*This is a guest post by Petra Anders, Ph.D.*
Michael Akers’ drama Morgan (2012) deals with a young man named Morgan who used to be an enthusiastic cyclist. He had won a lot of medals and awards but after having had a severe accident Morgan sees himself confronted with paraplegia. His mother, his friend Lane and Dean, his new love(r), become important people on his way back to everyday life.
In this text I investigate stereotypes, the characters’ language in regard to disability and the filmmakers’ decision not to use a disabled actor on the one hand, and the film’s innovative beginning, the fact that there are no flashbacks, its easy-going representation of sexuality in a romantic relationship and, Morgan’s need for help and an adjusted environment on the other. The main assumption of this text is: the empathetic approach (of the film) and the deliberate research done regarding the main character’s disability makes Aker’s drama Morgan a rare example of a realistic portrayal of a disabled person who can not only live with his sexual orientation but have a romantic relationship, too.
The film Morgan uses several stereotypes that add additional meanings to disability. These include the triumph over fate or disability, disability as personal tragedy and the super cripple. The triumph over disability and disability as personal tragedy are extremely present in this drama. In fact they go hand in hand because they justify all of Morgan’s behaviour and actions. The desire to be a ‘winner’ again spurs Morgan to be a top athlete as a wheelchair user, too. His training keeps Morgan’s body in shape and keeps up the ideal of a perfectly shaped body even with a disability. Swantje Köbell, professor at the Alice Salomon Hochschule Berlin, University of Applied Science underlines that ‘die mit Behinderung assoziierten Eigenschaften mit einem traditionellen Bild von Männlichkeit weit weniger in Einklang bringen [lassen] als mit dem gängigen Bild von Weiblichkeit’ (it is much more difficult to accommodate the characteristics associated with disability in the traditional image of masculinity than in the traditional image of femininity) (Köbsell 2010: 22).[i] She says:
‘Die Rollenerwartungen an Männer und Frauen werden dabei nicht nur unterschiedlich bewertet, sondern auch hierarchisch gegliedert. Männer gelten auch heute noch als stark, aktiv, unabhängig und mutig; Frauen dagegen als schwach, passiv, abhängig und hilfsbedürftig, wobei die männlichen Eigenschaften positiv und die weiblichen negativ bewertet werden.’ (The role expectations placed on men and women are not only judged differently but also subdivided hierarchically. Men are said to be strong, active, independent and courageous while women [are perceived] as weak, passive, dependent and needy and the male characteristics are considered to be positive the female [ones] negative.’) (Köbsell 2010: 20)
Thomas J. Gerschick, professor of sociology at the Illinois State University, emphasises:
‘Bodies are central to achieving recognition as appropriately gendered beings. Bodies operate socially as canvases on which gender is displayed and kinesthetically as the mechanisms by which it is physically enacted. Thus, the bodies of people with disabilities make them vulnerable to being denied recognition as women and men. The type of disability, its visibility, its severity, and whether it is physical or mental in origin mediate the degree to which the body of a person with a disability is socially compromised.’ (Gerschick 2008: 361).
Nevertheless it is important to keep in mind that there are more definitions of bodies than the binary man/woman and it is equally important how people perceive and define themselves and their (gendered) bodies.[ii] Morgan’s definition of himself as a ‘winner’ is also part of Morgan’s and Dean’s conversation after they had made love for the first time. Dean wants to know if the accident or the disability has changed Morgan. He replies:
„Of course, I was a winner.“
D: „I can see that.“
M: „I look at those things [his trophies, P.A.] and wonder who that guy was. I’d give anything to be him again.“
D: „I think you can still compete.“
M: „It’s not the same.“
D: „Why is that?“
M: „’Cause I’m not the same.“
The feeling of having lost everything due to the accident and its consequences becomes obvious at the beginning of the film when Morgan lies on the sofa, watches TV and drinks beer all day. In the above-mentioned conversation with Dean Morgan finally says: ‘It took everything.’ Later in the film there are several scenes in which Morgan says that he would prefer to be dead than in the wheelchair. At one point he even insults his mother by assuming that she also wishes he would be dead.
