The Media and the Imaginary Disabled Person

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I get it, as far as popular culture and the media are concerned disability doesn’t exist. Disability isn’t real, it’s just a metaphor. You know how I know this? The complete lack of actual disabled people in the media. Yet the media doesn’t ignore disability. They make movies about “disability”, they have “disabled” characters in TV shows. All without using actual disabled people. I mean there might be a couple behind the scenes consulting but we rarely if ever get to see them.

I disabled in quotation marks above because those stories are almost never (with some rare and debatable exceptions) accurate. Not only are they not accurate in representation (using actual disabled people), they are wrong in presentation (the stories don’t accurately portray the disabled experience. Disability is far to often reduced to a few recognizable physical identifiers (wheelchairs, white canes, etc.) and stereotypes (the charity case, the supercrip, the embittered cripple and the mad villain, etc.).

Neither the physical presentation or the stories told around them are in any way an accurate presentation of the diverse experience of disability. I mean there are over a billion people on the planet so they probably represent a few people but certainly not all or even close to most.

The biggest problem here is that people don’t understand that they’re being lied to. They don’t understand that disability is more diverse and more nuanced. These stereotypes are perceived to be true.

Just consider the recent pictures of reality TV star Kylie Jenner in Interview Magazine. Two of the images show Jenner in a wheelchair even though she is not disabled. One image (shown above) shows Jenner seated in a golden wheelchair in a corset and high heels. Her face is passive and her hands are on the wheels. One leg is lifted as though she is either about to get up or perhaps fall backward. The second below

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shows Jenner in the same outfit and wheelchair looking for all intents and purposes like a lifeless doll.

The thing that makes this situation so relevant is how Interview Magazine responded to the inevitable backlash saying

“At Interview, we are proud of our tradition of working with great artists and empowering them to realize their distinct and often bold visions. The Kylie Jenner cover by Steven Klein, which references the British artist Allen Jones, is a part of this tradition, placing Kylie in a variety of positions of power and control and exploring her image as an object of vast media scrutiny.”

The wheelchair was used as literal metaphor and a metaphor about limitation. If anything proves that as far as the media is concerned that disability is an imaginary construct to be used however they see fit it’s this.

The problem is that disability isn’t imaginary. This metaphor of limitation doesn’t work in the real world unless you’re talking about inaccessibility (at which point I promise you the chair isn’t the problem).

As people have been eloquently pointing out wheelchairs aren’t inherently limiting. As Ophelia Brown points out

My wheelchair is not a limitation — it is my wings. It lets me go to school, go out with friends and live life like a “normal person.”

She also addresses the problem that relying on and defending those media stereotypes causes

Do you know what that lack of representation means? It means that 9 year-old Ophelia is embarrassed about having to sit out from gym class. It means that 12 year-old Ophelia would rather die than go to school in a wheelchair. It means that 17 year-old Ophelia has been told too many damn times that her disability makes her ugly. I want you to know how much power that wheelchair gives you, and how, honestly, you don’t deserve that power.

An able-bodied media figure has more power to define the disabled experience than actual disabled people. It is a power they should absolutely not have because they are using it to harm (even if they can’t seem to understand that).

All aspects of the media need to realize that disability is real and that we deserve better than the lies they are telling. Lies they have told for so long and so often that they actually believe them.

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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

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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.

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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.