The Fault in Our Media


Briana Dixon will start her third year at Spelman College in the fall and is one of RH Reality Check‘s youth voices.

I don’t often watch movies for the sex scenes, but that’s what I found myself doing during The Fault in Our Stars.

It was one of my top three “God, I hope they don’t screw this up” scenes, right up there with Anne Frank’s house and The Last Good Day. I nervously anticipated the movie adaptation’s take on what I considered an iconic moment, unsure if it would hold up to the scene in the book. As a reproductive justice advocate, I had a vested interest in whether or not they would get this right: This was a rare opportunity to see a sex scene between two people with disabilities done brilliantly, and I was terrified the TFIOS film team wouldn’t capitalize it.

We live in an era when we are constantly inundated with media, from our televisions to our cell phones. On average, Americans consume 60 hours of media a week, and with such constant exposure it’s almost impossible to say that we aren’t affected by the recurring images appearing on the various screens we watch daily.

Often those images are of young, white people without disabilities in every situation you can imagine, while minorities are left by the wayside. Representation has become an important issue as we fight to make sure that the diversity of humanity is accurately portrayed. We have made amazing strides in recent years, but there is still room for improvement.

Often people with disabilities are subjected to what Tom Shakespeare called the medical model of representation, where the character’s impairment is the driving force of their characterization and the audience is denied the opportunity to empathize with them as people. Paul Hunt, in 1999, identified ten common caricatures of people with disabilities, including “the disabled person as (1) pitiable and pathetic, (2) as an object of curiosity or violence, (3) as sinister or evil, (4) as the super cripple, (5) as atmosphere, (6) as laughable, (7) as her/his own worst enemy, (8) as a burden, (9) as non-sexual, and (10) as being unable to participate in daily life.” None of these representations allow characters with disabilities to be as nuanced and as developed as the people whom they represent deserve.

But, The Fault in Our Stars diverges from these stereotypes by portraying its characters as fully as possible.

Here’s a quick summary of TFIOS: The main characters are Hazel, her boyfriend Augustus “Gus,” and their best friend Isaac. In addition to having cancer, each character has a physical disability as a result of his or her illness: Hazel must constantly be connected to a breathing machine, Augustus has a prosthetic leg, and Isaac is blind. But this is not where these characters’ personalities end.

Hazel is an incredibly intelligent, (justifiably) moody, empathetic, and kind 16-year-old girl who doesn’t completely understand infinity in a mathematical sense, but still manages to make a great metaphor out of it. Augustus is a brash and brave boy who is incredibly loyal and tends to use big words incorrectly. Isaac is a witty and funny romantic who has a propensity for video games.

John Green, the author of TFIOS, creates characters whose disabilities shade their lives instead of dictate them, where the reader/viewer is never allowed to deny the characters’ humanity nor forget their disabilities. This is especially apparent as it comes to the characters love lives, and by extension, their sex lives.

Though many characters with disabilities are written as inherently non-sexual, John Green doesn’t deny his characters their right to be sexual beings. One of the most touching scenes in the book is when Hazel and Augustus take advantage of Augustus’ wish from the “Genies” (a fictionalization of the Make-a-Wish Foundation) and they go to Amsterdam to meet Van Houten, an author Hazel idolizes and whom Hazel and Augustus have been corresponding. In Amsterdam the couple consummate their love. It’s not a particularly erotic scene, more awkward than anything else, but it’s beautiful nonetheless because it’s so realistic.

It is in these scenes where Green’s ability to artfully portray teens with disabilities really shines: The moment when Hazel and Augustus have to navigate around Hazel’s breathing tube doesn’t overshadow the moment where they are kissing in the hallway, nor does the moment when Augustus panics over Hazel seeing where his leg tapers off take away from when Hazel and Augustus take off their clothes in Augustus’ bed. Green writes a sex scene that explores what sex means for these two teenagers, neither shying away from nor fetishizing their disabilities. He even has a scene where Augustus pulls out a condom! As a reproductive justice advocate, I was pleased after reading this moment in the book, and I was anxious to see how it would translate in the film. Would they get the awkwardness right and ignore the disability? From the commercials, it seemed like a possibility.

And so I sat in the theater with my overpriced nachos and contraband lemonade, enjoying the movie, and waiting for the scene. When it came, I was pleased: They kept the banter about Augustus’ leg, the breathing tube bit totally worked, and they topped it all off with this beautiful slow pan of Hazel and Augustus wrapped up in the hotel covers, both Gus’ amputated leg sans prosthetic and Hazel’s breathing tube clearly visible.

