On Display screen and on Stage, Incapacity Continues to Be Depicted in Outdated, Cliched Methods
By Magda Romanska, Emerson College
The #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements have forced Hollywood and other artists and filmmakers to rethink their issues and casting practices. Despite an increased sensitivity to the representation of gender and race in popular culture, disabled Americans are still awaiting their national (and international) movement.
“Disability Drag” – casting actors with disabilities into the roles of characters with disabilities – is difficult to deny its Oscar-worthy appeal. As of 1947, 27 out of 59 nominations for disabled characters have won an Oscar – about a 50% win rate.
There’s Eddie Redmayne’s appearance as Stephen Hawking on “The Theory of Everything”; Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Christy Brown suffering from cerebral palsy in “My Left Foot”; and Dustin Hoffman’s role as the autistic genius on “Rain Man” – to name a few.
However, in the past few years we’ve seen a slight shift. Actors with disabilities are actually cast as characters with disabilities. In 2017, theater director Sam Gold cast actress Madison Ferris – who uses a wheelchair in real life – as Laura in his Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.” On television and in films, disabled actors are also cast in roles by disabled characters.
Despite these developments, the question of representation – what kind of characters these actors play – remains largely unresolved. The vast majority of characters with disabilities, whether or not played by actors with disabilities, continue to represent the same antiquated tropes.
As a professor of theater and media who has written extensively on the elements of stage drama, I ask myself: Are writers and directors finally ready to go beyond these narrative tropes?
Tearing down the tropics
Typically, the disabled characters are limited to four types: the “magical cripple”, the “evil cripple”, the “inspiring cripple” and the “redeeming cripple”.
Magical cripples exceed the limits of the human body and are almost divine. They make magical things happen to powerful characters.
In many ways, the magical cripple works like “the magical negro,” a term popularized by director Spike Lee to describe black characters who are usually impoverished but full of folk wisdom that they selflessly impart to existentially confused white characters.
Like the magical negro, the magical cripple is an instrument of action with which the main character is led to moral, intellectual or emotional enlightenment. The magical cripple learns nothing and does not grow because he is already enlightened.
Examples in the film are Frank Slade, the blind army colonel who leads young Charlie through the dangers of teenage love in 1992’s Scent of a Woman. Marvel’s daredevil character is a perfect example of a magical cripple: a blind person imbued with supernatural abilities who can function beyond his physical limits.
Evil cripples represent a form of karmic punishment for the malevolence of the character. One of the most famous is Shakespeare’s Richard III, The scheming hunchbacked King.
In a 1916 essay, Sigmund Freud pointed to Richard as an example of the correlation between physical disabilities and “deformities of character”.
More recent examples of the evil cripple are Dr. Strangelove, Mini-Me from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Fucked Me, and Bolivar Trask in X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Then there are inspirational cripples whose roles correspond to what disability rights activist Stella Young calls “inspiration porn.” These stories are about disabled people performing basic tasks or “overcoming” their disabilities. We see this in “Stronger,” which retells the story of survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing, Jeff Bauman.
In the inspirational narratives, disability is not a fact of life – a difference – but something that must be overcome in order to gain a legitimate sense of belonging to society.
An offshoot of the inspirational narrative is the redeeming narrative, in which a disabled person either commits suicide or is killed. In films such as “Water for Elephants”, “Simon Birch” and “The Year of Dangerous Life”, disabled characters are sacrificed to prove their worth or to help the protagonist achieve his goal.
These characters serve as dramaturgical stepping stones. They are never independent partners or people with their own drives and ambitions. It is not shown that they deserve their own stories.
The persistence of these tropes underlies the urgent need to reassess the makeup of writers and production teams. Who writes these parts is perhaps more important than who plays them.
Beyond the hero’s journey
There’s a reason these formulaic roles are so common.
For much of the past century, storytelling in Hollywood evolved from the Hero’s Journey, a dramatic structure in which the white male body is at the center of the story and atypical characters serve as “helpers” in support of his goals.
This narrative model led the audience to view the helpers as purely functional. The tropes based on this framework define the categories of belonging: who is and who is not human, whose life is worth living and whose not.
The one narrative journey that historically enabled the disabled to play a central role showed that they were working towards the symbolic regain of their dignity and humanity. In tragic tales, this search fails and the characters either die or demand euthanasia as a gesture of love for their caretakers.
“Million Dollar Baby” and “Me Before You” are two good examples of films in which disabled characters choose to volunteer for euthanasia and communicate the socially internalized low worth of their own lives.
But what if disabled characters already had dignity? What if no such search was necessary? What if their disability didn’t have to be overcome, just an element of their own identity?
This would require deconstructing the conceptual pyramid of past hierarchies that have long used disabled characters as props to illuminate conventional heroes.
Carrie Mathison in the series “Homeland” can be seen as a representation of this new approach. Carrie, played by Claire Danes, struggles with mental illness and affects her life and work.
But it is not dramatic to overcome. Overcoming disability isn’t the show’s central theme – it’s not the main obstacle to its goal. Carrie’s disability gives her some insight, but these come at a price and are not magical.
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“Homeland” breaks the mold further by giving Carrie a helper who is an older white man – Saul Berenson, played by Mandy Patinkin.
Disability should not be left behind as we move towards greater gender and race inclusion in the work and the arts. More complex, sophisticated stories and depictions have to replace the simple, outdated and clichéd tropes that were consistently rewarded at the Oscars.
Magda Romanska, Associate Professor of Theater and Dramaturgy, Emerson College
This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.