The stereotype of the super cripple is questioned in the film. Nevertheless Morgan manages to climb a rock and get back into his wheelchair and makes it home alone even after he had a heavy crash.
In this film music serves primarily to boost the mood of certain scenes as well as to underline the emotions of the characters and to intensify the emotions of the audience.[iii] The combination of sound and vision in the scene that shows Morgan in the wheelchair shortly before he leaves to meet Dean for their first date corresponds with the stereotypes mentioned above. Whilst the song’s line ‘Get up and dance’ symbolizes on the one hand his personal tragedy, because it has become impossible for Morgan to get up and dance, it stands on the other hand for the confidence Morgan feels in this very moment. Despite his own negative attitude towards his paraplegia he is quite sure that he and Dean will have a real date. Morgan’s confidence corresponds with the positive message of David Raleigh’ song Get up and Dance which, however, is only obvious to those in the audience who know all the lyrics.
The Characters’ Language in Regard to Disability
There are scenes in which the people who talk to Morgan immediately realize that they used expressions which are rather unsuitable because of the situation he is in. His mother suggests, for example, that Morgan should move in with her at least for a while and uses the phrase ‘back on your feet’. In another sequence Lane, a friend of Morgan, rather spontaneously but very clearly refuses to sit in Morgan’s wheelchair because in her opinion that would be ‘bad karma’. But even if there are scenes in which the characters themselves reflect on their speech other dialogues must be criticized from the Disability Studies’ point of view: for example, those in which Morgan adds additional meanings to the expressions ‘winner’ and ‘loser’ or those moments in which he expresses that he wants to die. In these cases the characters’ language in regard to disability helps to establish the stereotypes mentioned above.
No Disabled Actor
The pictures in Morgan’s apartment which show Morgan’s life before the accident preclude an actor who is a wheelchair user in real life from starring as Morgan – which would have accorded to the requests of Disability Studies. But the director/writer of the film, Michael Akers, and the producer/writer Sandon Berg, who had been inspired by an audition with an actor and wheelchair user, have done detailed research into the topic (Cf. United Gay Network 2012). In addition, Leo Minaya, the actor who stars Morgan, spent at least fourteen days in a wheelchair prior to shooting the film (Cf. United Gay Network 2012). In this way both the filmmakers and with the story they tell avoid what Lauri E. Klobas terms a ‘”quick fix” syndrome’ (Klobas 1988: xv). This means that disability in this case does not serve as quick solution for a bad story or a poorly researched story. What is more, filmmakers usually tend to use disability as a prime example of deviation. David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder point out: ‘Disability lends a distinctive idiosyncrasy to any character that differentiates the character from the anonymous background of the “norm.”’ (Mitchell/Snyder 2006: 205). This mechanism is fostered by the fact that disabled people are a very heterogeneous minority. Instead of sharing a common language, culture or sexual identity people with disabilities – apart from deaf people who usually understand deafness as culture – ‘share’ a medical feature or a legal category. That’s why the ‘blind’ person or the ‘wheelchair user’ do not exist. Even an identical diagnosis – as in the case of Morgan’s paraplegia – can, for example, have very different forms and thus different impacts and consequences for each individual. This makes research and accuracy in regard to a character’s disability even more important in my opinion.
Innovative beginning and no flashbacks
The protagonist’s initial situation becomes already obvious during the opening credits. Surprisingly enough the filmmakers use neither words nor do they shoot Morgan. Rather, they use e.g. a balloon that says ‘Get well soon’ on it, and various aids for disabled people indicate that the person living in this private apartment must be disabled.
At the same time there are no flashbacks in the film Morgan. The way the filmmakers do without visualizing the fatal moment that caused Morgan’s disability is quite uncommon for films featuring such a scenario. The film’s audio commentary proves that this was a deliberate decision. By placing emphasis on the here and now Akers and Berg don’t need to change the film’s chronology.[iv] Above all, however, they avoid using flashbacks as a cinematic key to Morgan’s psyche. Instead Morgan’s mood regarding that fatal moment in his life is revealed in his interaction with Dean at the scene of the accident.
