Disabled People on Screen: Dream a little bigger
By Sandy Olson
Science fiction films are some of the most elaborate art we have access to: they have huge budgets and can involve hundreds of people working on the films. They have audiences in the millions. The stories are projected on giant screens and they have incredible transportive power.
Movies are myth-creation. Unfortunately, disabled people are not served well in these myths. In order to create the futures we want to see, we need to destroy and remake our myths. We need to create new cultural ideas of what it means to be disabled. As a disabled movie lover, and as an ardent science fiction fan, I want SF movies to love me back. I want to be able to stop settling for crumbs. To paraphrase Eames in Christopher Nolan’s film “Inception”: We mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darlings.
In 2017 I saw the new Guillermo del Toro movie, a beautiful monster fairy tale, “The Shape of Water.” Elisa (pronounced like Eliza), is a mute young woman who communicates in a form of sign language. But the actor, Sally Hawkins, is not mute and is not a sign language user in her own life. Her sign language appears robotic, unpracticed; Hawkins has not spent years communicating in this language the way most sign language users do. It’s awkward in a similar way to hearing an English-speaking actor badly attempt to speak Russian or Spanish, but with an added burn: we almost never get to see sign language on film. It’s a missed opportunity: the director and producers could have hired an actress who knows ASL (American Sign Language). ASL coaches are listed in the credits of the Shape of Water. The film producers spent money on coaches; why not hire an ASL-using actress, and interpreters?
Elisa in this film has friends who are other oppressed people: a gay neighbor, and a black woman that she works with. Both of these people understand Elisa’s sign language. Together they are a coalition who unite to save Elisa’s love interest, an amphibious man.
What Elisa lacks, however, is a disabled community. Sign language users know each other; they communicate with each other; their language creates a community. That is rather the point of having a shared language. Here was another missed opportunity for the film to show us multiple disabled people in community with one another.
Elisa has a dream sequence where she dances with her lover. In this scene, Hawkins sings aloud. The audience is reminded that we aren’t really seeing a disabled person on screen. Perhaps some viewers are reassured– look! In her fantasy world, she sings! As a disabled viewer, I was disappointed. In Elisa’s fantasy, she’s not disabled. It stings to see this. The scene undermines the power of the disabled heroine by, briefly, undoing and erasing her identity. We see her actively wish she isn’t the person that she is. The sequence seems to want to say that Elisa’s love gives her power, gives her voice: but instead it reminds us that disability isn’t valued. Her actual voice, her sign language, is taken away.
In 2017 I went to see the Wonder Woman film. Many of my friends and wider community adored this film, and for good reason. I am not here to tell people not to love this film. But I am a dreamer, and my dreams surpass what I see on screen. I am practicing dreaming a little bigger.
One of the film’s villains is Dr. Maru (played by non-disabled actress Elena Anaya), is a brilliant chemist with a facial difference. She wears a prosthetic to cover scars on her face, a practice that was common in the World War I period, when the film is set. Many soldiers had facial injuries due to shrapnel, leading to the advent of plastic (reconstructive) surgery and brilliantly designed facial prosthetics. It would be fascinating to see this rich history explored in a film. Instead we see a fairly one-dimensional character who plays into the disfigured villain trope.
What is a movie-goer with a facial difference meant to take away from the experience of seeing Wonder Woman? Perhaps she sees herself as the villain, a person spared in an act of mercy by our perfectly beautiful heroine.
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” features yet another such villain: the mysterious Snoke, played by non-disabled actor Andy Serkis. Snoke has facial differences and scarring. Star Wars has a long and difficult relationship to disabled characters, and Snoke is merely the latest example. Luke Skywalker is one of the few and welcome exceptions to this trend: he’s a hero with a prosthetic hand. A hero that disabled people can identify with.
When we see, again and again, disabled people positioned as villains, associations form in our brains, creating a poisonous myth that disability, and disabled people, are evil. We learn to avoid or be suspicious of visibly disabled people, and of disability itself. These stories have real-world consequences. People with disabilities endure violence, harassment, and institutional barriers that limit our full participation in society. We are passed over for jobs or fired from jobs. We do not have marriage equality in the United States, because getting married can mean losing disability benefits. Some disabled people labor under legal slavery, earning as little as 6 cents an hour, in segregated workspaces called sheltered workshops.
In many science fiction stories, the fate of disabled characters is that they die. In the infamous final season of Battlestar: Galactica, Felix Gaeta, a character with a prosthetic leg, is executed. Laura Roslin dies from cancer. Officer Dualla dies from suicide. Sam Anders, who has been injured, is condemned to pilot the fleet of ships into the Sun, destroying all technology that might assist disabled people. In the 1997 science fiction film “Gattaca,” the disabled character dies at the end, from suicide.
How are disabled people supposed to cope with futures (or imagined pasts) in which we are represented in violent, careless ways?
In my mind and in my heart, I am dreaming of better myths for us. I dream of worlds where disabled people are fully included. Where disability access is a given, and differences in physical and mental abilities are valued. Worlds where disabled people can be complex heroes in giant Hollywood science fiction films. Where disabled people are in community with one another. Worlds in which we get to live our full lives.
Roger Ebert said in the documentary “Life Itself”: “the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”
What does it tell us when most of the people we learn to empathize with, through these empathy machines we call movies, are non-disabled?
In a capitalist system, a healthy, non-disabled body is one that can work. One is supposed to be a “productive member of society.” If a body is not productive, it is forgotten, or portrayed as bad and wrong, in our cultural myths. An irony of our capitalist system is that many disabled people are unemployed due to barriers involving access to work, or due to discrimination.
In Wonder Woman, there is a nice moment when Charlie, a member of Diana’s party who has PTSD (or, shell shock), cannot perform his duties. “Maybe you’re better off without me,” he says. Diana responds with great kindness: “No, Charlie. Who will sing for us?” While this line may appear to still be focusing on Charlie’s abilities or usefulness, Diana’s tone makes it clear that she is saying: we value you as you are. You are enough.
In Mad Max: Fury Road, Furiosa is a fierce disabled heroine who overthrows her oppressors and saves the day. Game of Thrones and the Star Trek franchise also feature positive portrayals of disabled people. In 2017’s Star Trek: Discovery, a disabled actor, George Alevizos, portrays a disabled character in a minor role. I want every science fiction TV show and movie to follow these examples.
Let us create myths that value disabled people as human beings. Myths that accept bodies and souls in Star Trek’s Vulcan ideology: infinite diversity and infinite complexity. Let us demand more; let us dream a little bigger.
Thank you to dimensionwitch and Jesse the K for reading this essay over and offering feedback.