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Terri Mauro

Will This Depiction of Down Syndrome Be a Horror Story?

By October 5, 2011

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It's National Down Syndrome Awareness Month, so it seems only appropriate that a show debuting tonight includes a character with Down syndrome, providing work for an actress with Down syndrome. But appropriate is the last word anybody's going to use to describe American Horror Story, an FX series from the creators of Glee and Nip/Tuck that, depending on your taste for this sort of thing, will be either deliciously over the top or poisonously so.

The show, which debuts tonight, October 5, at 10 p.m., deals with a family who moves into a luridly haunted house (and inexplicably stays there, because, come on). Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton star as the Harmons, but the character we're interested in here lives next door. According to an Associated Press review by Frazier Moore, "Jessica Lange plays Constance, a busybody Southern belle with an even more intrusive daughter, Adelaide, who (like Jamie Brewer, portraying her splendidly) has Down syndrome. Adult but childlike, the irrepressible Adelaide keeps busting into the Harmons' home."

Could be interesting. Could be insulting. Glee has done a good job of featuring an actress with Down syndrome, Lauren Potter, in the role of Becky. But critic Alan Sepinwall, writing on the HitFix site, suggests we shouldn't expect the same sensitivity here as he runs down the show's everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach:

"You want to throw out all the goodwill you generated on 'Glee' by writing three-dimensional characters with Down syndrome and give Lange's character a daughter with Down's who's there only as creepy set dressing? Have at it! ... It's rare that I get angry at bad television - usually it just disappoints me - but a scene in the second episode featuring Lange's daughter (played by Jamie Brewer) made my blood boil at its tone-deafness."

Well, there's something to look forward to. Also raising questions about what sort of territory we're getting into here is a New York Times review by Mike Hale that starts: "If you like the jar with the baby's leg, wait until you see the jar holding the baby's head. If one actress with Down syndrome doesn't provide enough Tod Browning-style otherness for you, don't worry -- there are two."

In a world where there are precious few characters with disabilities in entertainment, and fewer still that are played by actors with disabilities, one hates to put propriety tests on every part and plotline. Still, I think we could all do without the use of Down syndrome as shorthand for scary freakishness. If you're watching the show (which I won't be, for reasons that have nothing to do with disability depictions and everything to do with the fact that I creep out easily), share your thoughts about it in the comments here.

(And in other "visibility is a mixed blessing" news, Disability Scoop reports that South Park has an upcoming episode titled "Ass Burgers." Sigh.)

Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images

October 6, 2011 at 12:13 pm
(1) Veronica says:

As a mom of a beautiful daughter with Down syndrome, I was pretty shocked by some of the lines written for Jessica Lange. Although they may have depicted how people thought about Ds 40 years ago, they certainly don’t today. I’m specifically referring to when she said that if certain tests were around back then that (implication of abortion) and when she that of course she couldn’t work after her daughter was born; and she called her a mongoloid. Not nice. Overall, I really liked this show a lot, but a couple of scenes related to Ds definitely made me cringe.

October 6, 2011 at 1:42 pm
(2) Who Was In the Gimp Suit? says:

I think the point of Jessica Lange’s character saying such despicable things about her daughter is…she’s supposed to be a despicable character. You’re supposed to despise her. Time will tell though.

October 6, 2011 at 4:31 pm
(3) Sharon Barton says:

i did not see this show because of what i heard about the girl with ds. i have a daughter with ds and do not feel it is “scarry” at all!! i am very offended concerning this betrayal of ds and so is my family..i think we should petition this station to discontinue this show, it sickens me..

October 7, 2011 at 6:32 am
(4) Denise says:

I saw the show and think the depiction of the DS girl and her mother is spot on for 40 to 60 years ago if we take into account that Constance(mother) is also a self serving b–. Ryan Murphy layered on the horror, it’s not just the house or that Adelaide(daughter) can tell who is going to die in the house and lets them know. It’s the fact that little boys weren’t taught better in 1978 than calling a little girl with DS names and teasing her – and they still aren’t.

October 9, 2011 at 2:31 am
(5) Missing the point says:

If you believe censorship to be the answer so as to protect your feelings, I hope your petition is unsuccessful.

The sooner you realize that this show is fiction and we live in a free country, the sooner you will realize that if you don’t like it, don’t watch it. Kinda tyrannical to suggest that because you are offended and don’t want to watch it, no one should be allowed to.

You may think that the portrayal is inaccurate. But it doesn’t matter because the story is fiction. Just because some people get their ideas of how the world works through fictional tv doesn’t mean we all do. And those smart enough to know the difference shouldn’t be deprived of a bit of late-night escapism.

