Putting on a "Brave" Face: On Ableism and Appropriation in the Film Industry

Updated March 29, 2016 10:52pm PDT

It’s become old hat to say that if you’re a nondisabled actor portraying a disabled character in a fairly big budget, highly pushed film, will win you an Oscar.

I'm not too much a fan of this hat. It doesn't go with any of my outfits. This tongue in cheek rule applies not only to able bodied actors playing characters with physical and visible disabilities, but also to neurotypical actors and actors of a sensory majority playing characters with mental/psychiatric disabilities or who are deaf, blind, etc, respectively (sensory majority means that someone does not experience disability in the area of the senses).

In 2012, it was estimated that 16% of Oscar wins are for a nondisabled person playing a disabled role. In the history of the Oscars there have been three people with disabilities who have won the Academy Award for Best Actor/Actress. Marlee Matlin for Children of a Lesser God (1986), Lionel Barrymore in A Free Soul (1931), and Robert Donat Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). I recently found Halle Berry on a list of someone’s favorite disabled actors because she is partially deaf–I suppose that makes four.

One of the issues with disability is that the stigmatization surrounding having one is so high, that people with invisible disabilities, sensory disabilities, or other disabilities that might affect only certain aspects of said actor’s life, are not readily identified as disabilities. We are still in a place, societally, where identifying as disabled could be met with such sentiments as, “No! Don’t say that about yourself! You’re perfect! You can do whatever you want!”

Can I not do what I want; be perfect, and be disabled? Just as I am black and mixed race, queer, multi-gender, an actor, a writer?

Going through archived lists of Oscar's awarded, I have counted at least 21 nondisabled people who have won Best Actor or Actress for playing a disabled role, and at least 17 movies which won Best Picture, featuring a disabled character or disability as the theme. If you count disabled actors who received Best Supporting Actor, or whose movies went on to receive Best Picture, this number increases, and I do encourage you to for look for us.

It is ableism which creates an audience and Academy reaction that is more impressed with a nondisabled actor taking on the challenge of playing a disabled role, than recognizing the feat of hoop-jumping which must be tackled by any disabled actor, competing for roles within an industry built on nondisabled supremacy, and winning a role based on their ability to embody it perfectly.

For a disabled person, to play a disabled character is not less acting, less emotional labor, than for a nondisabled person to play a disabled role. Just as a black actor playing a black role is still acting, a trans person playing a trans role is acting.

It's not enough to say that a film features but is not, thematically, about disability. In the life of any disabled person, disability features both as a prominent and necessary motif and lens, but not as a totalizing definition.

Forrest Gump, despite its mundanity and humanity, is a fantasy. One's braces simply do not fall to pieces while one is running away from bullies. This is a projection of wish fulfilment, a daydream, one I'm sure many disabled people have had. Or not. Those of us who do not walk do not all imagine walking in an ideal world. An ideal world would be filled with much better treasures than ambulation.

Over all, Tom Hanks’ depiction of a developmentally disabled man is not complex, or based in what seems to me a real study of any disabled experience. He spent more time learning how to do a Mississippi accent to match the boy who played young Forrest, whose own family couldn’t afford to go to the Oscar’s, than learning how to be disabled.

In front of a camera, we are left to either prove or disprove one end of the statement made by poet Mark O’Brien, whose essay, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” was adapted by another disabled person into the critic lauded film, The Sessions:

"The two mythologies about disabled people break down to one: we can't do anything, or two: we can do everything. But the truth is, we're just human."

When featuring a disability, in mainstream film, there is usually an aim, whether it is to tell a based-on-a-true-story type narrative of triumph against all odds, or to utilize disability as metaphor in a fantastical premise. This year in the Oscar nominations, there is at least one movie which features disabled characters played by nondisabled actors, Mad Max. In this film, Charlize Theron plays an anarchistic Jeep?? (please don’t hold me to this) driving vigilante amputee with a bionic arm, resisting the tyranny of an unjust ruler of a post-apocalyptic land. The tyrant, it must be said, as well as several of his followers, seems to have some kind of chronic illness. 

The use of illness as evidence of malintention is still too heavily afforded symbolic weight in fantasy.

I sit in solidarity with Jada Pinkett-Smith, Spike Lee and other black entertainment industry veterans who are sitting out the Oscar's this year due to their racism and lack of diversity.
White queer actors such as Sir Ian McKellen have called for the Oscar callout #OscarsSoWhite to include #OscarsSoStraight and #OscarsSoCis, one could add, #OscarsSoAblebodied.

As a black disabled queer person, I reject the conflating of nondisabled actor: playing disabled role with white actor: blackface.

It’s negligent to separate these issues into categories—as if white disabled people are not white, and therefore experiencing visibility in one way, and as if black disabled people, or black disabled queer people are not all that we are. Movements should never be meant to silence or trump one another.

If you don't believe in the ability, sensitivity, intelligence, and diversity of disabled people, how are you going to count on us to tell or portray our own stories well? Same goes for black people, transpeople, queer people and all of the intersections therein. We, namely, in this case, Hollywood, casting directors, the Academy, need to expect more from disabled people. And not only more, but something different. What do you expect disability to mean? What do you expect disability to represent? How many disabled actors have been told that they look “too disabled” when auditioning for a role? I know I have. Even in high school theater, the likes of which I have now learned is diverse and egalitarian via “Glee”, I was told that if I played the role intended for an nondisabled actor it would be “unrealistic”. Who are these people who care about reality when it comes to theater? Is it more realistic for a nondisabled person to portray a nondisabled part? Or is it somehow charity, sparing us the pain of reliving the humiliating experience of relating to ourselves?

Ben Lewin, the director of The Sessions, who is also a disabled polio survivor, wanted to leaving his casting of Mark as open as possible, but ultimately decided to cast a nondisabled actor. His logic, it seems, was multifold. One, he could not find a qualified actor who experienced the same disability as O’Brien, and didn't think it would be right to cast a differently disabled person in that role. Two, he believed that putting a disabled person under the microscope in such revealing and potentially humiliating scenes would be negligent of a disabled person’s previous experience. I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the sense I got.

So: we're saying then that an able-bodied actor is better equipped to deal with humiliating themselves than a disabled actor is, so long as they are humiliating themselves for the first time.

Is a nondisabled actor more of a blank canvas to be so emotionally painted on than we are?

Disabled people are meant for more than documentary. We understand metaphor too. We write our own stories—yet so often, we cannot imagine our own bodies playing those characters on screen. We have been told that disability is meant to do something emotionally to nondisabled audiences; if it doesn’t do the right thing, it’s not worth the trouble.

I’m not sure if the Academy’s affirmative action-style effort to add women and “minorities” to their voting committee will promote the visibility of more intersectionally marginalized actors and film projects. I think that directors and casting directors need to stop being afraid to cast disabled actors few mainstream theater goers have heard of—until we get cast, how will you have heard of us? There is not a lack of talented disabled actors auditioning for parts.

How brave is a nondisabled actor who gets turned down for an able-bodied role, when they know a career-making disabled role might be just around the corner?

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Lyric Seal aka Neve Be(ast) is a mixed black, queer, multigender, disabled, porn performing, performance art wreaking femme anarchist with a vengeance. They are a staff writer at HARLOT covering all topics which can vaguely be related to performing arts, love, sex/work, disability justice, policy, and the lush insides of their mind. Neve also has a column in maximumrocknroll called "Totally Lame." They are a contributor to Everyday Feminism and various literary magazines. You can book them to dance, talk, teach, and make you feel good about yourself.