The movie was not without its flaws, of course. It was severely lacking in people of color. The only named (and in focus) character of color was Dr. Maria, Hazel’s Black doctor, whose opinion on Hazel traveling to Amsterdam is initially overridden by a white male doctor. Though Dr. Maria’s opinion reigns in the end, it is worth noting that film is a visual medium and visually the Black doctor was still depicted in such a way where she was subordinate to a white male. In the book, the race of Dr. Maria isn’t mentioned, nor the races of the other children in support group who also have cancer. Nor is there any discussion of children with cancer who aren’t from middle class families in either the book or the movie. And it was disappointing to see they hadn’t included Augustus pulling out a condom in the film. However, even with these flaws, the movie was quite impressive.

Sexual pleasure can be a taboo subject in our society almost everywhere but in our entertainment, where it is arguably overdone. But even in our media, sex seems to be the sole privilege of young, white, single, and non-disabled people. The denial of sexual pleasure in media to anyone but this select group feeds back in the problem of underrepresentation. But the denial of sexual pleasure in our lives is a topic that affects our livelihoods.

Mitchell Tepper argues that sexual pleasure “can enhance an intimate relationship. It can add a sense of connectedness to the world or to each other. It can heal a sense of emotion and isolation so many of us feel even though we are socially integrated. It can help build our immunity against media messages that can make us feel as if we don’t deserve pleasure.”

He goes on to say that “when we do not include a discourse of pleasure we perpetuate [people with disabilities’] asexual and victimization status.” Sexual pleasure, for many, is a natural part of the human experience, and no one should be denied it solely based on something that is out of their control, whether it be race, gender, orientation, or disability. This translates to our media: When we consistently deny characters sexual pleasure, we deny them part of the human experience, which we cannot afford to do in an age where media is everywhere.

TFIOS is a step in the right direction, as it explores the lives of these teenagers with all the depth and nuance one could ask for, with both the book and the movie doing its characters justice.

It is quite commonplace, while traversing the Internet, to find an article that dismisses young people and/or the things they enjoy. Often all I have to do is log in to Twitter to find yet another exposé on how narcissistic we are, how risqué our media is, or how embarrassed adults should be if they are enjoying our books.

When The Fault in Our Stars led the box office over the Tom Cruise flick Edge of Tomorrow during its opening weekend, the fact that its primary audience consisted of young women became one of the biggest focal points among media outlets. What I find much more interesting about TFIOS, compared to many other popular films, is the care Green and the film’s team evidently put into creating the book and movie, respectively, ensuring an honest portrayal of teenagers with both cancer and disability. It doesn’t romanticize anything, nor does it vilify anything; it simply tells the story in all its nuanced beauty. The Fault in Our Stars challenges everyone to imagine its characters complexly, to see beyond our own preconceived ideas of who these characters should be and to whom they really are. This is a feat that is impressive no matter the intended demographic, a feat that I’m sure makes everyone involved in the production of the book and film proud.

The title, The Fault in Our Stars, is a play on the Shakespeare quote, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings.” This implies that the problems in our lives aren’t due to what we call fate, but to our own failings. TFIOS argues conversely, asserting that there are inequities in our lives that have nothing to do with our failings, but that doesn’t make anyone’s life less valuable, simply less privileged. I definitely agree with this assertion, for in many cases there are things in this world that are out of our control.

However, the faults in our media are within our power to change. It is up to us, in this age of infinite screens, to ensure that the images we see daily are nuanced ones. The Fault in Our Stars is a step in the right direction, and I am hopeful that it will open doors to stories that follow in its stead.

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  • http://batman-news.com Gordon Cash

    I name TFIOS as my second-favorite movie of all time, mostly for the reasons Ms. Dixon states. (Cloud Atlas is first, but I admit it’s not for everybody.) BTW, I’m 67, and I’ve seen a lot of movies.

  • Melooley

    I LOOOOOVE the Youth Voices series, and this is yet another example of why. I’ve neither read TFIOS nor seen the movie (yet), but now I’m adding both to my to-read (and to-watch) list. Thank you, Ms. Dixon (and RHRC), for the nuanced look at the portrayal of disabled/teen sex. I’ve been trying to decide if this book/movie was worth my time, which is difficult when most of the articles about it seem to boil down to either (a) you should be ashamed for reading “kid’s books,” or (b) oh noooo, sex! I’m just so happy that RHRC is encouraging young writers to actually write about things that matter, instead of just encouraging the fluffy click-bait style of “news” writing that unfortunately populates the internet today.