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It’s Time For Hollywood To Rethink Disability

When disabled actors aren't cast for disabled roles, it doesn't just reinforce harmful stereotypes: it makes movies more boring.

I’m a movie buff. There is nothing better after a long day of writing than sitting down with some popcorn and getting lost in a good movie.

Since I have become disabled, I particularly enjoy watching movies where the main character faces what I go through on a daily basis. It makes it feel like someone else gets it, that I’m not alone.

Unfortunately, these characters are few and far between. What I am often faced with instead is a thoughtless ablewashed version of my disability.

I recently overheard an interview with Blake Lively about her role as a blind woman who regains her sight in All I See Is You. In particular, one of her comments stuck in my craw: she said she thought her husband in the movie was “generous” for taking care of her character while she was blind. Cue the inspirational music.

Blake Lively, of course, likely does think that the husband in question is generous for loving a disabled woman. But that’s the problem: her comment not only reinforces the stereotype that the disabled can’t care for themselves, but that they are less worthy of love. The idea that a non-disabled person should be relegated to sainthood for tolerating his blind wife (whom presumably he loves for more than her vision) is offensive no matter how you cut it.

Let’s put it another way: can you imagine a Hollywood actor being so oblivious that they’d suggest in an interview that a character in a movie was “generous” for loving a person of color, or an LGBT person? If they did, they’d be rightly pilloried. Yet when Blake Lively says it’s “generous” to love blind people—and, by extension, all disabled people–no one even blinks.

Her remark got me wondering, yet again: Why doesn’t Hollywood cast more disabled actors? We live our reality every day, so why are we so rarely allowed to step in front of the camera, and act out our stories? And where is the outrage about it?

As a country, we have largely decided that it’s inappropriate to cast white actors in non-Caucasian roles, yet there has been no such outrage over casting non-disabled actors into disabled roles.

In the 2016 Ruderman White Paper on the Employment of Actors in Television, the authors note: “A white actor on screen in blackface is unheard of nowadays because we as a nation recognize that there is absolutely no reason why a black actor wouldn’t play that part.” This goes for other races too. Consider the backlash that occurred when Scarlett Johansson was cast to play a Japanese woman in last year’s Ghost in the Shell, or the controversy around the Wachowski’s controversial decision to fit Caucasian actors with prosthetics so they could play Asian parts in Cloud Atlas. These are both examples of whitewashing. As a country, we have largely decided that it’s inappropriate to cast white actors in non-Caucasian roles, yet there has been no such outrage over ablewashing: the casting of non-disabled actors into disabled roles.

“It’s as if the nation, in general, dismisses the abilities of people with disabilities to such a degree that it doesn’t even occur to them to wonder why they are seeing Artie in Glee played by the able-bodied Kevin McHale,” the authors conclude.

Of course, I’m not saying non-disabled actors can’t portray disabled people. With enough research and method and talent, any actor can be successful any role: consider Daniel Day-Lewis’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Christy Brown in My Left Foot, for example. Even so, should they be cast, when disabled actors would kill for the same roles, and have just as much if not more insight into their characters? Because by shutting disabled talents out of Hollywood, we’re also being shut out of the conversation.

By shutting disabled talents out of Hollywood, we’re also being shut out of the conversation.

And it’s not just actors, either. Behind the camera, there need to be opportunities as well. Maybe actually working with more handicapped people would wake Hollywood up to the fact that the disabled don’t exist to be pitied, or taken care of: we’re quite talented and competent, actually. And maybe then, we wouldn’t see so many dumb, boring movies about disabled characters pining away for their pre-handicapped lives. Every time I see these scenes, I want to scream at the characters: “Come on, people! There is so much of life left to live. Get out there and live it!’

But the news isn’t all bad. Sometimes, when I turn on the television, I’m even hopeful that things are changing.

Micah Fowler as J.J. on ABC’s Speechless.

Peter Dinklage is widely hailed for his role as Tyrion Lannister in HBO’s Game of Thrones. Like Dinklage, Tyrion Lannister has dwarfism, but thanks to the actor’s skilled portrayal, that aspect of the character very quickly blends into the background. That’s because Dinklage gets it; he lives with his dwarfism every day, and it doesn’t define him.Same with Micah Fowler on Speechless, who has Cerebral Palsy and plays J.J., a typical teen who also happens to use a wheelchair and a communication board. There’s nothing about the way Speechless is written or directed that makes J.J. seem “less than” the rest of the cast: it’s obvious from the start that he’s as vibrant and equal a member of the family as everyone else.

Get it together, Hollywood. It’s time to let disabled actors help tell their own stories.

Hollywood should aspire to make these examples the rule, not the exception. When disabled roles are filled by disabled actors, they usually make their characters more interesting and multi-faceted, which, in turn, makes the movies and shows they’re cast in better. These actors are simply more qualified to show the reality of disability: it’s just another part of someone’s life. Disability doesn’t wholly define anyone.

So get it together, Hollywood. It’s time to let disabled actors help tell their own stories. Not because we’re “inspiring,” or as a token bit of casting, but because we’ve earned that right. Movies can do better than Blake Lively. Hollywood, you can be better if you try.