Disability and Movies

One of the things that occupies my mind since watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey last year is Azog. However, it is not the fact that he shouldn’t be alive any more, but his amputation. Actually, the creative decision of, whoever was responsible, creating Azog’s appearance in the movies. I don’t want to discuss the deviations and changes made in the movie. Instead, I want examine the possible symbolism of the Amputation. As some of you know, I’m one-handed myself (a birth defect) so the representation of disabilities in movies and books are of special interest to me. 

 

One thing that I’ve noticed is that if the act of amputation or an amputeee is presented in a movie, often times the amputee is a man. There are, of course, exception (although I can’t think of a female amputee character in a movie), but the vast majority of amputees in movies are still male. Having said that, the percentage of characters with any kind of disability or chronic illness in movies is, still, very minor, though.
 
When thinking of characters with disabilities and chronic illnesses in movies, one has to make at least two distinctions:
  1. A character with a disability/chronic illness played by a able-bodied actor/actress
  2. A character with a disability/chronic illness played by an actor/actress with the disability/chronic illness as portrayed in the movie.
These two distinctions may have very different implications on the representation, development and evaluation of the character portrayed. When searching the internet, one comes across various lists of movies with disabled characters. Here is one such a list, for example. The first thing some might think is “Oh wow, there are such vast amount of movies, that’s awesome!”. No it is not. Not only is it important that a person with a disability appears in a movie, but the way they are portrayed. Often enough, there are recurring stereotypes attached to the stigma of disability. Some of the most common stereotypes are collected on disabilitymovies.com, I will share just a few of them here:
 
  • The disabled person spends the entire movie whining about how they want to die. (Guzaarish)
  • The disabled person dies immediately after imparting a life lesson, inspiring the able-bodied to live their lives to the fullest.
  • Disabled people are filled with a murderous rage. Especially amputees. (Men in Black 3HookThe Secret of the UrnThe Oxford MurdersCenturion)
 
Often enough, these stereotypes occur when an able-bodied person portraits a character with a disability. Again, there are always exception. My main point is that often enough, characters with a disability in a movie are reinforcing the negative stereotypes and stigmatisations of disabilities and chronic illnesses. I’ve encountered only few characters with disabilities whom I could admire. Most of the time, as in the case of Captain Hook, for example, I chose not to think too much about the flaws if the rest of the movie is good enough. Sometimes, one just wants to enjoy a movie, right?
 
I don’t want to spent too much time examining the above mentioned categories in this essay. This topic is too vast to compress it into just one essay. So, in the future, I try to bring my thoughts about disability in movies and books, and the assumed connection of disability and gender into words. Of course, how could I write about disability, specializing on amputations (for obvious reasons), without considering Maedhros and Beren from Tolkien’s The Silmarillion!
 

 

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3 thoughts on “Disability and Movies

  1. The first character that comes to mind is Geordi LaForge of Star Trek: The Next Generation. On the one hand, what a step forward that the Chief Engineer is blind! On the other hand (which I don’t have either, so can I borrow yours?) Geordi is only a useful member of society as long as he wears his prosthesis, like a good little blind boy with the miraculous disability-solving McGuffin. The second that puppy comes off, the man who has been blind since birth fumbles around like someone *just* turned out the lights for the very first time in his life. He suddenly became useless without that visor. I love the good points they made with the character–especially in the episode “The Masterpiece Society” when, in dealing with a community that aborts any child with “imperfections” of any kind, he asks who it was that determined they had the right to decide in his place whether he had a right to live or whether he could ever contribute to society–and I have nothing but love for LeVar Burton, who played the character. BUT! As you say, a sighted actor playing a blind character reminds me of the ethnicity-swapping that led to Mickey Rooney playing Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

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    1. Oh I love Star Trek, they always managed to create characters that defied or challended stereotypes about minorities! Sure they could’ve made it perfect by casting a blind actor, but they did a better job by creating Geordi’s character than most other TV Series (which don’t have any disabled characters or stereotypical, mostly negative depictions)

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      1. True enough. Like I said, they did a lot that was right. I just wish he hadn’t transformed into a quivering mass of uselessness every time the visor came off 🙂

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