Obvious statement is obvious: representation of disability in television and movies is pretty bloody dire. Even if there is a disabled or chronically ill character in something, they are 1) often there solely to add some kind of traumatic or sad storyline, and 2) almost never portrayed by a disabled or chronically ill actor. Yikes. And that’s talking about representation across the wide, wide spectrum of disability – so imagine how little representation there is when your disability and chronic illness is invisible? Sounds damn near impossible to see yourself represented on screen, right? I always thought so.
But then I watched Retrograde, a new show on ABC and ABC iview. Holy shit y’all – my mind is blown. Tell you what: it’s a really, really strange feeling seeing your own experiences on screen for the very first time.
Retrograde is a new series to the ABC – so new, in fact, that it’s been filmed wholly during the COVID-19 lockdown. Co-created by Meg O’Connell and Mark O’Toole, with lead writer Anna Barnes (who, along with O’Connell, created the incredible 2019 vertically-filmed smartphone series Content), the show follows a group of 30-something Aussies who are navigating life, love and a whole heap of mistakes and questionable choices via a virtual ‘bar’ (aka drinking at home over video chat) during the pandemic.
It features brilliant young actors Pallavi Sharda, Ilai Swindells, Maria Angelico, Esther Hannaford and Nick Boshier, and guest starring the ever-excellent Ronny Chieng.
Esther Hannaford’s character, Sophie, is one of the bar’s regular visitors, and a part of the close-knit group of mates. She has dysautonomia, a condition that means one’s autonomic nervous system malfunctions and causes involuntary things to happen across the body. The autonomic nervous system controls ‘automatic’ bodily functions that we do not consciously think about, such as heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, temperature control – you know, stuff most of us take for granted.
Sophie’s condition is brought up straight away in the series’ inaugural episode – she responds to lead character Maddie asking if she’s doing okay during the COVID-19 lockdown with “yeah, immune-compromised and killing ittttt!” – and her chronic illness is regularly referenced from thereon out.
In one episode, one of the friends has left the house to go search for toilet paper for Sophie, because, as mentioned, her immune system is compromised and it’s dangerous for her to leave the house during a pandemic. At another point in the series, Sophie lays down mid-conversation – obviously because her symptoms are flaring up and she needs to rest – and a newcomer asks “is she okay?!” to which her friends respond “oh she’s fine, she has dysautonomia”.
In a conversation early on in the first episode, Ronny Chieng’s dickish wannabe Wolf of Wall Street travel CEO character Glen tells the bar, “Oh, don’t worry about corona[virus] – it only affects boomers and sick people” to which Maddie grimaces and Sophie responds, “yeah, and who needs sick people, right?”.
Seeing that convo play out made my jaw drop – you might be surprised to know just how often people say shit like that. Being a chronically ill person during COVID has truly opened my eyes to how many people don’t value the lives of disabled people, because some of the flippant, ableist comments I’ve witnessed in the last six months or so have been almost word-for-word the same as Glen’s. But regardless of its commonness – I certainly never expected to see it referenced on TV.
More generally, the regular reference to and conversation about someone’s chronic illness and their day-to-day experiences living with it is something I’ve never seen before on television, but it accurately portrays my life. The chronic illness I live with, called fibromyalgia, affects all aspects of my life, and it’s regularly brought up in conversation with friends and family – because it affects everything I do. It is ingrained with who I am and my daily experiences, and so yes – I’m going to have to talk about it if I’m going to answer how my day has been.
Sophie talks about everyday things that affect me – and an enormous amount of other chronically ill people (the numbers of which might surprise you) – in exactly the same ways I do, too. She talks about immunocompromisation, medications, symptoms, flare-ups, accessibility and much more – and there’s no big fuss about it or ~Big Point About Disability~ being made. And this rules, because to chronically ill people, chatting these things aren’t a big deal – they’re just part of life. This is everyday conversation to us, but it’s rarer than hen’s teeth to see this sort of language and attitude in the media.
The navigation of these conversations and the way they are portrayed is so authentic, you’d be led to think that the character of Sophie was created by chronically ill people – she’s too spot on to be written by able-bodied people. And you’d be correct: Retrograde’s lead writer Anna Barnes lives with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) and Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (or POTS, which is one of the specific conditions under the umbrella term of dysautonomia). Esther Hannaford, who portrays Sophie, is also chronically ill – she lives with Crohn’s disease. This representation not only FOR, but BY chronically ill people is fantastic – I’m a firm believer in the oft-repeated disability activist slogan, ‘Nothing about us without us’.
However, I think the thing I appreciate most about a chronically ill character like Sophie is that her chronic illness isn’t there to be a tragic secondary storyline to whatever is happening to the other characters. Sophie is a fully formed character in her own right. She is a rounded and essential character to the narrative, and her being chronically ill isn’t essential to that narrative, it’s just a normal part of her life that gets brought up just like anything else.
That is a cool as hell to me. Chronically ill and disabled people are so much more than just ‘sick people’. We’re human beings with individual thoughts, passions, hobbies, and talents, yet in the media we are so often a background character, an afterthought, and our illness or disability is always the focus; a tragic side-story. But not in this case. Sophie is a badass, she’s funny as hell, and she’s a good person that we learn so many different things about. She’s a good friend that loves and is loved; she’s an equal, a valued human being.
That’s some bloody good representation. More of this, please.
The full season of Retrograde is now available to watch on ABC iView.