Portrayal of Cognitive Disabilities in Film

Hollywood seems to have had a challenge with finding the balance between accuracy and entertainment when trying to portray cognitive and mental disabilities in film and media. In some cases, the lovable goofy main character is a savant, succeeding at nearly everything they try their hand at while also having some unspecified developmental disability that everyone notices but nobody really cares about – such as in the case of Forrest Gump. In other cases, it’s downright offensive, such as in 2005’s The Ringer. Psychological impairments and mental disabilities were some of the first representations of disability in media, which makes it all the more surprising that they haven’t found this balance yet. But, in this post, I’m going to talk about three different movies and their approach to this topic – where they succeed and where they fail, and what the implications of what they are saying are.


The first film I will be talking about is 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The film, which stars Jack Nicholson, tells the tale of a prisoner who successfully tries to transfer to a mental institution, where he believes the rules are more loosely enforced and he can get away with more. However, when he arrives, he realizes that the patients are under a near totalitarian rule by the evil Nurse Ratched, who constantly threatens the patients with electro-shock therapy and other forms of punishment. The representations of mental illness and psychological disabilities in this film are okay. At least in 1975, before there was a wider understanding of psychiatry and neurology, they are generally inoffensive and serve their purpose to tell the story. However, it is in the response to these illnesses where I find my qualms with this movie. Nurse Ratched, who is just doing her job and trying to take care of her patients, is depicted as an evil, tyrannical authority figure, and when there is misbehavior, she takes matters into her own hands and punishes her patients ruthlessly. While it is true that the history of mental institutions is a rocky one, I feel as if this movie serves as an unneeded warning about mental health professionals in general.


Forrest Gump is another movie that tries to portray cognitive disabilities in a more favorable light. It seems as if there was sort of a fad of doing this in the nineties (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape also comes to mind,) and using a person with a developmental disability as a poster boy for great and loveable people seems almost pandering in a weird sort of way. Not saying that it’s offensive, but it really does seem a little contrived. The story of Forrest Gump could have panned out exactly the same way if the character wasn’t disabled – it seems like an afterthought rather than fleshed out representation.


The Ringer is a 2005 film starring Johnny Knoxville that is the story of a man who tries to rig the special Olympics by pretending to be developmentally disabled so that he can win the events and in turn make money off of people betting on him. I think this movie is trying to be charming, but it misses the mark so unfortunately. Knoxville’s depiction of a person with developmental disabilities is extremely offensive. The movie does have sort of a good message, however, as Knoxville learns eventually that he shouldn’t underestimate those with mental handicaps.


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