The debut of Charity Dingle’s disabled son Ryan Stocks this week was met with applause from fans who immediately took the character into their hearts. Esther Ignagni MSc, PhD, an Associate Professor at the School of Disability Studies, explains why Ryan and the casting of a disabled actor is so important.
I started watching Emmerdale in 2010 after I heard about the casting of Kitty McGeever in an interview by the brilliant duo, Mat Fraser and Liz Carr, on the BBC’s disability talk show podcast, Ouch! For those of you who don’t remember, McGeever was a blind actor who played the warm and funny Lizzie Lakely – housemate to Marlon, best friend to Lisa and ‘torch-holder’ for Bob (ah, no one is perfect). She stands out for me as the only sober person when Gennie needed a drive to the hospital as she went into labour during the 2013 live episode. It was a fine moment of ‘crip’ humour.
Since then, I’ve watched Emmerdale with interest, and sometimes with frustration, at the show’s representation of disability. There are lows – particularly storylines that clash with my disability politics – but for the most part, Emmerdale positions disabled lives as dignified and vital.
Ryan Stock’s debut as Charity Dingle’s son, played by the actor James Moore, is poised to continue this tradition. From what I can tell, Ryan’s character and Moore’s casting was a surprise to many fans, who, like me, entertained a number of speculative scenarios as to Charity’s son’s identity – Joe, Gerry, Simon, the guy who sold Ross the weird gun, a teetotaler, a posh businessman … the possibilities swirled and then landed in a most unexpected place.
I’ll pause here to let you know that I write as a disabled woman. I have strong activist and work connections with the Disability Justice communities in Canada and the UK. I’m going to write in my ‘disability’ persona as a bit of a shout out to the many disabled, Mad, Deaf, spoonie and autistic viewers I know love Emmerdale – but I’ll try to do some translation for the non-disabled readers of the Emmerdaily.
There is so much that’s encouraging about Ryan’s introduction. One of Ryan’s most promising features is his Dingle blood. I love all the Emmerdale families, but involvement with the Dingles is a sure sign that the character will be treated seriously and be noticed by the fans. Being a Dingle means there’s a family legacy to fulfill, and a constellation of ready-made relations ranging from affable to conflicted. More importantly, the Dingles are ‘crip’ – they unsettle normative expectations of family, sexuality, work and just everyday life. They are the best kind of trouble – loosening life’s rigid and impossible rules making more space for all of us. Ryan with his ‘unfiltered’ commentary will surely enrich the Dingles and will definitely make new space for disabled people in the imaginations of the Emmerdale audience.
There might not be consensus on this – but I’d argue that Ryan’s got some potential ‘disability-chic’ going on. Disability-chic comes from the stance of ‘this is who I am, and I like it, and you will too’. For many of us, leaving our home, insisting on work, school and everyday dignity is an act of defiant resistance. To travel in a world in which we are not anticipated and often not welcome means we have to make ourselves desirable. Cain or Debbie’s death stares won’t work! Instead, through charisma, ‘edge’, wit, humour, generosity of spirit and patience, we try to put people at ease while redirecting their curious gaze from our bodies back to their own assumptions and attitudes. Ryan does this already – he’s warm, funny, empathetic, teasing, generous with both his mum and Charity. I enjoyed watching him call out Charity on her crass comments about his ‘carer’ and her initial inability to see past his impairments, then pivot to call her into their shared rudeness. This cheeky ‘push and pull’ plays with the fascination and fear many still have about disability. Ryan has already begun to put this into action – a great start.
Nothing about us without us
James Moore is a disabled actor playing a disabled character. Okay, this seems obvious, but don’t underestimate the difficulty disabled actors have in entering drama school/training, accessing auditions and securing parts. Too often, we’ve had to endure ‘cripping up’ in which non-disabled performers portray disabled characters (often with great critical acclaim and accolades while aspiring disabled actors fill out their Work Capacity Assessment forms). In response, disabled artists and performers have adapted the movement’s rallying call ‘nothing about us without us’ – arguing that there should be no representations of disabled lives that aren’t informed and reflected by disabled folks. Emmerdale’s made some moves in this direction by casting Moore in the role of Ryan, connecting him to a longstanding, popular character like Charity and making him key to a significant and building storyline. Emmerdale has placed a disabled character at the forefront, imbued him with disability consciousness and done so without making his disability the central focus. This is a rare but massive commitment to disability representation in popular culture. I’m impressed.
More than a token
Ryan has already begun to emanate some character detail – he’s a good son, ‘gobby’, unfiltered and counter-culture. The younger straight women in my office are not fans of his ‘grunge’ look, but are all reminded of a friend from the hockey arena, the bar, university or the used record shop (excuse the Canadianisms). Being able to connect his appearance to people in our lives is a good way to humanize him – to allow our daydreams to fill in the details we don’t yet have.
I can sense an interesting division of opinion about Ryan. My co-worker with cerebral palsy suggests that “his different gait and speech contribute to his charm”. She’s “warmed by this showing of crip desirability” (see below). While it’s uncertain if Ryan is destined for the front cover of a men’s magazine, he’s provoking a range of audience responses. The glimpses of his crip humour, disability chic and disability consciousness assert that he is much more than the token disabled character who is just a plot twist or plot point in a tragic tale.
