As we all know, it’s much easier to complain than it is to create, so I’m going to look at a few disabled characters and stories dealing with disability. For full disclosure, I’m disabled, so might have some different perspectives to an able-bodied person.
Let’s start with someone who a lot of people will recognise, even if they don’t identify him as ‘disabled’; Tyrion Lannister.
Played by Peter Dinklage, who was born with achondroplasia, a common form of dwarfism, Tyrion Lannister is, what some may refer to as, a ‘little person’.
What Tyrion lacks in stature, he makes up for in personality; likely intentionally. While I don’t have dwarfism, I am a ‘little person’ and I understand the need to shout to be heard, both metaphorically and literally! Like a lot of little people and indeed wheelchair users like myself, Tyrion will be used to being spoken over. So, how do you combat this? You make yourself really difficult to ignore!
Tyrion is definitely memorable and, I would argue, one of the favourites of the huge GoT cast. Probably because Tyrion is so real; he demonstrates the internal struggles a lot of disabled people experience: self-loathing, doubt at his [in]abilities, anger at his inability to achieve simple, taken-for-granted tasks, and society’s preconceived ideas towards him as a dwarf:
Tyrion is acknowledging the world will always see him first and foremost as a dwarf, so uses this as armour against the prejudices he faces. It’s like he’s saying, “Yeah, I’m disabled, so??”, which puts those trying to insult his disability at a disadvantage. I’d say Tyrion was a good example of characterisation, in that he is neither represented as inspiration porn, nor is he bitter and twisted, with suicidal thoughts every few seconds. Yes, Tyrion doubts himself and his abilities but, rather than focusing on his disability in a negative way, he uses it to his advantage. MORE: What Is A Hero?
2) Bolivar Trask – X-Men: Days of Future Past
Another character Dinklage has recently played, this time on the big screen. Last portrayed by African-American actor Bill Duke, in X-Men: The Last Stand, this incarnation caused quite a stir. Surely, by recasting this character from a black 6 foot 2 man to a white little person, director Bryan Singer, along with his casting team, were trying to say something about disability, right?
Maybe, but it isn’t obvious, as Trask’s disability is not mentioned once throughout the film, which I think is BRILLIANT. Why does a character’s disability have to be highlighted? Why can’t they just be?? While my disability motivates me in some of my actions, it doesn’t dictate my whole entire life; I’m a person too. I loved the fact the Trask was just some clever bloke who built some big robot things, played by an talented actor who, seemingly, wasn’t cast because of his disability.
However, many viewers didn’t like the fact Trask’s disability wasn’t referred to, arguing it had to impact on his personality, ie. his hate for the mutant race. I think this is problematic, as it assumes Trask hates mutants “’cos he is one, and therefore hates himself.” YIKES!
But, maybe there is truth to this: in an interview with Screenrant.com, Dinklage himself discusses how he wanted to play Trask, stating the character has “[Strove] all his life for a certain respect and attention.” Both Tyrion and Trask are used to being treated as lesser beings and, literally overlooked. Either way, I’m still pleased to see a disabled character who isn’t immediately pointed at by a champion of State-The-Obvious shouting ‘LOOK, A LITTLE GUY’.
All this said, it’s important to note that while some may read Trask as anti-mutant because he is one, others will be him as just a brainy dude, who happens to be played by a small dude and that’s fine. Neither reading is wrong or right, as different images mean different things to different people and there SHOULD be room for such multiple readings in good characterisation. MORE: Diversity Versus Reality: Representation in X MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST
3) Will Traynor – Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes
In Me Before You, Will becomes paralysed after an accident and Louisa, who has no prior experience of caring, takes on the role of his carer/enabler/PA. Will experiences depression following his accident and decides to end his life at Dignitas – the Swiss group that specialises in assisting the terminally ill to die.
