Last week, I talked about how people with disabilities can be “othered” and presented as different to, and therefore less than, the rest of society. Othering – the characterisation of a certain group of people as intrinsically unlike the “rest of us” – can occur in a myriad of ways, but perhaps the most obvious example is media representation.
What do you see when you turn on your TV sets and go to the movies? Predominantly white, straight, cis-, able-bodied people.* Most showrunners are still white males (*sigh*). When minority groups are represented, it is too often in the form of stereotype (HAHA, ANOTHER SASSY BLACK CHARACTER, THANKS FOR BREAKING BOUNDARIES GHOSTBUSTERS) or they are killed off at rates far higher than other, less gay/female/insert-minority-group-here characters.
The situation is grim for us disabled folks – despite forming a comparatively large minority group (18% of Australians identified as having a disability at last count), people with disabilities are the least-represented group on Australian television. Besides the fact that disabled actors are rarely cast at all (more on that later), when a show or film does feature a character with a disability, more often than not that disability is used as a plot point. Disabled characters are either tear-jerking inspirations (see: The Fault in Our Stars, Me Before You) or malevolent villians, with their physical deformities acting as obvious signposts to their deviance (Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, Davros from Doctor Who, Dr Strangelove, Hook in Peter Pan, etc etc).
It is incredibly rare that characters with disabilities just happen to be disabled and are actually fully formed characters in their own right – such as in, say, real life.
But so what, you might think?** Why does it matter that TV doesn’t reflect reality? The shows we are talking about are meant to be fictional, after all. To me at least, representation means recognition: the acknowledgement that disabled bodies have an integral place in society, as do bodies of all abilities, sexualities, backgrounds and appearance. We would be worse off without them (as the abysmal state of Australian television proves).
What message does lack of representation send? That being white/able-bodied/straight is the norm, and anything else is deviant and “other”. Looking at popular media and not seeing yourself reflected back at you in any way, shape or form, only serves as a reminder that you are different, alien, wrong. Representation is important.
If disabled characters are thin on the ground, disabled actors are even more scarce. Characters with disabilities are often portrayed by able-bodied actors who have not experienced life with a disability (in the same way, say, that Emma Stone hasn’t experienced life as a Chinese-Hawaiian woman who has had to school people on how to pronounce “Ng”***). In the disability community, the casting of able-bodied actors to play people with disabilities is known as “crip-face” or “cripping up” and is considered to be highly offensive.
Glee is a notable example, not only for the decision to cast an able-bodied actor as a character who uses a wheelchair, but for their inaccurate depiction of life with a disability. Their choice to portray Glee’s wheelchair-using characters as limited, rather than liberated, by their mobility aid is a sign of a failure to consult with the disabled community. (There are many other issues with this show than I have space to write about here, including its representation of Asperger’s and deaf peoples.)
Having able-bodied actors “play” disabled is a missed opportunity to actually employ disabled actors, who are shamefully absent from our screens. It also reduces disability down to a characteristic which able-bodied people can adopt and mimic, rather than an essential part of one’s identity.
Perhaps it is time to think before we next applaud “cripping up”. Disabled people’s lives are more than something for non-disabled actors to play at. – Frances Ryan, The Guardian
The lack of a disabled presence in narratives that attempt to “represent” disability means that the message will always be one of able-bodied people speaking over disabled people, rather than the disability community having their voices heard. “Cripping up” might be considered a great way for an actor to win an Oscar, but it comes at the expense of those in the community living with disability, who have been denied the opportunity to tell their stories.
In fact, the problem with “cripping up” is the same as with lack of representation of all minorities – there are real people out there with stories to tell, who are currently being unheard. I don’t know about you, but I have no interest in watching Pauline Hanson’s dreams for society played out on my television screen. Unrepresentative media is a fantasy. But unlike dragons, spaceships and time travel, it’s one that’s best left on the cutting room floor.
Above: is this the future you want for Australian television?
*Yes, there is progress occurring in representation, most notably on television streaming services (I suspect as they are less beholden to conservative advertising bodies). But the fact remains that minority group characters are the exception, rather than the rule. I might also note than any good work seems to be undone by the current trend in “whitewashing” characters (Benedict Cumberbatch, I’m looking at you).
**If you’re a bit of a douchebag.
***This is not a joke, and actually happened. The movie Aloha was set in Hawai’i, and was intended to be a celebration of Hawaiian culture. The cast was 100% white, including Emma Stone, who played a 1/4 Chinese, 1/4 Hawaiian character called Allison Ng. I’m surprised they didn’t hire Mickey Rooney to reprise his role as Mr. Yunioshi from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.