The Politics of Disability in Newsies (2012)
In Newsies, one of the more prominent background characters is Crutchie, a newsboy who is one of Jack (the protagonist)’s closest friends. He’s been part of the group for long enough to be a fully accepted member, and he is competent at selling newspapers. He is also disabled, and the mobility aid he uses as a result of his disability is what he is named for. He is targeted for his disability by police and other outsiders who have problems with the newsboys, and the rest of the newsboys defend him. That is to say, mistreating him is framed as a bad thing, and caring about him is what the protagonists, who the audience is presumably meant to side with, do. In this way, it is shown that Crutchie is protected by being part of the in-group; he is part of the group of newsboys, and so they defend him from the outside, a protection that members of the out-group wouldn’t necessarily get. However, as is clear from his nickname, Crutchie may be accepted, but he is not necessarily respected. In order to be part of the “safe” in-group, Crutchie has to choose acceptance over respect, a dichotomy which the musical neither explicitly addresses nor narratively condemns.
Crutchie is not the only newsboy with a nickname. In fact, most of them have nicknames – they’re a very obvious way to signal belonging, and many of the boys have contentious or nonexistent relationships with their parents, which lead to them wishing to adopt names that are not the names that they were given at birth. However, Crutchie’s is the only nickname that is about something that actively puts him in danger and makes his life more difficult. Romeo is nicknamed Romeo because of his tendency to flirt with women – we see this in how he interacts with Katherine, and it’s used all in good fun. This is a nickname about a personality trait, and, further, a nickname about a personality trait that is generally harmless. Romeo will not be captured or beaten on the street for the trait that led him to be nicknamed Romeo. Sniper is nicknamed Sniper because of his ability to pick the right people to try to sell papers to. Not only is this a personality trait that has not caused him harm, it is, in fact, a honed skill. For Sniper, his nickname is an indicator of respect. The same is, obviously, not true about Crutchie. His nickname is not about his personality, but rather about a physical disability, something that he has no control over and that the audience watches put him directly in danger not just once, but twice. He has no power over his nickname and how it is used to refer to him, but, the musical portrays, this is okay, because he doesn’t express any distaste about it and, anyway, it’s his friends using it for him, and it’s all in good fun and mutual understanding. However, it is the fact that it is his friends using the nickname that makes it upsetting. It is the first example of how conditional Crutchie’s acceptance is and how, because he needs that acceptance for safety, he really has no choice at all. Crutchie needs the safety of being part of the in-group, and so he has no recourse to ask to be treated with more respect, instead grinning and bearing it.
The conditional acceptance of the nickname becomes even clearer after the strike goes terribly wrong and Crutchie is arrested. When he’s arrested, Jack quickly stops calling him by name. It’s just for a second, and it’s not meant out of malice, but when Crutchie is an inconvenience, he stops being a person and becomes a “dumb cr*p” who is “too slow”. The newsboys tie Crutchie’s identity so entirely to his disability and to his mobility aid that, even when he is in danger and captured, it’s all they can refer to him as. Crutchie writes a letter to Jack, updating him on his situation, monologuing about their history and his fantasies about the future, but Jack’s song about Crutchie being gone is about him being a cr*p. This is an incredibly clear demonstration of how, while Jack may care about Crutchie, or even love him, he does not respect him, and the reason that he doesn’t respect him is because of his disability.
This is further demonstrated by Jack’s treatment of Crutchie’s crutch. When the newsboys have their run-in with their antagonizers at the subway, Crutchie is attacked and beaten up, having his crutch taken from him. Jack defends him. Jack defending him is an important moment to note in terms of how Crutchie is a member of the in-group, and relies on that membership for protection from the outside danger he faces as a direct result of his disability. If Jack and the other newsboys hadn’t been there to defend him, Crutchie conceivably could have been killed, or at the very least sustained further permanent damage. However, in defending Crutchie, Jack takes his crutch. He takes his friend’s mobility aid, something that is as essential to Crutchie’s independence and movement as a biological limb, and beats someone up with it. He then proceeds to run away with it, leaving Crutchie on the ground, without giving second thought to how or if Crutchie will be able to follow.
As if this weren’t bad enough, Crutchie is then picked up by an ensemble newsboy, who runs away with him. This makes sense in the context of the musical – he can’t be left there, and he’s a liability without his crutch (a crutch that, of course, Jack took from him). However, the newsboy who picks him up does not ask him before doing so, and he does it directly after Crutchie’s autonomy is hugely violated and he is beaten up for the crime of being disabled. As a disabled person with many disabled friends, the idea of someone picking any of us up under the assumption that we couldn’t walk ourselves, without even asking first, is deeply upsetting. It removes agency and also puts the person being picked up in danger, as many injuries and disabilities can be exacerbated to incredible degrees by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. Picking up Crutchie and running away with him is just as likely to result in him acquiring a new injury as it is to result in the whole group escaping safely. This part of the scene is crucial. It shows that the other newsboys are willing to risk their lives and safety for Crutchie, and even implies that they have done it before and are used to doing it. Crutchie has a group of friends (or family) who are ride or die for him, and he knows it. What he also knows, though, is that in times of risk or stress he has no autonomy, and if he indicates that he needs or wants any autonomy, he runs the possibility of having his protection taken away from him.
The narrative of the musical supports this messaging, this idea that a disabled person can be loved and cared about, but not respected. Instead of demonstrating any sign of Crutchie being upset about how he is treated, or showing another disabled person who is treated differently, or giving Crutchie any narrative agency, he is reduced to a backseat role of a cr*pple who is happy with what he can get and barely acts on his own. When Crutchie is taken prisoner, he doesn’t try to escape, or to befriend other prisoners and try to work with them or raise morale. Instead, he performs a dramatic song pining after Jack, in which he does not get to dance or even move from his bed. He is in prison to justify Jack being upset, not to have any sort of story or narrative of his own. Furthermore, he is not in the big dance number, “King of New York”. In dance-heavy musicals, dance numbers are often used to represent pivotal story points, or the characters involved making a big choice, which is especially true in the song that repeatedly declares “I’m the king of New York” – a song about claiming agency. Crutchie is not permitted to be a part of that.
What this narrative framing does is position Crutchie as the sacrifice necessary for the rest of the newsboys to win. He is attacked and this helps galvanize everyone else, even though it temporarily upsets Jack. Crutchie, the disabled character, doesn’t need to be there or have any of his own agency or impact – instead, his friends care about him from afar and worry about him, and that’s part of what motivates huge groups of people to turn out in support of the strike. Even when not in the scene or being directly talked about, Crutchie’s story is one of being cared about and an important part of the group, but not offered or permitted to have any agency. This perfectly mirrors the way he is directly treated by the newsboys, and stands out loud and clear against the Newsies narrative of an oppressed group seizing agency and power. The newsboys as a whole deserve agency and respect from the world around them, but in order to have the safety that comes naturally to most people, Crutchie must sacrifice that same agency and respect and smile while doing so.