It seems little has changed since I first wrote about cripping up in 2017. Hollywood still makes movies about, but not with, disabled people, and non-disabled actors are still cast in disabled roles as a fast-track to winning an Oscar.
This time round, the movie is The Upside, the US remake of French film Les Intouchables. Bryan Cranston plays a character who uses a wheelchair after a paragliding accident paralyses him from the neck down. The wealthy author hires a parolee as a nurse/support worker. A buddy comedy, apparently, ensues. Cranston, who has received criticism for being yet another non-disabled actor in a disabled role, defended his casting by referring to it as a “business decision.”
As I wrote on Instagram, this isn’t so much about this particular casting choice as it is about a repeated pattern of casting non-disabled people over and above disabled actors, again and again and again. Disabled actors have difficulty getting work in *any* role – they’re certainly not in the habit of being cast as any ordinary character who happens to have a disability! So when a non-disabled actor is cast in a disabled role, it seems like the only “acceptable” role for disabled actors is another privilege reserved for non-disabled folks.
As Tales from The Crip wrote,
“Visibly disabled actors are not considered “appropriate” for casting in roles where there’s no mention of disability. The truth is that, had he been a visibly disabled actor, casting statistics show how unlikely it is that Cranston would have been cast in the many, many roles that, together, have built his career and now provide his clout.
If the industry is going to limit nearly all physically disabled actors to roles defined by physical disability, non disabled actors shouldn’t be surprised when there’s anger at seeing those roles lost to actors who are not physically disabled. Starvation seldom breeds generosity.
This is why losing one more exceedingly rare lead role — a wheelchair-using character — is so infuriating. Using the tired “Because BUSINESS” is a sloppy excuse for systemic bias that produces abysmal hiring rates.”
Further, when non-disabled folks are cast in prominent disabled roles, it often feels like Oscar-bait (think Dustin Hoffman in Rainman, Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, etc etc). Actor Adam Pearson recently tweeted that in the 90 years of Oscars, 16% of awards have been for a portrayal of disability, with over 20 non-disabled actors winning awards. In the same period, only two disabled actors have won awards, the last in 1987.
Like so much about appropriation, the portrayal of a particular marginalised group becomes objectionable when a person of privilege benefits from what the marginalised group they mimic would be punished for. If disability is just a costume non-disabled folks can throw on (and cast off) when they feel like it, what does that mean for disabled folks whose disability is an identity? For people who can’t just put aside their wheelchair at the end of a working day, or when faced with stairs instead of ramps?*
And this isn’t even to mention the other issues with The Upside: the racial implications of a buddy comedy in which a wealthy white man hires a parolee black carer to help him “loosen up”, or Hart’s history of homophobic comments. As Refinery29 pointed out, a remake should “get at some kind of essential truth overlooked by its predecessor … At the very least, it should be adapted to more closely fit the socio-political context of the country it’s being released in.” The Upside could have redeemed the sins of its predecessor with more thoughtful casting or a racially sensitive script. It failed on both counts.
If you want to know more about my feelings about media representation of disability and cripping up, feel free to click through to my previous piece: More “Othering”, Media Representation and Cripping Up.
*I’m not suggesting being in wheelchair is a bad thing here, or a disabling factor as such. Just that society does not accomodate folks who use them.