Singing the Body Uncanny: Gender, Disability, and Hannibal’s Will Graham

I originally wrote this piece for a class, but I like it enough to post here. So here you go. A long, extremely specific disability-based analysis of my favorite show (aka 90% of my brain at any given time).

(For real, Hannibal is secretly one of the most subversive disability stories out there. You should watch it.)

[Content note: This piece contains discussion of violence, ableism, and sexual violence in some detail, and contains images of body horror. Also spoilers for all of the show Hannibal.]

So, Will Graham sure gets shown naked a lot.

This is pretty unusual, since he is one of the protagonists of NBC’s Hannibal. Hannibal is an ostensible psychological-horror procedural. Will, played by Hugh Dancy, is a troubled FBI agent who has the special ability to understand murderers. The male protagonists of works in this genre are usually portrayed as the everyman-but-better type, relatable for the male audience that’s presumed to usually watch murder shows. The female characters are the ones who need to be beautiful and terrified, to be sexually enticing in a violent situation.

And then there’s this guy:

will shower [Image description: Will Graham, a handsome white man in his thirties, naked and taking a shower in pilot “Aperitif,” where Will is shown in a state of undress three separate times in one episode]

There’s the obvious reasons for the hilariously frequent shots of Will having night terrors in tiny boxer-briefs or shirtless and writhing in pain because of one murder or another. Really, if an actor has Dancy’s bizarrely delicate beauty, there’s no reason not to show it off, especially on a show created by a gay man and adored by an audience that’s largely women. This efficient use of resources, however, also creates another thematic facet of Hannibal’s subversive gender and disability framework.

will sleepwalking levels [Image description: Will, barefoot and in his underwear, walking outdoors. A dark horned shape follows him.]

Dancy’s prettiness and affect make Will beautiful despite himself. Will’s personality is all prickly avoidance, but his looks combine with fever dream-surreal situations to evoke both enchantment and guilt. As blogger Tarra Martin puts it, “[S]ometimes when I look at Hugh Dancy, I get this vague sense that I’ve done something wrong. Something indecent. Like I’m some sort of Victorian gentleman catching a glimpse of his ankle like, ‘dear god.’ [And] then they go and have him trembling around being breathed on by giant deer and cannibals and it’s just like, well I’m going to hell.” Our male protagonist is positioned as a vulnerable maiden figure in a real sense.

mukozuke antler growth [Image description: Will, stripped to his waist and on his hands and knees, antlers growing out of his back.]

Audiences have expectations for the pretty female horror character, dating back to the iconic Psycho shower scene. She is vulnerable and beautiful–naked, for good measure–while a threat looms. She is then hurt and distressed, but her body remains in a state that is more or less whole and appealing, made perhaps more appealing to a misogynistically-tempered audience by the marks of that distress.

Not so for Will Graham. He is distressed, pretty, but–Jesus fuck, he’s hallucinating that antlers are growing out of his skin and splitting him open. His body is still beautiful, but it is beautiful as the obscure formings of modern art are beautiful, not as what we have come to know as natural for sexualized bodies. This interpretation of vivid psychosexual horror has decided emphasis on the horror, the pain inherent in the scene undeniable.

kaiseki will tube [Image description: Black and white picture of Will with a tube in his mouth. His face is slack and a gloved hand is holding his head.]

This scene is the epitome of the deeply unsettling eroticism around Will Graham. Here he is, eyelashes fluttering, throat working, face being gently caressed–because Hannibal Lecter is forcing medical tubing down his spasming, unconscious throat so he can be force-fed a human ear. Subtext edges over to the explicit cinematic language of sexual violation.

Will’s sexualization depends on his unconsciousness. Lucid, he avoids eye contact, flinches from touch. He actively avoids attention. He only becomes open and beautiful when his brain and his body force him into a place where he can’t say say no to the people and monsters pushing their way in. Will Graham is objectified not just as female horror characters trying to stay alive are, but specifically the way disabled women are. That is, an essential component of the objectification is the prizing of helplessness.

