The sentimentalized narrative, or, "God Bless the USA"

Recently my friend from high school who is now a famous blogger, Tracy Moore, sent me an email in which she asked,

Have you seen this video about the kid with autism who makes a basketball hoop? People are posting this like crazy on Facebook lately, and it's one of those posts where everyone is going nuts for how much this "makes their day" and people watch it and comment and say that like anyone who doesn't cry when they see this video is dead inside and other assorted up with people type responses.

But when I watch the video -- it's a basketball game at a high school somewhere where they let this kid with autism shoot some hoops and he "miraculously" makes them and the crowd goes wild with happiness -- it just really makes me think of the conversation you have going on your blog about representations of intellectual disability.

First off, they are crazy hard shots to make, so it'd be cool to watch anyone nail like 18 points at the very last minute of a game. But I guess my problem with the video, as best as I can articulate, is along the lines of what you write about Down Syndrome depictions. If we act like it's some miracle from heaven that a kid with autism can make some baskets, isn't this setting shooting hoops as this really high bar that we are supposed to regard as amazing and rare? When really this probably isn't as exceptional as the video makes it?

Also, I barely know anything about autism aside from a story or two I've reported that relates to it, but I do know that there's a spectrum, and this news story says nothing about that, and just sets up the viewer to believe that this one kid represents "autism." Here is a kid with autism, it says. And that having autism means it's crazy rare to be able to shoot a basket. Intellectual disabilities -- do they always go hand in hand with physical ones? Meaning, is it weird to assume someone with an intellectual disability couldn't be good at basketball? It just seems incongruous to assume so.

Anyway, I'd love to hear your thoughts -- you may have already been sent it, but it'd be great to read your take on it. Maybe something for Baxter Sez if you need it.

I responded:

I've been hearing about that video, but Biffle and I watched it together this morning because of your email, and it represents a problem I've been planning to blog about, what I'm calling the sentimentalized narrative, the story that's "miraculous" or "absolutely amazing," that makes a room full of typical people weep and offer a standing ovation. It's just a version of the standard pity narrative, and it makes me a bit sick to my stomach.

We see versions of this narrative all the time, often--but not always--with sports. I've seen lots of videos of the kid who was the team "manager" who's allowed to suit up on the last day, at the last game, and is allowed to "play," with everybody keeping their hands off and making it all about the "special kid." (Okay, I'm getting weary of my own scare quotes, but you see what I mean). I've seen it with other basketball instances but also football and baseball.  Why wasn't that kid allowed some meaningful inclusion during the whole season? This is where the Special Olympics is a nice contrast: those athletes train, work really hard, and compete meaningfully. And with this latest video: if that kid is that good at basketball (making six three-point shots, which seems pretty significant), why wasn't he an actual member of the team?

I saw a different version of this sentimentalized narrative a couple of days ago. A high school senior with an intellectual disability loved to sing, and through some parental maneuverings he got connected to a professional singer who came to the student's high school choral performance, pulled him up on stage with him, and together they sang--are you ready for this?--Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA." I'm in a ballroom where this video is shown. The audience of mostly typical adults is gasping. Tears are beginning to flow. I pulled out my cell phone and texted Biffle,
"I am watching a video of a 'special kid' singing proud to be an American. It's like a terrible parody of what I want Maybelle's opportunities to be. LH mercy."
Then, "He and [the professional singer] are really proud to be Americans. Ppl are weeping."
Then, "Standing ovation. Please let's not let that be Maybelle's future.

Biffle and I already had boatloads of scorn for "God Bless the USA." As he observes, we're jaded, so that's a song which presents a version of patriotism that we pretty thoroughly despise ("at least I know I'm free"?  This is the reason you're proud?). Even more to the point, he says it's a song that offers no real emotion, but just pushes a button, like certain violin techniques in movies. You get to the end of the first verse, and you're supposed to start crying, and your body knows it, even though nothing meaningful has been offered. It is, itself, a sentimentalized narrative. This is why it's the perfect song to have the person with an intellectual disability sing. As a culture we're prepared to see them through a "bless their hearts" dehumanizing pity lens.

