Don’t Look to the Movies to Learn About Disability

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The next time you meet a disabled person, throw the films you’ve watched about them out the window and discuss film itself, free of ability.

By Kristen Lopez

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That a movie character has

osteogenesis imperfecta doesn’t mean people with osteogenesis imperfecta identify with him.

(Photo: Buena Vista Pictures)

Like a lot of girls growing up in the 1990s, I wanted to be just like Cher Horowitz in Clueless. There were obvious barriers: We can’t all live like protagonists in a romantic comedy, and I certainly didn’t pass my teenage years in a mansion in Beverly Hills or possess a remarkable computer program that picked out my clothes. But as a teen girl with disabilities, the differences between my life and Cher’s were particularly pointed. I have brittle bone disease and get around in a wheelchair, which means that even some of the more realistic trappings of her life are unattainable to me. I really wanted to drive a “loqued out Jeep” like Cher when I turned 16, for instance, but that wasn’t exactly realistic — her white Wrangler didn’t have a door, and it certainly wasn’t big enough to fit my best buds and my wheelchair at once.

Most of the characters I’ve laughed at, cried for, and identified with at the movies have possessed different abilities than I do. That should come as no surprise, given how few disabled characters appear in movies in the first place: Though 19 to 20 percent of the American population has a disability, the proportion of disabled characters in cinema “hovers at around 1 percent,” according toLawrence Carter-Long, a public affairs specialist at the National Council on Disability. What characters do exist are often archetypal and, usually, buzzkills—in his 1991 study, disabled writer and activist Paul Hunt identified 10 major tropes in particular, including a person who is “non-sexual,” “pitiable and pathetic,” or an object of “curiosity or violence.”

As a film critic for the past 10 years, I’ve nevertheless often fielded questions about how I identify with these disabled types at the movies. This kind of curiosity is often well-intentioned, but it operates on an erroneous presumption. Just because I’m disabled, and that movie character you know is, too, doesn’t mean we share anything in common. Nor does it mean that the character in question has insight to give about the real experience of being disabled. Films are works meant to entertain and unite us, but they aren’t the gospel truth; films about disability, in particular, aim less for authenticity than commercial potential. As a disabled person who feels deeply about the movies — I began writing film criticism because of that — I haven’t formed abiding connections with most characters who have disabled characteristics, despite our surface-level similarities.

As a kid, the first disabled characters I remember seeing at the movies weren’t encouraging or inspiring for me—they were just plain scary.

Consider the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. As fantasy characters, the Munchkins’ diminutive statures indicate who they are in Oz, rather than in the real world. Nevertheless, the Munchkins have long been associated with disability in pop culture. Robert Bogdan includes a section on the Munchkins and the disabled typecasting they represent — “characters whom a viewer cannot take seriously” — in his book Picturing Disability: Beggar, Freak, Citizen, and Other Photographic Rhetoric. Personally, I’ve been asked numerous times if I have dwarfism, and have even been compared specifically to the Munchkins: A few years ago in a mall bathroom, when a small child asked her mother what was “wrong” with me, her mother replied that I was “special,” like the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz.

Though dwarves have, as Bogdan writes, historically provided comic relief in Hollywood movies, as a kid I took the Munchkins very seriously. Watching The Wizard of Oz was the first time I remember feeling frightened by the concept of disability.

Watching The Wizard of Oz was the first time I remember feeling frightened by the concept of disability.

While I’m on the milder end of my disability’s spectrum, it comes with its own blend of deformities. When I watched the Munchkins as a child, I first began to fear these long-term ramifications of brittle bones. With their shellacked hair and make-up, coupled with their oddly lock-step kicks, the Lollipop Guild seemed like a cartoonish and over-the-top exaggeration of my own disability. Though deformities are generally fixed before puberty, improperly healed fractures can result in similar complications late in life, and despite the fact that I’ve had surgeries and other real-life complications, it was the Munchkins, dancing in their candy-coated dreamscape, that gave me nightmares.

Years later, Zelda from Pet Sematary, who suffers from spinal meningitis, inspired a similar momentary crisis. The mangled, deformed sister of the matriarch at the center of the film’s events, one who goes mad and eventually haunts her sister, Zelda is a chilling character in general. But Zelda was especially horrifying to an impressionable, disabled young film viewer like myself. Checking up on WebMD after a screening, I learned that scoliosis is common in patients like me; that knowledge, paired with memories of Zelda’s cinematically bent and broken back, left me shaken by the prospect that I, too, could be a Zelda one day.

