Fantastic ableism and disability: the Amnesia Girl

Warning: this post contains brief discussion of lynching, sexual assault, and caregiver abuse. Spoilers for season 2 of Grimm and Once Upon a Time and the series finale of Chuck.

When Grimm and Once Upon a Time premiered in fall of 2011, there was a lot of buzz about there being two shows on the schedule featuring fairy tale characters in modern settings, capitalizing on the popularity of revamped fairy tales sweeping Hollywood at the time. Based on this similarity, media outlets and even fans were apt to put the shows in competition with one another. Obviously, only one could survive the season. The competitive spirit faded as the season wore on and the shows demonstrated how very different they were from each other. Once Upon a Time proved itself to be a family-friendly show committed to the power of True Love, while also being a spiritual heir of Lost (the difference being that Once actually answers the numerous questions it raises; unfortunately, everyone in the audience has figured out the answers long before they are revealed). On the other hand, Grimm is a gritty noir procedural where love is vulnerable to secrecy and the chaos of the universe, while also bearing a structural resemblance to Buffy: the Vampire Slayer (the difference being that Slayers are women oppressed by patriarchy but empowered by magic; Grimms (and Nick specifically) bear great institutional power and are empowered by magic, which can make them scary as all hell).

Yet, perhaps based on their shared fairy tale origins, this season Grimm and Once have a remarkably similar subplot of women in established relationships experiencing magical amnesia and losing the memories of their boyfriends. On Grimm, after being dosed with a magic potion, Juliette awakens from a coma with all her memories, but she has no idea who her boyfriend, the titular Grimm, is. On Once Upon a Time, Belle (of Beauty and the Beast fame) is pushed over the magical barrier surrounding the town full of fairy story characters, which causes her to lose her memories of her life as a fairy tale character, including her One True Love relationship with Rumpelstiltskin. Belle’s amnesia is nowhere as selective as Juliette’s, but Once‘s narrative focuses almost exclusively on the effect it has on her love life, rather than her friendship with Ruby or her complicated relationship with her father. (This isn’t the first time Once has run this story; last season, Snow White took a potion to forget her One True Love, Prince Charming, but was cured within a few episodes.) Both Belle and Juliette’s amnesia girl storylines are most likely inspired by the final episodes of the sci-fi dramedy, Chuck, wherein the female lead’s memories of her husband are erased. The series’ happy ending is the couple’s decision to try to work things out whether or not she regains her memories.

On the other hand, Belle and Juliette’s experience of selective magical amnesia differs from Sarah’s experience on Chuck, because Sarah retains her agency to a degree. Even with funky sci-fi amnesia, Sarah travels the globe fighting crime, while Belle and Juliette are purposefully disempowered by their friends and lovers. Before some of their memories were magicked away, Belle and Juliette were assertive women who used their formidable book learning and compassion to fight on the side of good, while also demanding honesty from their romantic partners. After Belle and Juliette acquire magical amnesia, their friends and lovers conspire to keep certain things secret from them for “their own good.” Nick and Rumpel go back on commitments to maintain honesty with their girlfriends after they get amnesia. Nick, for one, was absolutely convinced that the only way to keep Juliette safe and maintain their relationship was to tell her the truth about the creature world and him being a Grimm. This is suddenly unimportant once Juliette has amnesia. It’s worth noting that Belle is also endangered by not knowing about the magical side of Storybrooke, especially when she has in the past been harmed and imprisoned as a way of getting to her boyfriend. Her friends think the best way they can protect her is by keeping her uninformed and locked up in a hospital. Were they to share the truth with her, she might not believe them, but at least she would have a little warning about certain murderers walking freely throughout the town.

It seems the acquirement of a disability somehow justifies a paternalistic shielding of the truth and isolation of women, particularly those who don’t fit into the masculinized Action Girl stereotype. In other words, all the gains Belle and Juliette made toward honesty and empowerment in their romantic relationships are erased like their memories, because their partners believe that, as disabled women—as disabled, white women, in particular—they can’t handle the truth or know what’s best for themselves. Their partners are backed up in this decision by friends and family members, which shouldn’t be all that surprising given that, in the real world, people typically take the sides of men and the able-bodied—even in fairly clear cut cases like men raping women or able-bodied caregivers murdering disabled children. The supposed fragility of white womanhood also serves as a rallying point for friends and family members in the real world (as it does subtextually in Grimm and Once) in situations ranging in severity from paternalistically conspiring to limit a white woman’s opportunities for her own good… all the way to murdering, sexually assaulting, and desecrating the corpses of black men on trumped up charges of looking at white women the wrong way. (Weaponized femininity isn’t just a trendy topic on Tumblr; it’s been a tool of white supremacy for centuries.)

