How many deleterious stereotypes does season 7, ep 15, “Manipulated,” perpetrate against people with disabilities in the character of Tessa McKellen? [Read the plot summary if you don’t know what I’m talking about.] Let me count the ways…
1. People with disabilities are defined by their disabilities; they’re disabilities first, people second. Almost everyone in Tessa’s life defines her by her dependence on her husband Linus, which is caused by her disability. Tessa also thinks of herself primarily in terms of her disability. The first time that Benson and Stabler meet her, out of nowhere, she volunteers, “Being paralyzed, I guess, makes me a sucker for hard-luck cases,” thus explicitly developing her personality in terms of her disability. She also cites her disability for no particular reason again in the hospital, saying, “I have pneumonia; the diabetes and paralysis make my body more susceptible to infection.” The woman shoehorns her disability into almost every conversation she has with Benson and Stabler.
I am not denying that a person’s disability can affect a person’s personality and contribute strongly to his or her self-definition. I am arguing, however, that it is simplistic to define a character solely in terms of his or her disability. The whole ep, the characters around Tessa and even Tessa herself, however, define her in just such a reductive way.
2. People with disabilities can’t direct their own lives, but must always depend on others for determination of their direction in life. This is a stereotype shown in a very subtle manner by the use of Tessa’s wheelchair. In her first appearance, we see her driving herself in an electric wheelchair. But, for some reason, in all her other appearances, we see her using a manual wheelchair, which someone else, whether a maid, her lawyer or Linus, pushes. What the hell? Why can’t Tessa continue to drive her own wheelchair? It’s already been established that her paralysis and her illnesses do not affect her ability to drive. Why does she need people pushing her around when she can do it herself?
By taking away control of Tessa’s wheelchair for most of her scenes, the show also takes symbolic control of her own life away from Tessa, thus depicting her as a passive pawn of other people’s pushing and shoving. The last appearance of Tessa in her wheelchair, when Linus pushes her directly into the swimming pool, captures the depiction of her as pathetic and vulnerable perfectly. She can’t even try to brake her own wheelchair, even though her arms work perfectly well, as Linus hurtles her toward the water. The show constructs her as so disabled and so passive that she appears ready to drown at someone else’s hands.
3. People with disabilities are attention whores who use their disabilities to get special dispensations. Pretty much everyone on the SVU squad thinks that Tessa is an evil, manipulative person who is using her disability to keep her husband Linus close to her. The character who is the equivalent of the Psychiatric Voice of God on the program, Dr. Huang, even pronounces Tessa “a manipulative, calculating bitch.” Throughout all other episodes, Dr. Huang provides the calm, factual voice of reason, so it’s very easy to take his characterization in stride, even though it is biased.
4. People with disabilities deserve our contempt and dismissal. This unstated belief, part of a larger cultural narrative that disenfranchises and turns actively hostile to people with disabilities, plays itself out chillingly in several ways in the ep. First there’s Dr. Huang’s portrayal of Tessa as a horrible “bitch.” As stated before, this character is shown to be a calm, cool, collected voice of reason, so this venomous, misogynist attack is startlingly unexpected. In fact, given what I’ve seen of Dr. Huang’s character, I would say that it’s out of character for him to say such a thing. It is, however, perfect for making him a mouthpiece of a society that condemns people with disabilities just for existing.
The show also argues that people with disabilities are disgusting and not worthy of life in the final scene. Benson and Stabler have suspicions that Tessa might be lying about the extent of her paralysis, but they have no concrete information. They relay their suspicions to Linus, who promptly pushes Tessa into their swimming pool. Then the detectives and Linus stand around to see what Tessa will do. That’s right: Three able-bodied people, including two who are supposed to be the show’s moral exemplars, just stand around, waiting to see if a paralyzed woman is going to drown. Of course, she pops up swimming, then walking, rescuing herself, but that’s not the point. The point is that Benson, Stabler and Linus direct such hatred and sarcasm at Tessa that they are willing to let her drown just to prove their theory that her paralysis might not be as bad as she claims.
Obviously the show wants you to believe that Tessa deserves to get shoved in the pool after plotting two murders and that the detectives’ suspicions kind of justify Tessa getting shoved in the pool. But this moral calculus elides the fact that Benson and Stabler let Linus seriously threaten the life of a person with a disability. I don’t care how many people Tessa murders; she shouldn’t be drowned. The actions of Linus and the detectives constitute an eliminationist rhetoric that has been used against people with disabilities for thousands of years, and this is perhaps the episode’s gravest flaw: It ultimately advocates murder of those poor, disgusting, useless, contemptible people with disabilities.