Still, Morgan’s bicycle is present not only in his apartment but also as a symbol as, for example, in the scene where the traffic lights for cyclists switch to red a second before Morgan’s doctor withdraws the medical permission for this year’s race (in the wheelchair division).
Easy-going Representation of Sexuality in a Romantic Relationship
The quintessence regarding a disabled person’s sexuality becomes obvious when Morgan talks to his physiotherapist:
M: „I met a guy. So we play [basketball, P.A.] together.“
P: „Friends? Or friends?“
M: „I can’t even imagine. I mean: What can I, you know, do in that department?”
P: „You can do whatever you wanna do.“
M: „I mean: How? Like with my legs… I can’t feel them. Who…“
P: „Maybe you should get him to do some of these exercises with you. That way he can learn how your body works and get used to touching you.“
Everything else that happens in connection to sexuality and a relationship can be grouped around this dialogue: Morgan’s futile attempt to masturbate, the first encounter between Morgan and Dean where Dean touches Morgan almost coincidentally, their first date, their conversations about life and their wishes, the question of whether they should show their affection in public or not, their first kiss, the question of whether and how they can meet their sexual needs and desires, the experience of a happy relationship of which physical attraction forms a natural part, as well as the medical aspects and consequences of Morgan’s erectile dysfunction medication.
The easy-going representation of a disabled person’s sexual desires in a relationship seems to contain a ‘romantic overload’ in this drama: The first encounter of Morgan and Dean leads to their first date and a little later Dean adapts his apartment to Morgan’s needs so Morgan can feel comfortable there and it can become ‘our home’. This corresponds with the fact that in Dean’s eyes Morgan is ‘sexy as hell’ even with his disability. Thus, he is not only experiencing some sexual adventure but also an adorable and attractive partner. Conversely, Morgan may need erectile dysfunction medication for a fulfilled sex life. But above all, thanks to his romantic relationship with Dean Morgan does not depend on sex cinemas, prostitution and sex workers, or technical aids like penis pumps in order to satisfy his sexual desires. The (rare?) fortune of his situation becomes even more obvious when the Canadian short film Hole is taken into account, in which Martin Edralin’s main character Billy has to cope with the fact that he longs for intimacy but does not have a partner.
Aker’s main character is above all concerned with meeting Dean’s possible expectations. His own sexual needs and desires are still secondary at this point. This is the case even though Dean assures Morgan: ‘I wish you could walk and do some of the things I wanna do and I know you wanna do them, too. But you can’t. It’s not your fault.’ Nevertheless Morgan is worried: ‘I’m just afraid that… that I can’t do the things that you want… ’cause I can’t.’
As Aker’s film Morgan allows a disabled character to experience sexual desire and a romantic relationship it employs a traditional storyline: Dean and Morgan meet, have dates, are in a relationship, argue, separate and so on. These dramatic standard situations help turning their relationship into something ‘normal’ or – in Berg’s words – ‘universal’, too.[v] If in the end Morgan’s struggle over whether to show or to hide his affection for Dean in public reminds you of Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011) this is just another aspect of the universality of Aker’s film: The gay wheelchair user Morgan faces the same conflict as the gay character Russell, who is able-bodied.
Morgan’s need for help and an adjusted environment
Morgan is quite independent. He manages to handle a lot of things on his own. At times it even seems as if he has the superhuman powers of a super cripple. Nevertheless, the film does not conceal the fact that Morgan needs help with housework, for example. It also shows that Dean sometimes needs to help Morgan or that he is willing to help Morgan. Moreover, Dean doesn’t mind having aids for disabled people like Morgan’s shower chair in his apartment. Even if these aids look rather ‘unsexy’ anyway. What really counts for Dean is that Morgan needs them.
Apart from that the film shows how important an adjusted environment with elevators and ramps is for Morgan. In some of these scenes the standard height of the camera which is generally at the height of a walking or standing adult is lowered to the height of the wheelchair user.
