Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings And Representations Of Multiple Sclerosis

Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings And Representations Of Multiple Sclerosis

When it comes to representation of people with disabilities in film and television, we’re progressively starting to see some growth and change. But while we’re starting to do away with the harmful tropes of the past, there’s still a lot of work left to be done. 

People with disabilities – be it an addiction, mental illness, neurological condition, or physical disability – tend to be forced into certain categories. For the most part, they’re used more as plot devices than characters in their own right. In this way, their humanity is stripped from them, and what’s left is a hollow image that, ultimately, represents no one. 

Recently, however, Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings on Netflix piqued our interest with its representation of multiple sclerosis (MS), and it seems we’re not alone. Message boards lit up with people talking about how much the show’s portrayal meant to them. Most prominently, that it honestly portrayed the hardship of living in silence with the condition, and that, despite everything, those living with MS aren’t defined by it. 

In the episode, based on her song Cracker Jack about a scruffy dog with unconditional love for his owner, a woman named Lucy Jane (Sarah Shahi) and her friends Scarlett (Rochelle Aytes), Monica (Jessica Collins), and Bitsy (Tammy Lynn Michaels) all get together for a long-overdue girls weekend away. It seems Lucy Jane had struggled with alcoholism in the past, often allowing her addiction to keep her isolated from those closest to her. Once they’re all together, Lucy Jane starts stumbling around and behaving oddly. They try to go for a hike and, after insisting she bring her thermos with, Lucy Jane unintentionally raises some red flags. She starts stumbling, easily tripping over nothing, falling into trees, and unable to keep up. They immediately assume they know what’s going on, and confront her about her drinking only to be told she was diagnosed with MS five months prior. 

The rest of the episode is spent in deep contemplation on what it means to have MS. In one scene, after stumbling and hitting her head on a door frame, Lucy Jane describes how the diagnosis came about – stumbling around, which she attributed to the drinking, losing her balance. She spares no detail in describing the symptoms that most people aren’t aware of. They frankly discuss what it feels like to have MS when you’re not married or don’t have anyone in your life to take care of you if you need help. The shame and hiding it from people in your life, not wanting to be a burden, but also not wanting to be seen as a sick person. “I am not ready to be poor Lucy Jane. Not yet,” she says after her friends push for answers to her stumbling. 

On top of the raw honesty and transparency of the story, Lucy Jane is played by Sarah Shahi, a Spanish-Iranian actress, offering a multidimensional representation of someone with a disability that goes beyond the more common white male prototype.  

There’s still a lot that needs to change in order to see real representations of disabilities on screen, in film and television. And even though we’re not quite there yet, portrayals like this offer some hope that the change is coming soon.  

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