Thursday, July 11, 2013

Judging Disability Onscreen

Superfest Disability Film Festival Presents "The Dissies"
Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University

Catherine Kudlik, Disability Remix Blog - July 9, 2013

This sounds like a blast, and I haven't visited San Francisco for years … Maybe after I finish this post I'll just check, just in case there are cheap fares to be had.

pen and ink drawing of old-fashioned movie camera
How do I judge disability movies and TV shows? I've been thinking about this, and here are the criteria I think I use:

Politics - Does it support or undermine an agreed-upon set of social or political goals for disability rights and social equality?

Offensiveness - Does it trigger a gut-level, involuntary feeling of personal offense and disgust in us as people with disabilities?

Realism - Do the disabled characters look, sound, and behave like people with disabilities do in real life?

Fresh or Cliché - Do characters and plots feel unique, personal, and three-dimensional, or cliché, generic, and flat?

Human or Objectified - Are we brought closer to disabled characters or distanced from them? Are they people, with feelings, motivations, and free will, or just objects to which things are done?

I listed these criteria from least important to most important, though I do use all of them. To this list, I would add another two other principles that aren't specific to disability portrayals only

The first is "Show, don't tell." That means morals and lessons shouldn't be stated like an essay, but demonstrated by what happens in the story. I don't want to hear people make speeches in the middle of conversations. If they have to explain something to me, in the audience, they should do it as naturally as possible to other characters on the screen. I'm willing to sacrifice a lot to "Show, don't tell." I'd rather miss "the moral of the story" entirely than sit through a stilted, clunky, "Afterschool Special" of a story.

The second general principle is to take into consideration "What's the film / TV show trying to do?" In practice that means a negative or even horrific depiction of disability might be "good", if the character feels real, or if the scenes serve a "good" purpose. We might weep and feel emotionally devastated by a movie that shows a disabled character dying from abuse or neglect, but if the character is three-dimensional and human, and if the story teaches us something about a real and important issue, then we might consider it a "good" portrayal. The flip side of this example might be if we never get to know the disabled character much, and his or her death functions mainly as the trigger for someone else's emotional breakdown or revenge-fuled rampage.