Problematic Icons: Greta Thunberg and Helen Keller

By Emmeline Burdett
Spitting Image

The British satirical puppet show Spitting Image was originally broadcast on the TV station ITV between 1984 and 1996, but it has recently been revived. As the show satirises politicians and other public figures, it is inevitable that the puppets featured in the revival are different from the ones in the original programme One of the puppets in the revival is of teenage Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. This has led to claims that Spitting Image is not satirising Thunberg as an individual public figure, but instead encouraging the public to regard all autistic people as figures of fun. This is far from the first time that Thunberg’s autism has been portrayed as something which makes her very vulnerable, and means that criticism of her is unfair. Some of her detractors have gone further and suggested that it also means that her perception of reality is flawed, and thus that what she says about climate change is unreliable.
The inability to accept Greta Thunberg as a person with an informed opinion on an issue she considers important links her to public reactions with which Helen Keller (1880-1968) was also confronted. Keller was deaf-blind, and though it is in connection with this that she is most well-known, she was active in many other causes – she was a committed socialist, she supported civil rights for black people, she supported women who took direct action as part of their campaign to get the vote and opposed the United States’ preparation for war. (Crow 2000: 10) Despite this, Keller herself recognised that her opinions on these other issues were often not given the attention they deserved. In a letter to Senator Robert M. la Follette in 1924, she wrote
‘So as long as I confine my activities to social service and the blind, they compliment me extravagantly, calling me the ‘archpriestess of the sightless’, ‘wonder woman’, and ‘modern miracle’, but when it comes to a discussion of a burning social or political issue, especially if I happen to be, as I so often am, on the unpopular side, the tone changes completely’. (Keller 1924)
This change of tone varied from the insistence that, as a deaf-blind woman, Keller could know nothing of ‘the real world’, and that her ‘mistakes spring out of the limitations of her development’, to ‘the pathetic exploitation of poor Helen Keller’. (Crow 2000: 21)

Additionally, there was the suspicion that Keller was the puppet of her teacher, Annie Sullivan, and this was expressed most vividly in the insistence that Keller’s socialist convictions were not her own, but Sullivan’s. (Ibid.: 22) Conversely, though, it was often the case that Helen Keller did not experience the same violent opposition to her beliefs that a non-disabled person would have done. (Filippeli 1999)

The British disabled artist, writer and activist Liz Crow argued convincingly that the motivation for these reactions was that, by having opinions on issues other than her disability, Helen Keller showed herself to be a real human being, and that this threatened the saint-like image that the American public had of her. (Crow 2000: 13)

Helen Keller’s opinions on issues other than blindness did not attract the same censure from opponents as they did for non-disabled people, but at the same time, they were often not taken seriously either. This is interesting to consider in the context of reactions to Greta Thunberg. One description of Keller states that ‘her politics for anyone else would have got her lynched’ (ibid.), because of the reference to lynching, one assumes that this refers specifically to her support for civil rights for black people.

The reference to lynching is also a link between Keller and Thunberg, because an effigy of Thunberg did get lynched during the course of a climate protest in Rome. Similarly, Greta Thunberg’s promotion of environmental issues has made her many enemies. As well as the widespread hatred to which she has been subjected, particularly on social media, she has also become the target of more powerful enemies. Climate activism threatens a number of interest groups, and most of these are supported by the US President Donald Trump. On hearing that Greta Thunberg had been awarded Time magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’, in December 2019, Trump tweeted:
‘So ridiculous. Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old-fashioned movie with a friend. Chill, Greta, chill!’
As mentioned above, other people have argued that, because of her autism, Thunberg is too vulnerable to be laughed at, criticised – the implication is that she is too vulnerable to be a public figure at all. In relation to Donald Trump’s criticism of Thunberg, a woman wrote to the Washington Post to suggest that Trump was ‘cyberbullying’ Thunberg, and that this was particularly the case as autism is a ‘protected disability’.  This attitude is well-meant but patronising – it sought to protect Thunberg, even though she frequently (including on this occasion) responded to Trump’s sour tweets by pointedly incorporating them into her own Twitter profile.

Greta Thunberg has explained repeatedly why being on the autistic spectrum is beneficial to her climate activism. In an interview on BBC Radio 4, she said: ‘Being different is a gift. It makes me see things from outside the box. I don’t easily fall for lies; I can see through things. If I would have been like everyone else, I wouldn’t have started this school strike for instance’. Though it is perhaps surprising, there were also people who made similar arguments in relation to Helen Keller. For example, a newspaper cutting in the American Foundation for the Blind’s Helen Keller Archive argued that the fact that Helen Keller had risen to such great heights despite having only three of the usual five senses was proof of both her intelligence and the truth of Socialism. In addition, the article referred to those who doubted Socialism despite being in possession of the usual number of senses as being ‘deaf, dumb and blind’. This might not have been a majority view, but it is an ingenious and very interesting argument.

Article praising Helen Keller's Socialism, and criticizing those who fail to see Socialism as she does
Courtesy of the American Foundation for the Blind, Helen Keller Archive:
Link to full picture.

Criticisms of the Spitting Image character has come from many other quarters, including from people who are also autistic. For example, the journalist and blogger Lydia Wilkins has argued that, by using the puppet, Spitting Image was mocking Thunberg’s autism, and that for this reason, they should have decided not to include her.  Wilkins pointed to the puppet’s ‘stereotypical’ autistic traits, such as a flat voice and a lack of humour, to support this, but on the other hand, one might argue that Thunberg does possess these characteristics, and Spitting Image was exaggerating them, because it’s satire and that’s what satire does. Seen from this point of view, exaggerating Thunberg’s voice could be considered as being no different from the fact that the puppet has extremely prominent pigtails. It is also important to note that Thunberg herself seems to approve of ‘her’ puppet.

In other words, whilst neither Keller nor Thunberg have asked for special treatment for themselves, many people around them have been hampered by their own pre-existing ideas about the effects that a disability has on someone’s reliability and/or fitness to be a public figure. And yet, the questions raised are somewhat different.  Lydia Wilkins’ motives are not the same as those of the woman who accused Donald Trump of ‘cyberbullying’ Thunberg, but they are both ignoring Thunberg’s own strengths. Similarly, people who sought to defend Helen Keller by accusing others of ‘exploiting’ her were ignoring Keller’s own ability to understand and contribute to debates – presumably because they could not get the idea of her being very ‘vulnerable’ out of their heads. In some respects, both Keller and Thunberg have been just as misunderstood by their supporters as by their detractors.
Emmeline Burdett is an independent researcher and a recurring contributor to this blog as well as to other magazines like Disability Arts Online, The Female Spectator and Silly Linguistics. Her research focus lies on Disability Studies where she has written several book chapters about.

Liz Crow, ‘Helen Keller: Rethinking the Problematic Icon’, Disability and Society vol. 15 (6) 2000.
Helen Keller to Senator Robert M. la Follette (1924), in P. Foner (ed.), Helen Keller: Her Socialist Years (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 113-115.
Filippeli, S. (1999), Interview transcript, The Real Helen Keller, (Channel 4 Television).

Recommended citation:

Emmeline Burdett (2021): Problematic Icons. Greta Thunberg and Helen Keller. In: Public Disability History 6 (2021) 2.