In English class today during free reading time, I reread McKenna's first book for the first time in a few years. While I was reading, I noticed problems with the representation of the character Josie, and I was so mad about it that I decided to make another rant about bad disability representation in the media. I published my first one about a year and a half ago, when I reread "Changes for Julie", but McKenna made me do it again!
For those of you who don't know, I am autistic and have type 1 diabetes, anxiety and depression. I also used to have scoliosis, but I had back surgery at the end of 2020, so it's mostly gone now. Because of that, I absolutely loathe misrepresentation of disabilities and mental illnesses in popular culture, which is all too common. As I've been getting older, though, I've been noticing those things more and more in media, and it bothers me a lot.
For context for those who don't remember McKenna, in McKenna's first book, she is forced to go to a tutor for reading comprehension, a sixth-grader named Josie Myers. Josie's legs are paralyzed and she is in a wheelchair. Over the course of the book, Josie helps McKenna become better at reading comprehension, and the two bond a little.
Like I noted in the post about Changes for Julie, Josie in McKenna's book is an improvement from an attempt at representation 5 years before her, Joy Jenner. While Josie doesn't have a character arc, unfortunately, she does have a distinct personality that isn't just tropes. She is smart, likes to read, likes horses, plays the flute, and is kind to others. It was refreshing to see Josie be more than just a "wheelchair girl". However, the way McKenna sees Josie and the text refers to her makes it seem like she's just a "wheelchair girl".
-When McKenna first meets Josie, the text says, "I'd never talked to someone in a wheelchair before. If this girl couldn't walk, I didn't know what else to expect. Maybe she couldn't think clearly, either." This is ableist because it suggests that people in wheelchairs aren't smart at all. While the rest of the book refutes this, thankfully, just the thought of that is harmful because it normalizes those kinds of thoughts.
-Also in the same scene, when a girl in McKenna's class appears in the library, McKenna gets away from Josie because she doesn't want to be seen with a girl in a wheelchair. If you have brain cells, you can tell that this is wrong.
-When McKenna looks at Josie's legs after she mentions that she might like to be a scientist and find a cure for paralysis, she thinks that Josie's "so brave" just for existing in a wheelchair and learning to accept her disability. I'll admit living with disabilities is tough, but I hate being called an inspiration or brave just for living. This marginalizes disabled people even more because it makes people think that a disability automatically makes you "brave" when, in reality, people with disabilities are just people. This happens later in the book, too, when McKenna calls Josie "strong".
-Later in the book, when McKenna's dad mentions Josie going on a camping trip with McKenna and her family, McKenna says, "Dad, she's in a wheelchair. How's that going to work?". Later, when she's actually on the trip, McKenna asks Josie, "do you want to explore?", but feels like asking her if she can explore. While people in wheelchairs obviously can't walk, most things they can do with the proper accommodations. Just because someone has a disability doesn't mean they can't do anything cool. The fact that you're on this site proves that wrong!
-"I wish Josie wasn't stuck in a wheelchair." Just that thought is wrong because, while it is well-intentioned, can come across as meaning that people in wheelchairs are "stuck" and can't live fulfilling lives.
In conclusion, American Girl messed up big time with their portrayal of Josie. I'm sick of disability “representation” that resorts to "you can't do this or be like this, you're in a wheelchair!" and "you're an inspiration for being in a wheelchair!" Good disability representation is severely needed in the world, and this clearly isn't it in my opinion.
How could AG have done better? In my opinion, AG should have at least did their research. At the very least, they could have researched the nuances of using a wheelchair and how to write a good portrayal. There are tons of articles out there on how to write characters from every walk of life that are just a Google search away. Personally, I spent hours pouring over every detail of every “How To Write A Character With PTSD” article on the Internet early on in the Rebelle writing process to help with Erika. I was 14 when I did that, and it helped a lot. If a 14 year old could do that, a multimillion dollar company could!
Another option would be to get a wheelchair user to read the manuscript and provide input on Josie’s portrayal. There would be tons of wheelchair users willing to help AG, and it’s not that hard to find someone online that can do that. (I also did that for Erika’s PTSD. Again, if the teenager can do it, so can the multimillion dollar company.)
Anyways, I would like to hear your thoughts on how Josie was portrayed! Did this article give you any new insight on her portrayal? If you are a wheelchair user or know one, what did you think about the way AG portrayed her?