The audience didn't offer a weepy standing ovation because they realized that the student with the intellectual disability was a great singer (or a good basketball player, or even an interesting person to get to know). A billion people aren't posting the basketball video to Facebook because it's helped them to understand autism in a clearer, more complex way. Instead, it's the seemingly kind side of a toxic stereotype.

Okay, this email will probably become my blog post. Is it okay if I quote you to start it off?


(She said yes.)

Editorial note:  Here's an additional insight from brilliant graduate student Jamie Huff, who used to be a brilliant undergraduate in WGS at the College of Charleston:

I was thinking about the "God Bless the USA" song/conference moment we were talking about at breakfast. We talked about how the song says nothing, but I was thinking about how it also does more than that. The specific political representation of having a person with an intellectual disability sing this song erases the history of disability in the US. For example, how can this person with a disability really "at least know" that he or she "is free" in a county whose court system produced Buck v. Bell? Or needed the intervention of the ADA? Or that issues reports each year about how many people with disabilities die from neglect, ignorance, and outright violence in state-run group homes in New York (but doesn't do much to change it)? "God Bless the USA" simply pretends that those things didn't and aren't happening, and to do that is more than neglectful, it is violent (in the sense that my advisor uses the term "epistemic violence"). Sorry for the long email--I just had a serious critical theory moment with that song.


Aaron said...

I saw the video a few days ago and really enjoyed seeing all of those 3-pointers getting scored. But, my first reaction was "i bet that coach feels terrible." Of course the kid should've been out there playing and practicing all season. The crazy thing is, you know he practiced shooting every chance he got (that's why he was able to adapt so quickly to the extra anxiety/energy that comes from playing in a game), so the coaches/players were probably well aware of his abilities on the court. If he was fully integrated onto the team it would have been a more rewarding experience for him than a one night thing.

Of course I'm just guessing at all of this.

Alison said...

"I bet that coach feels terrible" = an excellent response.

Crittle said...

Or at least that coach SHOULD.

Gag at this whole ordeal. I hate this. And totally agree with you. How come we're in the minority though?

I vow to tackle the person who attempts to give my daughter a pity crown at Homecoming. I swear.

Tawanda Bee said...

I watched the video a while back... and then again recently. My reaction was awe and amazement. This kid- any kid- disability or not- was on fire making low percentage shots one after the other! I cannot make judgements about why he was not on the team, playing each and every week,because I do not have the whole story. I do know there are lots of kids that do not make the team or make the team and get to sit on the bench all year. If one of the other kids that had not played all year did these amazing feats, my awe at the joy he created in the gym would have been just as big.

I did not see the story and think "the kid with autism showed them!" I watched the story and thought "the kid who had not gotten to play all year knocked their socks off." This is coming from the mother of an athlete who did some bench sitting... This comes from someone who both hates the "anything to win" mentality and then loves the winning. I am a walking contradiction!

Your post has given me pause, and I look forward to giving this some more thought!

PS when I hear GOd Bless the USA or that other sucky song Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue I want to scream or cry or move to Costa Rica.

Sending love you from Nashville

Alison said...

Tawanda Bee, I believe you that your awe and joy would have been just as high regardless!

And Crittle, I almost included the pity Homecoming crown in this post, but then I thought I'd get distracted. But yes, the pity Homecoming crown is exactly the same phenomenon!

Trey said...

Re: the singing incident


Alison said...

Whoa, that's a distressing video, although distressing in a way that doesn't upset me politically.

And dude, you have to make that a live link.

Anonymous said...

I just went to visit your friend Tracy's blog and broke my cardinal rule never to comment when there are more than 15 comments! Great writing!
That being said I feel such inner conflict about these video's. I utterly agree with you (all) about the pity factor but the Mom part of me can't help but grin when someone comes up to me and compliments my child. Is it pity motivated? Hard to suss out. How to find a way to respect people's sentimental ways as not Just pity but also as only partially informed audience's that are cracking their shut doors open and giving the world an opportunity to see/move to the next threshold of awareness?
Hope that makes sense...