Yes, I know it’s Fiction, and Yes I’m Still Going to Criticize it

Any time I criticize the representation (or lack thereof) of disability in fictional media, I inevitably get all three of the following responses either in the comments here or on Twitter.

This is fiction, it’s not real, lighten up (often not worded so politely)

If you don’t like it, don’t read, watch or listen to it.

If you don’t like it, write your own book, produce your own movie etc.

All three are silencing tactics and I’ve experienced them all repeatedly as I blog about disability on TV (here, here , here and here) in movies (here) and most recently in my essay criticizing the book ( and soon to be released movie) Me Before You. I think all of these responses are worth looking at in more depth.

This is fiction, it’s not real, lighten up.

Whenever I get this response three questions always occur to me.

  1. Has this person ever taken an English class (or other language class focused on literature).
  2. Do these people also send these messages to university English Departments
  3. Do literary journals get this sort of feedback against other literary study and criticism?

Admittedly the last two are facetious but I do seriously wonder about the first. As I recall of English class after basic literacy and reading comprehension was obtained, we were asked to look at literature in the context of when it was written, what it might mean for today, what is its social impact, etc.

Fiction doesn’t exist in a vacuum divorced from the social context from which it was created. It reflects that social context and the biases of the author.

This is why people who study the play The Importance of Being Earnest for homosexual subtext despite the fact that the play closes with three heterosexual couples becoming engaged and the fact that homosexuality was illegal at the time of the play’s release. They do this because the playwright (Oscar Wilde) was himself gay and the very successful first run of the play was ended early when his trial for homosexuality began.

Wilde’s private life is presumed to have affected his writing even when he was writing about people unlike himself.

Similarly, people find deep seated colonial views in the fictional writing of Rudyard Kipling whose most famous work is The Jungle Book but is also famous for his poem The White Man’s Burden. A poem which clearly dehumanizes the people in colonized places. A poem which was written to expressly defend and promote imperialism.

The ideas he espoused in that poem are identifiable is his fiction including The Jungle Book, to the point that people are concerned that the book continues to be adapted into film (see here and here).

Fiction has also been used to make a point about society and culture, consider George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm or William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

Academics read Jane Austen to get a glimpse of social life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They do this because they feel her books lend real insight into the social orders of the time. Let me remind you, Jane Austen wrote fiction.

To fall back on a cliche “The Pen is Mightier Than the Sword” The written word has power, it has the ability to highlight reality or tear down a misconception. But just like a sword in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to use it, a pen in the hands of someone writing about a group of people to whom they do not belong–and did not particularly attempt to research– can do harm by reinforcing false and negative ideas about those people.

I’ll focus on Me Before You as an example because it is the most current book/film to be criticized by disabled people.

To say that Me Before You stands separate from culture or that its status as a romance novel exempts it from having a social message (another common argument) is plain false. the ideas around disability in Me Before You are nothing new or unique. Consider

Stories that involve disabled people seeking assisted suicide

  • Million Dollar Baby (2004)
  • The Sea Inside (2004)
  • The Bone Collector (1999)

Stories that position disability as an insurmountable tragedy (this list is assumed to contain the above mentioned stories)

  • Jane Eyre (1847)
  • Heidi (1881)
  • The Secret Garden (1910)
  • A Christmas Carol (1843)
  • Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928)

This kind of story line is far from new and my list far from comprehensive. So I ask at what point does fiction stop reflecting societal and cultural ideals? Because I don’t think it does, particularly when these stories are the dominant ones and alternatives are few and hard to find.

Fiction also doesn’t always stay that way, it has been used to justify horrible abuses against disabled people. In 1920 Canadian Eugenicist Helen MacMurchy published a book call The Almosts: A Study of the Feeble-Minded. The entire premise of the book is that literature rather than science is the best place to find real understanding of people who would have at the time been labeled feeble-minded. She opens the book by saying,

Sometimes the poet sees more than the scientist, even when the scientific man is playing at his own game. The novelist can give a few points to the sociologist, and the dramatist to the settlement worker. Had the voter and the legislator studied with a little more attention the works of William Shakespeare and Walter Scott we might have come sooner to some of the alleged discoveries of the twentieth century.

