This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the graduate students in my Psychopathology course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Mental Health.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular class of mental disorders.
The Punch Line by Hayley Twyman
Charlie screws things up a lot, but he never really means to. He probably would not even know the extent of his failures if it weren’t for his so-called friends. All he wants to do is be a friend and help them as much as he wishes they would help him. Though he tries so hard to fit in, he always does something to remind his friends of how much of a moron he is. Charlie can’t spell and or read as well as he should be able to and he is never allowed to forget it. So he can’t read signs on his way to work; it doesn’t stop him from being the manager of his own business. It also doesn’t stop him from being the object of everyone’s cheer whenever he mispronounces a word or two as he is reading the paper. Though he owns equal shares to the pub with his friends, they degrade him and exploit his disabilities for their own benefit.
How can his friends live with themselves? What gives them the right to put down Charlie? We all want to think that we would do something about it; that we would stand up for poor Charlie against his friends. We would remind them that Charlie’s intelligence and worth have nothing to do with his disability. We would hope to give Charlie the confidence we all know he deserves. There is no way we would ever laugh at the poor man.
Unless he was on a television show.
Charlie Kelly has been a main member of the crew in the show, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” for ten seasons now, often serving as the punch line for the other four main characters. Throughout the show Charlie’s severe dyslexia is often the catalyst for whatever wild and wacky adventure the gang gets themselves caught up in. Though Charlie often leads his friends into some sticky situations, he always tries to make it better, even though the others don’t always see it that way. But no matter how badly Charlie screws up, the plot always resolves, but Charlie’s problems never do.
In the real world, most of us would swear that we would never make fun of anyone for having a learning disorder. But as I pull up Netflix a scroll through my most-viewed shows, at the top of the list I see “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” I swear I would never openly or willingly make fun of anyone with a learning disability. That is just cruel. But I may laugh as Charlie misspells “Kitten Mittens” and almost costs his pals their pub.
Learning disorders affect approximately 5% of the United States population. Though it is often diagnosed in grade school, the disorder does not simply “go away” when one reaches the adult world. Learning disorders can include difficulties with math (dyscalculia), difficulties reading and spelling (dyslexia), or difficulties reading non-verbal cues or body language (non-verbal). However, learning disorders can affect more areas of life than that of the academic setting. People with learning disorders may have difficulties comprehending the concept of the time of day, problems understanding directions, and overall poor self-esteem. These issues are very serious and can cause long-term problems in a child or adult’s life. It just goes to show that these “learning disorders” are not confined to the “learning environment.” These issues are life-long and the burden the disorder can put on one’s life is harsh.
Most of these issues we can see in Charlie. He is always misspelling signs or misreading instructions. He also does not always have the best grasp of every social situation. These issues and others have not only cost him his rightful managerial position at his pub, but also any hope of a relationship with the woman he has been admiring for years. When viewed in the context of the show, the problems of this hapless fellow are comedic gold; but what about all of those individuals in the United States who truly do suffer from the problems inflicted upon them by having an untreated learning disability?
I know what you are probably thinking; it is just a television show. It is not like we are making fun of real learning disabilities. But as I scroll through the synopses of the episodes listed on my television screen I just have to wonder: is he just a comedian playing a light-hearted and loveable role or is Charlie an offensive caricature of a serious issue? What is the difference between finding joy and laughter in every situation and using someone else’s problem as a scapegoat to make our days seem more tolerable? It is difficult to be empathetic when all you want to do is pop a bag of popcorn and laugh as you binge-watch.
From blaming IQ and vaccines, to attributing failure to laziness, surveys suggests there are already numerous stereotypes held by the American public regarding learning disorders. These preconceived notions can affect the self-esteem and self-expectations of those with learning disorders, possible affecting their likelihood to succeed later on in life. Sure, it is the job of comedy to make light of things in order to get a good laugh. But are we integrating the topic of learning disorders into the public dialogue by making them easier to talk about through humor or are we contributing to the stereotype that is already misrepresented in the eyes of the American public?
Charlie is a fictional person, but his problems are very much real. Learning disorders affect millions of Americans in many realms of life. Though “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” is meant to be a comedy, the issues it addresses issues that are all-too serious. There is a fine line between making light and making fun, between shining a light on a serious topic and pushing understanding into the dark.
So what do we do about it? Maybe instead of binge watching the new season of “The Walking Dead” this weekend you can choose to make a difference. Unlike brain-eating Georgian zombies, these disorders are real. There are hundreds of opportunities located all over the country to volunteer with individuals with specific learning disorders. Communities need helpful and insightful volunteers and you can enrich many lives along with your own. That sounds a lot more fun than being a couch potato.