Netflix’s ‘Special’ presents intersection of sexuality and disability

Illustration by Mai-Phuong Bui

Iman Mekonen, Contributing Writer

The first episode of Netflix’s newest original series begins with the main character face-planting and a child screaming in reaction nearby.

The pilot is one of eight short episodes in the first season of “Special,” which premiered on the streaming service April 12. It was written and produced by Ryan O’Connell, who also stars in the show as the semi autobiographical Ryan Hayes, a 28-year-old gay man with cerebral palsy.

VCU’s Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, or OMSA, and Student Accessibility Educational Opportunity, known as SAEO, hosted a screening of the first two episodes of “Special” on April 16.

The show follows Hayes’ everyday encounters as he comes to terms with his identities. He keeps his disability a secret and is hesitant to reveal the true nature of his insecurities from his co-workers, friends and romantic partners.

The show is formatted like a web series — each episode runs 12-17 minutes. It is based on O’Connell’s 2015 memoir, “I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves.”

As the series continues, Hayes grows proud of his identity and starts to create the life he wants. A discussion on the show’s content and the representation of disability in Hollywood followed the screening.

The audience talked about the influence actors and actresses in Hollywood have and whether they can play roles outside of their ability status, sexual orientation or even race.

“We accept that when it comes to the LGBTQ community, disabled community and portrayals in the media, non-disabled actors play disabled characters and straight actors can play gay characters,” said SAEO Director Ian Kunkes.

O’Connell has received praise for playing a role that fits his own identity, since he is gay and has cerebral palsy.

“It feels very different when you know that the character is portraying their own lived experience,” Kunkes said. “It feels more authentic, and you can tell the difference.”

Kunkes asked the audience whether it’s acceptable for non-disabled or straight actors to portray those characters in Hollywood.

“Is it that as a society, we’d rather see something we’re more comfortable with or something that fits our own idea of what somebody’s life should be like?” Kunkes asked. “Does Hollywood believe that we can’t handle authenticity? Or is it that as a society, we prefer to see someone on-screen that we know, even if we know it’s not a real portrayal?”

In the show, Hayes comes to terms with his white privilege and realizes how fortunate he is to have his unique life.

“I like the fact that they’re recognizing that he’s a privileged white male with challenges and acknowledging that in certain ways,” said OMSA Director Greta Franklin.

A few students shared their experiences seeing actors in movies and TV shows who do not identify with the role they play.

“Special” also addresses other identities through Hayes’ friends and co-workers. Hayes’ best friend Kim, played by Indian American actress Punam Patel, talks about body size and promotes body positivity.

“Popular portrayals of different identities are something that we look for every day. We look to find ways that we can identify with people on screen, and that can be different for all of us,” Kunkes said. “When something like ‘Special’ comes along, I think it’s a show to be celebrated.”

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