If you’ve followed my blog, you’ll know that I am not a fan of seeing nondisabled actors play disabled characters. Those who perpetuate this trend have a myriad of excuses but the two most common are.
You should cast the best actor for the job.
It’s just acting, you’re supposed to pretend to be someone different. This is usually accompanied by a snide remark like “I’m not a pilot in real life does that mean I can’t play one on tv?”
I would love to get on the bandwagon for the first defence but in order to do that, I would have to then believe that there are basically no talented disabled actors. The list of disabled actors who actually work with semi-regularity is so small. There are over a billion disabled people on Earth. I find it hard to believe that only five or six of them can act.
When the “best actor for the job”defence is brought up, the biggest red flag is that the person they pick is almost exclusively able-bodied. This defence pretty much gets trotted out to defend the status quo.
The second argument is everywhere but is actually easier to dismantle. The idea that media is just play acting and that it has no other impact than as mindless entertainment isn’t really tenable. The media has great power to impact social views and even fiction can change public perceptions.
To comment on the follow-up comments about pilots, there is a pretty serious distinction between profession/skill and identity. Anyone with the money, ability and interest can learn to fly a plane. It’s a skill.
Taking on an identity is entirely different from both a physiological and social perspective. Cripping up is often also referred to as Cripicature to describe the almost cartoonish results that occur when nondisabled people attempt to emulate disability. Unfortunately, because the public is unfamiliar with the reality of disability, they see these portrayals as accurate and revolutionary in their ability to educate about the condition. Not infrequently the actors who perform these roles are rewarded. Seriously, after the last Oscars double whammy of Eddie Redmayne and Julianne Moore winning for portraying disability; there were so many tongue in cheek articles advising actors to play disabled characters so they could win big too, I thought I would be sick.
Skills may be teachable, identity is decidedly less so. Ultimately all you get is interpretation from an outsider perspective. That coupled with an inaccurate portrayal of physicality just repeatedly creates false images of what disability is.
In a world where audiences are sceptical of movies where characters play the piano but there is no panning shot to prove it’s actually the actor and not a double playing, I don’t understand how other inaccuracies are so easily accepted.
Finally, though, the play acting defence fails on a practical level. There are already groups of people whose identities it is unacceptable to take on if the actor doesn’t share it. Even though this was not always the case.
White actors no longer regularly paint their faces different colours to portray other races. Though unfortunately, it does still happen but usually with public backlash.
Even among portrayals of disability, there are particular groups who are more likely to be cast rather than have a nondisabled actor play the role. Characters with Down Syndrome are almost exclusively cast from the DS community and it is becoming less common to see anyone but actual little people take on roles portraying them.
The it’s just play acting defence only really works if there are no exceptions which there are.
Ultimately it comes down to a lack of willingness to work to bring inclusion to acting profession. Insiders need to stop regurgitating tired excuses and start asking why there aren’t more disabled people in the industry.
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