Holly Williams on Disability and the Media

By June 11, 2015Disability, Lifestyle
The author Holly Williams

One of my favourite ways to chill out and relax in the evenings is to head online and listen to one of the many podcasts that pepper the internet. Fairly near the top of my list of ‘must catch’ shows is the one produced by the comedy website Cracked. They specialise in picking apart pop culture to find out why films, TV and music are a certain way and how that affects us as the audience. One of their latest episodes involved them turning their critical eye on the way Hollywood portrays certain groups, including the blind and physically disabled. Of course, we all know that characters with impairments are few and far between in the mass media and that there should be a lot more out there but it is quite interesting and enlightening to take a critical look at the characters that are out there.

Back when I was at college, I took A Level Media Studies, a large portion of which was learning about film making and the shorthand that directors use to tell an enjoyable story in a relatively short amount of time. Audiences need to be able to know who and what a character is, almost immediately, just by looking at them. So in the relatively rare cases of a film or series showing someone with, lets say, a visual impairment they are given recognisable indications to make this apparent – a white cane, a guide dog, dark glasses. But the fact is many blind people do not use these. This has lead, according to Cracked, to the bizarre phenomena of people meeting ‘real life’ blind people and thinking they’re ‘faking’ because they don’t ‘look’ blind.

It is a very strange situation to be in when people are questioning the authenticity of someone’s impairment, based on what they know about it from, not the actual person or even a medical expert but from what is shown to us in fiction. And yet it is something we all do, no matter how bright and accepting we are. We are bombarded by orchestrated images every day from the moment we enter the world, it’s impossible to ignore them. I’ve never met someone from Australia but if you ask me to describe a typical Aussie I might say no ­nonsense, friendly, out ­going surfer ­type who likes a beer. The weird thing is I know, as an intelligent person, that the description I gave is a stereotype; an unreal image I’ve built up because of what I’ve seen in the media but I can’t stop it colouring my expectations.

But where it gets really scary is when you start taking a look at the sort of plots and story­lines disabled characters feature in. Broadly, I think you can categorise these into two piles. Firstly, you get the ‘issue’ based programmes, where the disabled character is featured so that the able­ bodied protagonist can learn something about being a better person. A lot of such stories are really well-meaning, setting out to show that just because someone is disabled it doesn’t mean that they’re not a normal person, but a lot of the time because the programme is focused on the issue of ‘disability’ the whole exercise under­mines itself. The able­ bodied protagonist’s prejudices are just a challenge that they have to overcome. Once they’ve done that, grown and become a ‘better person,’ what further purpose does the disabled character serve? They are just an avatar for a challenge in the main story.

Speaking of avatars moves me on to the second problem writers and directors seem to have with disabled characters. The disturbing assumption that if you are disabled (particularly if you acquire your disability) your life is not worth living in that body. Films like Avatar, Million Dollar Baby, Inside I’m Dancing and Simon Birch all seem to believe that disabled people find life so unbearably hard that they would be better off dead (or, in the case of Avatar, an 8 foot tall blue cat/alien). Look, I’m the first to admit living with a physical impairment is an emotional struggle and bloody hard at times but should we really be showing death, and in a lot of cases suicide, as a viable, even noble option. The fact is the majority of disabled people live fulfilling, enjoyable lives.

A survey of people with acquired disabilities showed that after the initial stages of shock and grief their overall level of happiness returns to the same level it was before. So why does Hollywood love showing disability as a problem only answerable by death? Is it because movies and movie stars worship the cult of outward physical perfection? Maybe, but I have another theory. Movies, the best movies, are successful because they tap into our basest feelings and emotions; joy, fear, sadness. Most people have an unconscious fear of their own mortality; the fragility of this bag of flesh, bones and nerves that carries us around every day. Seeing disabled people is a reminder that the human body can stop working properly in a million ways. It makes us ask ‘how would I cope if I lose my sight/speech/use of my legs?’ Most people don’t know the answer to that question. Better to portray disabled people as a removed subsection of society, safe behind a barrier of wheelchairs, white sticks and social oddities than show them as ‘normal’ people. Or better yet, let their story­lines end in an honourable demise that solves all their problems.

But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Now and again, you turn on TV and see something that gives you hope. Case and point, the recent police drama Vera on ITV which featured a physically disabled actress as one of the officers assisting with the murder investigations. The character was shown as a competent member of the team, capable at her job but regularly badgered by the world ­weary detective, just like the rest of the team. Nothing about the role said ‘disability’ apart from the fact the actress in it just happened to have an impairment, showing that disabled characters can be included in a way that is neither patronising, tokenistic or pitying.

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