Youth with disabilities negotiate social interaction with peers with several notable disadvantages in ableist culture. In addition, the characterizations of both real and fictional characters in mass media, particularly television, have an impact as well. However, youth with disabilities are significantly underrepresented in television series. Using the model of social relations by Alan Fiske and descriptive research design, we quantitatively examined the televisual characterization of a youth who acquires a disability in the television drama Friday Night Lights. We found that using the Fiskeian social model helped to uncover the social reality of disability as portrayed through youthful social interactions, which we closely tracked in the first season of this program. We situate this reality in the broader context of cultural narratives about disability in mass media.


Children and youth are strongly influenced by the culture and society at large into which they are born (Morgan, Shanahan, and Signorielli 2009). The smaller peer groups into which children and young people enter must also be considered, because these too shape their identity and behavior (Gardner and Steinberg 2005; Horn, Dijk, Meuwese, Rieffe, and Crone 2016).

The perception and understanding of disability that youth and children without disability possess both influence the ways in which they relate to peers with disability. This in turn impacts "the experiences and social participation of those with disability" (Bourke and Waite 2013, Introduction, para.1.).

These perceptions and understandings are, however, a product of socially constructed realities of disability, which are heavily influenced by the models, cognitive structures, and disability experiences that are impressed on the viewers' minds by media, including most prominently, television (Grue 2015). Such cultural representations of disability "serve as reference points both for individuals who definitely consider themselves disabled, individuals who definitely consider themselves as non-disabled, and for the larger number of people who may or may not see themselves as disabled" (Grue 2015, Chapter 6, para. 1).

As Shoemaker and Reese (1996) averred, "If we assume that the media provide most of the 'reality' that people know outside their own personal experience, then studying media content surely helps us assess what reality it is that they consume" (28). Therefore, the characterizations of both real and fictional people with disability that occur on television are likely to have an impact on mass audiences (Comstock and Scharrer 1999; Falcón and Díaz-Aguado 2014). For example, individuals with disabilities are often presented in media as being "different" (Biklen and Bogdan 1977; Solis 2004), and while positive disability representations exist (e.g., Call The Midwife 2014; Degrassi: The Next Generation 2002), far more have been negative, stereotypical, or distorted (Bourke and Waite 2013; Grue 2015).

The suasive influence of fictional characterizations on television is a well-studied phenomenon (Ferguson, Salmond, and Modi 2013; Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, and Signorielli 1994; Hopkins and Weisberg 2017). Even in putatively non-persuasive programming, the presentation of different groups, genders, races and levels of ability impacts the self-image that viewers who belong to these groups have, as well as their perception of how they fit into in the real world (Fink 2013; Holton 2013). Negative media representations of people with a disability may weaken their performance and aspirations, leading to "denial of their disability identity" (Zhang and Haller 2013, 319). Therefore, "the analysis of media content about persons with disabilities is crucial in understanding their changing status in various societies" (Haller 2010, 40). Such an analysis will uncover the ways in which media creates and molds perceptions of disability and of relating to it in our culture, that is, how we come to see and understand it.

In this study, using the model of social relations by Alan Page Fiske (1992), and mindful of the influence of popular fictional television, we examined the characterization of social interactions of a youthful character, Jason Street, who is paralyzed in the course of playing American football, in the fictional television program Friday Night Lights (Berg 2007). The television series was in wide release for an extended period, from 2006-2011. During its first season, the show received a rating each week that varied between 7.8 and 8. This represents approximately 10.4 million people (Rating Graph 2018-2020) and is now available on a high-profile Amazon Prime subscription (Lewis 2018). It is considered a socially significant television program (Cherney and Lindemann 2014) and as such it has had the ability to project to a wide audience a particular representation of disability and interactions among youth with and without a disability. Exploring the portrayal of disability that is delineated in this series is the focus of this work.

Television changes and disability representation

Continually in our society we find that, as John Fiske (1987) observed thirty years ago, "Television-as-culture is a crucial part of the social dynamics by which the social structure maintains itself in a constant process of production and reproduction: meanings, popular pleasures, and their circulation are therefore part and parcel of this social structure" (1). However, the diversity of fictional depiction on fictional television has progressed somewhat since John Fiske's observations.

As a result, different groups are now important parts of the audience (Common Sense Media 2015). Certain taboos on TV have fallen away, such as interracial dating and sex, [e.g. Scandal (2012)], the open acceptance of gay relationships, [e.g. Modern Family, Will and Grace (Levitan and Lloyd 2009)], and the regular appearance of persons of color in lead roles (Black and Pretes 2007; Harwood and Anderson 2002). However, other restrictions and absences remain. Despite recent changes, individuals with disabilities have continued to be significantly underrepresented in television series and film (Kineavy 2015) and a similar state of affairs can be said to exist for youth with disabilities (GLAAD 2017). While adult individuals with disabilities variously defined comprise anywhere from 12.7% of the US population (US Census Bureau 2019) to 26% (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2018), just 1.8% of regularly appearing characters in television series were portrayed as having a disability (16 characters), up from eight characters (0.9%) in 2015 (GLAAD 2017).