So, Will is disabled. Let’s just get that out of the way. His cognition and movement pretty strongly suggest that he is autistic or otherwise developmentally disabled (despite show creator Bryan Fuller’s factually misinformed statements to the contrary.) Even besides that, Will seems to spend half his time sleepwalking/hallucinating/being otherwise not fully conscious. With everything that’s happened to him, he’s likely picked up brain damage, both from medications and physical trauma. He has oceans of PTSD crashing over his head.

Unfortunately, other characters treat Will like disabled people are treated–shittily. About five minutes into the pilot, we get to see Jack Crawford, Will’s boss at the FBI, approach him at work, apparently decide that the way Will’s glasses sit on his face is unsatisfactory, and put his actual hand on Will’s actual body to adjust them like this isn’t an extremely weird and infantilizing thing to do to your adult employee.

jack will glasses.jpg [Image description: Jack, a rugged middle-aged Black man, reaches in to adjust Will’s glasses while Will looks blank.]

Again and again, people keep doing this kind of thing to Will. His bosses and colleagues and doctors chat about his private medical information–information that, in some cases, no one told Will. When he goes to investigate a murder at a mental hospital in his capacity as an FBI agent, the head of the institution tries to get Will to undergo psychiatric testing–and worse, accepts Jack’s “Not this trip,” where he ignored Will’s own silent glaring. When Hannibal Lecter–yes, the it-fucking-rhymes serial killer, of all people–says, “I trust Will to speak for himself,” Jack responds with, “Evidently you shouldn’t.”

Will just remains blank throughout it all. He doesn’t say no to any of this. He cannot form an answer to a question nobody bothered to ask. Again and again, Will is told that his mind and body are not his own to speak for. He’s not allowed to make choices like normal people do.

The ways disabled people are hurt are woven into the moral aesthetics of Hannibal, in all the women Will meets who are like him. An FBI trainee reappears, less one arm, after being captured by a serial killer, and Jack tells Will, “I gave up on you. I thought you were crazy. I thought she was dead,” like those are the same thing. Someone else says that she wishes her mentally ill daughter was dead because the seizures, hallucinations, and psychotic depression were just too much to handle. Will is having the same symptoms. Reba, a Blind woman whose lover just tried to kill her, says, “I try to avoid people who foster dependency and feed on it. I’ve been with a few. The Blind attract them,” and Will takes her hand and whispers, “Not just the Blind.”

Will knows that he’s being dehumanized. And he’s scared. “I always feel a little nervous going into these places,” Will says on the doorstep of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, “[I’m] afraid they won’t let me out.” It’s the same insidious idea that gets planted in a lot of cognitively disabled people: Comply. Or one day you will be found a little too strange, and you will be institutionalized.

The not-like-normal-people-need-to-be-controlled thing, that’s the thing that makes people nonconsensually sexualize disabled girls. They’re not allowed to make choices, they don’t notice the things being said or done about their bodies, they’re vulnerable. Any sexual agency displayed by the disabled person themself is constructed as disgusting, while somehow, nonconsensually sexualizing disabled girls is okay because it doesn’t count.

It counts. They know, and they know it’s not supposed to count for people like them, and they have to comply anyway. Most abusers of disabled women are family or service providers. What the hell do you do when you rely on your abuser to support you, give you the care you need to live?

It’s…it’s just a thing. One more thing to remain blank through. If you are a disabled girl, you exist at this point where sexual harassment or violence is just a thing that happens, though it’s not often acknowledged in mainstream spaces. On Glee, the actually-disabled “dumb blonde” cheerleader Brittany says offhandedly, “I don’t know how to lock a door” and “Alien invasion!” On Hannibal, the femininely-coded, actually-disabled, unstable FBI agent gets a reporter taking and publishing a picture of his scarred and naked torso while he’s unconscious. No one says no in so many words. It’s a just thing. It’s elided, joked around. One more thing you’ve got coming to you.

