Film is a vastly popular medium in contemporary American society for providing entertainment and as a means of meaning-making for “real life”. Thus, the portrayal of diversity in film is a topic that should not be ignored or vehemently disregarded or avoided at all costs. Diversity in film has made continual strides in film throughout the past few decades especially in terms of race and gender. However, a specific sect of diversity is often forgotten and lacks analysis. The portrayal of people with disabilities in film is, too, ever changing. However, I think it is important to analyze the progress that has been made from prior to the 1980s and critique the contemporary means of depicting those with disabilities in contemporary film. Although film has offered an overall improved portrayal, specifically in the visibility of people with disabilities, I will argue that some dangerous stereotypes still exist in contemporary film using mostly widely consumed films from the melodramatic genre.
First, I think it is important to recognize that film as a medium offers its audience, “since the middle decades of the nineteenth century and into the present day … some of the most powerful language about disability available to Anglo-American cultures,” (Chinn, 241). Countless movies have been produced depicting the life, struggles, and characteristics of those with disabilities.
More importantly, it is crucial to recognize that film as a medium has a two-fold relationship with its audience as, “movies demonstrate aspects of the society that produced them, but just as importantly society mirrors the values of its movies in various ways,” (Norden, x). Certainly, this partially explains the general betterment in depicting people with disabilities in films following the late 1970s and 1980s with the Disability Rights Movement gaining popularity and visibility in the United States.
The other side of this are the various stereotypes film has produced regarding those with disabilities, “stereotypes so durable and pervasive that they have become mainstream society’s perception of disabled people and have obscured if not outright supplanted disabled people’s perception of themselves,” (Norden, 3). That is to say, humans are often cited as learning by observing. Thus, portrayals of people with disabilities provide a means of audiences to learn from the stereotypes of people with disabilities that film oftentimes sells to its audiences.
Additionally, I find it important to acknowledge the presence of disabilities in film in order to better analyze the portrayal of those with disabilities. According to a study of films reviewed in the Monthly Film Bulletin from 1976 to 1983 over 1,000 films were uses to determine that, “11.42% contained depictions of disability,” (Byrd and Elliott, 49). For the 120 films over 150 disabilities were identified mainly consisting of psychiatric disorders (Byrd and Elliott). I would argue that mental disorders provide a more entertaining story line centered on the extreme rather than the typical that makes a film easier to sell to an audience and promotes stereotypes of those with mental disabilities.
On the subject of ‘extreme rather than typical’ seems a perfect intersection to analyze an early film portraying people with disabilities. Tod Browning’s Freaks was released in February of 1932 and advertised tag lines such as, “Can a full grown woman truly love a midget?” and “The Strangest. The most startling human story ever screened. Are you afraid to believe what your eyes see?”
The narrative of the film tells, “the story of Hans, who courts a “big woman” trapeze artist named Cleopatra, equates the emotional life of circus freaks with that of their normate fellow performers” (Snyder and Mitchell, 378). The narrative depicts a love affair between Hans, the little person, and beautiful yet self-serving trapeze artist Cleopatra who is only interested in Hans due to his large inheritance. Cleopatra is really plotting against Hans with her real lover, Hercules, a circus strong man. One of the most popular scenes of the movie takes place at a feast where the “side show freaks” show acceptance of Cleopatra by incessantly chanting “One of us!” and references her being a duck to fulfill her sideshow role. This clearly outrages Cleopatra and asserts that she would never desire to be on “their” level.
This film produces what one might assume from a 1932 film about circus performers. It depicts the extreme oddities of people with disabilities initiates a primal shock factor at the various characters exhibiting disabilities. However, there is a lesser articulated and known theme that Tod Browing seemed to make an effort to get across. Through Cleopatra and Hercules as the narrative’s inherent antagonists and free of disabilities, Browning seems to offer the idea that the those in the circus side show are human beings with human qualities and human feelings. Wholly, though, “Freaks depicts the social rejection of people with disabilities as inhumane, it leaves more established myths–such as the oversexed nature of dwarfs and the desire of disabled people for revenge against the able-bodied—unchallenged,” (Snyder and Mitchell, 380). I would assert that there is a sort of stark contradiction between the narrative Browning uses depicting the normality of those in the side show and the character’s actions that seem to label them as merely “freaks”. Browns, “intuitive understanding of the actors, who had all been recruited from sideshows across the country, enabled him to depict their humanity and override their deformations. But as a Hollywood director he had to deliver a product that would ultimately rely on baser human instincts to bring home the bacon” (Stastny, 68). Moreover, the film may forever be remembered as a movie that really only put those with disabilities on display.
