertainment industry will wake up and start telling those stories honestly.

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