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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People Are Scared of What’s Different & Other Revelations From The Accountant

The following will contain comprehensive spoilers of the new film The Accountant which opened today.

I am going to start with a brief synopsis of the film, followed by a review based solely on the plot. Then I will dig deeper into the portrayal of disability (specifically Autism but not exclusively). Bare with me the plot is convoluted.

Synopsis

The film is about Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) an Autistic mathematical savant who works as a forensic accountant for organized crime. Some of the promotional material for the film also describes him as either a hitman or assassin. This is less clear in the film though he is certainly very skilled at multiple forms of violence. He’s an unbeatable sniper, his hand to hand combat skills are unparalleled etc (you get the point).

When Wolff realizes that his less legal accounting activities have drawn law enforcement attention, he decides to let heat wear off while he takes more conventional legal accounting work.

He is hired to determine the source of millions of dollars which have gone missing from a robotic prosthetics company. He is paired with Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) the in house accountant who discovered the financial discrepancy.

As Wolff comes closer to discovering the source of the financial anomaly, the company’s CFO is murdered by being forced to overdose on insulin. It is seen as a suicide and the company’s president Lamar Black (John Lithgow) fires Wolff saying that the CFO’s suicide was an admission guilt.

Wolff can’t let it go. He can’t stand unfinished puzzles. He keeps digging and concludes that more is going on. His suspects keep turning up dead and he and dana Cummings are eventually targeted for assassination.

Wolff Thwarts these assassination attempts and takes Dana somewhere safe before returning to get to the bottom of the fraud.

In the meantime law enforcement is closing in and the film is interspersed with flashbacks of Wolff’s childhood. His father refusing conventional treatment in favour of immersive martial arts training for Wolff and his brother.

Wolff eventually determines that Lamar Black is behind the whole scheme and goes after him. Black is protected by his hired assassin & various goons. Wolff makes short work of the goons, realizes that the assassin is his brother (hey, I warned you that the spoilers would be comprehensive), they have a half-hearted sibling fight, reconcile and Wolff kills Black.

Review

There is to much going on in the movie. It would be better is the law enforcement angle had been cut altogether. It seems to be there only for the sole purpose of giving an excuse for unnecessary exposition and to set up the possibility of a sequel.

It turns out that the lead agent knew who Wolff was all along but set the junior agent on him anyway so that she could see how he functioned and realize that he’s really a criminal with a heart of gold (he’s been tipping the older agent off on some of his employers more nefarious dealings). The older agent is retiring and was the younger agent to continue taking the tips (she does).

Without that the movie would just be a cat and mouse plot, Wolff chases Black’s assassin who in turn chases Wolff right back.

The law enforcement angle just adds a dog into the mix, a dog that really just wants to play with the cat anyway so it’s kind of redundant.

The action sequences are underwhelming. Mostly because Wolff is set up to be such a good fighter that they lack any tension. There is no moment where you genuinely think he might be in mortal peril.

I also managed to figure out the twist before the reveal. That the opposing assassin was his brother so I wasn’t remotely surprised by the outcome.

So, from a purely plot based review it was convoluted and predictable.

Portrayal of Autism & other Disability References

The movie couldn’t really figure out if it wanted to have progressive message of accommodation and inclusion or an Autistic superhero who overcame his Autism through brute force. For some reason they tried to do both which was mostly just confusing.

The film opens with Christian Wolff as a child (in the 1980s). The family is visiting a treatment centre for children with developmental disabilities. Christian is sitting at a table doing a puzzle at extraordinary speed. His parents are talking to the proprietor  who refuses to diagnose Christian because “I don’t like labels”. He recommends leaving Christian there for the summer so that he can learn to adapt in an environment designed to accommodate his needs.

Aside from the cringe worthy remark about not liking labels labels this is actually pretty decent. Particularly if you consider it was supposed to have happened in the 1980s. The emphasis was absolutely on Christian’s comfort and he made a point of saying that stimming ( a common self-soothing technique involving repetitive motion) was completely normal and nothing to worry about.

