If You’re Disabled in an M. Night Shyamalan Film, You are either a Villain or a Supercrip (Mostly a Villain Though)

I long for the days when M. Night Shyamalan was still mostly associated with his flops. Only making movies because of a vain hope that he would rediscover his Sixth Sense heydey. I look back yearningly at that moment I was sitting in a movie theatre and the collective groan of disappointment that the audience emitted at the end of the trailer for Devil (2010) because all hope that it might be good had been spoiled when it was revealed that the story was created by M. Night Shyamalan (though he did not actually direct or write the screenplay)

Shyamalan has recently recaptured some of his earlier success with his most recent film Split (2016). The film centres on a villain, Kevin (played by James McAvoy) who has Dissociative Identity Disorder and 23 distinct personalities (with a supernatural 24th). He kidnaps and terrorizes three girls. The film epitomizes the trope of to be mad is to be bad. I am not going to go into a long breakdown of how awful this is. Many others have already done so and likely better than I could have.

kevin-split

Image description: Still from the film Split. The character Kevin (played by James McAvoy) walks dow an empty street at night. He is bald with glasses and is wearing black pants and a jacket. His hands are in his pockets (image source)

I am instead going to talk about how Split’s Kevin fits into a pattern of stereotyped disabled characters in M. Night Shyamalan movies. Characters who are usually bad but who occasionally also fill the supercrip role.

Split is actually (as it is revealed in the end) a sort of sequel to Shyamalan’s 2000 film Unbreakable. Unbreakable is another film that relies on a disabled villain. Elijah Price AKA Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) has Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a condition that causes brittle bones. Price is inspired to villainy by comic books (Isn’t Shyamalan Meta he creates a superhero universe where the villains are inspired by comic books *sigh*). He makes it very clear that his disability is a catalyst for his villainy. He reasons that if he is so fragile then there must be someone is as impervious to injury as Price is prone to it (because logic I guess). He goes around causing disasters with mass casualties until he finds his opposite. He discovers David Dunn (Bruce Willis) after Dunn is the sole survivor of a train wreck.

elijah-price-unbreakable

Image description: Elijah Price (played by Samuel L. Jackson) sits in a wheelchair in the aisle of a comic book store. He is holding up a comic in his right hand. He is wearing a grey sweater over a black turtleneck (image source).

Disability is so linked to villainy in Unbreakable that the hero is literally impervious to injury. He can never become disabled.

By linking Split and Unbreakable, Shyamalan has essentially created a superhero universe in which disability is synonymous with evil.

Shyamalan’s use of disability is not limited to these two films. It is also a theme in his biggest success The Sixth Sense (1999). The initial meeting between Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) and Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is set up as Crowe being Cole’s psychiatrist. But fear, not Haley Joel Osment is not another Shyamalan supervillain. He is not mad. He can actually really see ghosts. The film does not, however, avoid the insinuation that mad is bad. In the scene where Cole finds the evidence that a child–who had presumably died of some unknown prolonged illness–had been murdered by her mother through long-term poisoning. The film subtly suggests that the mother has Munchausen’s by Proxy and was carrying out the prolonged poisoning not for the direct goal of killing the girl but rather for the attention having a sick child provided her.

Funeral guests can be heard musing about how long the girl had been sick, how many specialists were consulted to find the cause of the mystery illness and sadly explaining that now that the older child was dead that the younger sister was also begun to exhibit similar symptoms.

So while Cole Sear is not mad. Madness in the Sixth Sense is still dangerous.

In the film The Village (2004), Shyamalan manages to include both someone who is dangerously disabled and a supercrip.

alice-walker-the-village

Image description: Still from the film The Village. Alice Walker (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) stands in a doorway in a white nightdress. She stares blankly in front of her while reaching her right hand imploringly through the door (image source).

Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) is blind. Her blindness isn’t particularly extraordinary until she is forced to take on the supercrip role after the intellectually disabled and sexually frustrated Noah Percy (Adrien Brody) stabs her beloved in a fit of jealousy.

Ivy’s blindness is a bizarre plot device because I never could fully understand why she was the only person who could leave the village in search of medical attention. It appears to mainly be a plot device to add tension to jump scares and an odd scene where she finds a miraculously well-tended gravel path in the middle of a forest. Allowing for a moment of “Oh look at how the blind girl recognizes the change in terrain without sight”.

Noah Percy is a standard movie caricature of intellectual disability. He his presented as a perpetual child. His violence is a direct result of sexual frustration which reinforces the idea that the sexuality of disabled men is dangerous.

There may be other examples of disability stereotypes in Shyamalan’s work but I admit that I have not seen all of his films. I can only hope that Split was an anomaly and that Shyamalan returns to his standard of flops because unfortunately as history has taught us failure does not stop him and he is unlikely to learn and stop using dangerous disability narratives. They are far too ingrained in his work.

 

 

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I was inspired to write this piece by David Perry who wanted a proper write up of a Twitter rant I wrote earlier in the day.

