A woman lies in a hospital bed, her breathing erratic and her forehead damp with sweat. She’s shaking from the pain she’s in. In a matter of days, the loss of control and sensation in her legs has spread to her right hand and is now progressing to her left hand.
Outside, her doctor prepares her family for the worst. “The danger would be her lungs,” the doctor warns.
The woman’s family resolves to try anything and everything they can to save her, hoping she can be cured.
The scene I described above is from Freeform’s “Siren,” a TV series about mermaids that wash up in the fictional town of Bristol Cove, Washington. The woman in the hospital bed is the character Elaine Pownall, who in the series is the mother of the male protagonist, Ben.
For the first couple weeks after the onset of chronic neuropathy in my legs — and later, my back, groin, and left arm — “Siren” was one of my chosen coping mechanisms. Since I couldn’t sit for extended periods of time without pain and numbness, I was barred from my usual coping methods of playing video games and writing fiction.
So, bored out of my mind, I got myself a Disney+ subscription and binge-watched all three seasons in a week. Then, disappointed that the show ended on a cliffhanger and wasn’t renewed for a fourth season, I rewatched the second and third seasons.
I loved the show that much. It had a diverse cast, a fresh and bloody take on mermaid mythology, and brisk pacing. It casually portrayed polyamorous relationships and bisexual and transgender characters as natural aspects of the world. And it posed questions that are certain to hook me on a story: “What makes a monster? And what makes a man?”
But the character arc written for Elaine left me conflicted. On one hand, it’s part of an overdone pattern of how disability is represented in media. On the other hand, that pattern still resonates with me emotionally.
As soon as I saw her and her wheelchair, I predicted that “Siren’s” writers had intended to use the “magic cure” trope for her. Unfortunately, I was right. Though she is portrayed as a flawed and multifaceted woman, her arc centered almost entirely on finding a treatment or cure for her paraplegia.
In season two, when an experimental treatment she’s receiving leads to neuropathy in her upper body and brings her close to death, she is injected with stem cells donated by Ben’s mermaid girlfriend Ryn. The rapid regeneration rate of the cells helps Elaine recover overnight. Eventually, she even gets mild sensation and movement back in her lower body.
It’s frustrating that a show as progressive as “Siren” would follow the trend of sci-fi and fantasy media to frame disability as something to get rid of, whether characters are born with their disability or acquire it through an accident, as in Elaine’s case.
I can name several characters off the top of my head that exemplify this. “Arrow’s” Felicity Smoak, “The Witcher’s” Yennefer of Vengerberg, and Marvel’s Steve Rogers/Captain America are a few that come to mind. Each of these characters is cured of their disability through highly advanced and expensive tech or magic. It’s as though narratives where disabled characters seek a cure are the only type of disability narratives most writers know how to tell.
I imagine that if these characters were written by writers with disabilities, they would have turned out vastly differently. I, for one, would have placed more emphasis on the community that can be formed by disabled folks, and how living with our disabilities can lead us to where we’re meant to be in life, for better or worse.
Yet it’s difficult for me to fault writers for leaning into the “magic cure” trope. While Elaine was fighting for her life, I was struggling to return to mine. Her son’s desperation and willingness to try everything to help her — even the stem cells of his mermaid girlfriend — mirrored my family’s desperation to help me. The hushed warning Elaine’s doctor gave her family is one I’ve heard all my life.
For all its flaws, “Siren’s” portrayal of how disability can affect someone and their loved ones is still honest and reflective of real life.
And I can’t say I’d say no to a “magic cure” for myself. I’m writing this column in bed, in pain, with two different types of painkillers in my system. SMA has granted me experiences and perspectives I’m grateful for, but its chronic complications do take their toll on me and the people who love me.
Alas, my story isn’t a work of fiction with a tidy arc and convenient tropes, and I must keep swimming with the tide.
Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today, or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.
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