Greetings, Internet! I had a completely different post in mind that was all written and ready to go, but then I decided to rewatch “DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story” (2004). It is probably my second favorite sports movie of all time (because nothing will ever top “A League of Their Own” (1992)). Anyway, when I first watched “DodgeBall,” I was thirteen years old, and, I kid you not, in dodgeball summer camp. Technically, it was billed as a sports camp, but they were a bit low budget, and so we ended up playing dodgeball everyday. But that’s a story for another day.
Anyway, for those who haven’t seen the movie, it’s a parody of sports and sports movies. A gym, Average Joe’s, is about to get taken over by a corporation called GloboGym (where they’re better than you, and they know it). Ben Stiller plays the GloboGym owner, White Goodman (yes, that’s his name). He’s as creepy and vengeful as he is oblivious to everything around him. The staff at Average Joe’s figures the way to save their gym from a corporate takeover is to win $50,000 in a dodgeball tournament in Las Vegas. Turns out that they suck at dodgeball, and so ADAA (American Dodgeball Association of America) all-star Patches O’Houlihan helps Average Joe’s become awesome through highly unorthodox means (e.g. “if you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball”). GloboGym joins in the tournament in order to prevent Average Joe’s from winning. The end of the movie is predictable, but who cares?
The brilliance of this movie is in much of the details. The ADAA is iconic, as are the “Five D’s of Dodgeball”: dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge. The instructional video played near the beginning of the movie, which explains the fundamentals of dodgeball, was very likely the product of Nazis (which doesn’t seem all that surprising considering that the video provides an inaccurate history of dodgeball, and because the video describes dodgeball as a game of “violence, exclusion, and degradation”). The whole tournament is televised on ESPN 8: The Ocho. One member of Average Joe’s is Alan Tudyk in a pirate costume. And Lance Armstrong also makes a cameo to provide some inspirational advice, made all the more hilarious in 2018.
Watching the movie now, post-injury, I have to give a shoutout to Patches O’Houlihan, the former ADAA all-star who coaches Average Joe’s to glory from the seat of his power wheelchair. Before I gush, I have to give the disclaimer that no, I do not support cripface, which is when an able-bodied actor plays a character with a disability (in this case, Rip Torn playing Patches). There are plenty of amazing actors with disabilities out there who are looked over consistently in favor of an abled actor. This has led to numerous awards for abled actors who played characters with disabilities, and not nearly enough representation of people with disabilities in the film and television industry. Rip Torn does not need a wheelchair, but to his credit, as a wheelchair user myself, he seems convincing to me. Others may disagree, but I thought that he did a good job. In 2018, of course, should any able-bodied actor be approached with a film role featuring a wheelchair user, their response should be, “Find someone who already uses a wheelchair to play the role. Representation matters.”
All of that said, I love Patches. Owing to my need for lists, I’ve compiled seven reasons why. Take note, Hollywood:
- He uses a wheelchair and no one asks what happened to him. The commentators during the dodgeball tournament don’t even mention how he became a wheelchair user.
We have no idea why Patches uses a wheelchair. And that’s fantastic. No one’s nosy about it, and no one thinks it’s a vital part of his backstory. The commentators describe him as a former ADAA all-star, and attribute some of Average Joe’s success to his leadership and “the luck of the Irish.” Also, when he first approaches the head of Average Joe’s (Peter LaFleur, played by Vince Vaughn), LaFleur is on board with having Patches coach his team. He doesn’t even mention to his teammates that Patches uses a chair. He just describes him as “normal…you know, for us.”
- The fact that Patches uses a wheelchair is not his most notable feature.
You often forget that Patches uses a wheelchair. This isn’t in a bad way. Meaning, his disability is in no way erased (after all, he uses his power chair to barge into the gym). It’s more like, you know he’s using a wheelchair, because without it, he couldn’t get around. The wheelchair doesn’t prevent him from sending his team through a busy intersection to dodge traffic, or from accompanying his team on a twenty-mile jog.
Patches is far more notable for lines such as, “You couldn’t hit water if you fell out of a boat!” and “I get better runs in my shorts!” He also drinks his own urine because it’s sterile and he likes the taste. And don’t forget that he’s a former ADAA all-star.
- He carries around a sack of wrenches to teach people about dodging balls. And creates dodgeball dance mixes. Say what you will about slapstick humor, but I love it.
- His very presence at the ADAA Las Vegas dodgeball tournament tells me that the entire venue is wheelchair-accessible.
- Patches has no issues with talking about disability and sex.
In his first interaction with Peter LaFleur, Patches says, “You wanna have dodgeball victory? You gotta grab it by its haunches, gotta hump it into submission, that’s the only way!” Metaphor aside, later in the movie, after Average Joe’s first victory in Vegas, Patches asks if LaFleur wants to come up to his room, where there are hookers. LaFleur declines, but you know Patches is planning on having a good time, with or without LaFleur.
I’m not the first to say that Hollywood rarely portrays people with disabilities as desirable or fit to play the romantic lead. Unsurprisingly, that issue doesn’t get resolved here, but at least the makers of “DodgeBall” weren’t planning to make Patches some kind of beacon of chastity on account of being a wheelchair user. Which leads me to…
- Patches is not a saint in any regard. Nor is he inspiring.
Patches doesn’t seem to fall into any stereotype about disability. He’s a good coach (all things considered), but not inspirational. His players have confidence in him because he trained them to be great dodgeball players (and possibly because he gave them all wrench-induced concussions that have altered their judgment). Towards the end of the movie, he states a number of generic “I believe in you” lines to LaFleur, none of which LaFleur finds remotely helpful.
Patches isn’t the villain, either. That role belongs to White Goodman, an able-bodied white man. Recently, movies such as “Wonder Woman” have come under scrutiny for perpetuating stigmas surrounding facial disfigurement with regard to one of its villains, Dr. Poison. Other films, such as “Dr. No,” feature a villain with a disability. But Patches’ mobility impairment has no bearing on how he treats others. I mean, sure, Patches says wildly inappropriate things. Upon seeing Kate Veatch’s (Christine Taylor) throwing ability, he exclaims, “That dyke can throw!” He also uses the “R” word at some point in the movie. Patches’ inappropriate comments are just a reminder that wheelchair users, too, can be non-PC AF.
When Patches was able-bodied, however, he encouraged a boy to assemble a bunch of strong teammates together to gang up on weaker children. In other words, he may have always had that, let’s say colorful, personality.
Patches’ disability is never viewed as a burden, nor is he a supercrip. He needs a mobility device to get around, and he uses it for that purpose. No one questions his ability to coach or lead the team, and he fits right in with the Average Joe’s squad.
- [Spoiler Alert, I guess, I mean the movie came out 14 years ago, but whatever] Patches’ death had nothing to do with his disability.
For those who remember, Patches was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and was crushed by a falling “Luck of the Irish” fixture. There was none of that assisted suicide “Me Before You” nonsense. And I say nonsense deliberately, because storylines like that perpetuate the “better dead than disabled” narrative. Patches, who I might add was living his best life, was taken from his fictional world far too soon.
The issue with characters with disabilities in most movies is that they’re often portrayed as villains, as people who view their impairments as burdens, or as people who are inspiring and almost saintlike. The impairment, not the individual, is the most important aspect of the character. That’s not the case with “DodgeBall.” Instead, I get to see a character with a disability who is equally brilliant and ridiculous when it comes to the sport he loves, and shares with me a need for mobility equipment.
Here’s to you, Patches O’Houlihan. May Hollywood learn how to make more characters with disabilities as uninspiring and badass as you.
What are your favorite fictional characters with disabilities? Leave them in the comments below!
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