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No, I don’t Worry about Alienating Allies

I have noticed in my online activism that if I call out problematic behaviour or comment on the cultural context of disability being mentioned in particular contexts either by an ally or by someone who is perceived as an ally, I will often be chastened for the nebulous offence of “alienating allies”.

When this happens, allies seem to stop being people who are devoted to the idea of meaningfully improving the lives of disabled people but are in fact thin skinned individuals who will reject the rights of disabled people if they are not rewarded with copious amounts of praise regardless of the impact of their actions.

As Ginny Di puts it,

The thing is, the pushback that I experience has never been from the people I am directly commenting on but either other disabled people who are concerned that the criticism will lead to the loss of allies or simply from people who don’t like seeing someone they admire being criticized for any reason.

People ask me why I criticize people publicly instead of trying to address my concerns with them privately. The answer to that is that I am invariably responding to something that someone has done publicly. If they have done something potentially harmful publicly, it needs to be challenged publicly because in this case, the response is not necessarily about directly educating the individual but about mitigating the potential harm of their actions. In some (if not most) cases, it is unlikely that I have any real potential of reaching that person directly. An example of this is my twitter response to Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech.

People seemed very concerned that Meryl Streep would change her already purely sentimental stance that people shouldn’t bully disabled people to an active undermining of disability rights simply because I dared to point out that her speech didn’t actually achieve anything for disabled people and in fact effectively used the stereotype of the disabled victim to galvanize emotional support for a broader anti-Donald Trump message.

I was hardly the only disabled person who was concerned about the fact that a vague mention of “being nice to disabled people” was being treated like cutting edge disability rights activism. As Jay Ruckelshaus–who wrote not about Streep but political discussions of disability generally–pointed out in the New York Times,

That a statement on disability garnered sympathy from across the political spectrum was unsurprising, at least to me. I’ve grown used to my wheelchair trumping (forgive me) other political and moral concerns. Rarely, if ever, do people contest my claims that we must do more for those with disabilities: Greater access? Better employment training? More flexible school curriculums?…

Initially, this harmony would seem helpful. Free from partisan discord, advancements for the approximately 57 million Americans with disabilities should be easier to achieve, borne aloft by the wings of certain progress. Why, then, do rampant unemployment and educational disparities endure, and why does success remain the exception?

I think part of the reason is the insulation of our pro-disabled political consensus. Its logic is rooted not in any deep belief in the equal worth of citizens with disabilities, but rather in a general aversion to disability. This is related to the charity impulse that has always surrounded disability — and has constrained liberation efforts by assuming that inequities are unfortunate but natural realities to be mitigated through compassion, rather than politically structured injustices. There is also a profound lack of disabled people in the public sphere, meaning any substantive discussion that does occur is extremely rare.

Many have convinced themselves that positive sentiment is an effective stand-in for meaningful action. Unfortunately, that action has rarely if ever followed on the heels of a call for sentiment, that did not demand action for disabled people.

The irony is, I don’t even know if Meryl Streep is aware that disabled people criticized her speech. She hasn’t addressed it, and yet people were so very concerned that she would rescind her already rather ineffective support as a result of it.

I can just imagine the conversation that almost definitely didn’t actually happen (#alternativefacts)

Meryl Streep’s personal assistant: Excuse me, Meryl but it appears that a disabled person has criticized your speech on Twitter.

Meryl Streep: Well, fuck disabled people then.

I have no way of knowing if Meryl Streep is aware of the criticisms that disabled people made of her speech and if she is how she feels about it but I do know that my criticism had an impact on others. My tweets were widely shared with many people thanking me for the new perspective or simply saying that I’d given them something new to think about. Those people far outnumber Meryl Streep. They are allies gained. Allies who listened. Allies who will hopefully when it comes to taking action, will actually act for disabled people rather than falling back on the comfortable inaction of sentiment.

Now Sometimes, the person who is being criticized does become aware of the criticism but even this doesn’t worry me too much as long as the person being criticized is really an ally. Last month, I wrote a critique of a video on autism. The creator, Dylan Marron had good intentions but missed the mark. He not only listened to the criticism from myself and others, he redid the video and apologized.

Text of his full apology can be found here.

Allyship should not be judged by the initial intentions (or perceived intentions) but in whether the person is as concerned with the impact of the outcome. Simply expressing sentimental support for disabled people should not be sufficient to be considered an ally.

Placing to much concern on alienating allies is to tell marginalized people that they should be satisfied with whatever they can get regardless of whether it is ineffective or even harmful because intentions trump impact.

It’s essentially treating marginalized peoples who are fighting for their human rights like spoiled children who didn’t get what they wanted for their birthday.

If offering a critique of someone’s actions was sufficient to make them abandon disability rights, then chances are they weren’t really an ally in the first place. And if offering that critique gets other people to think more critically about their intersectional human rights activism then that’s a bigger gain. If it gets the person being critiqued to rethink and change tactics to be more effective then all the better.

So no, I’m not all that worried about alienating allies because critique actually helps recruit allies and helps make it clear who the real allies are and who is just using us for a sentimental talking point.