Meanwhile, Christian has misplaced the final piece of his puzzle and begins to have a meltdown (it’s a common theme throughout the movie that he doesn’t like not being able to finish things). Another child locates the piece for him and the camera pans to an overhead shot of the completed puzzle. It is completely grey. It is the first visual indication that Christian is really good at puzzles.

Christian’s father interprets accommodation as coddling and determines that if over stimulation is stressful for Christian than the best treatment is to subject him to as much over stimulation as possible (don’t do this, no seriously don’t do this).

So instead of giving Christian individualized care that recognized both his needs and his humanity, Christian’s father made him live a transient existence (he tells Dana that they moved over 30 times in 17 years) full of martial arts training. Even the martial arts masters think the father was taking it overboard but he just says they’re my kids (Christian’s brother was subjected to this too) I’ll decide when they’ve had enough.

This approach is infuriating for  several reasons. Not least of all that it’s actually abuse. There’s also the fact that a lot of harmful things have been done to disabled children because parents exert total dominion over their children (even if they’re not having martial arts masters pummel their children for hours). The most damaging thing of all though is that in the movie, this treatment works (again, seriously don’t do this).

Not only does christian grow up to be an unbeatable fighter, he also regularly overstimulates himself with audio and visual input. He turns off the lights, turns on loud music which is clearly stylistically different from the music that he likes while also using a strobe light.

The message appears to be that overcoming the issue beats “coddling” and yet the final scene is back at that treatment centre. That same proprietor is talking to parents. He no linger shies away from the word Autism and continues to advocate for individualized care and not placing unnecessary restrictions or expectations on an Autistic child.

Basically, it’s like the opening and closing scenes should be on a different movie and very likely a better movie. It’s like the writer really wanted a “and the moral of the story is…” ending but the content of the film simply does not lead to the final scene. In fact it utterly contradicts it. So any good that might come from what is really set up as preachy exposition is hollow because nothing that is said is modeled in the film. The entire body of the film actually serves as an active rebuttal. The film mostly just tells you that you can mold an Autistic child’s behaviour through violent regimented force.

Christian Wolff’s character is the ultimate supercrip. He’s only Autistic in the sense that he maintains a number of physical behaviours of a fake Hollywood Autistic. He has the movie monotone that is almost universally present in fictional portrayals of Autism but never present in any of the many real life Autistic people that I know. His only stimming is a pretty innocuous tapping of his fingers. He does have an eating ritual in which he must blow on his fingers before commencing. These things are really just an actor trying to physically act something that you can’t actually see and the effect falls pretty flat.

The two big stereotypes are that he’s socially awkward–the movie even includes an “I’m Autistic and have difficulty connecting with others but totally want to” speech–and he is of course a mathematical savant. He and pretty much every other movie and TV Autistic are sitting over there with their ridiculous math skills and I’m sitting over here in the social sciences cringing at my pretty solid D- high school math grades (I got a B in math once but it was an anomaly) and happily never taking math ever again.

Why does my sad history with math matter? Because even in the Autistic population savants are rare and I’m willing to bet my story is more common than the math geniuses we Autistics inevitably become when we end up on screen.

When I wrote about my concerns on how the film was being promoted, I mentioned my frustration with Ben Affleck’s excitement over having a role where his character didn’t get the girl. Admittedly the chemistry was lacking between Affleck and Kendrick but it confirmed my fear that the romance would be aborted as a direct result of Christian’s Autism. He decides to leave her right after a flashback in which his father forces him to use his exceptional fighting skills to beat some bullies who had broken his glasses. His father told him that he was being bullied because he was different and that difference always becomes frightening. To which the logical solution is to prove to them just how scary you can actually be and beat the ever loving shit out of them or something, I guess.

It is not his capacity for violence that makes him leave Dana but his father’s words that people always come to fear what is different ringing in his head.

This is just one more in a long line of movies dealing with disability where the character’s sexuality is acknowledged but ultimately unsatisfied as a direct result of their disability. So Fuck That.

