By Thomas Blown BA
Volunteer Content Writer
When Roger Ebert commented on the comedy The Ringer (2005) as being “actually kind of sweet”, it went directly against the critique usually levelled at films involving the notoriously haphazard and politically incorrect star of the movie, Johnny Knoxville (eg Jackass). Ebert highlighted how the film treats its characters who happen to have disabilities with affection and respect, rather than condescension, whilst the plot raises awareness about the Special Olympics. It is not made in poor taste, as might be first thought. Instead, it is a very funny film – a Knoxville classic in its own right – with classier connotations of community. The directors, the Farrelly brothers, not only brought the Jackass star in to drive home its message of inclusion to a younger audience but have also been praised for their use of actors with learning disabilities, which helped to earn the film endorsement from the Special Olympics. However, this is not indicative of the industry as a whole. In fact, research “consistently” shows that the proportion of disabled characters on screen “hovers at around 1%”. This is despite 19% of the working-age population living with a disability.
So, how far are disabilities proportionately represented on screen?
To help answer this we should delve a little into the history of disability in cinema. Rain Main (1988), starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, follows the forging of a testing relationship between two brothers, made problematic because of Hoffman’s well-acted autism. Ultimately, it brings home issues of companionship, set against an ever-so-slightly menacing backdrop of 1980s consumerism. Cruise’s character initially feigns companionship to exploit his brother’s autistic knack for counting cards. Using Hoffman as a pawn in his pursuit for money, Cruise takes him to a casino. Despite the at times unsettling undercurrents, in the end there are significant and heart-warming lessons to be learnt. As a result, Rain Man was highly praised for its portrayal of autism and won the Oscar for best film in 1989.
Similarly, Forest Gump (1994) received wide critical acclaim following its release. Tom Hanks plays a character with a developmental disability who needs callipers to walk – much to the amusement of his bullies in the school days – however he goes on to become somewhat of a national treasure. At the time of release, the politically-charged story of struggle and progress chimed a nostalgic chord with the public. Several Oscars and award-parties later, the legacies of these films live on.
Lighter portrayals of disability, which show life with a disability is not all ‘doom and gloom’, are becoming increasingly common. Recent examples include Inside I’m Dancing (2004), which revolves around two young men finding a shared independence in their defiance of the institutional barriers to living and society’s attitudes towards disability. The Fundamentals of Caring (2016) is a poignant take on disability in terms of the bond between people with disabilities and their carers, as well as highlighting the difficulties in romance for those who happen to have a disability. These sorts of films massively contribute to raising awareness about the everyday issues surrounding disability.
Through the decades, we have seen a number of films from various genres tackling issues of disability and arguably increasing awareness of disability to an increasingly wider audience. With two thirds of us saying TV and film is our favourite topic of conversation with friends and work colleagues, it can be used as an effective medium in promoting equality. As far back as 1965, disability has been used as a tool to tackle other societal issues too; A Patch of Blue (1965) pits Elizabeth Hartman as a blind white girl who falls in love with a black man in a particularly racist world.
However, issues about the representation of minorities on screen continue to dominate popular culture, with the online hashtag ‘#OscarsSoWhite’ in 2015 demonstrating that the need for universal recognition of black minority groups in cinema transcended purely cinematic spheres. It was given the platform of social media.
But to what end?
A Bafta report concluded that a “culture that values ‘fitting in’ and ‘who you know’ remains a major barrier to increasing diversity.” Online, however, the spreading of popular movements is as simple as a click. It “reignited” a movement towards inclusion in Hollywood and against traditional values of popular culture.
Here, I propose a new hashtag.
Ironically, even when films such as Forrest Gump and Rain Man are made by film-makers with a view to increasing awareness of minority groups such as people with disabilities, these efforts can fall flat with those very people; a mother of a disabled child highlights how “because the film [Forrest Gump] is about the disabled, the journey itself is far too personal for many developmentally disabled people to endure and perhaps difficult for them to understand the good intentions”.
Certain branches of film-making with more commercial aims will continue to avoid portraying topics considered to be socially stigmatising for obvious reasons. The process of putting a film on the screen is governed by the financial burden of making that film. Social stigmas can be controversial – money-grabbing film companies often forgo the associated risk.
However, there are continued efforts to portray disability in both TV and film, with characters such as Walt Jr in Breaking Bad (2008) recently proving popular. Increasingly, there are also examples of popular online formats promoting equality and awareness, such as the amateur short film The Most Beautiful Thing. Coming in at just short of 11 million views, the romance of a boy and a girl who has hearing difficulties proves that awareness of disability can be achieved through a non-Hollywood budget. People don’t want to watch stuff that makes them uncomfortable, and film companies adhere to the audience’s desires: but we can break that cycle. The support and good work of individuals and organisations such as Toucan can lift the taboo and more films can be made. However, it is important to remember that while we “may find the story uplifting, it may elude… understanding [for some]. It may be painful for them [people with disabilities] to see the type of teasing and disrespect they experience. Don’t assume they will get the same thing out of the movie that you do. You may do a lot more harm than good…”
The representation of minority groups such as people with disabilities in film is clearly a problematic area. As the disabled actor AJ Murray has said; “Disabled people should have a seat at the pop culture table”. In order to promote equality in TV and film, however, it is clear that we have to understand the complex reasons as to why people with disabilities are underrepresented. People are simply not aware of the benefits that people with disabilities can bring to their organisation.