While young characters with disabilities occasionally appear in 21st century television programs [e.g. Breaking Bad 2008; Glee 2009)], it is often in roles that clumsily attempt to overcompensate for past slurs, by using "supercrip" stereotypes (Fink 2013; Holton 2013; McRuer 2006). 1 A few programs have been somewhat less reliant on such stereotypes (Berger 2015) including the aforementioned Degrassi: The Next Generation (2002).

Another issue that is pertinent to the accurate and fair portrayal of young people with disabilities is that of able-bodied actors playing characters having a disability. According to Wagmeister (2016, July 13), ninety-five percent of characters with a disability in the 2015-2016 television series were played by able-bodied actors. More recently, however, two network programs debuted that both featured main characters with disabilities and cast them with actors who have a similar disability. In ABC's sitcom Speechless, Micah Fowler, who has cerebral palsy, plays the character of JJ DiMeo, who also has palsy and does not speak (2016). Likewise, the ABC drama Switched at Birth (2011) featured a character who is Deaf (the capitalization indicates someone who both has a hearing disability and identifies as part of that culture). The part is played by Katie Leclerc (Perry 2017), who has Meniere's disease, which sometimes causes deafness. Marlee Matlin also appears in this film. She too is a Deaf actress who had won an Academy Award (1987) for a leading role in an older film, Children of a Lesser God (Haines 1986). Sarah Gordy, an actress with Down syndrome, plays the high-profile role of Sally Harper, who was born with Down syndrome in the BBC's Call The Midwife (2014). Peter Dinklage, a leading actor who played a complicated dwarf character, Tyrion Lannister, in Game of Thrones (2011-2019) is a little person himself (i.e., he has restricted growth or Dwarfism). Dinklage won both a Golden Globe and Emmy Award for his performance as Tyrion Lannister. RJ Mitte, who has a form of cerebral palsy (CP) plays a character with CP, Walter White, Jr., in AMC's Breaking Bad (2008).

These programs may have led to a trickle of roles cast with an eye toward actor concordance of dis/ability, but it does not appear to have changed overall casting prerogatives; i.e. unwritten rules wherein actors with a disability are only rarely cast, even in roles that feature a disability. Moreover, in a report examining portrayals of disability in 800 popular movies from 2007-2015, the majority of characters with disability were in "supporting (54.3%) or inconsequential roles (32.4%)" and "only 2% of all characters with disability appeared in Animated movies," the programs geared toward teens and young viewers (Smith, Choueiti, and Pieper 2016, 24).

The trend of able-bodied actors portraying disabled characters continues in the recent film, The Upside (2019), where the quadriplegic billionaire character of Phillip Lacasse is portrayed by an able-bodied actor, Bryan Cranston. It is also evident in the drama that we study below, Friday Night Lights (2007). In this show, Jason Street, the character that Berg chose to show both before and after his disability, is portrayed by able-bodied actor Scott Porter.

Irrespective of whether able-bodied actors or disabled actors play disabled characters, these and similar programs frame people with disabilities and disability issues in the ways in which the culture sees and understands disabled people (Zhang and Haller 2013). As a result, these forms of media create and perpetuate a reality of disability and of relating to people with disabilities that informs the society and impacts people's attitudes and beliefs.

In this work, we examine the reality of disability that is created as part of the media presentation of relating to disability in Friday Night Lights (2007). We are especially interested in the portrayal of a youth with a disability, Jason Street, as well as the complex relationships that he has with various peer groups, prior to and following his disability. We examine these fictional social interaction portrayals, employing Fiske's (1992) multilayered social relational framework, described below.

Theoretical framework: Fiske's social relational model and Friday Night Lights

George Herbert Mead (1934) argued that the individual is the creation of the interaction between the self and others and that "the individual himself belongs to a social structure, a social order" (1). Within every given social order, there are numerous smaller social groups that assemble like-minded individuals. Whether one belongs to an in-group or out-group, socialization amongst relevant peers in propinquity is inevitable. As Grusec and Davidov (2010) have pointed out, "any novice who become part of a new group, regardless of age, must go through a process of socialization" (688).

Alan Fiske too points out (and we concur) that people are fundamentally "sociable"; that is, they organize their day to day lives in terms of their interactions with other people. By extension, media add imaginative representations of disability to the socialization process that serve as reference points both for individuals with and without disabilities (Grue 2015). For these reasons, the focus of this study is an examination of social interaction portrayals of a youth with a disability and peers with and without disabilities in the Friday Night Lights television series. The social relational theory as interpreted by Fiske (1992) presented the best choice for analysis of the kind we undertake here. Social relational theory is a better model "for an understanding of the phenomenon of disability" than the theories deriving from a medical model that have been commonly employed in special education (Reindal 2008, 135). This is because the social relational model "conforms to the morality of inclusion" (Reindal 2008, 135) and also allows for studying disability "in relation to participation and activity" (Reindal 2008, 138) within a society, connecting both individual and social aspects of the phenomenon of disability.

