Though I’m a little late to the party (sorry, that was a groaner), I wanted to weigh in on an unlikely controversy that has many members of the epilepsy community angry. I’m angry, too.
In August, Netflix released the film The After Party. I haven’t watched it—I’ll admit that I’m a little curious, but I know that it’d probably rile me up even more than I already am, plus I don’t feel like contributing to a rise in its ratings. Instead of providing a personal review, I will thus simply quote the movie’s overview on Netflix, which summarizes the plot like so: “An aspiring rapper and his best friend/manager have one night to bounce back from embarrassment and make their dreams of hip-hop stardom come true.”
Not mentioned here is that the source of this “embarrassment” is a seizure that he suffers during a show. Reaction to this medical event is not charitable. Indeed, a video of the seizure is posted on the internet, goes viral, and results in a dance phenomenon and hashtag. Even worse(?), the protagonist is given the unimaginative (and mocking) nickname “Seizure Boy.”
Several epilepsy organizations have spoken out against the film’s portrayal of seizures. I thought that Deirdre Floyd, president of the Canadian Epilepsy Alliance, effectively explained how The After Party negatively impacts the epilepsy community. However, a quick Google will lead you to other compelling arguments from other big groups, all of which make excellent points that I’ll try not to repeat here, at least not too, uh, repetitively.
But I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t have a strong opinion to communicate. What else is new.
Upon reflection, I realize that what bothers me most about The After Party is connected to the fact that it’s very rare to see characters with epilepsy in a TV show or in a movie; the only example I can easily come up with is whomever Natalie Portman played in Garden State, and I’m always on the lookout for “seizure stuff” (if anyone’s going to notice a minor character with a seizure disorder, it’s me). This dearth of representation makes it that much more important that on the rare occasions epilepsy slips through the cracks and onto the screen, seizures, and the person with the seizure disorder, are depicted realistically.
Keep in mind that accurate depiction doesn’t mean idealized depiction: pretending that epilepsy is a walk in the park would arguably do more harm than good. But much worse, certainly, is portraying a seizure incorrectly, incompletely, or badly and then implying—whether intentionally or not—that name-calling and engaging in internet (and face-to-face) harassment are appropriate, normal ways to respond to a neurological episode. So what’s a writer/director/producer to do? I would humbly suggest that it’s possible to find a happy medium based not on idealized behaviour or mockery but on realism and compassion.
The issue, of course, is that it’s easier to aim for cheap laughs that momentarily benefit one group but come at a hefty emotional price for another.
The continuing stigma surrounding seizures encourages many who live with them to keep them a secret, to avoid getting support from which they could derive true benefit, and/or to miss opportunities to raise awareness because they’re worried about being teased, mocked, or otherwise made to feel like a lesser human simply because their brain isn’t 100% typical. It’s discouraging that Netflix decided that it was a good idea to make a film in which the greatest fear of many people with epilepsy—being publicly humiliated for something that’s fully outside of their control—not only occurs, and on a larger-than-life scale, no less, but is also meant as a source of entertainment. It now has a chance to undo some of the harm it’s caused the epilepsy community; I hope that it recognizes the importance of doing so and takes action.
C’mon Netflix: I really want to (be) chill with you again.