The Visibility of Stereotypes – Disabilities

Forrest Gump talks to former army buddy Lieutenant Dan, who lost his legs in Vietnam

I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but I’ve noticed that in the attempt to bring better representation of women and minorities to the big screen, Hollywood’s missed the point somewhat. In this article I’ll be discussing the view of people with disabilities in films.

It is very rare that someone with a disability will have a lead role in a film that is not directly related to that disability. If they are the hero, their storyline will be about overcoming their condition or trying to lead a normal life despite it. Villains will be portrayed as having been driven insane by their disability – usually a disfigurement or dismemberment – or sometimes it will just be a lazy metaphor for their damaged psyches. In the third category is the disabled person as a plot device – usually a victim of cruelty to be rescued by a slightly more mainstream hero, and objects of audience pity or – less often now, thankfully – laughter and derision.

It’s lazy and thoughtless. Not every person with a disability is an extraordinary Douglas Bader type (see Reach For The Sky, 1956), but losing a limb doesn’t turn you into Dr No either (1962). They’re just ordinary people, like John McClane trying to do his job and get home to his wife (Die Hard, 1988), Rose risking her life on board the Titanic (1997) to be with the man she loves, or Ferris Bueller taking a day off (1986). Admittedly Die Hard In a Wheelchair might be a bit hard to pull off – the film would have been very different anyway – but would a blind Rose have made much difference? Ferris Bueller with a false leg?

Disability doesn’t have to be a plot point – it can be something that makes a character more rounded, like an unusual speech pattern or the way they dress. Take Charles Xavier in the X-Men films (starting with X-Men in 2000) as an example (taking the films as the source and disregarding the comics, which I’ve not read far back enough to compare). Yes, it’s mentioned that he’s in a wheelchair, as well as being visually obvious, but the main points of his character are a) he is a powerful telepath and b) a mentor/leader figure for the younger mutants. He could do that from his wheelchair, while blind or without any disabilities at all.

Charles Xavier shows his disability is no barrier to his leadership of the X-Men

This may seem like tokenism, but that’s because the people writing and casting don’t have disabilities. It doesn’t occur to them because it isn’t part of their lives, but it is part of many people’s lives and it does occur to them!

It isn’t something that needs to be written into the character: if you can cast a blonde actress in a part, why not an actress with burn scars? The West Wing television series has a deaf actress using an interpreter in a part that could have been written for a hearing person, and it appears to have made no difference whatsoever, apart from deaf people across the world throwing up their hands thinking: “FINALLY!”. For every viewer lost because they can’t bear to see someone on screen who isn’t like them, so much more goodwill is gained from audiences made up of people with disabilities, or the people who live and work with them.

*This article takes some concepts from Biklen and Bogdana (1977) and R Rieser and M Mason’s Disability Equality in the Classroom (1992). For more information on the ten stereotypes of the disabled in films, I recommend that you visit http://www.bfi.org.uk/education/teaching/disability/thinking/stereotypes.html.

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