Introduction Part 3: Our Analysis

Our analysis will evaluate the representations of disability and mental illness on a spectrum of visibility. Not only is disability often perceived in terms of visibility (e.g. obvious social abnormal cues versus subtle diversions from “normalcy”), but it is often represented along the same spectrum. The two extremes of disability representation are that disability is romanticized/demonized (ultra-visible) or not treated at all (invisible). Recently, the trend in American media has been to define disabled characters without reference to their disabilities.1 On the onset, this seems excellent; however, sometimes disability seems completely ignored. Where is the line between normalizing disability and trivializing it?

Analyzing these representations begs the question of the portrayal of disabled roles in performance, especially film. In racial representation, the practice of blackface was largely abandoned because of its inherent derogatory nature. Additionally, it presented blackness as something that could be performed. Deeper still, it allowed whites to monopolize the representation of the black community. The practice continues even today through brownface, using makeup and costume for white actors to represent middle-eastern or latinx people. The deeper assumption is that a change of skin color or appearance can give actors everything they need to become or embody another community. Yet, despite the declining use of these techniques, Hollywood still employs mostly non-disabled actors to portray the disabled community.2 The examples are bountiful: The Miracle Worker (1962), Rain Man (1988), My Left Foot (1989), Forrest Gump (1994), A Beautiful Mind (2001), The Theory of Everything (2014), and the list goes on. Not only is this denying actors from the disabled community opportunities, it raises some important questions about representation in acting and in the film industry. Why aren’t disabled actors and writers being employed to represent themselves?

The roles that Hollywood does afford the disabled community are often fantastical or foreign. Short people inherit roles of dwarves from literature—usually child-like and unintelligent. This perpetuates the foreignness of these people, as if they live only in fantastic worlds with fairies and princes. Most of these roles neglect any sense of real humanity.

Two views of disability perpetuate this dialogue: the medical model of disability and the social model of disability. The medical model locates disability in terms of disease and cure.3 Through this lens, disability is via negativa. In other words, disability is defined as the lack of ability. Furthermore, disability becomes a trial to overcome. Often, narratives based on the medical model present disabled protagonists as overcoming their problems or able-bodied people rescuing them. The social model of disability, on the other hand, shifts “attention away from the ideologies of disease and disorder and onto the ideologies that construct definitions of ability and disability.”4 This philosophy questions our definitions of abledness. We often act as if some mysterious standard of ability and behavior exists that everyone must reach, either through merit or through help. In general, our society is built on this standard. We expect everyone to model “normal” social interaction. And so, anyone incapable of meeting that standard requires special assistance. But what is “normal” ability and behavior? And why do we expect everyone to model that?

The social model of disability begins a conversation on how we frame the conversation: that is, perceiving people as disabled instead of differently abled.5 A notable example of this is X-Men, through all its reiterations. The franchise, although far from perfect, blurs the lines between ability and disability. In fact, we might argue that these characters are both super-abled and disabled, further distorting our naïve perception of the exact definition of abled. In “Disability, Life Narrative, and Representation,” Thomas Couser claims that “Disability is an inescapable element of human existence and experience. Although it is rarely acknowledged as such, it is also a fundamental aspect of human diversity.”6 As with Hall’s view of race, Couser frames disability in terms of human diversity. At its core, his article questions how we classify people and how we classify ability. The lines aren’t as clear as some like to think.

When we begin to connect the intrinsic nature of humanness to these characteristics—whether it is ability or race or gender or sexuality—we are often left with inherently ableist, racist, sexist, or heterosexist ideologies. This leads to films like Whose Life is it Anyway? (1981), Million Dollar Baby (2004), and The Sea Inside (2004), which have been accused of suggesting that “suicide is preferable to quadriplegia.”7 We must make room here for a broader discussion on quality of life. In Past Due: A Story of Disability, Pregnancy and Birth, Anne Finger discusses her disability through pregnancy and the issues revolving around abortion. With advanced technologies keeping people’s bodies alive longer, one lingering questions echoes throughout our dialogue: what constitutes humanness? Friends and families and loved ones make these decisions every day as people are brain-damaged or permanently unconscious from traumatic accidents. But regardless of our perceptions, we cannot place the value of humanity solely in our ability to achieve some standard of behavior or action. Not only is this standard totally elusive, but it creates a hierarchy of existence, as if some people are inherently more valuable than others based on what they can do.

Disability representation is a far-reaching subject. If the stories we tell impact the ways in which we interact with the world, representations of disability in media impacts how we perceive the disabled community. Media taught me to define my teacher in terms of his wheelchair. But when we actually engage with people, we discover that they are deeper than our prejudices. We can laugh at their jokes and discover the uniqueness and beauty that makes them human. In the end, if we’re lucky, we can just create enough space for each of us to exist differently.


[1] Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin, America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies, 2nd ed. (West Sussex: Blackwell Pub., 2009), 381.
[2] Ibid., 380.
[3] Ibid., 422.
[4] Ibid., 377.
[5] Ibid., 381.
[6] G. Thomas Couser, “Disability, Life Narrative, and Representation,” PLMA 120, no. 2 (2005): 602-06.
[7] Benshoff and Griffin, 381.

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