Updated: Nov 16
Steve Way and Ramy Youssef in Hulu’s 'Ramy'
Why do able-bodied actors get away with portraying disabled people? The phenomenon, known as ‘disability drag,’ or ‘disability mimicry,’ has garnished able-bodied performers numerous awards and recognition. John Lawson, an actor, and filmmaker who lost his hands in an accident notes that in the past three decades, half of the men that have won an Academy Award for a male leading role have won for playing a disability” (2020.) A white actor impersonating a Native American character – such as Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger,-, generates an almost instant outcry, the same way we now acknowledge that cis actors should refrain from playing transgender folks (i.e. Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent;) But for some reason, disability mimicry still runs rampant and scot-free in both Hollywood and network TV. Beyond the fact that this practice discriminates actors with disabilities who already struggle landing roles, it is quite harmful.
Most of the stories about people with disabilities are told by able-bodied creators, and in their ignorance, they perpetuate damaging stereotypes. More often than not, these narratives present disability as a tragedy, and their disabled characters lack nuance. Asperger Syndrome offers a concrete example of how these stereotypes have harmed the disabled community. Think of America’s two best-known characters on the spectrum: Raymond Babbitt (Rain Man,) and Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. Popular culture has led us to believe that autism mostly affects brilliant white men who exhibit savant skills, but who lack empathy and feelings. If anything, autistic people feel more. These misrepresentations – among other things-, have fueled the medical bias that has prevented many womxn, Latinx and BIPOC from attaining a timely diagnosis that could have validated their experience, and awarded them the practical support they may have needed in the past.
I will now focus briefly on the pervasive cultural attitudes that de-eroticize people with disabilities, and how Hulu’s Ramy offers a potentially empowering portrayal of a disabled character. As Anna Mollow and Robert McRuer claim in Sex and Disability (2012,) able-bodiedness is the foundation of ‘sexy.’ Mollow affirms that “health, slenderness, and the regular pursuit of athletic activities are among the most heavily advertised attributes on online dating services” (285.) Colorado’s version of this includes womxn striking yoga poses atop mountains, ski gear, and male-presenting folks offering freshly caught fish. Ableism is so embedded in our perception of desirability that the idea of a disabled person craving or expressing sexual intimacy makes the general public incredibly uncomfortable. In their study of the sexual lives of people with severe disabilities, Kulick and Rydström (2015) speculate that many able-bodied people
may find it possible to express understanding of and sympathy for the sexual desires of, say, a good-looking, twenty-three-year-old hockey player who breaks his back and ends up paraplegic in a wheelchair. But far fewer people have comparable levels of understanding and sympathy when the person with sexual desires is a fifty-four-year-old man with Down Syndrome or a woman born with cerebral palsy (3.)
Aligned with our neoliberal market values, the media highlights certain bodies over others, namely those that are healthy, young, and gainfully employed; and because all things intersect, bodies become increasingly desirable when they present as white, cis-gendered, heterosexual and middle-class. Additionally, the United States is a country in which freedom and autonomy are romanticized and prized above almost all other traits. This adds to the understanding of dependency as a tragedy. As Sunaura Taylor reminds us in Beasts of Burden “All of us exist along a spectrum of dependency” (2017) We need care when we are born, and will probably require assistance as we age and/or become gravely ill. Dependency is not only natural, but lies at the core of our social ties. Taylor elaborates that “Disabled people… define independence differently, seeing it as the ability to be in control of and make decisions about one’s life, rather than doing things alone or without help” (209.) Under this logic, Ramy succeeds at representing a disabled person with agency.
The show, created by the comedian Ramy Youssef - a New Jersey-born millennial of Egyptian descent,- was the first of its kind to depict a rather ordinary Muslim family on American television. Steve Way, who stars as ‘Steve,’ is a comedian with a rare type of muscular dystrophy and a childhood friend of Youssef. In his quest for authenticity, Youssef consulted with Way to make sure everything they portrayed on-screen was specific to him (abcNews.) Way needs help with things such as eating, washing, and toileting, and the show doesn’t shy away from situations in which Ramy aids his friend. In Episode 8 of the First Season, Ramy agrees to facilitate a date between Steve and a girl he met online. When Steve asks Ramy to purchase alcohol and a box of condoms, his friend objects: “Dude, no. We can’t do this. You have a heart problem. We’re not gonna experiment with sex.” Steve dismisses Ramy’s concern, and asserts his autonomy by saying: “If it happens, be there for the set-up, and I’ll take it from there.” In the same episode, Ramy raises again the alarm when the girl offers Steve a joint, reasoning that it would be ill-advised for someone on a ventilator. Steve explains: “I use a ventilator so I can live… for this.”