One of the questions raised by the disabled gay protagonist in Michael Akers’ film Morgan is whether masculinity and a body that has been changed due to a disability go together. Correspondingly, the main conflict of this drama is caused by Morgan’s wish to be a top athlete on the one hand and his new physical limits on the other. He still needs to adjust to his new situation and learn how to treat his body correctly. At the same time Morgan asks himself if and above all how he can enjoy his sexual identity after the accident. As I have mentioned above Morgan talks about this aspect quite openly with his physiotherapist. The easy-going approach of Akers and Berg, who give their character the opportunity to have a romantic relationship, does not minimize the problems the disabled gay character Billy faces in the Canadian short film Hole. The romantic aspect of Morgan simply adds an important aspect to the bigger picture. In addition, many short scenes in Morgan e.g. at the physiotherapist or Morgan’s training together with Dean prove that Akers, Berg and Minaya have done a lot of research to depict Morgan’s disability realistically. In comparison to many other films with disabled characters this may almost make up for the – nearly unavoidable – stereotypes of tragedy and triumph. Especially because many young people – mostly men? – would do everything to be their able-bodied ‘me’ again during their first year after an accident that left them with severe disability.
Berg, S. (2016, February 27). Morgan (E-Mail).
Berg, S. (2016, March 3). Morgan (E-Mail).
Gerschick, T. J. Toward a Theory of Disability and Gender. (2008). In K. E. Rosenblum & T.-M. Travis (Eds.), The Meaning of Difference. American Constructions of Race, Sex and Gender. Social Class, Sexual Orientation, and Disability (5th ed., pp. 360–363). New York NY: McGraw-Hill.
Hartmann, B. Rückblende. In T. Koebner (Ed.), Reclams Sachlexikon des Films (pp. 517–519). Stuttgart: Reclam.
Hickethier, K. (2001). Film- und Fernsehanalyse (3., überarbeitete Auflage). Sammlung Metzler: Vol. 277. Stuttgart, Weimar: Metzler.
Klobas, L. E. (1988). Disablity Drama in Television and film. Jefferson: McFarland.
Köbsell, S. (2010). Gendering Disability: Behinderung, Geschlecht und Körper. In J. Jacob, S. Köbsell, & E. Wollrad (Eds.), Gendering Disability. Intersektionale Aspekte von Behinderung und Geschlecht (pp. 17–33). Bielfeld: trascript Verlag.
Koebner, T. Dramaturgie. In T. Koebner (Ed.), Reclams Sachlexikon des Films (pp. 130–132). Stuttgart: Reclam.
Mitchell, D., & Snyder, S. (2006). Narrative Prothesis and the Materiality of Metaphor. In L. J. Davis (Ed.), The Disabiliy Studies Reader (2nd ed., pp. 205–216). New York: Routledge.
United Gay Network. (2012). Morgan: A Michael Akers Film. Press Kit. Retrieved from http://www.unitedgaynetwork.com/morgan/press_kit_downloads/MORGAN_PK_100112.pdf
[i] Translations from German texts are mine.
[ii] Cf. also Berg’s email on 03rd March 2016
[iii] Regarding the functions of music in films cf. Hickethier 2001: 98-102.
[iv] Regarding the flashbacks in films cf. Hartmann 2002: 517.
[v] In regard to cinematic standard situations cf. Koebner 2002: 130f., in regard to Michael Akers’ and Sandon Berg’s concept of universality cf. Berg’s email on 27th February 2016.
Dr. phil. Petra Anders writes and talks about the representation of disability as well as about otherness, identity and films of all kinds in various contexts. Her dissertation dealing with the representation of disability and mental health in contemporary German film is entitled BEHINDERUNG UND PSYCHISCHE KRANKHEIT IM ZEITGENÖSSISCHEN DEUTSCHEN SPIELFILM. EINE VERGLEICHENDE FILMANALYSE and was published with Köngishausen & Neumann in December 2014. In 2016 her chapter ‘More than the “Other”?: On Four Tendencies Regarding the Representation of Disability in Contemporary German Film since 2005′ will be published in CULTURES OF REPRESENTATION: DISABILITY IN WORLD FILM CONTEXTS, edited by Benjamin Fraser.<<< Back