It’s hard to determine how he feels about killing people. He does it so dispassionately that he appears unfeeling and yet he supposedly has a very strong though poorly defined moral code. Is it that he only kills bullies? or criminals? I mean he’s technically a criminal so I’m confused. All I know is that you know that he’s never going to kill any of the people that the film has set you up to like. So that nice elderly couple who hired him to do his taxes. They’re safe even though they watch him kill at least two people. So there are people that he’s clearly fond of and willing to protect but beyond that all bets are off, there’s no restraint or remorse until it comes to fighting with his brother. He also doesn’t seem to have a problem with the fact that his brother is a mercenary commanding assassin who tried to kill him and the girl he has a crush on? is kind of fond of? (I really don’t know).

I know movie ethics are different than real world ethics but this takes it a bit far.

Interestingly, the film moves somewhat beyond Autism with the villain. No, thankfully Lamar Black is not disabled but his company makes robotic prosthetics. So in the climactic scene when Christian faces Lamar, Lamar gives a “I did the crime for the greater good speech” pointing out all the people who are helped by his technology. While he’s far from the first villain to try the “for the greater good” defense, there was something satisfying in Christian not falling for it. People being portrayed as saints for being nice to disabled people is something of an insidious real world trend.

Conclusions

So, I clearly think this movie is objectively bad (a lot of critics agree with me), so why does any of this matter.

Even if this movie completely bombs at the box office (it’s to early to tell) this film did something different, not in its content but in how it marketed the film. Disabled people have become much more vocal about calling out Hollywood for harmful stereotypes and demanding better stories and more meaningful representation.

The marketing of this film was an obvious response to that. They emphasized how much research went into the role, they emphasized how honest it was. They spent a lot of time saying that the story was original and that the portrayal was honest. This authenticity trolling was not only inaccurate but it shows that instead of working to better incorporate disabled community into the film industry that they would rather build discrediting it as a part of the the promotion process.

The fact that they did this with an action movie which would normally be defended on the grounds of it’s general unbelievability –hey shouldn’t the protagonist have died seven times already?–actually co-opted a lot of activist language to try and preemptively absolve it  from accusations of stereotyping. Then they went on their merry way and stereotyped & regurgitated hackneyed story lines to their hearts content.

And that is why it is important to care about how bad the portrayal of Autism is in this movie even though the movie isn’t even good.

 

A Basic Dismantling of the Most Popular Defenses of Cripping Up

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.

and

It’s just acting, you’re supposed to pretend to be someone different. This is usually accompanied by a snide remark like “I’m npt 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 defense 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” defense is brought up, the biggest red flag is that the person they pick is almost exclusively able-bodied. This defense 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 inaccurate portrayal of physicality just repeatedly creates false images of what disability is.

In a world where audiences are skeptical 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 defense 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 defense 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.

Mayim Bialik’s Take on Sheldon Cooper and Autism is Wrong

The sitcom The Big Bang Theory (TBBT) has been on tv for eight years and has been renewed for at least two more seasons. In that time there has been a lt of speculation about whether the character Sheldon Cooper has either Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or both. He is never directly diagnosed or labeled on the show but his behaviour is easily recognizable as autistic.

As a result autistic viewers have been looking for verification from people associated with the show and we finally got it, sort of.

Actress Mayim Bialik (who plays Amy Farrah-Fowler on TBBT) was being interviewed by Neil DeGrasse Tyson when he asked her about the speculation. She gave a response that Radio Times lauded as “Brilliant”. She said,

“All of our characters are in theory on the neuropsychiatric spectrum, I would say, Sheldon often gets talked about in terms of Asperger’s or OCD. He has a thing with germs, he has a thing with numbers, he’s got a lot of that precision that we see in OCD. There’s a lot of interesting features to all of our characters that make them technically unconventional socially…

I think what’s interesting and kind of sweet and what should not be lost on people is we don’t pathologise our characters. We don’t talk about medicating them or even really changing them.

And I think that’s what’s interesting for those of us who are unconventional people or who know and love people who are on any sort of spectrum, we often find ways to work around that. It doesn’t always need to be solved and medicated and labelled.

