Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Let's Talk About... Representations of Disabled People in Films

When was the last time you went to the cinema or watched a movie at home? Last week maybe or perhaps last month. It's likely that you did either one of these things quite recently though, despite the rise of the internet most of us still enjoy watching a good film whether it be from the comfort of our own home or at a cinema. Whether we realise it or not the films we love to watch can have a huge influence on our views and opinions, they influence us more than we know. Films which portray seemingly realistic scenarios and lives can often have a biggest impact, leaving us with a particular idea about a group of people, for example. This impact is the reason why it is so important that everyone is represented in films and even more importantly, that we are represented realistically. When films tell our stories, they must do them justice.

Sadly, a lot of us, particularly those of us from minority groups, are being let down in films and TV shows though. Incorrectly represented in damaging depictions time and time again. As a disabled woman I see this mostly in the representations of disabled people and so today I'm finally going to explore this in detail, film by film.


ME BEFORE YOU

Let's start with the big one shall we, the one that really got a lot of good conversation started when in came out last year. Generally disabled people hated it and abled people loved it so, why is that?

Me Before You is about a young woman, Emilia Clarke, who begins working as a carer for a young, rich man, Will Traynor, who became paralysed after a road accident. He's depressed and throughout the film it comes out that Will wishes to die and Emilia tries her best to convince him not to go through with it. That's the short of it really, I won't spoil the ending but I'm sure most of us know the problematic ending.

Let's address one of the main problems of the film first, an abled actor was hired to play a disabled character. Sam Claflin, an abled actor, was hired to play Will and this is called 'cripping up' and I'm so sick of having to explain why it is so awful. We all agree that blackface, white actors playing people of colour, is bad so why is it okay for abled actors to crip up? Why do people accept this as okay? To be quite honest I've had it with people believing that this is okay to do. Disabled people should be playing disabled characters. That's not the only problem in this film adaption of the original book by Jojo Moyes though, in fact this film is littered with issues.

I've lost count of how many times throughout my time as a powerchair user that people have said to me ' I'd rather be dead than in a wheelchair' and films like this show us exactly where harmful ideas like that stem from and are supported by. This film portrays disabled people as burdens, sending out the idea that we would be 'better off dead'. When people tell me things like that and when films support it you are telling me that my life is unworthy, you are telling me that it isn't a life worth living. When in fact, I've probably achieved more than most abled people my age have. I've recently written something for a book, I've had pieces published in magazines and I've worked with big charities such as The British Heart Foundation. That sounds like a life worth living to me. I'm not saying that disabled people don't have dark days, of course we do, but this film portrays Will as being one dimensional, focused only on his loss and this is meant to be the justification for his plans to die, that watchers can agree with. People think that it's okay for disabled people to feel suicical, it's accepted as normal but for abled people, it's not. Why's that? Simple because a lot of people believe that being disabled is one of the worst things that can happen to you. This film romanticises suicide, it portrays the idea that it's totally fine for disabled people to want to die because their lives must be so awful. It depicts disabled lives as being unworthy and is an incredibly harmful film. 

WONDER

Wonder is an upcoming film due to be released this Autumn based on a book of the same name by R.J. Palacio. It tells the story of a young boy with a facial disfigurement as he joins a new school, wikipedia says that 'he strives to teach others that beauty is not just on the outside'. The first thing to note, and you'll see a pattern forming here, is that Auggie (the boy with a facial disfigurement) is played by an abled actor who doesn't have a facial disfigurement. Popular and upcoming young actor Jacob Tremblay was chosen for the role and likely spent hours in makeup everyday having prosthetics applied to make it appear like he had a facial disfigurement. Just like Me Before You, this is cripping up and it's not okay. You can imagine how much money they would have spent on makeup for this film, when it would be far easier to cast someone who has a facial disfigurement, such actors do exist. I think there's this idea that abled actors are cast because there aren't any suitable disabled actors out there but this just isn't true, they are out there but no one will give them a chance.

I don't have a facial disfigurement so that's all I'm saying on the matter but I did speak to Mike, who has a facial disfigurement caused by the condition Crouzon Syndrome, about the film and they told me their thoughts on it and directed me to a thread they had dedicated to the film, I've quoted some of what they said below.