Will, girls like Will, they don’t get to have a neutral body. In sexually-tinged dreams, Will’s body is made twisted and uncanny by pain. In waking, his body still reads as grotesque, molded by the hurt that is still there, that the show’s world has only echoed, not manufactured. The aesthetics Hannibal constructs around Will’s body makes violence and disability an inextricable part of how we read his eroticism.

“You no longer have ethical concerns; you have aesthetic ones.” That is the art and heart of Hannibal. There is no such thing as an aesthetic that just is, that is entirely amoral. The show draws us in with the sheer bizarre artistry of its murders–lungs pulled out to become wings, vocal cords played as cello strings, a corpse skinned and folded into the shape of an anatomical heart. We are entranced by the beautiful violence visited on genre-typically inconsequential characters until, in the show’s central mechanic, Will reenacts the violence/has it reenacted on himself, and we are reminded that the beautiful violence hurts people. We are complicit in enjoying the systemic violence involved in how Will is sexualized.

Will Graham sure gets shown naked a lot. And it’s a very enjoyable joke–right up until he’s terrified and trembling and always, always, compliant. It’s a fun thing in a deeply weird show–right up until it’s not. Real violence lurks in the uncanny and the grotesque, and not always in expected sites of violence. The aesthetics of beautiful Will only ever being erotic in unconsciousness belie a dark, beating, ethical heart.

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Throwback: Reach Higher at the White House

Last summer, I attended the Beating the Odds educational summit at the White House as the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network’s student representative. The summit was supposed to be a chance for marginalized college students to learn and connect. (I check the disabled, POC, first-generation, and LGBT boxes.) The speakers, who included Michelle Obama, were very good, and I got the chance to amaze some of my fellow attendees with my shark socks.

Unfortunately, there were only five disabled attendees (that the event planners knew of) out of about 150. I somehow ended up in a ten-person breakout group with one of them. I have my doubts about how this was planned, namely that only a minimal attempt was made to include students with disabilities.

Also there were only three bathroom stalls at an event with 400 people.

This blog did not exist when I went to the summit, so I am linking here to my blog post about it for ASAN. Enjoy my serious blogging and ridiculous pictures.

ONE MORE THING: Hamilton and Ambition

Like the rest of the known universe, I am currently obsessed with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton. It’s full of the kind of boom-bap hip-hop with a crew ethos that I love, it features some extremely talented performers of color (my new eternal love for Philippa Soo is born), but it also is the first story about ambition that has ever spoken to me.

I’ve never quite understood ambition. A lot of great people have it, including Lin-Manuel Miranda himself. I just do not have the drive to acquire power and prestige, or even to create something really good and be recognized for it. I’m more the “accidentally ends up in charge” kind of person. This is, to be honest, probably not a good thing.

Now, Alexander Hamilton himself has a lot of that kind of ambition, but he is also imbued with an incredible inability to shut up. In “Non-Stop,” he takes over a trial he’s conducting to spit a punchy verse about democracy, he hopping-up-and-down drones for six hours at the Constitutional Convention, and he can never help but interject a “ONE MORE THING.” He’s driven by righteousness, guilt, and survival to “write like tomorrow won’t arrive.”

It feels like a punch in the stomach, to have ambition being defined as the inability to shut up. That’s me. And yes, insert joke about Hamilton dying because he didn’t know when to shut his mouth, but that is me too. I was the kid who got sent to the principals office for loudly arguing with ableists, I’m the kid who feels any logic treating a group of people as less-than as incredible pain, and I’m going for what is basically a career in yelling. And yeah, I feel sheepish and pretentious saying this, but I have a Hamilton spirit. A weird, possibly unhealthy compulsively indignant voice.

I’m starting this blog in hopes of establishing a respectable online presence. And for me, this is where it and all my work is coming from. The sad inability to shut up.

ONE MORE THING-