Issues of diagnosis and ‘cause’ are tricky for Emmerdale, or popular culture generally, to maneuver. I love the stories around Leo and Eliza – but these children are in some ways more defined by their diagnoses than by their characterization. Of course, we can hope this will shift as they mature. Other exceptional issue-led stories, like Ashley’s dementia, Belle’s schizophrenia or even Aaron’s self-harm, place the ‘diagnosis’, symptoms, cause, and prognosis at the heart of the story – as something that the characters battle or accept.
However, the ‘cause’ of Ryan’s disability is already behind him, if it was ever there at all. Emmerdale has already neatly shut down discussions of diagnosis or cause. On Tuesday, Charity asked if her past actions had caused Ryan’s cerebral palsy. The question is understandable given the conditions of her pregnancy and our cultural tendency to try to blame something/someone for impairments. Irene, speaking for disabled families everywhere, deflected the question, given the impossibility of being able to ever know its answer. Crucially, she suggested that it wasn’t a question that needs to be asked. To ask how someone ended up disabled is to suggest that they would be better off not being who they are.
At the same time, Ryan’s disability is impossible to ignore. Nor should we ignore it. We see so few performances by actors who move and speak in unexpected ways – James Moore is a rare and exciting exception. When my fellow activists and I talk about disability publicly, we urge our audiences to embrace the difference that disability makes. Ryan will speak slowly, he may be misunderstood, his movements may tend towards staccato, his rhythm may have its own balance and he may drink his beer through a straw (aka to us in crip communities as ‘the freedom tube’). As these differences get taken up into his stories and scenes – how will they change the ways in which other characters interact or the flow of village life? No doubt Emmerdale’s production process has had to change to follow ‘crip time’ – differences in pacing, progress and productivity that come from living with different bodies and minds. I’m looking forward to learning if and how Emmerdale works with the difference that disability makes. And I’m eager to see how Emmerdale uses this difference to tell new and interesting stories.
I doubt I’m going to wholeheartedly love everything about Ryan’s representation. I already felt an uncomfortable twinge at the interplay between the Ryan and Charity scenes and Ross’s scenes of despair. I thought both sets of scenes were so strong – but the trouble is that it’s easy to slot Ryan into the good, self-accepting disabled hero in contrast to Ross as the self-doubting and angry victim. In comparison to Ross (and I would argue Ryan’s morally flawed half-siblings), he may be set up to be a ‘supercrip’ – a disabled character who has extraordinary strengths and talents that make them ‘better than human’. Aside from creating a one-dimensional character, the supercrip trope is always overly moral and castigating. They make the rest of us think – well if that person can overcome all those challenges – what’s my problem? That gets annoying fast.
Another small worry is that because Ryan is a new character, we will primarily see him through the point of view of established characters. There was such a moment on Tuesday night when we see Ryan walk away from Charity in the park. Ryan’s gait seemed the focus, and I wondered if we were meant to witness, with Charity, the extent of his impairment. I can’t definitively say that Emmerdale made us ‘stare’ at Ryan. Disabled people are used to being the object of the stare – and it turns us into a ‘spectacle’. This point of view can only limit Ryan’s character – as the audience would only witness Ryan through pity, awe or discomfort. I don’t want that perspective again, and I was glad we didn’t get it on Wednesday.
And yet, I don’t want Emmerdale to take the spotlight off of Ryan’s disability – because there are untold stories to be explored. I know better than to ask a television program to do too much for me, but I can’t help myself. I hope that Ryan has crip friends. I long for many moments of disability humour – even if only some of us appreciate them. Maybe we’ll get to see the many smart and cutting ways we can deflect casual ableism. More seriously, we may see what it takes to get disabling barriers dismantled. We might witness the tremendous price British disabled people have paid in the name of austerity. And, in a more soapy vein, I look forward to how the producers handle Ryan’s potential intimate stories. There’s a whole world of provocative crip sex out there! It guarantees a change from the cheating storylines that have attracted recent fan criticism.
Judging from this week’s twitter and fan forum response, the audience likes Ryan (and James Moore) as much as I do. Emmerdale is giving us a compelling story of complicated histories and unfolding kinship. Propelled into the heart of the action, Ryan’s story has already avoided common moralistic disability narratives.
I hope Emmerdale doesn’t visit too many disability tropes throughout Ryan’s journey. The risk is real – since I think soaps are successful because they blend the everyday familiar with dramatic spectacle. Unfortunately, disability tropes are painfully familiar.
Similarly real are the possibilities of Ryan’s character putting forth fresh, culturally interesting representations of disability. Given Emmerdale’s broad reach and the ways representation and understandings of disability are entangled, this is exciting. In the meantime, welcome Ryan, we’re delighted to meet you.
Thanks to The Emmerdaily for this opportunity! Thanks also to my crip sisters Eliza Chandler, Chelsea Jones and Kim Collins who valiantly took a crash course in Emmerdale history and made their own contributions to this commentary.