"The essential problem is that none of this was done with anyone disfigured meaningfully involved. Flawed story, silly quotes but decent heart, not always terrible... but it was all written by a non-disfigured person. The fact that Wonder isn't #ownvoices is basically by the by now. Think of the further harm that could have been mitigated, had Lionsgate and it's production team cast a disfigured actor. Think of what could have been achieved had they hired disfigured people to consult. Think of a disfigured director! Instead they chose the tired, effortless, boring route. And fucking prosthetics, as if disfigured people do not exist. As if we are a costume, a makeup project! It really, really upsets me to see Jacob Tremblay in that mask, like our disfigurements are a costume."

You can read the full thread here. I think Mike's point is quite a simple one, actors shouldn't be cripping up and think of what could have been achieved if disfigured people had been involved in the process of making this film!

What 'Wonder' Gets Wrong About Disfigurement and Craniofacial Disorders by Ariel Henley


EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING

On to a film which has very recently come out so I've been seeing a lot of talk about it on social media and my rage has silently been bubbling away, I've been feeling the same emotions that I did when everyone was buzzing about Me Before You. Everything, Everything is about an 18 year old girl, Maddy, who has SCID (Severe Combined Immunodefiency) a rare genetic disorder that prevents her from leaving her home, it's a condition that is often known as the 'bubble baby disease' and sufferers are extremely vulnerable to infectious diseases. My first thought when I read about this film was 'great, something about a rare condition!' but my bubble, excuse the pun, was quickly burst.

This film is basically a love story and one of the biggest things that I noted in one of the trailers are these words; 'From the studio that brought you Me Before You' and at that point I knew this wasn't going to be a good representation. The phrase 'risk everything' comes up a lot as well and this film seems to have a common theme of the sick girl being saved, as though all disabled people need saving from their conditions, as though love is the only thing that could make us happy. This film also portrays the idea that disabled people must leave behind the things that help them (in this case it's Maddy home which is supposedly keeping her alive) to enjoy romance and love, a harmful idea that disability and love cannot sit together comfortably. Life can be meaningful, even if you're housebound but this film is sending out the idea that you must conform to abled standards to have a meaningful life.

There's a twist at the end of this film and I'm not going to reveal it but I'm angry about it, and I'm not the only one either. The links below are some great pieces of writing about the film and some do contain spoilers about the end, so just be wary of that.

What Everything, Everything Gets Wrong About Living As A Disabled Person
The Problem With Everything, Everything
Cait 'A Page With A View' Review of Everything, Everything


BREATHE

Out of all these films I think this is the one that really got to me, the one that really made me angry. Breathe tells the story of one of the first disability activists in the UK. Robin Cavendish had polio and was given months to live when he decided advocate for disabled people, he compiled the first record of how many people were confined to iron lungs, just one of his many achievements. As with the other films, there is an abled actor playing a disabled character but this one really annoys me because Robin was an activist for disabled people, he fought for a better life for them and that better life doesn't involve abled actors playing them on screen. This film is also being marketed as inspiring, not inspiring because he did incredible work for disabled people but inspiring because he did all that 'despite' his disability, another film marketed towards abled people and their obsession with inspiration porn. This was such a missed opportunity to tell Robin's story well and with the right people involved.


BLIND

Blind is a recently released American film that follows the story of a novelist who is blinded in a car accident, an accident that also kills his wife. It follows him as he rediscovers his passion for life and writing. I only recently came across this film and if I'm honest, I don't know much about it apart from the fact that once again an abled actor has been cast to play a disabled character. Blind actors exist and I'm sure they could even act abled for the first 10 minutes of a film if that's what a company really wants so there is no reason to be casting Alec Baldwin, an abled actor, in this role. Last year a survey was released that found that 95% of the disabled characters we seen on screen are played by abled actors. That's pretty disgusting if you ask me, we've all agreed that blackface is bad so why do we accept this?