Social relational theory was originally created to explain hierarchical and peer relationships amongst different individuals in the Moose (Fiske 1992) tribe in Burkina Faso (Fiske 1990). Fiske posits that we consider not only an individual's actions, but also the sociocultural context in which those actions and/or behaviors have been acquired. Relationships therefore are defined to a great degree by their reciprocity; how we see ourselves socially is constructed both by us and by other people, including fictional representations and experiences of disability and relating to it that are both provided and supplemented by media and popular culture. It has long been understood that an individual's sense of self is to a large extent dependent on the society in which that individual is raised. We are socially constructed beings (Mead 1934), and our cognitive development is strongly, although not exclusively dependent on the interplay of influences among the social actors around us and the actors experienced as a result of watching fictional programming and film.

According to Alan Page Fiske's (1992) social relational model, four psychological "mods" undergird nearly all human social life (Fiske 1992; Fiske and Haslam 2005). These four mods are determined in bilateral, reciprocal exchanges, as people negotiate their encounters with other people and other groups. We discuss these mods next.

In communal sharing (CS), people share resources based on the assumption that all members of the community are equal. In high school, a significant social context for Jason Street, the character with a disability in Friday Night Lights (2007), membership and cooperation on sports teams requires resource sharing and a communal goal.

In authority ranking (AR), people attend to their positions in an externally perceived hierarchy, within which each negotiates his or her own relationship to the authority figure. Through exploring the authority ranking (AR) sociality in Friday Night Lights (2007), we wanted to uncover hierarchical differences between Jason Street and his peers, and the sources for ranking him when he acquires a disability across contexts and in relation to in-groups and out-groups.

In equality matching (EM), people keep track of the social imbalances amongst themselves and their perceived peers. Among people who consider themselves peers, there is a kind of "tit for tat," or tallying of the behaviors and events that preserve the perceived equality of those peers. Through explorations of the equality matching (EM) relations portrayed in the series, we uncovered the principles of reciprocity governing interaction and communication between Jason Street and his peers with and without a disability.

In market pricing (MP), people relate to other people and things in their social universe using numerical and monetary and non-monetary models. Where we live, and where we see others live, what car we drive versus our neighbors' vehicles – and how much all these things cost – are examples of market pricing in our own lives. In Friday Night Lights (2007), the market pricing (MP) analysis allowed us to examine the interactions among the youth with and without disabilities based not only on cost-benefit rates but also other relational non-monetary equity principles such as "efficiency, effort, merit" (Fiske and Haslam 2005, 270) that are used to assess Jason's relative worth in sport games and contests and also in off-field peer groups.

In addition to mods, Fiske (1992) also allowed for the existence of what he referred to as domains that he believed gave situational grounding to each of the four mods indicated above. We here concentrated on six domains - Social Influence, Constitution of Groups, Social Identity and the Relational Self, Significance of Time, Motivation, and Moral Interpretations of Misfortune, as these were relevant to our investigation. As Fiske (1992) conceived of them, mods and domains form matrixes; that is, the components of mods vertically, so to speak, are also the components of domains horizontally.

Social influence is a form of preorganization of the complex stratification such as exists within a football team. Constitution of groups is the description of numerous social groups, each possessing a notch in the pecking order, so to speak, of ordered society. The group to which one belongs defines characters to a great degree in the series. For example, among the male students the football players form a group. Jason Street's intimate acquaintances include his girlfriend, his best friend Tim Riggins, and, following the onset of his disability, his new group of friends, who use wheelchairs. Social Identity and the Relational Self makes clear that in a stratified society, one's social role relative to others is of great importance. Jason's role is reinforced through interpersonal communication, as well as his occasional rebellion against that role. Motivation is also a factor because what motivates peers with respect to Jason Street can change. Had Jason not become disabled, for example, his girlfriend Lyla Garrity would likely have become his wife. His disability changed her motivations toward him, and his toward her.

The Significance of Time is perhaps uniquely important in Friday Night Lights (2007) because during the course of the football season, Jason Street's disabling injury alters very nearly every preexisting condition that is connected to him. This injury forms a highly salient narrative marker, which we identify as a reversal of fortune. A reversal of fortune is a narratological turning point in a story, before which events flow in one direction, and after which they flow in another. Aristotle's term for such a change of fortune or events is peripeteia (Belfiore 1992). How Jason Street is communicated with by peers - how he is treated - is completely different before the peripatetic point versus after it, as well as how he communicates with them.

Finally, Moral Interpretations of Misfortune occur when people face tribulation, a personal failing or a mistake. Jason Street acquired a disability by attempting to stop a winning play by the opposing team. He was successful to a limited extent, but his sacrifice was certainly not proportional to his efforts. Despite this, his choices after the disabling event are the subject of much negative commentary by his football friends and intimate peers.