And what we’re trying to show with our show is that this is a group of people who likely were teased, mocked, told that they will never be appreciated or loved, and we have a group of people who have successful careers, active social lives (that involve things like Dungeons and Dragons and video games), but they also have relationships, and that’s a fulfilling and satisfying life.”

Essentially TBBT is a utopian example of what happens when people are accepted for who they are and the lack of diagnosis is a radical move towards inclusion and building acceptance of people’s differences.

It’s a nice idea but it’s a false one both in how the show is structured and made and in how people who have autism and other behaviour disorders are treated.

It is true that diagnosis has been withheld on the show by design. The intention however was not to make a statement about the pathologization of people with behaviour disorders. We know that the creators of TBBT never intended for Sheldon to be seen as autistic because when asked, they deny that he does. Bill Prady one of the co-creators of the show has acknowledged the similarities but categorically denied that Sheldon was autistic. His reasons for denial are troubling. The avoided officially giving Sheldon an ASD diagnosis because it would put much pressure to get the details right. The other creator Chuck Lorre also denies Sheldon is on the spectrum.

So this idea that TBBT is a way for the awkward and possibly autistic audience to see that the world can fit them and that TBBT is just a big “It get’s better” message to those of us who were bullied for having characteristics similar to Sheldon are just false. Bialik’s excuse is just a way to push back against the criticism that TBBT gets for turning ASD into a caricature. She made a nice progressive sounding statement that just doesn’t happen to be true. There is no underlying moral of the acceptance of difference regardless of label in The Big Bang Theory.

There isn’t even really a veneer of it as most of the comedy around Sheldon is just how socially inept and different he is. The comedy comes all to often at his expense.

The show may not label Sheldon with OCD or autism but his behaviour is still pathologized. His friends constantly question and bring attention to his atypical behaviour. He is  even aware that people find him odd. He has on more than one occasion proclaimed “I’m not crazy, my mother had me tested”. The thing you should take away from this is not that he was seen by a doctor who failed to diagnose him and accept that at face value–My parents had me tested for ADD as a child, as I don’t have ADD I was not diagnosed, no alternate explanations were sought and yet I was and still am autistic. Heck, when my parents noticed that as an infant I avoided using my left hand, the doctor just said I was really right handed (seriously), I actually have cerebral palsy and failure to diagnose or misdiagnose is common–What you should focus on here though is that Sheldon feels the need to defend his behaviour because others are questioning it from a psychological way. So yes the show really does pathologize Sheldon, it just doesn’t give him the explanation or defense of a label. In so doing tacitly making the judgement and the laughter at his expense acceptable because if he were acknowledged as autistic, this treatment would be considered cruel.

As Jacqueline Koyanagi brilliantly puts it in an article on Disability in Kidlit (go read the article, seriously excerpts don’t do it justice)

Here is a character who is obviously coded as autistic, so much so that his behaviors often tip over into autistic caricature…. So, yes. Caricature it is, stripped of context. In this case, it’s all in the name of comedy, but it can and does happen in the name of entertainment of any stripe. Sidelining the issue does not erase it.

She goes on to say and I completely agree,

Fictional characters exist to be consumed by real people, and real people live on the autism spectrum. Characterization, regardless of label or lack thereof, regardless of genre, has a real impact on these real people, myself included. Content creators must understand that they can be answerable for that impact. When they render a character into their world wearing an entire suit of autistic behaviors, reactions, and needs, responsibility-dodging only serves to hurt the population they’re representing, whether they wanted their work to be representative of that population or not.

Koyanagi and I have something in common, we we both diagnosed on the autism spectrum as adults and as she points out,

The difference between “generic eccentricity” and a formal diagnosis is just that–formal diagnosis. It seems absurd that it bears stating, but a person on the autism spectrum is on the spectrum even before they are diagnosed. Similarly, bullying is bullying regardless of when diagnosis/identification occurs–and, yes, even if it never occurs…

Aspects of a person’s being can’t be swept under the rug by denying labels with a shrug and a saccharine smile. Eschewing labels does not equate dodging responsibility, and mistreatment done in ignorance is still mistreatment. That goes for the actions of fictional characters and writers’ intentions alike. When autistically coded characters are dismissed as eccentric and worthy of disdain, it reinforces the idea that we are just being difficult. When the people around autistically coded characters are portrayed as Atlas-like martyrs for enduring such a burden, that is doing real harm to real autistic people. Media matters. Media influences, shapes, and deepens perspectives on real issues.