Throughout the show, Steve exercises control over his life, and Ramy respects his friend’s choices, even when they make him queasy.
Steve Way and Ramy Youssef. 2019 Hulu, LLC.
In addition to providing an authentically cast person with muscular dystrophy, Ramy offers a window into the sexual needs of people with disabilities in a way that is rarely seen by mainstream audiences. Because sexual agency is a hallmark of adulthood, the idea that people with disabilities do not or should not be interested in sex reinforces the patronizing stereotype that disabled people are child-like and asexual. On the opposite end, when disability and sexuality intersect on-screen it often carries with it a veneer of danger, abuse, and perversion. Entertainment is a conduit of ideology, and as Loree Erickson (2016) remarks, “Repetition is powerful.” Through the reiteration of tropes and visuals that either infantilize disabled people or pathologize their sexuality, we wind up internalizing oppressive hierarchies of desire.
While there certainly are disabled people who are asexual, there are others who want their sexuality to be acknowledged and facilitated when needed. The latter may benefit from the growing number of disability activists who are pushing back against the de-erotization of their bodies. Among them, Andrew Gurza, a self-identified ‘queer cripple’ is working to raise awareness and to initiate conversations surrounding sex and disability via podcasts, blogs, and the use of viral hashtags (such as #DisabledPeopleAreHot and #KissAQueerCripple.) Gurza uses his podcast Disability After Dark, to “shine a bright light on how sexuality and disability feel for real – uncensored.”
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a queer disabled writer, performance artist, and educator. In her contribution to Pleasure Activism (2019), she writes about unlearning ableist visions of what sexy and romantic love ought to look like. She argues that care can be part of a relationship and that it can be a joyful and pleasurable experience. Her wish: “I want everyone to be able to create wildly intimate, healing relationships where your care needs are present in the room, not crammed in the garbage” (315.)
I believe that the first step towards healing would be for disabled people to tell their own stories, and to see themselves reflected on-screen in ways that ring true. Loree Erikson, who is disabled herself, wishes that people with disabilities could view themselves represented in “all their complex splendor and hardship.”
Youssef’s Ramy is a stride in the right direction. Steve Way feels touched by the public’s response to his character. His character is foul-mouthed and funny (‘I can’t physically force myself onto anyone. I’m #metoo proof’.) Some viewers would describe him as an ‘asshole,’ which is part of what makes him relatable. Way affirms that “telling stories of the disabled community that have never been seen on television before is probably the most rewarding feeling I’ll ever have” (Observer.)
I originally set out to write about Episode 7 of Ramy’s Second Season, which takes place in Atlantic City. Inside a magenta-lit hotel room, Ramy and Steve engage in one of the most unusual, cringe, and tender scenes I have seen on television. It inspired my decision to write this article. Instead of detailing the plot, I urge you to watch Ramy.
As an entertainer, Youssef insists on writing from a place of vulnerability and risk. His brand of comedy aspires to bring his ‘fears to the forefront,’ and to touch on things uncomfortable and taboo. In his podcast conversation with Whitney Cummings (2020,) he admits that a lot of what he includes in the show feels nerve-wracking: “I don’t want to put something out, and sleep well. I never want to, because my whole point is to make people feel less alone.”
A Roundtable Discussion about Disability, Sex, Relationships and Dating, moderated by Hannah Witton (Oct 3, 2018.)
‘Ramy’ Actor Steve Way Wonders Why Americans Haven’t ‘Rioted’ Over This One Issue (07/17/20.)
The Young & Muslim Podcast – Episode 093 – RAMY Ft. Ramy Youssef (Jun 17, 2020.)