Disability and Mental Illness Through Media

Joy Division through Disability Studies and Media Portrayal:

‘The history of the portrayal of disabled people in the history of oppressive and negative representation. This has meant that disabled people have been presented as socially flawed able-bodied people, not as disabled people with their own identities’.

– David Hevey, 25 March 1992

There are a couple of different lenses through which Curtis’ disability was stereotyped.

The “Super-Cripple”:

With disability, the disabled person is assigned superhuman-like abilities. Blind people, such as the main character of the Netflix show Daredevil, are portrayed as visionaries with a sixth sense or extremely sensitive hearing. By emphasizing the extraordinary achievements of disabled individuals the media implies that the experiences of’ ordinary’ people -disabled or otherwise -are unimportant and irrelevant. Hence non- disabled people view so-called “super cripples” as unrepresentative of the disabled community as a whole and the gulf emerges between these groups of people (Haller). This lens doesn’t perfectly map to Ian Curtis’ experience but it does reinforce the idea of a cultural distortion of the effects of disability. Artistry or genius, seen by the public as superhuman, is not a result of the disability, it comes about despite the disability, which is why the idea of the “super-cripple” is so toxic.


“Freak labels disability as spectacle. The freak stands as an archetypal “other,” a disabled figure on theatrical display before an able-bodied audience that uses the display to define its own sense of belonging (Adams).”

Dustin Hoffman’s character is portrayed as a genius as a result of his disability rather than despite it.

There is a view of disabled people as exotica. Disabled people are still put on display in so-called ‘freak shows’ today (Adams). Exploiting disabled people in this way is particularly prevalent in alternative music scenes, especially punk. Often artists who do not experience the hardships of disability put on such a persona for authenticity purposes. The pastiche of the “disturbed” individual was a staple of early punk, evolving from the real mental illness and addiction that was involved in the proto-punk scene (i.e. Lou Reed, David Bowie). From Iggy Pop to Sid Vicious, the spectacle of the “freak” drove headlines and sales, yet unfairly portrayed those who suffered daily from what these artists were attempting to imitate.

An important aspect of Ian Curtis’ legacy is how he either refuted these tropes of media representation or reflected them upon his audience. He showed that his disability was harmful towards his well-being through his song and closed the gap between the audience and the “other”.