When Mayim Bialik says that they refuse to pathologize the characters on the show. She is essentially saying “we don’t see disability, we just see people” a sentiment that erases experience. Perhaps not for the fictional Sheldon but for people in the real world. People with autism are already people and they are often people with needs that differ from those of the neurotypical majority. Not labeling someone is just reinforcing the idea that disability is bad or shameful, even if it is couched in terms of universal acceptance. Because at the end of the day difference is treated differently (often in terms of discrimination and oppression) and it is those of us with labels who are more able to advocate for accommodation and change. People who are simply different are far easier to dismiss and ignore.

I am with Dumbledore on this issue “Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself

Ignoring the autistic coding of Sheldon Cooper is harmful and unfortunately avoiding the label allows Lorre and Prady to create a caricature of autism with plausible deniability built right in.

So don’t be impressed with Bialik’s seemingly progressive interpretation because it is a lie painted over an issue that is finally being recognized to excuse past bad behaviour.

Radio Times gives Bialik a credibility bump by pointing out that she has a PhD in Neuroscience but she is not the person who has to live with the consequences of a world that internalizes her ideas. Autistic people do.

There is a reason one of the most enduring slogans of the disability rights movement is Nothing About Us Without Us. We deserve proper representation and not to be brushed aside when someone with credentials but no shared experience minimizes our concerns.

There is no TBBT utopia and things will not get better for the people who see themselves in Sheldon Cooper if the game plan is to pretend that neurological disorders don’t exist or more importantly that people will treat those exhibiting symptoms of ASD or OCD well without activism and advocacy. Ignoring social discrimination doesn’t make it go away, it helps it grow and gives it legitimacy.

Footnote/ updated

I would like to mention that Bialik does have one good point, the idea that people who are on as she puts it the neuropsychiatric spectrum don’t need to be changed or cured to have fulfilling lives is entirely correct. I also though don’t see that reflected in the show as the people around Sheldon are constantly complaining about how dealing with him frustrates them.

How Technology Makes it Easier for the Film Industry to Discriminate Against Disabled People

Lately there has been a lot of news about how the ACLU is pushing for a civil rights inquiry into the systemic discrimination against women in film and television. This investigation would look at the disparities in the number of women in position of authority in the industry as well as pay disparities. This is a completely valid complaint and I hope it goes forward and ultimately creates meaningful change in the industry. Reading about the initiative got me thinking about how rare it is to see disabled people in any capacity in film and television and how little call there is to rectify this from within the industry.

That is not to say that film and television completely ignore disability. They don’t, they just don’t necessarily use disabled people as actors or writers (or directors or producers etc.). There are some notable exceptions like Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lanister in Game of Thrones or RJ Mitte as Walter White Jr. on Breaking Bad or Sarah Gordy in Upstairs Downstairs. One of the things that make them so notable is that they stand out from the general portrayal of disability in film and television.

Disability rights activists have coined terms like cripping up, crip face**, disability drag and cripicature to describe the trend of nondisabled actors taking on disabled roles. There are many examples of disabled people protesting the practice and demanding better representation for disabled people on screen.

In my opinion there is no actual disability representation in a film or television show unless there is an actual disabled person involved. Simply putting in a disabled character and than casting a nondisabled actor is not representation. It is in fact the active denial of representation. I am not going to get fully into why the prevalence of cripping up is bad right now. Others have done that (click the links above for just a small sample of others making the case).

I am going to look at how the phenomenon of cripping up continues to flourish despite a more discriminating viewership that demands authenticity from its media.