While one of these mods, and its associated domains, is seen in every social interaction, it is possible for more than one to be present simultaneously in each interaction. These values may be fungibly reordered longitudinally as relationships progress, and one or more may come to predominate, according to the shared negotiation of self- and other-worth decided upon by the actors in the social exchange (Fiske 1992). Accordingly, in this study, we are interested in the ways in which interactions among youth with and without disability are structured and the psychological mods and domains that are evident in them as they appear in Friday Night Lights (2007). The following questions reflect the above described research areas.

RQ1. What changes in Fiskeian social relational behaviors may be observed in the aggregate between Jason and his scenic peers in their dialogic exchanges as a result of Jason's disabling injury, if any?

RQ2. What are the distinctive qualities in the Fiskeian social relational behaviors for each of Jason's scenic partners, and in the exchanges between them, pre and post-disability?


Descriptive research design

For this study we adopted descriptive research design (McGregor 2018) within quantitative methodology. Descriptive research designs "describe what actually exists, determine the frequency with which it occurs, and categorize the information" (McGregor 2018, 258). Accordingly, our goals were: a) to identify which Fiskeian (Fiske 1992; Fiske and Haslam 2005) social relations models (mods and domains) occur in interactions of a youth with a disability and peers with and without disabilities as portrayed in Friday Night Lights (2007) and b) to determine their prominence (frequency) and dimensions. Our coding, too, is representative of the critical analysis because we had to agree on values that we find are consonant with the precepts within each of the mods and domains of Fiske (1992, 2004).

The coding that we used required responding to the conversing of characters in each studied scene and assigning, or declining to assign, an un-predetermined number of mods and domains to it, before and after the onset of Jason's disability. As Maxwell (2010) suggests, these numerical assessments support "generalization within the setting or collection of individuals studied, establishing that the themes or findings identified are in fact characteristic of this setting or set of individuals as a whole" (478).

Coding and data decisions

For this analysis, we selected the scenes in the first season of Friday Night Lights (2007) in which Jason Street interacts with peers with and without disabilities. Although Street appears sporadically throughout the entire run of Friday Night Lights, we chose Season One because Jason appears in every episode (although not in every scene). Scenes in which Jason Street is not present, but is discussed, or in which he is present but not part of the main action, were not analyzed. As such, our sampling may be described as "purposive and theoretical" rather than "random or stratified" and our analysis was "textual and statistical" (Altheide and Schneider 2013, 25), with video, audio and spoken word being considered text in this case. However, as will be discussed in greater length below, our "texts" are episodes of a fictional television show that has become part of mass culture.

After the initial decision to confine our coding to the first season of Friday Night Lights (2007), we culled and winnowed the scenes that featured only Jason Street with his peers. Broadly, these scenes involved his estrangement from and reunification with his best friend Tim Riggins due to his disability, his girlfriend Lyla Garrity's affair with Tim, Jason's growing distance from and final breakup with Lyla; and his rapprochement with Tim, despite the sexual betrayal Tim exhibited. The characters who appeared with him, and whose interactions with him that we studied were Lyla Garrity, Herc, Tim Riggins, Tyra Collette and Suzy Quinlan.

Herc (no given last name) is another person with a disability who had also become disabled due to a sports injury. Tyra Collette is Jason's friend and Tim's sometime girlfriend, and Suzy Quinlan is a woman with whom Jason becomes involved following his disability. There were also scenes Jason shared with many other people in them, such as those with his football team and his quad rugby team (the latter following the onset of his disability). These were coded as Team/Other, because in these cases, Jason did not separately speak to any individual member in these groups for any significant period of time. The scenes were enumerated and precisely timed, so that the coders could be certain they were coding the same scenes and for the same durations.

In each studied scene, there were 24 possible coding options (the result of four mods and six domains within those mods). These 24 coding possibilities existed for each of the 103 scenes we studied that featured Jason Street. Nine scenes with Jason occur prior to his disability, the tenth scene depicts the onset of his disability, and 93 scenes follow in which he is depicted with a permanent disability. We included in the pre-disability scene group Scene 10, because in it, it is not certain to any of the onlookers whether his disability is permanent, and therefore Jason's social reality is not yet that of a person with a disability. Thus, the first 10 scenes were treated as pre-disability, and the 93 following scenes we coded as post-disability.

Intercoder reliability

All selected scenes were analyzed by the first and second author. The third author served as auditor. The coders came to agree upon primary, as well as secondary and tertiary chosen mods/domains for most scenes. In the scenes where agreement could not be reached on a particular domain or mod in a scene, the disputed domain or mod code for that scene was discarded, but where there were other agreed-upon codes for the scene, they were preserved. A total of 10 coding deletions among the 103 mutual decisions were made. We thus came to an agreement score of 90.29% (93 total scenic coding decisions agreed upon out of 103 total scenes = .9029).

Methodological challenges

Two methodological challenges presented themselves to us in our attempt to compare mods and domains from the pre-disability period to the post-disability period. The first is that there were only ten scenes that featured Jason Street prior to the onset of his permanent disability, and 93 scenes following it. We therefore had a highly discrepant number of scenes, pre to post. The total screen time between the two scene groups was also disparate; the pre-disability screen time totaled 535 seconds (8 minutes, 55 seconds), and the post-disability screen time came to 8,297 seconds (138 minutes, 17 seconds) (See Table 1).

