Pop culture & stammering: why we shouldn't care

A young man holding two books in one hand and a remote control in the other

As our campaign for better representation of stammering in the media concludes, Tom Wells argues that the way films, television, theatre, etc, portray people who stammer needs to change.

In the twenty-first century, 'perfectionism' consumes us. Everything must be perfect, beautiful and fit into the tight mould society has made. From social media to old traditions, anything less than perfect is thrown into the trash heap. It taints every medium: fashion, music, film, television, theatre, social interaction, and even how people talk to each other. Pretty much, this is our ultimate flaw. 

Environmental cues that shape perceptions

We live in a fast-paced economy. Interactions and jobs must be completed in a swift and prompt manner (or you risk becoming an outsider or weird). Sometimes, I must use speaking techniques to get through a social situation or a job interview. I think stammerers are sometimes thrown to the sidelines as we are perceived to be slowing things down.

This viewpoint shapes how stammerers are pictured in pop culture: the awkward, weird, socially inept character.

Although speech only constitutes a small percentage of communication, people still view it as the central skill for social interaction. I can understand why; it’s easier to get a simple message across without the risk for misunderstanding. However, stammerers are always placed in the position of inadequacy. Think about it. If everybody tells me to slow down or think about what I’m saying, then it creates an atmosphere where I must meet an invisible expectation. Besides, it makes things awkward; I cannot be my fun-loving self if I must constantly think about cementing a good impression. 

This viewpoint shapes how stammerers are pictured in pop culture: the awkward, weird, socially inept character. The character that slows down the pace; the character that always gets bullied; the character that everyone feels they must pity rather than praise as an individual. In order to fit 'perfectionism', we shun the 'imperfect'.

I have fallen into this trap. For example, I listen to famous voice actors and watch experienced actors dazzling a crowd with Shakespeare's expressive prose and wit. It is easy to enjoy a captivating voice; I find it occasionally difficult to see my voice in the same way. I sometimes cringe listening to myself and I’m sure many stammerers share this trait. As a result, many of us gain no satisfaction or pleasure from our voices. Maybe, therefore, actors with a stammer choose to minimise or hide their stammers. Is this right? People have their personal preference.

Film & Television 

Hollywood holds power over my generation’s social and cultural values. If films and TV omit disability or what they see as an imperfection, it sends a clear message: a disability is abnormal. Stammerers only account for at least 70 million people out of 7 billion. So, filmmakers shoot films that will attract larger audiences. Yet, when stammerers do come on screen, they seem to fill a particular role; there are few films, which I’ve seen, that diverge from this trend.

If films and TV omit disability or what they see as an imperfection, it sends a clear message: a disability is abnormal.

Disability on screen means an obstacle to overcome: a journey to become 'normal'. This comes in many forms — somebody gets bullied, they end up 'cool'; boy meets girl/girl meets boy and they must change to get their love interest; somebody must do a speech and get help to perform it, etc. The list goes on. Am I criticising people aiming for their goals? NO! Nonetheless, people should feel comfortable with their personality; nobody should change who they are because they think they'll fit in better.

One of my favourite horror stories is Stephen King's IT. In it, a group of kids must combat a monster that feeds on children. Bill Denbrough, leader of the Loser's Club, stammers. Stephen King illustrates the confusion and struggle that stammerers go through well. In the novel, Bill recites a tongue twister: "He thrusts his fists against the posts, and still insists he sees the ghosts". His stammer leads him to finding a way to defeat the monster. Is the novel perfect in its depiction of a stammer? Some bits are done well, some are not. Ultimately, Bill tries to remove a stammer that is a part of him. 

Letting Go

Film and television allow us to escape from the mundane, ordinary existence we call life. They create worlds and characters that entertain us — without them, children today would moan and complain. They shape how we examine our environment. Some films out there are incorporating stammerers, others are not. The perceptions most leave behind, however, still reflect the stubborn prejudices: a stammer is a problem.

And yet, this is not going to change if the negative stigma remains and stammerers buy into it.

If you'd like to write an article for our Your Voice section, see our Share Your Story page or email editor@stamma.org for more details.

Two women in running outfits holding flags and looking at the camera
Tayo & Bhupinder
A speaker on stage at STAMMAFest 2023

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