The fact that nondisabled people have absolutely no idea what authentic disability looks like is certainly a major factor. It is difficult to get an accurate picture of disability when your reference point is always a nondisabled person’s interpretation of disability. That being said people are somewhat more aware that the physicality of physical disability can not be shown with the adoption of a limp or by sitting in a wheelchair. In the same way that actors playing pianists must now have some skill at the piano because closeups of hands on a keyboard no longer suffice to convince the viewer that those hands are attached to the actor, simply sitting in a chair on in a bed no longer convince people that, the character can’t walk.

Deborah Kerr on couch

Deborah Kerr sitting on a couch with her legs covered by a blanket, no longer cut it for authenticity.

Jake Sully

Nowadays we need shots of atrophied legs like this one of Sam Worthington from Avatar. The thing is, Sam Worthington isn’t paralyzed. In fact he usually looks like this

sam-worthington-lara-bingle-show-off-beach-bodies-in-hawaii-01

In order to get that atrophied look, Worthington didn’t sit immobile for months. Accurate physical depictions of disability are not a new extreme of method acting. They are achieved through CGI. They are created on a computer and superimposed over the actor in post-production. This achieves more physical realism without ever having to use a disabled actor.

The use of CGI for depictions of disability is becoming more common and it is increasing how disability can be used in film not only to amp up visual realism. It also helps make disability a plot gimmick.

I will go through some of the films and television shows that have been utilizing CGI and how that has affected the story and characterization of disability.

Planet Terror (2007)

In this film co-written by Quentin Tarantino (so expectations of realism for anything go out the window), the character Cherry Darling loses her leg in a zombie attack. Within hours of amputation she is using makeshift prosthesis to get around, starting with a table leg and ending up with a machine gun for a leg. The actress Rose McGowan is of course not an amputee and all of this right down to the amputation is done with CGI.

Cherry Darling

Avatar (2009)

I’ve already discussed Avatar a little, there are a couple issues that should be expanded on beyond the use of CGI to make the character Jake Sully look paralyzed. First of all the characterization of disability is abysmal. It plays on the idea that all disabled people are just looking to be cured. That is not the case for many of us. So it positions the role of disability as tragedy that can only be overcome by cure. While cure may be the goal of some disabled people, that narrative should come from them. Coming from nondisabled actors and writers just makes it into a fantasy for those without disabilities where they foist their fear about our lives into the public discourse. Secondly the film Avatar was groundbreaking in its use of CGI and changed the way films are made. This is primarily focused on the post cure alien portion of the film but when you look at the praise of the imagery in the context of how it was used on the human Sully, it tacitly gives approval for that kind of CGI as well.

Horrible characterization of disability aside, there was really no real need to cast an able-bodied actor in the role of Sully. A wheelchair user could have been hired for the human portions of the film and voice acted the alien portions while an able-bodied person was used for the motion capture for the animation. Somehow I doubt this was even considered.

Outlander (TV 2014)

I have written about disability and Outlander before and you can read my full analysis here. In Brief, there is a character named Colum MacKenzie eho has bowed legs. The actor Gary Lewis does not. His legs are bowed in post production with CGI. There is no real reason the character could not have been played by a disabled actor.

gif of Colum MacKenzie walking on CGI legs

The Fault in Our Stars (TFIOS) (2014)

Based on the novel of the same name, TFIOS has numerous characters dealing with life with cancer. The main male character, Augustus Waters had his leg amputated as a result. The actor Ansel Elgort who plays him in the film is not an amputee and instead is given a CGI prosthetic.

fault_our_stars_895px

John Green the author of TFIOS is oddly enough a big supporter of the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign, which seeks to get more diversity in YA and children’s literature. The whole idea is that children (though I would argue everyone) benefit from seeing people like themselves reflected in literature and media.

Apparently diversity only needs to go so far as diverse fictional characters but not actually diverse people to represent those characters. I would think that a logical extension of advocating for diversity in literature, would be to also allow people to see others like them in visual media. Without this it is just reinforcing the idea the disability in the media is not for disavled people at all, it is for the nondisabled.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

This spy film features a double amputee villain, Gazelle whose running blade prostheses come equipped with actual retractable knife blades that she uses as weapons.

