Heroes, Villains, and Victims: Images of Disability in Movies

By Jorain Ng

For years now, I have shied away from any films featuring characters with disabilities in the story. Movies like Forrest Gump (1994), I am Sam (2001) and Avatar (2009) all made me wrinkle my face in disgust. Disabled-hating bigot? How dare I.

But in all seriousness, I have reflected deeply about this because I love movies and respect Tom Hanks and James Cameron, and also because I am disabled.

Able-Bodied Actors as Disabled Characters

On the topic of disability in movies, some disability rights activists have expressed their disapproval of the casting of able-bodied actors as characters with disabilities. Christopher Shinn, an American playwright with a prosthetic limb, is one of the most outspoken advocate of this issue. Unhappy with the under-representation of actors with disabilities, Shin argues that able-bodied actors do not understand the lived reality of disability, and that casting them as disabled characters actually undercuts the power of their works.

“Able-bodied actors can listen to the disabled, can do research, can use imagination and empathy to create believable characters. But they can’t draw on their direct experience.” (Christopher Shinn)

While unmistakably righteous in its exhortation, I believe that this argument is deeply flawed for two reasons.

First, it conflates performance with representation. This is a common problem, to be sure, but I don’t think the answer to the dearth of actors with disabilities is to restrict disabled roles to them. This would create a kind of acting-ghetto which should be avoided at all costs. We don’t want a situation whereby actors with disabilities are typecast in disabled roles only.

Second, the call for actors with disabilities to play disabled roles implies that “disability” is some sort of monolithic group when it is, in fact, a very broad spectrum. Every persons with disabilities are unique in their own way. It’d be insanely difficult to find a person (much less an available, skilled actor) with precisely the same disability, acquired in precisely the same way, with precisely the same symptoms and behaviours.

Stereotypes of Disability

In my opinion, the point about Hollywood films is not that they cast able-bodied actors, but the way these films treat disability.

Characters with disabilities are commonly written into the plot for one reason: the disability. It sounds all fine and dandy, but the problem is that filmmakers do not examine the disability in the form of its actual physical, sensory and/or intellectual condition. The disability only figures into the plot or the character development as a device that allows the narrative to unfold.

In Elephant Man, for example, the main character, John Merrick was born with Proteous Syndrome that caused skin and bone growths over parts of his body. In the film, the condition is not even given a name and very little is said about it.

John Merrick - The Elephant Man

John Merrick. Credit: http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk

So instead of exploring the disability, filmmakers deploy these characters to fit certain stereotypes in the story.

One of the most common stereotype is the ‘victim’, a character who is presented as a helpless object of pity or sympathy. In Elephant Man, the audience is urged to pity John Merrick. Because of his physical deformity, Merrick is exhibited as a monster in a Victorian freak show, brutally treated by his “owner”, suffers from health complications, and chased by an angry mob. He also dies at the end of the film.

The flip side of the victim stereotype is the hero or the inspiration, the character who proves his or her worth by overcoming his or her disability. Forrest Gump is a stellar example. By tracing the life of an intellectually disabled man performing extraordinary feats, filmmakers wanted to inspire and motivate the audience.

Captain HookCredit: http://www.peterpan.wikia.com

The third stereotype is the ‘villain’. It has become less popular in recent years. But in the past, physical disabilities have been deployed to suggest evil or depravity, such as the image of pirates as having missing hands, eyes and legs. Who can ever forget Captain Hook, the pirate with a hook for a hand, in Peter Pan (2003)? Or Darth Vader, the archetypal villain with prosthetic arms and legs in the Star Wars series?

Here are a few more examples of the way characters with disabilities are deployed by filmmakers. Next to each title, I’ve listed the stereotype that fits the character.

  • I am Sam: Victim turned Inspiration
  • Daredevil (2003): Superhero
  • Wild Wild West (1999): Villain
  • 300 (2007): Villain

You might argue that such stereotypes contain a kernel of truth. And sure enough, there are some people with disabilities who are saints and villains in real life. But these people are good (or bad) due to a combination of internal (knowledge, attitude, core values etc.) and external (family, friends, colleagues etc.) factors. Their disability could be one of the many factors, but it is definitely not THE deciding factor of their behaviour.

Also, I acknowledge that there are cases where characters with disabilities have been depicted as “normal”. But these are rare. And they have often been one dimensional, are commonly not given their own storylines and tend to act as supporting roles.

Implications

Considering the powerful influence media have over our lives, such stereotypes can have far-reaching consequences.

The victim stereotype objectifies persons with disabilities as helpless persons deserving of pity. It implies that disability is a condition we suffer from, and that we need to provide for, care for, and protect those with disabilities. In doing so, the stereotype oppresses and even disempowers persons with disabilities.

The ‘supercrip’ is no better. At first glance it may seem like a better stereotype than ‘victim’. But a positive stereotype is still a stereotype. It ignores the lived reality of most people with disabilities who struggle constantly with smaller challenges such as finding a wheelchair accessible bus and employment. It also implies that a person with disability only deserves respect if he or she can overcome the disability and perform extraordinary acts.

And finally the villain stereotype dehumanises persons with disabilities. It reduces them to nefarious individuals driven to crime or revenge by resentment of their condition. Needless to say, we can really do without such negative stereotypes in a society where prejudice and discrimination against persons with disabilities still abound.

Going Forward

Despite all its aforementioned implications, I admit there is some intangible benefit to be gained from having these characters on the big screen. The increased presence of disability in its various physical and intellectual impairments is a good way to get the public talking about disability. Any publicity is good publicity after all.

Rain Man (1988) is one such example. The film is centered on an autistic savant who aids in the personal growth of his able-bodied brother. The character is depicted as a math genius who is completely inept at everything else. Not surprisingly, the movie received bad press in the autistic community for stereotyping a person with autism. But others have pointed out, quite rightly, that the film helped increase public awareness of autism.

So some good does come out of bad situations. But these stereotypes can become a serious problem when it is the only thing viewers are presented with. Can you imagine having your kids watch movies with only these cookie-cutter characters?

Thus to counteract these largely inaccurate representations, it is important to give the audience a dose of reality, by which I mean presenting characters with disabilities in a more realistic light. These characters could be portrayed as working and living in various situations, with wide-ranging responsibilities, and not necessarily overcoming great odds to achieve their status. They can be Moms, Dads, chefs, priests, ministers, teachers, girlfriends, boyfriends or friends.

A few movies have done exactly just that. In  How to Train Your Dragon, three characters, Gobber, Toothless and later Hiccup wear prosthetics. And in the X-Men series,  Professor X is a wheelchair user. What is striking is that none of them are ever labelled as disabled in an obvious way; they’re just part of the crew like all the others. And Hiccup and Professor X have always been depicted as heroes who just happen to have a disability. The focus of the story, in other words, is on their characters, not their physical condition.

As a person with a physical disability, I would like to watch more movies like the two mentioned above. It could be centered on a character who just happens to have a disability going about his or her everyday life, maybe fighting off a zombie or two.

What do you think? Have you watched these movies before and felt the same way? Let me know in the comments!

References

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