One of my favourite TV shows is a comedy about a world where everyone has a disability. It begins with Kyle, a young guy who’s an amputee, trying to sneak out of a blind girl’s room after a one night stand. He has to first make his way across the room to retrieve his prosthetic leg, which was flung there the night before in the throes of passion (no pun intended).
He’s almost out the door when he knocks something over. He stops. The girl, who was fast asleep, wakes up. She yells, “Kyle, I can see you! I’m only partially blind—you jerk!”
“Jeremy the Dud” is the name of the show. It’s a comedy about a “world where everyone has a disability” and the ones that don’t are labelled ‘without specialty’ or ‘duds.’ It follows Kyle, an amputee and the “sitcom stud,” as well as a variety of other characters with disabilities, all of them taking on the usual sitcom roles.
And, then, there’s Jeremy. Jeremy is your typical, good looking, able-bodied guy who you would expect to play the lead (think Derek Shepherd in Grey’s Anatomy). In Jeremy the Dud, though, Jeremy is the only character without a disability and he’s cast in the role that a disabled character might typically play in a mainstream sitcom. Jeremy wears a sign around his neck that has a universal symbol denoting his “condition” and the words ‘without specialty’ are printed below. Jeremy gets his own parking space and when someone attempts to park in his spot, his friend Kyle, ever the hero, shouts out the window, “You’re in a [spot] for people without specialty! I happen to be sitting here with a poor man who is not special!”
And, at work, when someone calls Jeremy a “dud,” a colleague intervenes.
“It’s not nice to call people ‘duds,’” she says.
“We say ‘without specialty.’”
“It’s proper,” she adds, self-congratulatory.
The scene ends with Jeremy’s friend asking, “What would you like to be called, Jeremy?” Jeremy pauses and then offers, “Jeremy.”
By casting an able-bodied actor in a role that disabled characters typically play and by casting disabled actors in roles that able-bodied characters usually occupy, Jeremy the Dud exposes the “prejudice, stigma and condescending attitudes people with disabilities [often] face in our society.” Jeremy the Dud shows that, contrary to what we might typically think about people with disabilities, disability can be funny; disability can be sexy; disabled people aren’t always innocent or an inspiration; disabled people can be real jerks, too.
People with disabilities have agency and are diverse in personality, character, and experience. In a similar sense, albeit with some important differences, mothers are another demographic too often portrayed as one-dimensional. Whether in television or film, well-intentioned Hallmark cards or Mother’s Day celebrations, moms are often saddled with any number of expectations: they are either above reproach or beyond repair. They are expected to be eternal objects of desire, the envy of many, yet pure and innocent, unburdened from having desires of their own.
Just as mainstream media can either perpetuate or expose the models of disability or motherhood that get the most air-time in our society, so also Christians can either perpetuate or expose the models that get favoured in our world today. What we read in the Bible, the words we hear from the pulpit, the language used for God at the altar, believe it or not, these things shape how we think about being in the world, whether gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability or motherhood.
The stories the Christian faith is built around, particularly the stories in the gospels where we meet Jesus, these stories have often been used to prescribe how Christians ought to think about things like disability and motherhood and how people with disabilities or how mothers are expected to show up in Church and society.
For example, because of how disability is talked about in scripture, we might think of blindness and deafness as conditions to be cured or metaphors for a negative spiritual state (I was blind to God’s work in my life, but now I see; I was deaf to God’s call, but now I hear). Or, when we hear the story of the paralytic, who’s brought in by his friends to be healed by Jesus, the focus tends to rest on the compassion of the friends or Wow, Jesus healed the paralytic and now that poor guy no longer has to be disabled!
And, when it comes to motherhood, who better to represent mothers than Mary? She’s pure and lowly. She does what God asks of her seemingly without complaint. She’s the one who for centuries has had a saint’s day named after her, not because she’s a unique individual with her own story, but for her perpetual virginity!
What if we looked to the stories in the Bible instead to expose the prejudice, stigma and attitudes people face in Church and society and to broaden our perceptions of others?
If we were to explore models of disability and motherhood in the Gospels, what would we find? Are there certain models that we favour over others? Are there stories in the Gospels where people with disabilities are funny or even angry—not just your typical innocent inspiration? Are there stories where mothers have agency, are diverse in personality, character, and experience? And, are these representations ones that often get told, or are they representations that sometimes get overlooked for more convenient readings where sex appeal, humour, agency, protest belong not to people with disabilities or to mothers, but to the able-bodied stud, or to the men and fathers alone?
It’s on that note that I wish to leave you with some homework on this Mother’s Day. A few weeks ago, we hosted a movie night at St Clement’s. We watched the critically acclaimed film, “Women Talking.” The film told beautiful, varied stories of motherhood and womanhood. The film included portrayals of women and mothers diverse in their experience of gender, sexuality, agency, humour, and anger, and all of these stories were told from within the context of a Christian community.
I am not a mother, though from time to time “Mother Helen” is a title given to me by virtue of my office as a priest. So, if I can rely on that office for just a moment today and say this:
In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles we heard this morning, Paul says to those in his company, “Since we are God’s offspring,” and maybe in the light of the children’s story this morning, we can adapt that and say, “Since we are are Mama God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.” Paul is cautioning his listeners, no matter how well-intentioned they might be, not to box God in, even in packaging as beautiful as gold, silver, or stone.
Likewise, we, the offspring of Mama God, ought to be careful not to box in our human mothers and mother figures, no matter how beautiful the packaging.
Today I want to say that the best mother’s day gift you could give to your priest and to this Christian community made up of many mothers and grandmothers, is the gift of a varied and diverse view of motherhood—one that is both giving and forgiving, as expansive as it is inclusive. And, if you’re looking for a place to start, may I humbly suggest that you begin by watching the film, “Women Talking”? Watch the movie and ask yourself: How is motherhood portrayed in this film? In what ways are the mothers in this film shown to have agency? In what ways are they portrayed as passive? When are they funny? When are they angry? When are they noble and brave? When do they make mistakes? When are they blessed by God?
Daneen Akers and Gillian Gamble, Dear Mama God, Watchfire Media: Canada, 2023)
Ryan Chamley, “Jeremy the Dud”, Robot Army Productions: 2017