Gazelle

Gazelle is a gimmick disabled character. As much as a badass disabled character is refreshing, the depiction is entirely unrealistic. Blade prostheses are designed for running and are not meant to be worn during everyday activities. They would negatively affect posture and balance if worn for just standing and walking around and yet Gazelle is never seen without them and has impeccable balance and posture no matter what she is doing.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

In the latest installment of the Mad Max franchise, Max takes a backseat to Imperator Furiosa played by Charlize Theron. Furiosa has an amputated arm.

Furiosa

Charlize Theron is not an amputee and CGI is used to create the effect. That is not to say that there aren’t any good things about the characterization. In fact Furiosa is quite the revolutionary portrayal of disability as Laura Vaughn explains in her Tumblr,

Watch Furiosa load a shotgun. Watch Furiosa punch Max in the face, with her nubbins. Watch Furiosa drive a semi tractor trailer. Watch Furiosa fire a long shot, using Max’s shoulder to stabilize the gun barrel, as an alternative to using two hands! Watch Furiosa do anything you can do, but better, and with half the number of fingers.

The effortless manner in which this film has presented a character’s disability is incredible. I literally could not ask for anything more. It’s ubiquitous. No big deal. Her body is never a plot point. It is simply allowed to be. Let’s have some bullet points:

  • The existence of her missing hand is never mentioned in dialogue. Not once. I find this simple fact so powerful.

  • It is not made into something ludicrous for the lulz a la the gun leg in Grindhouse. Her prosthetic is realistic – it looks like something a real amputee would actually wear and use.

  • There’s no reference made to any tragic backstory regarding her limb. We have no idea how she lost it, or if she lost it. It may very well be a birth defect. More on that later, cause that’s totally my interpretation.

  • NO. ONE. EVER. FEELS. SORRY. FOR. HER. BECAUSE. OF. HER. DISABILITY

Where Vaughn and I differ in opinion is that she calls this representation and I would simply classify it as a very good portrayal.

As I mentioned above, In my opinion, representation requires the actual presence of disabled people. Everything else no matter how good is portrayal only and disabled people deserve representation.

That being said it is good that a post apocalyptic film recognized that disability would be a common occurrance in such a world. Furiosa isn’t the only disabled character and it isn’t an issue for anyone except the poor who depend on the sporadic benevolence of Immortal Joe (the dictator) for survival. Even then they are in the same position as all the other poor people.

By consistently casting nondisabled people in disabled roles, the entertainment industry is saying “People like you don’t belong here.” It also keeps the disabled experience as something that can only be defined and told by nondisabled people.

By creating technology that makes it easier for the industry to shut out disabled people, they maintain this status quo while giving a population ignorant of disability te impression that portrayals and representation are getting better. The number 1 search type that brings people to my blog are queries about whether Gary Lewis (the actor who plays Colum MacKenzie in Outlander) is really disabled.

It also keeps the industry from having to find ways to accommodate disabled actors. In every other industry, there is an expectation that employers have a duty to accommodate disabled employees and that disabled people cannot be passed over for employment because an employer doesn’t want to implement accommodations. Accommodations can only be denied if they cause undue hardship to the employer. Many films that include disability have huge budgets that could easily cover accommodation, particularly if they’re saving having to pay the multimillion dollar salaries of celebrities who are currently taking those roles.

While some of the roles I have discussed could arguably not have been played by disabled people, like Gazelle because she performs feats that are simply beyond the realm of reality. It is important to remember that reducing disability to a gimmick is problematic in and of itself. It goes back to how nondisabled people have taken over the narrative of disability with no regard to how it impacts the community in real life.

Roles like Gazelle could be taken as harmless fantasy but in order for that to happen, there must first be a true understanding of disability by wider society.

The dearth of disabled actors in film and television in favour of spending money to make nondisabled actors look disabled is clear evidence of systemic discrimination from within the industry.

** crip face is a contentious term as it is viewed as appropriation of the term black face, I include it here because it is still widely used.