Jan 21, 2015

Lady Who Rocks: Maysoon Zayid

Maysoon Zayid in 'You Don't Mess With The Zohan' (2008)

We all have things against us. Minuscule and major. We cry, moan, and FML about them, and then we either let those things make us feel like sh*t, or we turn the sh*t into shiitake mushrooms and make a delicious pasta meal out of them. Maysoon Zayid chooses the latter. Like us all, she has her own "strikes" against her. She's Palestinian. She's a Muslim. She's a woman, and...oh, yeah she's from New Jersey. Yeppers, she's got it rough alright. She's also just so happens to have cerebral palsy, and a set-back it is not, as Maysoon Zayid is a comedian and actress who is embracing her so-called flaws in the best ways possible.

The first time I saw Maysoon Zayid was on The Queen Latifah Show last year, and she was a riot and a half. She even made my Mom laugh (which is quite tough to do) so right then and there I knew Zayid was some kind of wonderful. Going on Tumblr the other day, I was happy to come across a post about her that covered her TED Talk from 2013, the cleverly titled, "I Got 99 Problems...Palsy Is Just One". I spent the afternoon cracking up at Zayid's jokes and her reflections of growing up in a tight-knit Palestinian family and cruising the stand-up comedy circuit as a woman. The way she presented her comedy felt like an exchange with your best joke-telling friend over a Chili's appetizer sampler, and it was just so refreshing that with immediacy a girl crush had formed.

Zayid's confidence is the main attraction as she expertly pokes holes at her problems, making fun at herself, turning her most embarrassing, challenging, and quizzical moments of her life and turning them into punchlines. She's also highly talkative and not ashamed of being so, and for that, she's like my soul sister.

Zayid is not the first comedian who just happens to have CP. Lest we forget another lady who rocks, actress/comedian Geri Jewell, played Cousin Geri on the 1980s sitcom, The Facts Of Life, and she was the first disabled persons to be a regular cast member on a prime time television show. Though Zayid isn't the first (and she doesn't want to be), she is one of the first Muslim women comedians. She's also one of the first to perform stand-up in Palestine and Jordan, where at the time they had never seen stand-up comedy before --- and in an amusing twist --- believe that women are the true comedians (let's see how the "women are not funny" asswipes can wrap their heads around that...).

In addition to co-founding the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, being a featured pundit on Countdown with Keith Olbermann, and a role in the 2008 Adam Sandler film, You Don't Mess With The Zohan, Zayid gets her rebel yell on by being a kick-ass activist. She contributes her time to several organizations including her founding of Maysoon's Kids, which brings the arts into refugee camps for disabled and orphaned children in Palestine. While super generous, sometimes just the simple comedic turns of phrase make the most impact as in her stand-up routines Zayid combats and dismantles those pesky stereotypes and so-called "setbacks" by celebrating her culture and framing her disability insightful candor.

Zayid is a big-time advocate for representation in the media, especially over how women of color and disabled persons are portrayed in film and television. She relates her struggles of being an actress with disabilities in a story about how she auditioned for a play whose lead character has cerebral palsy. Feeling she had the role in her pocket, especially after being passed over for many lead roles in her undergrad theater program, she is surprised when she doesn't get the part as the role went instead to an able-bodied actress. When she confronts this, she is told that the reason she wasn't cast was because she wouldn't be able to do the stunts. Zayid's response is a zippy one: "If I can't do the stunts, how can the character?"

For this Zayid feels super passionate about non-disabled people being placed into acting roles meant for disabled persons, and she expresses this more in-depth during a fantastic interview with life coach and author, Marie Forleo. (The talk begins at the 7 minute mark, but really you should watch the whole thing).

Recently, I saw the film, The Theory of Everything which stars Eddie Redmayne --- an able-bodied actor --- as celebrated theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking who is also noted for suffering from ALS (or motor neuron disease). Redmayne is currently getting award attention, and for good reason, as he is fantastic in the role and his preparation to portray Hawking with astute physicality is also admirable to take in. Now, hearing Zayid's words, has me alter my praise a bit for Redmayne's acting role, as she makes a valid point about how disabled people are largely ignored making them the biggest minority and the lack of roles for disabled actors is limited in that regard. In the wake of this year's much criticized 'White Gold' Oscars race, it speaks volumes that it's important that we not only tell the correct story, but also strive to tell it from a diverse, and especially, a correct perspective.

When she says, "If a wheelchair user can't play Beyonce, then Beyonce can't play a wheelchair user" she's dead on about that discrepancy. If we don't see actual disabled people on our screen, we forget to see them as real people, that they are a part of this society, and that is highly important when you're trying to suppress ignorance and advocate for intersectionality. As much as we like to say that movies, TV shows, and other forms of media are "just entertainment" there is still a thin line where fiction can be intruded by fact, and if the facts aren't properly nourished it makes it seem that we're only comfortable with disability if we can reward people for just 'acting' the part, and being able to 'put it away' at the end of the day, than for taking in the reality of it all. Zayid just wants to see more people like her on-screen. She wants films that deal with disability to not be some "disability-of-the-week" Hallmark Movie claptrap that nibbles at the Oscar-bait. She wants to feel included, not excluded, she wants representation to matter, and who can argue with that?

Often it's challenging to accept things that we dislike about ourselves, and then wrap them up in a warm hug and strut around in them like a new pair of Louboutins, when all we want to do is to wish for them to get zapped away, never to return again. Maysoon Zayid is living proof on how flaws can be there for you to be your best self, and how these "setbacks" shouldn't be hindrances, but instead used as aids to separate you from the normal stream and make changes in neglected areas of society --- and this is why she's a lady who rocks.

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