October 19, 2011 at 5:11 pm
(6) scrum says:

I hate the how is treated the ds girl… I have a brother like her and i love him with all my heart. And seeing that depiction and scrip hurts a lot…

October 24, 2011 at 12:34 pm
(7) Doyle Hinson says:

I think the show’s scenes with the mother/daughter interactions between Lange and her daughter are SUPPOSED to get up our gander. Lange’s character is a self-serving bitch whose only concern is with herself. She’s inappropriate, decidedly un-p.c., and completely deranged. When a character is this crazy-as-a-loon, I think it plays differently. She is presented as crazy as a battle ax, and the show understandably makes no apologies for her evilness, which extends to her treatment of her daughter.

Constance is hardly a model of any kind of “good” behavior. That’s what makes her so watchable. She’s just a little evil.

October 27, 2011 at 3:12 am
(8) Projecting says:

This is a fictional story. The actress, Jamie Brewer, is a great actress and activist by telling the world…..Stop feeling sorry for us….stop the reverse stereotyping!!! If you feel bad about how the show is presenting her…well….you should….because Jamie wants you too….and at same time notice the character Addy that Jamie protrays shows maturity and a thick skin. I have a 2nd cousin w/ DS and she works, takes classes, and loves a life without limitations..to a fault. Jamie is out there showing she is fully aware and she is not exploited. She’s working, she’s happy about it, and she has gained a new family through the production. No one treats her like a person with disability and that’s how we should all treat them.

October 27, 2011 at 10:25 am
(9) Daniel says:

So far this show is amazing and the character with Down Syndrome is doing a phenomenal job.. awesome show one of the best going right now.

October 31, 2011 at 1:42 am
(10) Respect says:

Feeling sorry for someone and abusing their Human Rights are two different things. bullying is not a right of passage. This show is saying that people with Ds are creepy and scary. What is sad is that these producers hide behind character and we who are supposed to be advocates lap it up. Anything to see a person with Ds on TV. That is the sad note. Any other minority group would not sit quietly but we seem so damn desperate we think any exposure is good. It isn’t. While this show may turn this character around the word mongoloid is now resurfaced thanks to this. Read blogs and you will see the character of Addie is called “the mongoloid”. This translates to your son and daughter now being called this. So we have to start a new petition to end the M word?!? Like that is workin?!?We all need to grow some balls and say enough!

November 2, 2011 at 11:29 pm
(11) P. Hollis says:

I think what we are missing is that a young woman with DS is playing a major role in a fantastic show. I love her character and the quality of her work. For those of you who have loved ones with DS, I would think that you would watch the show in support of her. Just think about what she’s doing…she’s in a show where people tease her and she is looking beyond it and making a name as an actress for herself. I think she is changing false perceptions of people with DS. Love Her!!!!

November 3, 2011 at 10:33 pm
(12) AaronT says:

It seems to me like you haven’t watched the show. If you had, you’d see that despite her mother’s inhumane treatment of her, Adelaide is one of the only likable characters on this show and displays an emotional maturity that many people assume people with Down’s do not have. Showing Adelaide flirting with the handyman, feeling inadequate because of pictures in fashion magazines, and gossiping about sex with Violet, to me this shows that a woman with Down’s Syndrome is not so much different from any other young woman. On top of that she is extremely articulate and wise in matters of the Murder House. In no way do I see her being depicted as a bogeyman or “creepy set dressing.” There is also a lot of nuance to her mother’s *outdated* treatment of her that goes far beyond just calling her names.

Please watch the show before you start preaching what is right or wrong about it.

November 7, 2011 at 9:56 am
(13) heather says:

I love the show and Addy is one of my favorite characters. I don’t think in any way that they portray her as “creepy” – if anything, she’s one of the more level-headed and least creepy people of the whole group! Jamie is an amazing actress – especially because of the things that Jessica Lange’s character says to her in some scenes. She is incredibly brave to have those things said to her face – regardless of whether it’s part of the script! I don’t think they portray her even as disabled; if anything, she has more “abilities” than the others, too. ** SPOILER ALERT ** I really hope that she isn’t dead, or I may have to stop watching as she is one of my favorite people on the show and I can’t imagine it without her!

November 16, 2011 at 2:21 am
(14) Truman says:

Addy was my favorite character on this show. I nearly cried when she was killed by that hit and run. She seems to be the only normal and likable character in that neighborhood. I want to find out more about her because she is so dynamic. As far as Jessica Lang’s character she is suppose be living in the past and we are suppose to hate her. She is the creepiest one of them all. Jamie Brewer is an incredible actress. I have become a huge fan of hers. I want to see her in more shows and different roles.

November 23, 2011 at 4:04 am
(15) Beth says:

I found it very refreshing for a Down Syndrome woman to be given such a dynamic role. Yes, there are scenes where she is put down or demeaned, but that is the truth of life and it shows her courage and strength of spirit that she doesn’t let these things affect who she is and what she is capable of. I thought the actress did a wonderful job and I hope to see her again in future episodes.