While the portrayal of people with disabilities in film generally bettered post Tod Browning’s Freaks in terms of incorporating people with disabilities into narratives of normative, every day life I would argue that film still elicits stereotypes that may be damaging to audiences perception of people with disabilities.
The first stereotype I would like to analyze is the depiction that those with disabilities, especially mental disabilities, have some sort of superseding genius or talent about them that makes up for their disability. Barry Levinson released the film Rain Man in 1988. It told the story of Tom Cruise’s character, Charlie, who discovers a brother he never knew he had when their father dies and leaves Raymond a $3 million inheritance to cover the institutional living where Raymond had spent most of his life and would continue to live.
Dustin Hoffman’s character, Raymond, is important because he happens to be autistic. Throughout the movie, Raymond is able to complete acts of genius such as astonishing memorization. This is depicted in a scene where Raymond recognizes a waitress’ name and spouts off her telephone number from the telephone book he memorized, through ‘G’, the night before.
One of the physicians that consulted for the film, Darold Treffert, MD, in order to ensure sensitivity and accurate portrayal comments that, “By the end of the movie Charlie has changed from referring to his brother as “weird” or a “retard” to viewing him as only different and in many ways very special” (Treffert). Certainly, one cannot dismiss the heart warming narrative that seems to be central to Levinson’s depiction of Raymond as a character with disabilities. The habits Hoffman portrayed through his character seem unembellished and true to life. Moreover, it is easy to draw a distinction between the prior film Freaks and Rain Man in terms of their success in depicting people with disabilities in a normative life. Rain Man offers a much more realistic scenario as the narrative.
However, I would argue that the film still produces the stereotype that those with disabilities must have some sort of superseding genius or talent that seems to make up for their disability. The reason the film was so easy to sell in terms of narrative had a lot to do with the fact that Hoffman’s character, Raymond, displayed not only signs of Autism but also signs of the lesser known and extremely rare Savant Syndrome. This disability affects those with development disabilities, especially Autism, and is perceived as possessing some talent or brilliance in addition to a developmental disability. Hoffman’s character seems to break down the emotional barriers of his brother through charming him with his intricacies and habits due to his disability. Thus, I would argue, the film portrays the stereotype that people with disabilities have some sort of brilliance that that makes having a disability bearable when, in fact, this is not always the case.
The additional stereotype contemporary films seem to portray is that living a life with a disability is not a life worth living. Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby seems, at first, a film telling the story of Maggie Fitzgerald, Hillary Swank’s character, a young woman seeking to change her life and motivate other women through a career in boxing. She enlists the help of a former great, Eastwood, to train her. Due to a recent breakdown in communication between Eastwood’s character and his daughter, Eastwood is hesitant to help but soon forms a father-daughter like relationship with Swank.
However, there is a second conflict later in the film that is the cause of my argument. Hillary Swank’s character experiences a fight that leaves her a paraplegic. As she becomes cognizant of her disability, she makes an assisted suicide request of Eastwood. Referencing other movies depicting people with disabilities, Beth Heller asserts that, “these movies at least illustrated that disabled people have lives worth living and are filled with the full gamut of human experiences from joyful to tragic. However, the 2004 movie from Clint Eastwood, ‘Million Dollar Baby,’ which won four Oscars, follows another path – showing that death is preferable to life as a disabled person” (Haller, 112). Thus, the film clearly depicts a stereotype found in contemporary film. Other examples include Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky from 2001 and the Mexican film Amores Perros from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu of 2000.
I must argue that the stereotypes these films assert can be damaging to their audiences who do not experience disabilities in terms evoking sympathy or a “ticking time bomb” approach toward people with disabilities rather than interacting with them as they would someone without disabilities. In addition, the repeated portrayal of people with disabilities choosing to end their lives could provoke a thought for those with disabilities to re-evaluate suicidal ideation as a means of escaping a disability or simply send a message that their life is not worth living due to their disability.
Wholly, film as a medium is a popular and socially shaping force. It is a force that has portrayed people with disabilities for a number of years through a narrative of, “despair, catastrophe, loss, excess, suffering, and relentless cure-seeking that we tell about disability” (Garland-Thomson, 115). While films such as Freaks portrayed those with disabilities as shock-inducing oddities, in general, film has made progressive strides in portraying people with disabilities as normative.
However, my argument asserted that stereotypes are still represented in moves with people with disabilities. Films such as Rain Man depict a stereotype that those with disabilities, especially mental disabilities, must have some sort of genius or brilliance about them that makes up for their disability. Additionally, the stereotype that a disabled life is not a life worth living is depicted in movies such as Million Dollar Baby. These stereotypes provide a dangerous look into the lives of people with disabilities.