Future Reflections Spring 1992, Vol. 11 No. 2

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by Barbara Pierce

[PICTURE] At age 11, Adam Emerson has already felt the sting of discrimination, and put-downs disguised as humor. He also knows, thanks to the NFB, the power of collective action in changing attitudes about blindness; and he is doing his part

     Editor's Note: The following article is an edited and somewhat modified version of a much more detailed article (same title) which appeared in the December 1991, Braille Monitor. The issue in which the article appeared is free of charge, and can be ordered from: Materials Center, National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230; (410) 659-9314.

     It was a battle about "Good and Evil," and between good and evil--and the good prevailed. But the battle would not have been won--and, for that matter, would not ever have commenced--had it not been for the coordinated, nationwide effort of the National Federation of the Blind. In the end the victory was complete, and the show of strength was such that neither friend nor foe will forget it. In fact, the threatened disaster was converted into a vehicle for unprecedented opportunity.

     On September 25, 1991, people in an estimated 9.3 million homes sat in their living rooms watching a blind character on an eagerly-awaited new prime-time situation comedy called "Good and Evil." The writer was Susan Harris, creator of the hugely successful programs "Soap," "Golden Girls," and "Empty Nest." The blind character George was played by Mark Blankfield, and the portrayal made fun of blind people and our alternative techniques. He shared billing on the program with the stars Teri Garr and Margaret Whitton. George made his entrance the first week halfway through the show by sweeping laboratory glassware off every surface he could reach with his wildly flailing cane. In the following four and a half minutes he staggered up a staircase and around the lab looking for his lady love (mostly in the wrong direction), made a pass at a hanging coat and struck himself with the coat rack, groped across the body of another male character until even he was irrefutably persuaded of his masculinity, and choked himself on his cane as he stumbled out the door.  In subsequent weekly appearances George continued to break any glass in his vicinity and fall up or down every available set of stairs. In addition he created a number of embarrassing situations by failing to recognize that silent people were present or notice when other characters left the room.

     In short, every tired old saw about the oblivious, socially inept, clumsy blind person was hauled out and played for all it was worth. From the first preview of the "Good and Evil" pilot, which Federationists saw last summer, we protested in the strongest terms to ABC's Entertainment and Broadcast Standards departments. Our complaints were met with the statement that all the characters on "Good and Evil" were drawn broadly and intended to be parodies of real people. In effect we were asked where our sense of humor was. In letters to those who complained about George to ABC and in press releases and interviews, network officials repeatedly said that, if George had been meant to be a true-to-life character, such a portrayal would have been in poor taste. But no one could possibly miss the parody element, so there was no reason to modify the character or remove him from the script.

     That was the position ABC maintained from the beginning, and one is struck by its shallowness and naivety. Although the National Federation of the Blind has succeeded in educating many members of the public enough for them to admit that blind people (in theory at least) can be capable citizens if given the chance, there is still a large residue of unconscious prejudice in most people that would cause them to identify a character like George as a more or less accurate extension of a normal blind person trying to cope ineffectually with the sighted world. ABC's concept of George as parody would never even enter the equation. The presence of an incompetent blind person slashing and smashing his way through the program would necessarily give people emotional permission to abandon their newly-learned and difficult-to-accept notion of the blind as equal partners. Moreover, the most devastatingly cruel form of humor at someone else's expense is surely that in which the object of the joke is also its unwitting perpetrator. In every episode George invited laughter at himself by his antics, his stupidity, and his comments. Absurd as every blind person knows his behavior to have been, his actions assumed a semblance of reality just because they were being performed by the blind character. There is a degree less cruelty in wisecracks made by other characters about or to the one being laughed at. Archie Bunker made fun of all kinds of people in the program "All in the Family." Even those who shared Archie's world view understood that part of the joke was his lack of tact and taste, and Archie was usually shown to be wrong in his opinions. The result was that, although everyone was invited to laugh at the jokes, no one was being asked to accept Archie's point of view.

     The greatest fear that blind people and their friends had was that because of the public's inability to recognize the absurdity of George's behavior, the stereotypical clumsiness and obliviousness to actual events around him which George exhibited would compound the problems blind people already have in employment and social interactions. As more than one indignant correspondent inquired of ABC executives, "What do you suppose the chances would have been for a blind job applicant wanting work in a research facility the morning after George smashed his way around the lab in the first episode of `Good and Evil?' If the employer had seen the show, none at all."

     Almost equally disturbing to thoughtful blind viewers was the response to George of the other characters on the program. No one ever got mad at him for smashing everything in sight. Genn, the good sister and the woman with whom George was enamored, never once told him to go jump in the lake despite his inappropriate behavior. On a show memorable for the rudeness, cruelty, and selfishness of most of the characters, everyone was the soul of tact and patience with George. They were united in nothing but their belief that George was not a responsible adult, capable of hearing hard truths. It is just barely possible that a little of the rough and tumble of real life on a sitcom for George might actually have carried a whiff of humor. But the most demeaning part of this hands-off behavior was the unstated, but graphically portrayed conviction that George was absolutely not an acceptable candidate as a romantic partner. At one point George was wandering around the lab, trying to find Genn as he poured out his love to her. She remained silent, almost cringing from the very thought of physical contact with him. Then Eric, the man whom she loved and her sister was blackmailing into marriage, walked in, and she sheltered in his arms. The message was clear: Genn would not say an unkind word to or about George, but, guilty though she felt over it, she wanted nothing to do with this repellent and pathetic creature.