Of course, these were all pretty juvenile fears. Growing up as a disabled film viewer, I quickly developed a healthy conception of the difference between the movies and real life. I couldn’t emulate Cher and Dionne’s trek onto the freeway in Clueless until 10 years after I turned 16 because my high school didn’t offer behind-the-wheel driver’s education to the disabled, for instance, and my dream of recreating Claire Danes’ angel costume from Romeo + Julietwas complicated by the fact that wings that big wouldn’t fit the width of my wheelchair. I learned early on that the movie characters I loved weren’t necessarily the movie characters that I had much in common with.

That I couldn’t exactly re-create the lives of my cinematic heroes didn’t mean I identified any less with Danes or Ringwald — or any more with disabled characters. We all, at some point in our lives, fail to perfectly emulate our heroes, an experience that doesn’t necessarily diminish our interest in them.

It’s all too easy to forget that aspect of our collective cinephilia, however, when movies reduce a community to a few token characters. When Savedcame out in 2004, one friend told me that I should dress like Macaulay Culkin’s character, Roland, does for Halloween and be a rollerskate (in the film, Culkin’s character also uses a wheelchair). I’m still unsure whether the comment was meant in jest; I’ve never viewed my wheelchair as anything other than a conveyance to get from one place to another.

When M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakablewas released in 2000, it became one of the few movies to ever represent my disability, osteogenesis imperfecta. After its release, the movie came up in conversations with friends, acquaintances, and perfect strangers alike. “Oh, like Samuel L. Jackson in Unbreakable?” I heard often, after sharing the name of my disability. (Despite the disdain with which other critics treat the director now, people still mention the film when they talk to me.)

Friends and strangers aren’t rude to bring up disabled characters in conversation. It can be discomfiting, though, when able-bodied people assume these movies harbor some kind of anthropological truth. These pictures are, to be sure, very strategic releases. A 2008 British study conducted by the BFI and UKFC saw “40% of respondents thought there were too few films about disabled people.” The majority of films in this small genre either see their release during awards season (from 1989’s My Left Footto 2014’s The Theory of Everything) or are general audience melodramas in the vein of Nicholas Sparks movies (like 2012’s Rust and Boneor this year’s Me Before You). Disabled films, it seems, are intended either to win Oscars or to jerk tears, not to embrace the disabled community.

We all, at some point in our lives, fail to perfectly emulate our heroes, an experience that doesn’t necessarily diminish our interest in them.

Of course, as a critic, I’ve also been fortunate to discover great movies that give me hope that cinema about disability is improving, even consulting the disabled community. Last year’s Becoming Bulletproof, a documentary about a camp for disabled actors was one such film. Not only did it lift the veil regarding Hollywood’s most irritating element for disabled film viewers — actors who aren’t disabled playing said characters — it also explored how disabled people are interested in proper representation outside of the sad tales of woe about the “perils” of disability.

The horror genre has also admirably portrayed disability in recent years. Horror has been known to transform victimized and traumatized characters into warriors with newfound agency, and recent pictures like Hushand Curse of Chuckyare no different. These films have placed disabled women in the driver’s seat, not only enabling them to save themselves when the evil menace arrives, but also to live lives free of despair before. Neither film exploits their protagonists’ disabilities as a means of amplifying their victimhood as stalked characters. Rather, they adapt them to the situations at hand, acknowledging these characters’ disabilities, and incorporating them as elements that can help to aid in their survival.

The growing body of horror movies that address disability reveals the extent to which Hollywood characterizations are not fact. As someone confined to a wheelchair, I’ve never had to battle a vengeful stalker or outwit a possessed doll. Few people have; but that hasn’t stopped the horror genre from being one of the most lucrative in the business. No matter our abilities or experiences, film viewers identify with a multitude of characters. We may never be able to emulate their exact circumstances — but the fantasy, and the transcendent ways we connect with them, is part of the appeal.

Part of me still wishes I was Cher from Clueless. But I wasn’t alone: We all failed to be Cher, either by lacking her family’s money or her impossibly straight, blonde hair. Cher’s life was a fantasy, and a shared interest in that fiction was what unified those of us who loved her, no matter our abilities. Take it from me: If you want to understand some small microcosm of a disabled person’s life, throw the films you’ve watched about them out the window. Discuss film itself, free of ability. You may be surprised to discover you have more in common than you think.

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