Secondly, the characters who shared scenes with Jason did not have the same number of scenes, or amount of screen time with Jason pre- and post-disability, even if we compensated for the total difference in time for the scenes pre- and post-disability. We dealt with this disparity with a procedure that permitted us a reasonable way of assessing and averaging the codes both for the scenes overall, and for the differences in mods and domains, pre- and post-disability, for each character (see Table 1):

  1. We counted the number of seconds in each scene that Jason shares with one or more other characters, except for a few scenes that Jason shared with characters we did not study, or because the scene was fleetingly brief. Thus, for each studied scene, we determined Jason's scenic weight, or proportion of screen time in per cent relative to the other characters and to the scenes' total time. This figure was, in both pre and post-disability total times, slightly under 50%.
  2. Then, we counted the number of studied characters in each scene, including Jason, and divided that scene's time in seconds by how many characters there were. So, if a scene was 60 seconds in length and there were three studied characters in the scene, each character was given an adjusted screen time for that scene of :60/3 = :20. We took those screen time figures and converted them to percentages. 2
  3. We then took the total adjusted screen time percentages from the post-disability scenes for each character and divided it by the total adjusted pre-disability scene time percentages for that character. The result from this created a multiplier that, when rounded up or down, became the figure that would be multiplied against the mods and domains assessed for each character for the pre-disability scenes.


RQ1. What changes in Fiskeian social relational behaviors may be observed in the aggregate between Jason and his scenic peers in their dialogic exchanges as a result of Jason's disabling injury, if any?

Our first research question asked what changes may have occurred in interpersonal behaviors, from a Fiskeian perspective, when we compared the scenes before Jason's disabling injury with those following Jason's disabling injury, considered in toto (see Table 2).

We first discuss changes in the mods. Note that because of the adjustment of pre-disability scores, we decided to forego the analysis of very small changes, pre to post. However, as we can see, stark changes in numbers can be seen in several places. Authority Ranking fell significantly, from 90 adjusted coder choices to 34, as we might expect, since Jason was, to many in the town of Dillon following his disability, no longer a hero and leader. A similar change can be seen with Equality Matching, which fell from an adjusted score of 90 to 40. Especially in the scenes with his friend and friendly competitor Tim Riggins, we can see that Jason's status as someone that others might seek equality with had come to an end. But of all the mods, the most striking was Market Pricing. Here, we can see that Jason's huge value to the community was seen in the pre-disability scenes, with an adjusted score of 210, but which fell precipitously to 58, following his disability. The coder choices indicate that Jason simply had little market value to the community after his injury.

From a domain perspective, there were also some significant changes. Again, we focus on the most discrepant scores. Social influence, with a change from 135 to 14, Constitution of Groups, with a change from 105 to 34 and Social Identity and the Relational Self, from 180 to 64, were the most disparate scores. In the first example, Jason's dwindling social influence can be seen, and in the second, the change in Jason's position in his in-group can be seen in the coder score for Constitution of Groups. In the third example, Jason's social identity is significantly attenuated via the coders' scores for Social Identity and the Relational Self.

RQ2. What are the distinctive qualities in the Fiskeian social relational behaviors for each of Jason's scenic partners, and in the exchanges between them, pre and post-disability?

In response to this question, we report the findings for Lyla Garrity and Tim Riggings in both the table and narrative formats as a way to illustrate how we collated and prepared for reporting the matrix aspects of our data. We chose Lyla and Tim Riggins' data to be reported in these two ways because these two characters had the most in-depth scenes with Jason. We report the findings for the remaining characters in the narrative format only.

Lyla Garrity

The most frequently chosen mod for Lyla's pre scenes was Market Pricing, with an adjusted score of 68. The most frequently chosen domain for the pre scenes was Social Identity & the Relational Self with an adjusted score of 51 (See Table 3).

Post-wise, Lyla's scenes' most commonly chosen mod was Communal Sharing, at a total of 34 out of 84 choices, and the most commonly entered domain was Motivation, at 31 choices. In fact, of the aforementioned 31 choices, 21 of them were matrixed with Communal Sharing.

Tim Riggins

Tim's most dominant mod in the pre-disability scene was Authority Ranking, with a total of 64 adjusted choices. The most dominant pre-disability domain was Constitution of Groups, at 48 choices (Table 4).

Post-disability-wise, Communal Sharing was by far the most populous choice, at 25 of 44 total choices. The second most chosen mod was Market Pricing, at eight choices. Domain-wise, the most populous choice post-disability was Social ID and the Relational Self, at 16 of 44 total choices.

Tyra Collette

Tyra is the major character that contributed the smallest number of scenes to our study. Her raw pre score only totaled four overall, and no selection was made more than once, yielding a four-way tie. When adjusted, her highest scores were for the mod of Authority Ranking at 6, and the domain of social influence at 6.

