Not Yr Sick Girl — A Polemical Disability Reading of Kan Gao’s To The Moon

4 thoughts on “Not Yr Sick Girl — A Polemical Disability Reading of Kan Gao’s To The Moon”

  1. To be clear: I don’t think River’s representation was done “wrong” in To The Moon. I just think that her existence isn’t really a “representation of mental illness” as such because she is constantly filtered through John’s perspective. What the game says to me is: “this is how John sees River’s mental illness,” and then leverages its own sentimentality to make us forget that River’s actual, literal experience of mental illness was totally erased from the game. I think Matt was partially right: the relationship between John and River (rather than either of them separately) is central to the narrative. But a relationship has two sides, two perspectives, and we only get one.

    I don’t want to discount anyone’s personal resonances with this game. It resonated with me too, as a “sick woman” myself, with many manifestations of and relationships with ASDs in my life. But I want to suggest that the game might have done a better job admitting that mental illness carries inherent power. I don’t expect anyone to “get out of bed to protest.” I myself prefer to stay in bed. But I think that act is itself powerful—our existence, our perspectives, are powerful. but the world doesn’t do us a service by assuming that impressions of us are more important than our impressions of the world.

  2. Thank you for this post, Addie. You’ve composed your ideas beautifully, and your critique of “To The Moon” feels vital to my understanding of the game. Posts like this make me grateful that the blog exists.

    I want to introduce Jose Munoz’s theory of “disidentification” to your analysis, because Munoz defines it slightly different than you do, and I think that difference might be generative to the process of thinking through the representation of River’s disability. In your post, you seem to position “disidentification” as the opposite of “identification” (we might also call it “anti-identification,” in this sense). When Munoz uses “disidentification,” however, he means it to describe a specific type of identification – one where a person (or group) must identify across, rather than directly with, a certain form or genre of media. By cherry-picking and remixing media that might seem to make no space for them, he argues, minoritarian groups can mine meaning from genres that are otherwise harmful to them. Munoz cites camp and queer punk rock (or homocore) as two modes of disidentifying performance that steal tropes and conventions from traditionally straight genres for the purpose of flipping them on their heads and making them “queer.”

    It seems to me that Munoz’s conception of disidentification might speak to the representational politics at play in “To The Moon.” You elegantly make the claim that “To The Moon” objectifies River and her illness, pushing the audience away from identifying with her and denying her status as a character and as a subject. Yet it seemed clear from class that many people with personal experience with ASDs resonated with this representation. How do we make sense of that disparity? Disidentification might be a good way to start.

    I think @cindyjiy’s comment in class is a good example of one way of reading across, rather than with, the representation of River. By positioning River at the center of the narrative rather than at the distant periphery, it seemed to me that Cindy was disidentifying with the game in a productive way. What I gleaned from her comment was a description of a game that felt very different from the one I played, but perhaps one that was far deeper and more reparative – a game that challenges the abject anxieties at the core of able-bodiedness, a game that aligns itself with illness over wellness, a game that mocks the very existence of the binary between the two categories. Cindy’s reading didn’t strike me as “incorrect,” necessarily, but rather as slant – bent, in a good way.

    I wonder what you (and Cindy) think about all this. Am I mischaracterizing your points? Does Munoz’s theory of “disidentification” make sense to your readings? And is there any hope for reading River in a way that doesn’t reinforce “sick woman” tropes?

  3. @jeancochrane: I’d say that’s a pretty fair characterization of my comment, but I’d love to elaborate.

    Addie, I totally agree that your interpretation is the one the game propels us towards in Act 1 – a troubling, distant representation of River as an ambiguously developmentally disabled woman whose actions we can never understand, who at times seems an inconvenience to Johnny, whose simplicity draws complexity to Johnny and serves as the main source for the player’s empathy. As I played through this act, I too, was disturbed by this representation. But in Act 3, the game turns that representation on its head. Though we remain in Johnny’s memories, we see their first meeting, and receive enough information to interpolate her actions in his later memories.

    The first thing we realize is that the “incident,” the big event Johnny told River about, which to him mysteriously “triggered” her rabbit folding, was the death of his twin brother. In that same conversation, she must have also learned about his beta blockers, and thus began folding rabbits to recover the earliest memory she had with him. In this context, the room of origami rabbits is no longer a “funny,” creepy room reminiscent of an ill wife, but rather a beautiful, though failed attempt to help Johnny regain his early memories. It’s also important to note that in Act 3, Johnny isn’t the able-minded, dominant, and transparent character players think he is at the beginning of the game. His memory loss erased a part of his identity, his desires, and his sense of self, alongside his grief. We realize suddenly that Johnny too, in a sense, was distant from us, and we must reconstruct meaning in his memories to bridge that distance. The game offers us the opportunity to do so in the hallway scene, when Dr. Watts must dodge Dr. Rosalene’s obstacles, but may also enter classrooms to return to Johnny’s various memories forward in time.

    In short, yes, Act 1 positions us for how Johnny sees River’s illness, but in Act 3, we are also allowed a glimpse into how River tries to help Johnny work through his illness – even if he doesn’t realize it (and to be fair, River doesn’t have the expensive equipment and resources that the doctors do). In that sense, I do think the game tries to turn ableness on its head – by forcing us to question who is and isn’t abled, by allowing us to empathize with and read across distance to understand Johnny and River, and in Jean’s words, by mocking the very existence of the two categories.

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