Last night, the Oscars results showed that we are moving forward when it comes to representation of disability in film. The Shape of Water – a film featuring a disabled character and uses sign language – won best film (although a disabled actor playing her would have been even better). The Silent Child – which stars a six-year-old deaf British actress and tells the story of her struggle to communicate in a hearing world, won best live action short film.
In this blog, Max Dean, a film lover and writer, reflects on the history of disability in film.
As a fan of horror films, I realise that the representation of disability in this particular genre are, largely quite negative; the most recent and controversial case being M Night Shyamalan’s Split from last year starring James McAvoy.
Before and after the release professionals with patients of dissociative identity disorder (DID) expressed understandable concern over the stigma that the film could place with those living with the condition. Yet, just like Psycho’s portrayal of a real-life mental-health condition, the portrayal of DID in Split is nonsense. People with DID are no more prone to violence than any non-DID person.
Disability in historical cinema
In contrast, one of my favourite films of all time; James Whales’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935), has arguably, perhaps one of the most touching scenes with a disabled character in the history of cinema. To me, it perfectly captures the loneliness that those in the disabled community can face due to misunderstanding across our society and its preconceived perceptions.
In this sequence our main character, Frankenstein’s ‘monster’ comes across an older man with blindness who is living on his own in the woods, shunned by the villagers we see in other scenes who chase the ‘monster’ across the countryside. He befriends our main character. They provide each other with the one thing each has wished for; a friend and companion. The ‘monster’ himself is similarly treated as a monster due to his appearance and supposedly limited and baby like intellect. It is only when villagers come into his home and confront them both that he loses his friend.
In this context, disability is rather refreshingly, seen as a virtue and played in a positive and indeed, very humane light.
Disabled people must be given a genuine voice
A more recent film which has comparable character arcs in its story to the Bride of Frankenstein is The Shape of Water. Due to Sally Hawkins’ excellent performance this has won plaudits as a breakthrough in the cinematic presentation of disabled characters. With this however, it also raises the question of non-disabled actors playing disabled characters.
To show that cinema really embraces disabled people as equals, the film industry must therefore give disabled people a genuine voice. This can be achieved by not only giving more roles to disabled actors but the directors chair itself. Yes, these roles can be sympathetic, but they also must be truly empowered characters.
That would be a truer sign than any, that, we as a society have truly changed to embrace disability and recognised the worth of everyone in it.
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