Monday, September 20, 2010

Not so funny

Not so funny
By Amy Julia Becker

I absorb a lot of news every week. We listen to National Public Radio morning and evening. We subscribe to Time, The New Yorker, and the Sunday New York Times. I read a handful of blogs and receive a daily Google update on stories with the key words “Down syndrome.” And usually, when an article or story catches my eye, I write about it. That might be because I appreciate the perspective or information shared, or because I’m saddened or opposed by the view it presents.

But then there are the stories that bother me so much they don’t even seem worth commenting upon. The church that wanted to burn the Koran on September 11th, for instance, left such a bad taste in my mouth that I didn’t even want to mention it. And last year, when the TV show “Family Guy” ran a series of episodes with a character with Down syndrome, I refrained from wading in to the debate it inspired. Then it came to my attention that a song from “Family Guy” had been nominated for an Emmy. The song was called “Down syndrome girl.” It included the following lyrics:

Her kiss is so inviting
and her hugs are so delighting.

And what makes them really nice
is that they’ve got a little spice
Because they’re tighter than a vice
and they go on for an hour.

My boy, between the two of us
we’ll get you on that shorty bus
And then you’re going to take it for a whirl…

Now go impress that…
As of Monday, shoelace-tying
Mega-rocking, pillow-talking
Just a little crooked walking,
Coyly pouting, booby-sprouting,
For some reason always shouting,
Fascinating, captivating,
Happiness and joy creating…
Down syndrome girl!

Even then, I ignored the news. I shrugged my shoulders at a Hollywood establishment that bends over backwards to embrace various forms of political correctness and yet rewards shows and movies that poke fun at people with developmental disabilities (Tropic Thunder is the other glaring recent example). I shook my head as I read the back and forth between the National Down Syndrome Congress and Mr. John Shaffner, CEO of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. A group of individuals with Down syndrome requested that the Emmys not broadcast a performance of “Down syndrome girl.” Mr Shaffner responded: “The Television Academy is always sensitive to these types of issues and had already planned not to air this song.” I rolled my eyes at the fact that nominating the song didn’t fall under the category of utterly-insensitive behavior.

Then, in the midst of learning about this accolade for “Down syndrome girl,” and in the midst of my decision not to write about it, my sister had a baby. Her baby has the typical 46 chromosomes, but over the course of her hospital stay, she ended up talking with her nurse about her niece, my daughter Penny, who has Down syndrome. My sister Kate is one of Penny’s favorite people in the world. Whenever they are together, there is laughter. And Kate is the only person who has ever said to me, “I think people with Down syndrome actually have greater value than the rest of us, because there are so few of them.”

When Kate was talking with her nurse about Penny, the nurse said, “It has been many years since I have helped deliver a baby with Down syndrome.” She didn’t spell it all out, but it was obvious to Kate that women who deliver in this hospital, who come from a wealthy and highly-educated community, tend to avail themselves of prenatal testing and terminate their pregnancies if they’ve conceived a child with Down syndrome.

In the same week, I happened upon a research paper by Dr. Brian Skotko of Harvard Medical School. He wrote about the decreasing population of individuals with Down syndrome even though average maternal age has increased in recent years: “For example, in the USA, there would have been a 34 per cent increase in the number of babies born with DS between 1989 and 2005, in the absence of prenatal testing. Instead, there were 15 per cent fewer babies born, representing a 49 per cent decrease between the expected and observed rates.”

I’m not shrugging my shoulders at “Down syndrome girl” anymore, nor at the Emmy nomination for a song that makes fun of my daughter and contributes to devaluing human life. From crass comedians to doctors, from high culture to low, individuals with Down syndrome are considered undesirable by many people in America. There’s a place for protest, for letters to Mr. Shaffner and picketing films and the like. But protests also draw attention to the offense. Tropic Thunder was a blockbuster hit, and after the brouhaha over Family Guy last year, it soared to the top of the most-watched TV list.

The more important response happens on a much more mundane and local level. It happens as Penny goes to school with her typically-developing peers; as she orders her breakfast at the local coffee shop; and as she works hard during swimming lessons to keep her head above water.

Across the nation, individuals with Down syndrome have just returned to school, and many of them are in classrooms with typical peers. I can only hope that relationships of trust, respect, and reciprocity are developing as a result. I can only hope that future comedians, future doctors, future mothers will remember the value of getting to know someone with Down syndrome.

Amy Julia Becker writes about theology, disability, family and culture at Thin Places. She's mother to Penny and William and a recent graduate of the Princeton Theological Seminary.


Sigh. It's overwhelming, no? Thank you for a very civilized post -- I, myself, felt like screaming when I read some of the things you've noted.

this is wonderful, thank you. i think it's true about the mundance and local level... not always easy to remember in the light of the the media-stuff.

I, too, have decided to not add to the 'press' of representations of which I disapprove. I believe the daily interactions between your daughter and others are strongly effective for diffusing discriminatory attitudes. I am hopeful with you, Amy Julia, that there will be a ripple effect into the future.

Thank you for this post. It reminds me that even laughing at something like this song or show undermines both another's humanity and my own.

My my. What a mess. I LOVE your response. As my wife mentioned to me yesterday, it's amazing how you have chosen to 'carry your heart' in the midst of all this negative feedback.

Until life is valued at an inherent level, these fights are won in the trenches, as you so aptly describe. But that doesn't mean we don't long for the day when the issue of dignity, worth and BEAUTY--displayed so well in your daughter--gets resolved. Forever.

Comedy has no limits. The sooner you realize this, the sooner you can get on with your life. If no one joked about every single little thing that could possibly offend someone, comedy would be over. Your problem is that you specifically seek out things that make you mad, and no surprise, it makes you mad. Get. Over. It.

I think you make a good point in saying it's just comedy. I mean Family guy has made fun of every possible type of human being. I myself, though, only love the song for the music, because you have to admit that some of the lyrics in that song are way over the top. "As of Monday, shoelace tying" and "kitty cat impersonating". In conclusion, I like the song and get that it's supposed to be comedic, but I believe Seth Macfarlane went too far with this one.