     When "Good and Evil" burst on the fall schedule, the National Federation of the Blind mobilized an astonishing range of blind people and their friends and family members. They immediately understood the depth of the insult and the seriousness of the danger to blind people if George were allowed to grope and stumble his way through a weekly sitcom. Federationists wrote thousands of letters to various ABC and Touchstone Productions executives and to the program sponsors. Many people turned to the telephone to lodge their protests. In fact, on Monday, September 23, for about a half hour we flooded ABC Television's New York switchboard with calls to urge the network to withdraw the season premiere of the program.

     Participants in the U.S./Canada Conference on Technology, which took place at the National Center for the Blind September 19 to 21, sent a telegram to ABC registering their disapprobation.

     The NFB of Minnesota mobilized itself in time to conduct a demonstration outside the local ABC affiliate in St. Paul on Wednesday afternoon, September 25, the day of the show's premiere.

     By October 2 the battle was well and truly joined. Federationists everywhere had circulated the names and addresses of program advertisers to add to their lists of ABC executives, and the mail was pouring into corporate headquarters around the nation. We announced that we would begin picketing the New York offices of ABC Television every Wednesday afternoon until "Good and Evil" vanished from the ABC prime-time line-up. In addition, Federationists in other cities began taking to the streets to go on record personally in opposition to George and all he stood for. Demonstrations were organized outside ABC affiliates in Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Denver; Colorado Springs; and Los Angeles in addition to the one in New York. One-time-only pickets took place in other cities as Federationists urged station managers to press harder on network executives to remove George and his friends from the air. Brochures were prepared and picket signs constructed.

     Despite the fact that NBC and CBS television network affiliates consistently refused to cover this story (they maintained that they didn't want to give free publicity to a rival, but the blind remain convinced that out of self-interest they preferred to protect their colleagues), our protest against "Good and Evil" and the demonstrations across the country garnered a good bit of media attention. Newspapers and the wire services carried stories every time we circulated a press release. The Fox and CNN television networks filmed our demonstrations and aired interviews with Federation spokesmen. Even "Entertainment Tonight," a syndicated program produced by ABC Television, covered the story twice.

     To make a long story a little shorter, after a meeting early in October with ABC officials, weekly protests outside ABC headquarters in New York, and a continuous outpouring of letters to Good and Evil sponsors, on Thursday, October 24, 1991, ABC announced that it had ordered production of "Good and Evil" stopped. With eleven episodes already completed, it was not immediately clear just how many more would actually air. In unofficial discussions, Federation leaders told ABC executives that we understood the time it takes to make arrangements to replace a canceled program, but we would be mightily displeased if more than one more episode were to appear. In the end, only one more, that of October 30, was broadcast. With that, the curtain came down on one of the sorriest experiments in television humor ever conducted.

     Among those who wrote letters and made telephone calls to protest Good and Evil, were parents and their blind children. One parent, in a letter to ABC asked if the writers and producers had ever considered the impact the lab scene could possibly have on a blind high school student who walked into his/her science class the following day? Adam Emerson, a blind student from Michigan, took the initiative, after he heard about the show from his Mom, Sunny Emerson, to compose his own letter to ABC and the sponsors of Good and Evil. Here is Adam Emerson's letter:

     October 18, 1991

Dear _______:

Hello, my name is Adam Emerson; I am currently eleven years old, and I am planning to be a professional student, particle physicist, and a chemist.

Your show "Good and Evil" reinforces stereotypes about blind persons, and makes fun of them. For instance, m sister has seen that I can live competently, but after she watched "Good and Evil" her opinions changed. My mother, Sunny, asked her is she wanted to let my nephew, Andrew, go on a field trip to Greenfield village supervised by blind persons, and she refused. Furthermore, I have met several blind persons who are currently employed in the occupations listed above. Shows like "Good and Evil" deliver messages that may affect a person's opinion of blind people. Please do not show anything that will hinder the chances of myself and other blind children's chances of getting a job in the future.


Adam C. Emerson

     The time may come--one hopes that it will--when the American people are ready and able to laugh together about the funny things that happen to blind people. Nothing would be a healthier indication of our final emergence into first-class status and full equality. But that time is not in the foreseeable future. As long as the general public presumes our incompetence, our clumsiness, and our inability to understand or appreciate what is going on around us, blind characters on television who exhibit these traits cannot be funny. Until every blind person has an opportunity to receive effective training and a chance to compete for good jobs, we will all suffer from caricatures like George.

     Yes, it was a battle about "Good and Evil," and between good and evil--and the good prevailed.

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