Post-disability, out of a total of five choices, two of Tyra's scenes were Communal Sharing (mod) with the domain of Motivation, two were Communal Sharing/Moral Interpretations of Misfortune, and one was Authority Ranking/Moral Interpretations of Misfortune.


Team/Other describes Jason's interactions with his team as a whole and members of it and consists for the most part of his interactions with his football comrades, first as a team member and later, after his injury, as an assistant coach.

In the pre-disability scenes, two mods tied for the second rank with an adjusted score of 40 selections each - Communal Sharing and Equality Matching. The top score went to the mod Market Pricing, at 72. The dominant domain was Social ID and the Relational Self, at 56 choices. Social Influence was chosen nearly as often at 48 choices.

Post-disability, the most chosen mod for Team/Other with Jason was Communal Sharing, with 41 out of 82 choices. The second ranked choice was Market Pricing, at 17 out of 82. Third was Authority Ranking at 16 out of 82 choices.


Because Herc does not appear before the onset of Jason's disability, no adjustment needed to be made to his scores, all of which were post-disability. Like Jason, he was gravely injured while playing a sport and received a similar type of debilitating spinal injury. In his scenes, significantly ahead of the other mods was Communal Sharing, at 23 choices out of 58 made. In second rank was Equality Matching at 17 selections. Domain-wise, the most frequent selection was Motivation, at 23 of 58 choices.

Suzy Quinlan

Suzy appears with Jason only post-disability and in six out of 93 scenes. As with Tyra Collette, her small number of screen appearances means that the differences between the highest and lowest number of selections were also small. Her highest-ranking domains and highest-ranking mods were both only chosen twice. Her Market Pricing total was tied at seven selections with Communal Sharing. Domain-wise, Social Identity and the Relational Self was tied with Motivation, at five choices each.


In Friday Night Lights (Berg 2007), one of the most prominent story threads presented to the audiences, and the one we treat in depth in this article, is the jarring transition that Jason Street experiences as he changes in his senior year of high school from an able-bodied individual of great athletic prowess to a person with a quadriplegic disability. In our findings, we identified several Fiskeian markers that refer to this change of fortune, and why it seems to affect Jason's intimate peers. Specifically, the data for Market Pricing under Social ID and the relational self, showed Jason's self as defined in terms of occupation or economic role - in this case, football. His identity is a product of entrepreneurial success at football (pre-disability) and struggle at adapted rugby (post-disability), with the mod of Market Pricing falling from the third to the eighth ranked position.

This form of media metanarrative in the series shapes perceptions of success and participation in sports in the context of disability in such a way that those who acquire a disability in football are "demoted" and are thus forced to seek "lesser" sports such as adapted rugby, in Jason's case. This limits the perception of success and of what it means to be functional to the physically abled. Such a metanarrative also renders certain other sports (in this case, adapted rugby) as a less effective and desirable path to success for a youth with a disability.

The shifts between pre- and post-disability scenes in Authority Ranking and Equality Matching accompany the downward trend demonstrated in the mod of Market Pricing. As such, these interconnected trends suggest that many in the town of Dillon, after the onset of Jason's disability, no longer saw Jason as a hero and leader and as a co-equal peer, on par with a football team player or other high school athlete, since many of Jason's teammates and friends now considered his status significantly lessened. Collectively, these dramatic shifts in Jason's social status communicate an understanding of disability as loss - loss of power, authority, and utility to many peers and members in the community. That is, Jason's inability to contribute monetary and social status-related returns to his community as a future professional quarterback due to his physical disability make him a less valuable member among his peers and within the larger community. Such a portrayal of Jason's disability in the series reflects societal "disability prejudice" (Watermeyer 2014, 100). In this stereotypical view, disability is understood "as a negatively valued identity" as this "presumed loss makes disabled people unable to participate in a range of social activities, including the economy, higher education, sport…" (Watermeyer 2014, 100), leaving disabled individuals with 'real losses' which societies regularly ignore and which are the exclusion, isolation, and depreciation of disabled people (Watermeyer 2014).

The Fiskeian radically shifted ratings (Authority, Equality Matching, and Market Pricing) for Jason uncover yet another aspect of the stereotypical view of disability as portrayed in Friday Night Lights (Berg 2007). That aspect is "a hopelessly impoverished, split repertoire of identity possibilities [for Jason and Jason-like individuals], which frame one either as a conquering hero or a useless invalid" within his community (Watermeyer 2014, 103). With the onset of his disability, Jason's character struggles to not fall into either of these dualistic identity possibilities. Thus, he attempts to re-create his social identity as a successful athlete by joining the quad rugby team, a ball team for men who use wheelchairs. However, because he is starting at the bottom of the heap, so to speak, he does not enjoy the same success. He is forced to reinterpret his identity as that of a fledgling athlete who, through sheer grit and determination, converts himself from an able-bodied football star to an aspiring wheelchair rugby player of some ability, and who develops friendships within the disability community. He also acquires another girlfriend, who though able-bodied, is supportive of the lifestyles of athletes who use wheelchairs. Jason's story, therefore, is one of improvising, struggle, and overcoming, which is a more authentic media identity representation than that of the supercrip yet "fallen" football hero identity which his community would still attempt to ascribe to him.

