The Oscars adore films that address disabilities. In recent years, actors and directors have grappled with portraying a wide range of mental and physical challenges, and their peers have rewarded them for it. Eddie Redmayne (“The Danish Girl”) won Best Actor in 2015 for his portrayal of the late Stephen Hawking, who had Amytrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), in “The Theory of Everything.” Last month, Guillermo Del Toro’s film “The Shape of Water,” whose mute protagonist communicates through American Sign Language, won Best Picture. However, neither Redmayne nor Sally Hawkins (“Maudie”), the leading actress for “The Shape of Water,” share the same disability as their character. In fact, according to a study by the Ruderman Family Foundation, 95 percent of characters with disabilities are played by able-bodied actors.
I reviewed “The Shape of Water” and originally applauded Hawkins for her performance. As an able-bodied person, I was unconscious of the issues with giving a potential role for a mute person to an actress who can speak. My praise for the film also had to do with the onslaught of tone-deaf and caricatured portrayals of people with disabilities that had desensitized me to the more nuanced problems with representation. After watching the recent comedy “Please Stand By” about a young woman with autism and the trailer for the romantic tearjerker “Me Before You,” I had low expectations for these films. “Me Before You” perpetuates the false notion that death is better than living with a disability. The film exploits the character’s disability to tell a tragic, pathos-heavy story where suicide is glorified as the best and only choice, and love as a sort of cure, trivializing the real struggles people with disabilities face every day.
The casting of Sam Claflin (“Love, Rosie”) in “Me Before You” and Dakota Fanning (“The Alienist”) in “Please Stand By” are just a couple examples of Hollywood using “cripface,” a term that refers to able-bodied actors portraying characters with disabilities. Understandably, several opinion articles and film reviews published on Huffington Post and The Guardian from members of the disability community have expressed discontent over their representation in films. In particular, films like “Please Stand By” attempting to examine the autism spectrum fail to remember that there is a spectrum. Instead, actors go for what they think will have the most dramatic, emotional result, but end up giving a cold, detached performance or a volatile, violent depiction — neither of which fairly represent people with autism. What’s worse is that according to a comprehensive list compiled by film website Indiewire, many of these actors are rewarded with accolades: At least 59 able-bodied actors have received Oscar nominations for portraying characters with disabilities, both mental and physical.
The way that films like “Me Before You” and “Please Stand By” so blatantly appropriate disability as a way to manipulate audiences numbed me to the underlying issues with “The Shape of Water.” When I watched “The Shape of Water,” I wasn’t outright offended. Here, I thought, no one used unrealistic, insulting slapstick humor relating to an aspect of the character’s condition. The character wasn’t flat or tokenized, exploited for tears or violence. But these are excuses. Especially now, we should hold films to a standard above just being inoffensive.
A film that might appear inoffensive can send dangerous messages and perpetuate prejudices through stereotyped characterizations. When Cuba Gooding Jr. in “Radio” or Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump” act as happy cheerleaders who bring up the spirits of those around them, their performances suggest a subliminal and actually insulting implication that able-bodied people can find joy through comparing their situation to a person with disabilities for perspective. Or when M. Night Shyamalan's “Split” and other horror movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” incorrectly suggest mental illness as a precursor to violent and homicidal behavior. In the case of “The Shape of Water,” critics praised the film for embracing the “other,” but on a second look, the movie actually shuffles its marginalized protagonist away from society and into the arms of a non-human species.
A common counterargument to the need for more disability representation in film is that an actor’s job description demands inhabiting the mind and body of a character different from themselves. While this side of the debate has some legitimacy, the point is not to ban able-bodied actors from portraying characters with disabilities. Instead, filmmakers need to offer equal opportunities to actors with disabilities, especially since casting actors with disabilities may help alleviate the exploitation and potential insensitivity of the portrayal of a character with disabilities. Plus, able-bodied actors have a larger variety and choice of roles. Filmmakers love to tell stories with disabled characters, yet Hollywood discriminates against people with disabilities through both inaccurate depictions and unequal opportunities on screen.
Although big and independent studios have failed to represent the disabled community, short films have done a better job and often express an explicit educational message. This year’s Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film went to Britain’s “The Silent Child,” featuring Maisie Sly, a young deaf girl, as she faces challenges at school without a teaching aide. In addition, the well-respected Manhattan Short Film Festival awarded Latvian actor Aleksandrs Ronis the honor of Best Actor for his starring role in “Just Go!.” Ronis, who lost both his legs, speeds through the streets in this action short, proving movies don’t need an able-bodied actor to have incredible stunt scenes.
Other actors with disabilities on the big screen also defy the myth that audiences will not watch films starring people with disabilities. Millicent Simmonds (“A Quiet Place”) stole the scene in last year’s film “Wonderstruck” about the parallel stories of two deaf children in different eras — and, as a deaf actress, she has the right to tell this story unlike able-bodied Rinko Kikuchi (“Pacific Rim”) in “Babel,” who portrayed a deaf teenage girl. Peter Dinklage (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) has such an extensive filmography it needs a separate Wikipedia entry. He overcame discrimination from casting directors who only wanted him to act as a leprechaun or other demeaning characters to find critical and commercial success, becoming one of the highest paid actors on television for his work in “Game of Thrones.” His career shows an evolution in representation afforded to great talent after many years of struggle finding work. After refusing to play degrading characters, Dinklage took on roles that transcended common tropes of characters with disabilities — the victim, the object of pity or the undesirable. His first commercial breakthrough in the Christmas movie “Elf” allowed him to react with outrage when the main character wrongly mistakes him for an elf. But in Tom McCarthy’s 2003 drama “The Station Agent,” Dinklage plays a character with sexual desires and attracts the attention of his romantic interests, a narrative often withheld from characters with disabilities.
At the end of the day, Hollywood needs to recognize the discrimination inherent in refusing roles of characters with disabilities from actors with disabilities. It’s not a question of acting caliber or ticket sales, but of providing equal opportunity to everyone.