In that sense, the amnesia girl trope on Grimm and Once Upon a Time reflects the realities of gendered and racialized ableism in an honest (if uncritical) fashion. However, the way those two stories are told does a good deal to perpetuate sexism and ableism in the real world.

First, the order of events inevitably encourages sympathy with the male love interest. Both of these stories, even though the events are happening to the woman, are told from the point of view of the man. How so? Well, the audience has roughly the same knowledge of what is happening and what has happened as the man. We’re placed in the shoes of Nick and Rumpel, who’ve lived the TV series we’ve been watching for one-and-a-half seasons. We know that the version of events they remember is true because we’ve been tuning in every week. So, the audience is placed in this powerful position of certainty rather than the vulnerable uncertainty experienced by Belle and Juliette.

Now, imagine if the first episodes of Once and Grimm started with Belle and Juliette, respectively, waking up in the hospital and having men they’ve never seen before burst into their rooms and tell them that they are sleeping together. Like Belle and Juliette, the audience has no idea if these men are telling the truth. The men will have to earn our and their trust. We would also experience alongside them the frustration of not knowing what is going on and being kept in the dark (for them, by the other characters, and for us, by the show itself). We would be encouraged to identify with the disabled woman as she experiences disability, ableism, and sexism, which would make for radical (and more suspenseful) television.

Second, the stories position disability as a temporary plot point to be overcome through magic or the Power of Love, rather than a natural part of life. This has not-so-nice connotations in a real world where people with disabilities are constantly being asked to “overcome” their disabilities by shear willpower. A common example is people with depression being told to “get over it” or “think positively.” (Yeah, asshole, if you think I had the power to think positively right now, I would be depressed?) In another example, disabled people are often denied accommodations due to the assumption that they can just “power through it” or “manage without.”

As strange as it may sound, real life disabled people are often expected to overcome their disabilities through the Power of Love. As in, “If you really loved me, you would get better/stop embarrassing me in public/do this thing made impossible or difficult by your disability…” For disabled children, their ability to act “normal” or “get better” is many times attached to their parents’ happiness. A kid might notice that their parents are pleased when she does well in physical therapy, but they get upset when she can’t lift herself up on the jungle gym during recess. The kid loves her parents so she wants them to be happy, which requires her to “get better” or at least fake better.

By making disability an obstacle to be overcome by sympathetic characters, Grimm and Once are setting up their audience to cheer for the eradication of that disability, which, if real life is any indication, often comes at the expense of the disabled character. Over time, Rumbelle and Nick/Juliette shippers might find themselves frustrated with the women for not remembering their True Loves as they and their disability become the one thing standing in the way of their happily ever after. (It’s worth noting that some Grimm fans have actually lashed out at Juliette for “making” Nick sleep on the couch rather than sharing her bed with a guy she has absolutely no memories of. A good many have also yelled all sorts of slut-shamey things at Juliette for becoming violently obsessed with another man due to the same magic that gave her super selective amnesia. (ETA: see also this confession submitted by a Grimm fan to Grimm Confessions. Commentary mine.)

Interestingly, in this instance, the problem with Once and Grimm‘s storytelling doesn’t lie in their adherence to troubling tales from a less enlightened era, but from their perpetuation of present day myths through narrative techniques that grant a more sympathetic depiction to those with great power—literally, in terms of magical power and societal power. The very premise of Once and Grimm is to bring stories from the past into the present; both shows could go one step further in bringing attitudes and biases in storytelling from the present into the future—a realm of infinite possibility. By re-imagining not only classic stories but also classic storytelling, Once and Grimm could make its audiences rethink the stories of their childhood and the cultural biases that haunt them into adulthood. When stories are told differently, our perceptions of characters, the world they live in, and the world we live in can change, which is something Grimm and Once, as stories about storytelling, should harness for the good of their audiences.

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People with disabilities? In my sci-fi? It's more likely than you think.

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