As much as I love this book, I find some of its ideas regarding disability and love problematic. First, it would appear Lou was hired as Will’s ‘last chance’ (or at least his family’s final attempt to get him to change his mind). Lou is coerced into helping Will find a reason to live (basically, showing him what he’d be missing). Yet Will has made his mind up and, while he admits to Lou that he’s had some of the best times of his life with her, he still doesn’t want to live. Cue Louisa, who’s fallen in love with Will, asking him to live for her …
To me, this reads as Louisa becoming the poster girl for the ableist assumption that, if a disabled person finds love, they’ll not only be FINE, they’ll be ‘saved’ … This will mean Will’s depression will miraculously be lifted because he is loved. Yet mental illness (and indeed, other more physical illnesses/disabilities), cannot be cured/fought by love. However, Lou assumes her love will be enough to make Will change his mind and relinquish that last bit of control he has left over his life: how, when and where he dies.
Now, control is often a huge thing for disabled people: I believe I get very obsessive about certain things as a way of compensating for the fact I can’t control other stuff. Thus, by taking this control away from Will, I think his family and Lou are disabling him further, while placing their needs way above his, ie:
“You don’t need to die, because you’re loved, and that makes up for the fact you’ll be in constant pain and discomfort for the rest of your life.”
Via Twitter, I asked author Jojo Moyes five short questions, including whether quality of life is connected to romance. While Moyes said no, it wasn’t about romance, she did say it was about love. Unfortunately this still doesn’t quite work for me: if we’re not loved, we have no quality of life? And if we are loved, that makes everything fine and dandy? Nope. Sorry! 😉
But regardless of how problematic I find that assumption (or indeed the fact I still love the book, remember!), we’ve still got a story in which a disabled man wants to die in the first place. Yawn. Why can’t we have a fictional paraplegic who doesn’t want to die, for a change?? They do exist!
4) Stephen Hawking – The Theory of Everything
There has been serious debate on twitter surrounding able-bodied actors playing disabled characters. First things first, it is physically and emotionally more possible for an able-bodied person to play someone who becomes disabled, than for a disabled person to act abled. I think it’d be morally wrong, plus impractical, for a director to cast a disabled person, then ask them to act not disabled for a bit. Thus, in such cases, it’s unavoidable and the right decision.
Yet, I wish more disabled people were cast — and not just because they’re disabled. Yes, I’d like to see a greater number of disabled characters on screen, addressing more disability-specific stories and yes, I’d like these characters to be played by disabled people. But we need more disabled actors cast because they’re great actors, and because they were better for that role, not because a disabled actor was needed “to show what XYZ disability looks like”.
We need more stories about disabled people doing normal, mundane, things, like going to school/uni, working (“You have a JOB?”), raising a family, living. We have Coronation Street‘s Izzy Armstrong (Cherylee Houston), who doesn’t seem to have been cast because she’s disabled, as it’s rare her disability is at the forefront of any plotlines. The only time her disability became pivotal was when Izzy and her boyfriend Gary were trying for a baby and, due to Izzy’s condition (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome), she was unable to carry to full term. This led to a huge storyline concerning surrogacy, and no longer became about Izzy’s disability, but her fight to be a mother, something that can affect anyone!
If you want to cast a disabled actor? GREAT! But don’t do so just because they’re disabled. Cast a disabled actor because they’re right for that role. If you can’t hire a disabled actor, or your character is someone who becomes disabled, then make it clear you’ve done your research, by speaking to people with that specific disability; maybe even include them in press releases and interviews, etc. At least this way, audiences know that even if you haven’t cast a disabled person, you’re doing as much as you can to represent the true nature of their disability. Finally, don’t represent your disabled character as bitter, lonely, in need of love as the ANSWER PUHLEASE! Show a bit of diversity, yeah? MORE: What is “inspiration porn”?
BIO: @SciPhiKat is aPhD student at The University of Exeter, studying ageing femininities and the mother-daughter relationship in the fairy tale film. She co-admins @EverydayAbleism and @bdcmuseum, where she regularly volunteers as an archivist. She met David Tennant and shared actual words with him in June, 2014.