Thursday, January 22, 2015


Photo of an old-style movie camera
Scott Jordan Harris, - January 20, 2014

I look for three things in TV and film depictions of disability:

1. Authenticity about the details of the disability.
2. Fully developed disabled characters.
3. Insight into real-life disability issues.

Number 3 is optional. Authenticity and fully developed disabled characters are quite often enough for a satisfying disability depiction. Tackling disability issues is a nice extra, when done naturally and not in a “You see Timmy …” moment.

To me, the issue of “Cripface” ... non-disabled actors playing disabled characters ... isn’t whether it is inherently wrong or offensive, so much as whether or not it meets these criteria, resulting in good depictions of disability.

It’s probably important to note here that “good” and "satisfying" often means different things to disabled and non-disabled viewers. The typical moviegoer or TV-watcher seems to have different criteria for disability stories and disabled characters:

1. They want to feel happy when the thing is over.
2. They like feeling lots of feels … sadness, pity, admiration, inspiration.
3. They want to think they have learned about certain disabled people, but they aren’t so interested in learning about disability itself or disability-based injustice.
4. They love “stunt” acting, where an actor convincingly portrays a character that is completely unlike themselves.

I think number 4 is where the Oscar-bait thing comes in. When a non-disabled actor seems to do a good job of playing disabled, most viewers latch onto it as a clear example of raw acting ability. Since a lot of acting talent is subtle and hard for non-critics to identify, there may even be some excitement about being able to easily pinpoint when an actor has done something really difficult … like an able-bodied actor playing a well-known disabled person. Eddie Redmayne looks a lot like Stephen Hawking, so right away, there's an assumed element of "Wow!"

One reason I like this Slate review is that it does give some specific evidence that maybe Eddie Redmayne and the writers didn’t, in fact, do such a great job of portraying Stephen Hawking. I haven't seen 'The Theory Of Everything", so I can't judge for myself. What Mr. Harris describes, however, is not encouraging.

As I indicated, I think it can be done well. I still greatly admire “My Left Foot”, in which the non-disabled actor Daniel Day-Lewis played Christy Brown, an Irish poet who had Cerebral Palsy. I think one reason I still like that film is that the writers made sure to give us a pretty full picture of the man, and avoided most of the usual disability cliches, like dreaming of being “normal” and being super-sweet, that make so many disability depictions seem fake and predictable. It also introduced and fully explored some truths about disability that aren't as familiar to mainstream audiences ... such as the complex nature of disability sexuality, and the problematic ways that "do gooders" often relate to disabled people. Finally, I got stuff out of "My Left Foot", as a disabled person, that I'll bet most viewers missed. It sounds to me like there's nothing challenging or original in "The Theory Of Everything" ... nothing that will rock any disabled viewer's world.

It does seem like “My Left Foot” is the exception that proves the rule. “Cripface” is bad because it’s inherently offensive, but what’s even worse is that most of the time it produces bad art. Put another way, non-disabled actors are apt to make mistakes, and allow mistakes to be made, that disabled actors just wouldn't.