December 3, 2011 at 7:15 am
(16) Della says:

I have a young daughter with DS and all I can say is I thought the actress was amazing and I don’t see anything wrong with the show. People need to be less sensitive!

October 23, 2012 at 4:07 am
(17) Cindy says:

I think Ms. Brewer did excellent ‘acting’ on American Horror Story. Her scenes with Ms. Lange where incredible!! Just found out that Jamie has twitter now @MsJamieBrewer. Yes, I agree with Truman.. I also would love to see her in more shows and different roles.

November 15, 2012 at 4:03 pm
(18) Geoff says:

You do not understand her role in the show if you think she was put in to play a scary character. When I judge acting I try to put everyone on a level playing field and ignore a person’s previous fame or infamy. Despite being a complete unknown Jamie Brewer plays the role amazingly. In the past you might have had any actress put on make up and try to mimic the feel of a daughter with down syndrome but I admire taking the risk to put someone who really does and also it just happens that she’s a pretty good actress as well. Jamie Brewer’s character “Adelaide” really was put through a range of emotions which tested her skill and revealed not only authenticity but added depth as well to her role.

December 17, 2012 at 7:32 pm
(19) Sonya says:

I don’t have any DS relatives but I watched the series and had to look up Jaimie Brewer because she is FANTASTIC in that series! She was portrayed as a real woman with complex thoughts, feelings, and a thick skin. Amazing actress, great series.

January 9, 2013 at 4:19 am
(20) Mae says:

The Addie character was my favorite. Her death made me the saddest of all. Far beyond any of the other characters deaths. She was such a bright spot to the show. Always playing the correct emotions to the audience. Season One of AHS was better because of her.

January 25, 2013 at 7:54 pm
(21) Mara says:

I think the real point most people are not seeing is that ITS A MEATY PART! Seriously! This is an actress, ds or no, and this was a golden opportunity to work with world class actors; AND ro truly do great depth other than either playing powerless victims or sugary sweetness (which seems to be the sole repertoire of ds actors). Addie, sure, is not treated well at times by her clearly unlikable mother, BUT she gets her own back in sassy and very clever ways! She can more than hold her own in many of the moments she has with Constance and it’s refreshing to see a character so richly written and well acted on screen with ds. Because Addie has her own flaws which make her truly well rounded human being and if we’re at all honest, makes her infinitely more likable! This is the type of role any a truly serious actress with ds would be chopping at the bit to tackle. I, for one, am impressed with her skill, and I cheer that we live a society where she has the option to FINALLY play on an even playing field with the rest of the acting community. If you want to keep ds showcased only in heartwarming bubbles of family tv, then no, don’t see this show. But calling for boycots and internet tirades will only limit what is possible for those with ds on screen.

March 19, 2013 at 7:27 pm
(22) Winchestnuts says:

The fact that Adelaide has down’s syndrome is not what makes her creepy. That’s just her character. She’s the creepy little girl from next door. So why is everyone getting offended because she has DS? If she didn’t, she’d still creep me out. You’re putting too much emphasis on her DS.

April 3, 2013 at 8:30 am
(23) Ryan says:

For all the pontificating about how the character with DS is being written, and complaining about stereotyping, It is oretty myopic. If you are against stereotyping, what of how they portray the gay couple? Or how they treat mental ilkness or depression? If stereotyong others you, be consistant in fighting it, or call what your issue is more correctly, you dn’t care that they stereotype – you care that they don’t portray DS the way you think it should be. Which, in my opinion, is more harmful. If gay people want equal treatment, we can’t complain when sometimes we are the bad guy, too. Same goes for down syndrome. If they are normal people, and they are, it means they will be subject to the normal distribution of personalities. Some will be good, some bad, some cheery, some creepy. For every psychopath, like the one in silence of the lambs, we get a funny one like Will and Grace. For every Becky from Glee, there is an Addy from American Horror. Deaf people occassionaly play the bad guys now, too – in a law an order episode, even. If a person in a minority or with a disability can only be cast in a positive light, that is just as patronizing as always castng them as the ‘other.’

April 3, 2013 at 8:32 am
(24) Ryan says:

Wow, apologies for my many typos above. I should only do short comments from my ipad. I apparently am awful at touch keyboards.

May 21, 2013 at 1:41 pm
(25) THX says:

I’ve watched the show and I love the way Jamie Brewer performs as Addie. Yes, Lange’s character is a despicable person. Not because of how she treats her daughter — it is because she is despicable that she does things like that, and locking her other child in the attic and neglecting another so badly he wound up a homicidal maniac. It’s all part of the vileness of the character. That’s the fiction, part of the horror story (wouldn’t be horror if it wasn’t horrifying).

