Disability in Media – A Primer

As an undergraduate student, I studied film. I really love it. I love storytelling, I love popular media, and I love the power that movies, TV shows and books have to change lives. Over the years, I’ve noticed that the representation of people with disabilities on film has been lacking in a few important ways. In this blog post, I will be giving a short history on the topic and talking about what I think Hollywood could do better for our community. I haven’t noticed a lot of talk about it online and I always try really hard to educate my readers on topics that haven’t been driven into the ground. So I hope you enjoy my incredibly long blog post that follows and will tune in next week when I make a special announcement on this very topic!

A Brief History

In America, people were introduced to disability on film in Thomas Edison’s 1898 comedic film, A Fake Beggar. In it, a street beggar fakes his disability to gain sympathy and make more money. Six years later, audiences were introduced to wheelchairs and soon after that, the theme of curability, or the idea of dealing with a disability by making it disappear, became the dominant narrative. This idea was formed alongside films like Frankenstein and other early depictions of body horror, movies that portrayed evilness as synonymous with physical difference and disability. These problematic conceptions of disability continued to be mainstream until World War II. At that point, people were encountering veterans with disabilities and hailing them as patriotic heroes. And while this societal change stopped people with disabilities from being depicted as pathetic or deceptive, it prevented discussions about accessibility and prejudice because such matters were considered unpatriotic to discuss.

Around the time of the Vietnam War, veterans with disabilities were once again commonplace in real life. However, they were often embittered by their experiences while fighting, so the filmic depiction of disabled Americans became more complex. Disabled adults began to make people more uncomfortable and were morally difficult to classify. Incidentally, the Vietnam War was the first to be televised, so the growing anti-war sentiment and exposure to wartime brutality also led to a rise in violent horror movies like The Last House on the Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. As a result, people were willing to see disabled veterans, and therefore disabled people in general, as multifaceted people capable of complex thoughts and behaviors, even ones that the general population saw as unpalatable. Since that time, and with a few exceptions, American depictions of people with disabilities have continued to improve.

The Superhero Problem

With the rise of superhero media in the last 20 years, especially after 9/11, we’ve seen superheroes ranging from time-altering ones to reality-warping ones to strong ones to healers to mind-readers to speedsters to any other types of heroes you can possibly imagine. A lot has been said about how good superhero stories differ from bad ones but one thing everyone can agree on is that good heroes have realistic weaknesses, whether they’re superpowered or not. We need that emotional connection to keep us trusting heroes and relating to them as humans, rather than gods (unless that is the intent, as in Watchmen). For example, The Flash has a wrongfully imprisoned father he desperately wants to free. Superman has his hangups with being an alien. Magneto was a victim of the Holocaust. Spiderman has his aunt May and his deceased uncle Ben. Batman doesn’t even have superpowers, strictly speaking, plus he has dead parents.

Then we have superheroes like Daredevil and Professor X. I consider them separate entities because, along with Echo, Cable, and a few others, their most obvious weakness is their disability. Now, it is important to note that they are not the only two superheroes with disabilities, but to me, their respective disabilities are realistically depicted and do not serve as a “token weakness,” or a trait that checks a metaphorical box that the writers can use for their characterization. For examples of that kind of shortcut, we have characters like Barbara Gordon from Batman, or perhaps more prominently, Felicity Smoak from CW’s Arrow. Both characters were dramatically paralyzed by a major villain (Barbara by The Joker, Felicity by Damien Darhk’s men). Their attack and victimization serves to motivate the hero to beat the villain for “getting his girl” and making her “not whole” or flawed in some way. Both characters were cured soon after the storyline was completed. Barbara Gordon’s character was treated a little better by the writers involved—for the time she was in a wheelchair, she became Oracle and was still depicted as a strong superpower, albeit behind a computer*. However, her disability was still used as a plot device and with her and Felicity, as soon as they were physically “restored,” their time in wheelchairs was glossed over and only mentioned vaguely in passing.