Disability Rights Groups Criticises Casting Of Alec Baldwin as Blind Character


ATYPICAL

Now, this isn't a film, it's a series on Netflix, but I really wanted to include it after I was pretty concerned about how autistic people had been represented in this show and when I came on Twitter and spoke to some autistic people I found out that I was very right to be concerned. 

Atypical is a coming of age story, following Sam (who is autistic) as he navigates life with his family and friends surrounding him. When I looked on Wiki to do a little bit of research about this series it didn't surprise me to see that it looks like the writer only consulted with a professor who works at a autism research centre, rather than talking to actual autistic people. They also read books and watched films as well, forms of media that have likely been produced by neurotypical people and therefore cannot be a reliable source of research. Watching the series it didn't surprise me one bit that no autistic people had been involved in the process of creating this series. I don't have autism though so I'm going to pass over to someone who does, so they can tell you their thoughts.

"Atypical is pretty much exactly what you'd expect from the trailer: It's full of misogyny, toxic masculinity and gross misrepresentations of autistic behaviour. 

The autistic character is the only character who doesn't go through any meaningful development over the course of the season. While his parents, his sister and his therapist are allowed to have complex lives with complex and sometimes ambivalent motivations and needs, the thing he seems to want in life is to 'get girls'. When the first episode named his fidgeting as 'self-stimulatory behaviour' I got my hopes up, but it was never mentioned again and he was only shown stimming a couple of times throughout the whole season. 

The #CrippingUp act (allistic actor playing an autistic character) was unsettling to watch. I know many autistic people and his body language felt like a disturbing caricature of the autistic body language that I'm familiar with. But, by far the most harmful thing the show did was justify and normalise the misogynist violence carried out by the main character. He pushes one young woman backwards to the floor, breaks into another one's house, pulls another one's hair (and keeps holding on even as she fights back) and locks another one in his closet. The one he locks in the cloest isn't even angry with him, because she has done 'research' and so she's totally fine with the exaggerated reaction!

After each of his assault scenes when the respective woman is upset, the show shoes him being sad and confused. We are apparently supposed to sympathise with him. This conflates neurodivergnecy with violence and with the incapability to recognise violence as wrong; it excuses violent transgressions of autistic (and, by extension, otherwise neurodivgent) men as just being 'outsized reactions' and it even models the way women should react to thsi behavior - cheerfully, smiling and understanding.

As a person who spent 5 years in a relationship with a neurodivergent man who used his neurodivergency (not autism in his case) in EXACTLY this way to justify this abuse, I can't even put into words how terrible this is. Apart from his hard 'his autism' is on his poor family, the show hardly deals with Autism or what it means to be autistic at all, except to make viewers more comfortable with the main character's misogynist behavior.

This show can't be saved, I would like to see a show written and produced by autistic women, now, and perferably women of colour, and with an #ActuallyAutistic actor. Then we'd actually have a shot at getting quality representation." - @disabilisaur

The More Atypical Tries To Get Autism Right, The More Things Go Wrong - John Hugar

I really hope this post demonstrates to you how many problematic films there are out there about disabled people, and all of these are recent films too. Films that have been created without any input, or minimal input, from disabled people with companies opting to speak to medical professionals instead. We also have a huge problem with abled actors playing disabled characters, as shown above, and this needs to change.

Nothing about disabled people, without disabled people.
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    1. With Me Before You it's important to remember that not all disabled people are clued up on why films like this are problematic so in theory, yes they could find someone disabled to play Will. Money and insurance are awful reasons since big movie stars are often allowed to do their own stunts, that would be far more costly than a disabled person acting.

      The Fault In The Stars is a difficult one for me to comment on as it's about Cancer, not disability as such, and that's something I've had no experience of myself so I wouldn't want to comment on it, that's for young people with Cancer to decide on. It definitely has issues with romanticising illness though.

      People will continue to gawp until we see disabled people on screen, actual disabled people so it's a vicious circle, you can't use that as a reason when the problem exists, in part, because disabled actors aren't being used.

      It is always appropriate to use disabled actors to play disabled characters, you don't use white actors to play black characters when appropriate, you just don't do it because it's not right so why is it okay for abled actors to play disabled characters? It's no different and yet people think one is bad and another is okay.

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