On the real side, Addie presented Jamie Brewer an opportunity to show her skills as an actress in a role that’s brought her much acclaim. She’s gotten to meet loads of celebrities and have lots of fun she might not have otherwise gotten to. She was the youngest president of the ACR and lobbied in Texas to have the name changed so that the “R” word would be dropped completely. She’s very active in Ds awareness and charity events.

If Jamie Brewer has no problem with the role or playing it, I say more power to her.

October 19, 2013 at 10:03 pm
(26) liz says:

Amen! Totally agree with THX. AHS now in their 3rd season and Ms. Brewer doing a phenomenal job right along with her colleagues!!

November 6, 2013 at 6:49 pm
(27) True says:

You can’t go back and re-write history. Even though people are more accepting now, back then a lot of people were very critical of people with disabilities like Down Syndrome. Not to mention the character of the mother is supposed to be a bitchy one. It is not like you are watching a reality show, this is fiction and they all have characters.

November 8, 2013 at 8:12 am
(28) Anneke says:

I love her characters in both seasons of AHS she was in. The people womplaining about her part don’t seem to have watched the show at all: she’s never portrayed as creepy or scary, she’s a character with bad things happening to her and she shows a great deal of personality in coping with these things.

SOmething else people don’t seme to know: American Horror Story isn’t just about ghosts and monsters. It’s about all kinds of horror, including the horror people inflict upon each other. Important parts of the storyline are about how people will treat other people in a horrible way, about the conditions in mental hospitals, about rape, abuse, revenge, racism. Things that really happened or still happen. It’s even more obvious in the latest series: the scenes where the horror is magical are so over the top they’re almost funny, but the ‘real’ horror (like the girl being raped, a woman horribly abusing her slaves, a young black boy being lynched, a boy being molested by his mother) is the stuff that really hits home and scares the viewer.

November 14, 2013 at 3:36 pm
(29) mike yates says:

I thought they did an amazing job portraying the relationship between her and her mom in the first season. I liked that everyonce in awhile they let you see that even though she acts like she does to her daughter you can tell deep down she loves her. I think that in her twisted mind she is showing her daughter how to have thick skin. I found it beautifully twisted and was seriously amazed at the daughters acting ability. I’ve never spent time around anyone with ds and sad to admit it but I had a very inacurate idea as to how smart people with ds were. This show opened my eyes and made me give way more respect to all with ds.

November 14, 2013 at 11:11 pm
(30) Jane says:

Jamie’s performance has been an eye-opener for me. She’s fantastic! I don’t view her character as a freak at all. She is wily and forceful, key to the strength of the coven. Bravo!

November 16, 2013 at 2:28 pm
(31) Diana says:

Jamie’s portrayals as Adelaide and now Nan are so amazing that they have completely shifted the perceptions I have of people with downs. I have never had a close relationship with anyone who has it and by watching her act I see that any conceptions that I might have had about people with Down’s syndrome were simply not true at all. This girl shows such intelligence and depth in her acting–it’s a nuanced role and she keeps up with the likes of Jessica Lange, even steals the scene. Oh. She has done the world of Downs people a favor. Anyone who sees this show will never again assume that these people are not forces to be reckoned with.

November 18, 2013 at 10:27 pm
(32) Eduardo says:

I love that they have included her in this show and it never crossed my mind that it was because it would seem freakish, so I think you must be projecting what you think what everyone else thinks.

When I saw Addy in season 1 I only thought she was a sweet little girl that happened to lack affection from her own bitch of a mother and was looking for attention in the neighbor’s home. I never saw her as a “freakish addon”. You’re only harming your own cause by writing stuff like this.

November 24, 2013 at 11:09 pm
(33) Pberry says:

I think that some of the people that feel that there was some sort of disservice to people with Down’s syndrome because of the depiction of Addie in AHS should really listen to the interviews with Jamie Brewer. She seemed thrilled to be working with actors as amazing as Jessica Lange. Yes, Jessica Lange’s character treated Jamie Brewer’s character horribly, but, so what .. It was fiction. Jamie Brewer, the actress, was not offended, so why are you? She got a good role, worked with some great actors, and did an amazing job herself.

February 19, 2014 at 3:39 pm
(34) zach says:

This show is honestly really amazing. One of the best out there. The show cast the Down syndrome actress NOT to scare people. Yes, agreed Langes character is despicable but she is supposed to be. The show should never be discontinued. It’s great. Some of these comments anger me.

March 17, 2014 at 1:27 pm
(35) In conclusion... says:

People who watched the entire season of the show realize the character of Adelaide was eventually developed more, became somewhat heroic, and even became beloved by despicable character of her mother.

It’s easy to jump to conclusions, and view depictions of a DS character with a fine-tuned microscope. The season viewed as a whole, there’s nothing to complain about here.

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