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The Anger Series, Post 1: TV and Movie Tropes

Wow, try tackling anger in a single post. Our blogs are supposed to be short pithy reads, no more than 1,000 words. I ramble over my limit about a third of the time. This topic will take several weeks to cover, even with it narrowed down to the anger experienced by people with disabilities over their condition.

I’ll start with the way it’s handled in movies and on TV, because that’s a reflection of society’s perceptions, and a good way to warm up to the subject. Then we’ll move on to how different people have different relationships with anger, depending on a variety of factors. Next, I’ll talk about my own anger in the hope that it strikes a chord with some of you, and invite you to talk about yours. There will be a fourth capstone post about moving past anger to self-reinvention.

In movies and shows in which a character acquires a disability (usually a visible one), there is always a meltdown scene with the physical therapist. It’s a predictable trope (repeated theme); the character starts therapy and does well for the first few appointments, then has trouble with a prescribed exercise and has a tantrum, eventually dissolving in tears. You’ve all seen this story many times. In my pre-crash body, I actually thought, “oh, here we go, must we always have this tiresome scene?” I don’t think I was lacking in empathy as much as I was responding to an emotionally overwrought scene that tried to pack too much grief process into a 5-minute clip.

I’ve seen it done with every combination of male or female patient and therapist. The scene often happen in a hydrotherapy pool, probably because the water element makes it more dramatic by adding the danger of drowning (Alex in 13 Reasons Why, for a recent example). The worst ones end with the therapist comforting the patient through the tears and they end up kissing. That device, used to introduce romance, is kind of insulting to professional therapists who would never cross that line.

The Therapy Meltdown Scene is a distillation of a larger process, condensed for screen time. I asked my occupational therapist about it and he said people usually come to their appointment in an emotionally guarded frame of mind and they process their rage in private. It’s common for them to be sullen, even belligerent, but tantrums are rare. They usually happen at home in private, while trying to do a simple task that has become difficult.

The best-done scene I’ve ever watched was in a little-known series called Robson Arms, a 3-season series that was a project of the University of British Columbia’s film school. It explored the braided lives of the residents of an apartment complex in Vancouver. Leslie Nielsen portrayed his usual affable goofball character, but with a hard edge. He had just returned from rehab as a new paraplegic, after a car accident that he caused as a drunk driver. He ruined his own life and his anger manifested in him being a jerk to everyone around him. After deliberately dropping things on the floor in the building’s convenience store to make the 40-ish clerk bend over repeatedly so he could look down her blouse, he went into his apartment and rolled up the wheelchair-ramp over the step to his kitchen, where he used his reacher tool to open his cabinet and grab a glass for the bottle of Scotch in his lap. He dropped the first glass and broke it, then lashed out and swept all the glasses to the floor with the reacher, and sat there sobbing alone in a silent apartment, surrounded by broken glass. That was an authentic anger scene. (And I was impressed to see this comic actor play it so well.)

In Northern Exposure, they introduced Mike Monroe, a character (played by Anthony Edwards) who had Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), an invisible disability. Mike lived in a geodesic dome built from a kit, with an airlock entry to seal out contaminants. Visitors had to arrive with no perfumed products on, and don paper suits over their clothes before they could enter. There was only one doctor in Cicely, Alaska, and it fell to Dr. Joel Fleischman to care for Mike. The problem was, Joel didn’t believe in MCS and thought Mike was a hypochondriac. When Joel explained his feelings to his friend Maggie, who was attracted to Mike and sympathetic to his condition, Joel asked, “Where’s the anger?” This is a common thing out in the world—it ties in to last week’s post about how people with limiting conditions aren’t believed if they’re caught enjoying themselves. I, too, have many allergies and sensitivities, and I know Mike went through his anger in the early stages, when he didn’t understand why he was sick all the time. Once you isolate the causes and learn to manage your health, there is joy in each new discovery of what you can do. You’ve already dealt with losing it all; every new thing is a victory. Mike had this great new place where he was in control of his health, and he was beginning a new chapter of life. He was happy and excited over every new thing he found himself able to do in Alaska, far from most pollutants. The relationship between Mike and Dr. Joel evolved throughout the season, creating an opportunity for the viewer to weigh the evidence and judge Mike as a hypochondriac, a brave man managing a complex condition, or something in the middle.

I’m sure every one of you can remember a bunch of Therapy Meltdown Scenes from countless movies and hospital shows. There is a normal grief process for loss of function, whether you were born with your condition and first notice that something is different about you, or you acquired it later in life. By necessity, entertainers have to condense these stories into the time allowed for a movie or TV spot, and there is a huge range in how well they do that. As viewers are flooded with streaming options, story writing is becoming more competitive, and we can look forward to more effort being put into these scenes. If you want to learn more about tropes, check out Next week we’ll turn off the TV and talk about reality.

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