Jason's supercrip football hero identity as depicted in the series might "serve to maintain feelings of control and mastery within the observer, quieting the destablising psychic threat which disability poses" (Watermeyer 2009, 91). We are given a taste of such identity framing in the finale of the series when we witness Jason's reappearance in the show in a wheelchair as the iconic heroic former quarterback to open the game resulting in the East Dillon Lions winning the state championships. Through such mediated images and accompanying narrative Jason is again depicted as a leader and a hero in the 'winners take it all' parade when the football players return as 'a superteam' to celebrate their win in the homecoming Dillon, Texas scene. Such aggrandizing positioning of disabled people in media is problematic, as it discourages exploring other paths of identity and self- development for and by the individuals who acquire severe physical disability in sports and other areas of professional and social activity.

Despite culturally sanctioned stereotypical undertones that are subtly delivered in depiction of Jason's character and his interactions with those around him, his overall portrayal positions him as a youth who eventually accepts his quadriplegic identity and who attempts to bring new opportunities both to his athlete identity and personal life. The story of his peers, however, is considerably different. They react, alternately, with horror, revulsion, avoidance, compensation and finally, with a limited acceptance of his newfound disability.

Lyla, his girlfriend, while "accepting" Jason's injury on a superficial level, seems only to do so while believing Jason's disability is temporary. When she discovers that it is most probably permanent, she is unable to handle this change. Shifts in the Market Pricing and Social Identity and the Relational Self from high to low values due to physical disability attest to the relational value that Lyla places in physical able-bodiedness in her relationship with Jason. In fact, the physical dis/able-bodiedness of Jason is the cause of tension and the eventual termination of their relationship. Such media mediated depictions of romantic relationship between disabled Jason and nondisabled Lyla reinforces the stereotypical social perspectives on disability and romance. This is because giving too much visibility to Jason's compromised able-bodiedness obscures the importance of other relational goods such as personal qualities as grounds on which a romantic relationship and a happy life can be formed between disabled and nondisabled people. When a disability becomes a defining quality of Jason's character, it not only overshadows his other personal qualities, but it also condemns his romantic relationship with Lyla.

There is yet another shift in the ways in which Lyla relates to Jason, post-injury, which is evident in increased motivation under the Communal Sharing mod, and which suggests more caring than just the romantic relationship between her and Jason as the underlying drive behind Lyla's actions. This occurs when Lyla's focus and energy turn to problem-solving the challenges that Jason faces in his new life as a disabled individual. In doing this, she involves other peers and community members. For example, she solicits her father's help in finding employment for Jason in a car dealership and she raises money to help remodel Jason's house to accommodate his needs.

While these actions are praiseworthy in general, framing these initiatives in association with a relationship breakup communicates to the viewers that disability has a destabilizing effect on romantic relationships and male and female sexuality. As a result, we see how Lyla and Jason spend less time re-envisioning their future life together. Rather, they are shown to spend a great deal of time away and drifting from each other and eventually becoming unsupportive of each other's dreams. Jason aspires to become a professional quad rugby player while Lyla wants both of them to go to college and delay their plans for marriage and future life together.

At first, Jason's best friend Tim Riggins will not visit his friend in the hospital because he cannot bear to see his friend disabled. However, he eventually comes to accept Jason's change of status and new identity and forges a new bond of friendship. Our mod/domain analysis reveals these changes. Like Jason, Tim Riggins held a high social status as a football player and as an influential teen, as evident in the pre-disability mod and domain rankings. His role in the series is that of Jason's savior, irrespective of whether or not he lives up to this characterization expectation. Thus, viewers see Tim Riggins initially failing to save Jason from his injury as he was not able to block the hit that Jason took that eventually led to his paralysis. He attempts to compensate for this failure with a "savior trip" (with Lyla, another able-bodied character) out of the hospital (and against Jason's therapist's wishes) for some unapproved-of recreation, and in doing so, creates with the audience and viewers a shared cultural script of disability as that of being vulnerable and needy (Chivers and Markotić 2010, 186) and which must be aided and guarded by those with non-disabled bodies.

The mods and domains for Team/Other show fewer close friendship interactions among able-bodied peer players other than Tim Riggins (his best friend) and Matt Saracen, whom Jason mentors as his replacement. This is despite the evidence of Team/Other's continued Communal Sharing and support of Jason in both pre and post-disability scene ratings. Such portrayal suggests that disability affects interpersonal interaction, bonding and relationships beyond the coach/supervisor and players/subordinates' relationships across groups of individuals with and without disability. Close relationship distancing also holds true for interactions that Jason is shown to have had with Suzy Quinlan, an able-bodied girlfriend who is supportive of Jason's recovery and his pursuit of rugby as a disabled athlete. For these scenes, the evidence we gathered displayed an even ranking of the modes Market Pricing with Communal Sharing and a domain-wise tie of Social Identity and the Relational Self with Motivation. Quinlan only has a brief screen appearance and a fleeting relationship with Jason— a relationship that was not designed to result in serious romance.