Writers and filmmakers have gotten better at writing superheroes with disabilities over the last few years. Just looking at Netflix’s Daredevil compared to the 2003 movie with Ben Affleck is good evidence of that. In the movie, gratuitous time is given to showing Matt Murdock’s adaptive equipment and tools. A largely pointless scene towards the beginning shows him taking different money bills out of braille-marked plastic cases and most of the jokes his best friend Foggy tells are about his being blind. In the Netflix show 12 years later, Matt uses a special phone feature that reads out who is calling, and he walks with the help of a walking stick when out in public, but the only other times his blindness has attention called to it is through other characters’ reactions. Foggy still tells jokes about Matt being blind but it feels like a realistic depiction of a longtime friendship, not a heavy-handed reminder to the audience that the main character is blind (as if we could forget). He is clearly independent and we may not see how he keeps track of his bills or how he reads documents on a computer but we trust that he figures it out because he’s not depicted as a weak or pathetic character. And more importantly, the rest of the story is more interesting, so we stop caring that he’s blind. His disability isn’t shoehorned into every single scene he’s in.

Similarly, Professor X from X-Men has been improved upon for the most part throughout the movie franchise and in the comics. He’s in a wheelchair but he’s also one of the most powerful mutants on Earth. His disability is incidental to his power and therefore is also incidental to his depiction in the comics and movies. (Note: In a couple of weeks I will publish an even longer blog post about how X-Men depicts and strengthens the disability community, so keep an eye out).

*For a fun activity, ask an Amazon Echo product who its favorite superhero is. I got a little proud chuckle.

Disabled Actors

Now, while depictions of people with various disabilities are getting more common, the casting of disabled actors has not increased at the same frequency. With a few significant exceptions, most well-known characters with disabilities are played by able-bodied actors and society is not yet at the point where it can accept a visibly disabled person without it being discussed or explained, so if an actor is disabled, the character must be, too. This leaves no room for disabled actors. They cannot play roles that they’re physically qualified for and don’t get cast in any other type of role. And not only does this not allow disabled actors (of which there are many) to be employed, but it perpetuates inauthentic performances by able-bodied actors who choose to “crip-up” for the type of role that wins disproportionate amounts of awards.

There are some examples of disabled actors worth mentioning, namely RJ Mitte (from Breaking Bad) and Jamie Brewer (from American Horror Story). Both actors play roles in which their disability is realistically handled and discussed on the show. However, both have had difficulty finding work unrelated to their “big break” (although Brewer recently made positive waves by participating in Fashion Week).

Disabled actors usually have a much more difficult time getting good representation through talent agencies, which is how productions choose actors. Because they’re rarely chosen for roles, they have an even harder time getting agency representation, and the cycle continues. The only way to break out of it is through open-minded casting directors specifically requesting disabled actors for roles. And that never happens. Sometimes it doesn’t happen due to the casting director or filmmaker simply not thinking about it, but more often it can be due to misunderstanding the needs of the actor and legal obligations of the production. Who will pay for a trailer with a lift? Who will pay for an ASL interpreter? What if the actor doesn’t have the stamina to fully participate in the production? Will we have to rewrite things? At the end of the day, Hollywood is a business and they want the best possible return on the investment they put in their actors. Having an authentically disabled actor is not seen as very valuable, unfortunately.

Some movies, like the recently released A Quiet Place (which I’m dying to see but haven’t yet) do a great job of incorporating an actor’s disability into the story in a fully natural way. But for every movie like A Quiet Place, there is a movie like Hush. Despite Hush being one of my favorite scary movies, and despite having a premise similar to A Quiet Place, the lead character is deaf but the actress is not. She uses ASL when talking to others and in the only scene in which you hear her voice through a mental monologue, they use the actress’ voice even though the character says early on that she hears her mom’s voice in her head and not her own. There was absolutely no reason to use a hearing actress for that role, other than the fact that her husband was the director.

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Things are getting better representation-wise, albeit slowly. The arc of progress only bends one way, as they say. Having said that, I truly believe that the way we represent people in media shapes the way we see them in real life. And we can do better for the disability community. The biases that people get from movies and TV especially shape how people approach and treat us. But everyone deserves to tell their own story and have it told the way they want it told. I don’t know anybody with a disability who acts like Tiny Tim or Will Traynor or any of the plethora of poorly written disabled characters created by able-bodied writers for an able-bodied audience. We shouldn’t sit back and let other people tell our stories when we can tell them ourselves. I would love to see more disabled filmmakers and writers, because it is only by tackling a unique perspective on a difficult topic that people’s minds can really be changed. And young children with disabilities should be able to look up to characters that look like them.

2 thoughts on “Disability in Media – A Primer

  1. Pingback: Mutant and Proud: Disability Lessons from X-Men | The Girl Who Sits

  2. Pingback: Introduction to the Models of Disability – The Girl Who Sits

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