Take the case of the feeble-minded. They have been drawn from life more than once by the great masters already mentioned, as well as by Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Charles Reade, and many other writers, and yet so far at least we do not seem to have taken mentally defective persons in the world as seriously as the great writers who immortalized Wamba, Quasimodo, Barnaby Rudge, Young Sparkler, Mr. Toots, and others, by giving them the entry to that stage which the world may always watch from the windows of the Library.(pp. 1-2)

MacMurchy was no minor character in Canada’s eugenics movement either, she was appointed as Ontario’s Inspector of the feeble-minded in 1906. She is considered to be the individual who had the strongest impact on Canada’s history of eugenics which saw the forcible sterilizations of thousands of people (primarily in Alberta and British Columbia).

So the idea that fiction stays on the page and never impacts how someone sees another group of people, is an argument I can’t get my head around.

Also, if people are unaffected by these stories, why are we still telling them? I’m not seeing a lot of variety in story lines centuries later.

But moving on…

If you don’t like it, don’t read, watch or listen to it.

This argument is mostly answered by my response to the last argument. This is not a matter of simply not liking something, that’s why I don’t eat kidney beans. The thing is, the existence of kidney beans has no real effect on my life as long as I avoid them. However, as I have explained fiction doesn’t work that way, it reflects and reinforces social views and those CAN hurt me and others if ignored.

So np, I won’t be ignoring fiction or media of any kind that perpetuates negative and bigoted stereotypes around disability. NEXT!

If you don’t like it, write your own book, produce your own movie etc.

There are a couple things wrong with this, first of all in most cases this is much easier said than done. Secondly if done it’s generally not done at a level that can compete with the message it is trying to counter.

Let’s tackle the actual doing first. In terms of making movies, people can’t just go do that. You need equipment (which is expensive), training to use that equipment (training that is often also expensive and also offered in ways that are inaccessible to disabled people.

I actually had a guy on Twitter say to these concerns “Just apply for funding, there is so much funding for disabled people”

um… BAHAHAHAHAHA… *sobs* sir please cite your sources.

I personally know so many disabled creators that want to have their work translated to the screen. They lack access to funding, training and the support that is required to make that happen and I assure you it is not for lack of trying.

Writing a book is somewhat easier and appears easier in a time where the internet makes self-publication available to anyone who churns out a book. Which brings us to the next problem, it’s available to anyone who churns out a book. This isn’t just an issue of oversaturation but the fact that a lot and I mean a lot of self published books are terrible, poorly written and poorly edited (if they are edited at all). It’s hard to get noticed in that kind of environment.

Succeeding as a self-published novelist is hard because it’s difficult to get noticed in the deluge of other self-published books (even if yours isn’t one of the ones that suck).

In the context of writing a novel to challenge the messages  of more mainstream books, telling someone to just write there own book,only works of they can compete with books like Me Before You. A book that has sold over five million copies and is now a film. That’s some stiff competition.

You can’t just write a book and drop off the manuscript at Penguin Books or Harper Collins. And access to an actual publisher is necessary to be competitive because, they offer not only the editing needed to make a book the best it can be. They have marketing departments. A little book that is self-published does not. As Penny Pepper points out writing about disability in ways that deviate from stereotypes is hard.

I’ve been writing disabled characters into my work since my teens. Yet the more I wrote about disabled people who loved and fucked and birthed and died, and all the mess and joy in between, the less my work succeeded.

Fighting the status quo has never been as simple as showing up and offering an alternative. People have to want that alternative. Saying that fiction has no power is a way of making people comfortable maintaining their enjoyment of problematic stories without making them think about it. So yes, it may be fiction but it is never just fiction. Ask yourself “what stories aren’t you seeing and why?” ask “whose stories aren’t you seeing and why?” and “who is writing the stories” Because the answers to those questions are important and are very much worth asking.

 

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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

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.