Volunteer Writer, Katrina Maria Sweeney, discusses how disability has been portrayed in TV and Film
The representation of disability in the media has changed significantly throughout history and, compared to some earlier satirical, harshly comical perceptions of disability, we are now seeing better portrayals of it. However, there is remaining controversy, as whilst the overall representation has improved, some of the ways in which disabilities are represented can be problematic (such as having non-disabled actors acting as disabled parts). This is the case in many films and TV series, for example, the smash hit TV series, Glee, had a character who was paraplegic and in a wheelchair, yet Artie Abrams wasn’t played by a disabled actor but rather one who could walk perfectly fine. Similarly, the main character in the series Atypical is a teenager with autism, who is played by an actor who does not have autism, and the film Rainman also follows another character with autism despite Dustin Hoffman not having it himself. However, it should be noted that some of these shows do also cast and portray disability in an admirable way. For example, Lauren Potter who played Becky Jackson in Glee does have down syndrome and yet her character is one of the most witty and conniving characters on the show, who was later praised for breaking the safe and PG versions of disability. Atypical included a group of autistic actors in the show, and Rainman can be praised for being the first big Hollywood film to portray autism/disability.
One of the most impressive representations can be seen in BBC’s Silent witness, whose lead is a female forensic scientist who has arthrogryposis multiplex congenital; a rare genetic condition whereby she is in a wheelchair. Liz Carr is one of the most high-profile disabled actors in Britain, although the actor told the BBC Ouch podcast she ‘refused to say certain lines that [she] thought were problematic’. On a more positive note, actor Peter Dinklage, who has dwarfism, challenged stereotypes by refusing to play roles such as elves or leprechauns despite how well paid those roles were. This worked in his favour, though, as he soon starred in the famous Game of Thrones as Tyrion Lannister; a member of a family who often scorned and mocked him for his dwarfism but he outlives all who mocked him and demonstrates great strength.
Focusing on film, The King’s Speech (2010) tells the true story of how George VI dealt with his speech impediment, although again, actor Colin Firth does not suffer from the same difficulty. The film shows how his therapy allows him to overcome his stutter before reading aloud a speech for the nation. Peter Wehrwein, who wrote a Harvard health blog on the film, has stated that: ‘The King’s Speech will do for stuttering what Rain Man did for autism: plant a sympathetic view of a disability in the public consciousness’, this suggests that those who are disabled need compassion or empathy, which can further derail from the progressive representation of disability.
Unfortunately, the representation has not always been positive. There have been harshly comical and ridiculed depictions of those with disabilities, such as Frankenstein which unjustly aligns his villainy and malevolence with his physical deformity. We also see this in The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Quasimodo being shunned and scorned for his deformity Quasimodo. It seems as though a characters image determines whether a not they are a villain or not. Captain Hook has no hand but his vengeance is seen as unjustified; Ernst Stavro Blofeld, one of James Bond’s enemies, has a scar right down his face as he strokes his white cat. The film The Ringer also used stereotypes to entertain viewers as well as humour which was also seen in Forest Gump. Tom Hanks displays the sweet and physically impaired Gump but it has been argued whether his character is the butt of several jokes; having no agency or scenes with his friend and is often portrayed rather clumsy.
Overall, there has been a change in the way disability is represented in film and TV but we still have a long way to go. Disabled actors should be cast in disabled roles and continue to create positive and interesting characterisation that are not solely on their disability. Striving towards more programs that are informative and empowering is all we can hope for in future entertainment.
Edited by Sophie Alexander – Entertainment Editor
Header Image by Annabel Smith