Magazine article The Spectator

Dickens: Bah, Humbug!, Tiny Tim

Magazine article The Spectator

Dickens: Bah, Humbug!, Tiny Tim

Article excerpt

It's time to update our notions of disability, says Selina Mills, and quit with the pity

Here we go again. Partridges in pear trees. Lovely big Christmas turkey. The Queen's speech. And then, at some point during the Yuletide season, some version or other of Dickens's ghost story A Christmas Carol.

This year's glut of Scrooge stories includes the Old Vic's major production starring Rhys Ifans (reviewed by Lloyd Evans in last week's Spectator) and Michael Rosen's retelling of the tale, Bah! Humbug! There is a new film, The Man Who Invented Christmas, featuring Christopher Plummer as Scrooge and Dan Stevens, he of Downton Abbey fame, as Mr Dickens himself. It plots the months running up to the publication of A Christmas Carol in Yuletide 1843. It's all very nice and jolly, if you fancy Dan Stevens as Dickens clowning around with children, or demonised by his own characters.

But while we may thoroughly enjoy the fictitious world of Ebenezer Scrooge and his ghosts, I am beginning to wonder if it might be time to say bah, humbug! to the old-fashioned pity fest surrounding Tiny Tim and his modern-day equivalents. These are the adverts we see on daytime TV and the links on social media featuring famished children and dismembered and traumatised people, not to mention blind folk staring vacantly into the camera, usually accompanied by agonisingly slow, depressing music. And just like Tiny Tim, these messages are designed to evoke the maximum pity (and make us give the maximum amount of money), telling us that if we don't display empathy by 'liking' or sharing we are somehow heartless human beings. Virtue seems to be attached to bragging these days.

Now, let's be clear. I am not suggesting for a moment that we should not help those who need it -- financially or otherwise. On the contrary. We all need to attend to our social consciences at some point in our lives. But I am proposing that we might want to be more careful about how we portray those we are helping, and not turn them into objects of pity. This is not because we don't care but because if we continue to portray disabled people in the manner of Tiny Tim, or Clara, Heidi's friend in a wheelchair, we are reinforcing in the public mind the idea that anyone in trouble is a tragic victim rather than the self-empowered and independent individual we would all like to be. …

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