Friday Night Lights thus creates and reinforces an understanding of disability as "an individually embodied tragedy (the individual model)" (Ellcessor 2016, 3) not only in the realm of physical ability but also in the realm of human relationships, leading individuals with disabilities to endure societal "collective pity" (Ellcessor 2016, 4) and definitely to struggle to form romantic relationships and sustain close relationships with peers without disabilities.

A more pro-disability narrative would have drawn attention to other than able-bodiedness and physical prowess as defining qualities of Jason and as major markers of success and functional life, as well as grounds for relationship forming and sustaining, romantic type or not. Such a narrative would have also had Jason work with, spend free time and develop more permanent relationships with non-disabled peers (other than Tim Riggins), in the manner of the friendship that he had formed with Herc, his disabled rugby team friend who motivated him to strive to become successful at rugby and in his personal life. Herc modeled for Jason, sometimes imperfectly, how to brace for and embrace his new life and identity as a person with disability.

Most importantly, a pro-disability narrative would have focused on the struggle in Jason's peer group and community to accommodate Jason's disability and might have focused on changing his environment by making sports venues, workplaces, and recreational spaces accessible so that he could "normalize" his life experiences as "legitimate, rather than inferior" (Dirth and Branscombe 2017, 434). Accordingly, such a pro-disability narrative would have functioned as a "counter–narrative" that would, in turn, "advance the critique of ableism and portray disability as an affirmative social status and identity" (Berger 2015, 177).


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Table 1
Scenic Weights and Multipliers to Compare Pre- and Post-Disability Scenes
Scenic compositionNumber of scenes appearing pre-disabilityNumber of scenes appearing post-disabilityPre-disability (A) (in secs.)Percentage of character's scenic weight (pre)Post-disability (B) (in secs.)Percentage of character's scenic weight (post)B/AB/A rounded multiplier
Jason (in all scenes)1093260.548.693927.1848.0215.0815
Grand Total103

Note: Because scenes were sometimes shared by Jason and more than one other character, adding downward will not always produce the totals listed.
*Herc and Suzy only appear post-disability.

Table 2
Adjusted Pre- and Raw Post-Disability Numerical Mods and Domains for all Studied Scenes
Jason's adjusted pre scores and raw post scores Communal Sharing (CS) Authority Ranking (AR) Equality Matching (EM) Market Pricing (MP) Total
Significance of Time (ST)15100401041519
Social Influence (SI)15430315375413514
Constitution of Groups (CG)152145930315110534
Social Identity and the relational self (SIRS)602515104515601418064
Motivation (M)15420501145176075
Moral interpretations of misfortune (MIM)015030715181543
Total adjusted pre/raw post mod scores1201179034904021058510249

Italicized numbers represent pre-disability scores that have been multiplied by the factor emerging from the difference between the total screen time for the actor pre- and post-disability (see Methods, above). In this case that factor was 15.08, rounded to 15.

Table 3
Pre and Post-Disability Scores for Lyla, Adjusted for Scene Frequency
Lyla adjusted pre scores and raw post scores Communal Sharing (CS) Authority Ranking (AR) Equality Matching (EM) Market Pricing (MP) Total
Significance of Time (ST)0100000203
Social Influence (SI)0017003171344
Constitution of Groups (CG)1711730001345
Social Identity and the relational self (SIRS)34703071775124
Motivation (M)02102031751731
Moral interpretations of misfortune (MIM)04010217101717
Total number/avg. rank5134349015682615384

Italicized numbers represent pre-disability scores that have been multiplied by the factor emerging from the difference between the total screen time for the actor pre- and post-disability (see Methods, above). In this case that factor was 16.86, rounded to 17.

Table 4
Pre and Post-Disability Scores for Tim, Adjusted for Scene Frequency
Tim scores, adjusted pre and raw post Communal Sharing (CS) Authority Ranking (AR) Equality Matching (EM) Market Pricing (MP) Total
Significance of Time (ST)0200000002
Social Influence (SI)0016000160320
Constitution of Groups (CG)0432200161487
Social Identity and the relational self (SIRS)08163162033216
Motivation (M)010010002013
Moral interpretations of misfortune (MIM)0100030206
Total number/avg. rank02564616532811244

Italicized numbers represent pre-disability scores that have been multiplied by the factor emerging from the difference between the total screen time for the actor pre- and post-disability (see Methods, above). In this case that factor was 15.69, rounded to 16.


  1. The term supercrip refers to a characterization whereby a person with a disability is constructed as being superhumanly virtuous, humane, intelligent or competent, in order to dispel the presumably default notion that someone is prejudiced against such persons.
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  2. The teammates and Jason were coded cumulatively as two "characters," Jason and "Team/Other."
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