For all of the accumulated praise (for high production value, narrative complexity, etc.), the loosely categorized programs often referred to as “quality television” have also drawn criticism for their regressive politics. Their preferences for white male antiheroes, static (under)representations of women and people of color, and their predilection for violence against such minorities have been increasingly observed. These critiques have adroitly focused on both text and context, teasing out the ongoing dialogues between representational regimes onscreen and the broader ideologies through which they become legible.
Disability and performance have maintained a spectral presence here, lingering in the background of scholarly and popular coverage of “quality television” but rarely warranting sustained attention. Examining performance and disability can raise new questions and further enhance our understanding of television programs and the landscapes upon which their meaning coheres.
Take, for example, Homeland (2011-) and The Bridge (2013-). Both upend the status quo by featuring female protagonists Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) and Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) in predominately-male environments. Homeland and The Bridge are also notable in that both female leads negotiate disability.
Carrie’s bipolar disorder has been an essential feature of both her character development and the overall narrative arc of Homeland’s first three seasons. It is one of the show’s primary catalysts, producing recurrent tension between Mathison’s intuition and the risks she simultaneously creates for herself and the CIA. Carrie’s disability is also highly performative. Her psychological state is etched across Danes’ face, which, rendered in close-up, makes no secret of the show’s investment in a particular equation of disability, narrative, and theatricality.
Though Sonya’s imputed Asperger Syndrome features in paratextual discourse surrounding The Bridge, it has not yet been explicitly identified within the show. Still, Kruger’s affected austerity—prominently featured in the accompany clip—sets her apart. Like Carrie, it renders her both exceptional and abject, essential to the resolution of conflict yet unreliable in the eyes of the patriarchal figures and institutions that discipline her. As with Danes, Kruger’s performativity is the ostensible key to the character’s disability and her uniqueness [distinction from those around her]. While Danes’ face performs the extremes intended to convey bipolar disorder, Kruger’s unaffectedness conflicts with the dramatic extremes surrounding her.
Further investigation of performance and disability can enhance our understandings of the nuances of representation and identity as they play out against broader ideological backdrops onscreen and off.