The problem with disability portrayals

10 August 2021
It’s sad for me to admit this, but at 33 years of age, I’ve rarely experienced any genuine connection to the disabled characters I’ve seen in film and on TV.

When I was about ten years old, my sisters and I watched E True Hollywood Story. For those unfamiliar, it was a tawdry show that covered the events that took place behind the scenes of your most beloved celebrities, TV shows and movies. One episode covered the 1980s sitcom, The Facts of Life. The show had a reoccurring character named Cousin Geri (Geri Jewell). She regularly appeared on the show from 1980-1984.  For its time, it was considered ground-breaking as Jewell has cerebral palsy. For me, however, sitting in my parents’ living room and watching Geri walking around a TV set bearing a t-shirt that read: “I don’t have cerebral palsy I’m drunk” felt repulsive. 

The episode cut away to an interview where Jewell described the barrage of letters, she received crediting her as an inspiration to countless people. The show liked to show Geri off like a badge of progressive honour. My sister turned to me and said, “look, Natalie, she’s just like you.” and just as vividly as I remember my sister’s words, I remember my response, “No, she isn’t.” 

The more unfortunate and less known reality behind this tale of inspiration, is that her contract was not renewed after four years of appearing on the show. Her then manager was arrested for fraud and embezzlement. Jewell was broke and developed an addiction to sleeping pills (in part due to her CP). Around this same time, she had to promote a book about her life of which she wasn’t the author. Jewell would later say that she was “mortified” by the book. However, if she refused to promote it, she risked being sued by the publisher. In a way, Geri was forced to portray an image of overcoming adversity while still falling prey to the exploitation people with disabilities constantly skirt to avoid. 

My ten-year-old self was unforgiving of Jewell, but my older self sees someone trying to hustle and survive, and I have to respect that.  

Twenty years later, the outside world’s impression of what I might find relatable hasn’t changed much. I still get personal messages from people saying, “you should watch this”, or “there was this hilarious comedian with CP on TV the other night”, or “have you seen Love on the Spectrum?” That last one is particularly unforgiving as I don’t even have autism. If I watch these types of shows, I don’t see something designed to speak to me. I see something designed to speak to everybody else. 

There’s always a difficult challenge in depicting disability on screen. Creating realistic and honest portrayals requires the delicate ability to acknowledge the impact of disability while creating a narrative outside of it.  

The result is typically a saccharine, surface-level portrayal. The disabled hero is used as a conduit, a lesson to be learned from; these depictions create a distorted version of what a disabled life looks and feels like. When watching these stories, I have to sort of cringe, and I wonder what people see when they see me? 

Aside from producing boring cliches, the overall narrative fails to acknowledge any real obstacles that people with disabilities frequently deal with, obstacles that ironically would tell a much more fascinating story.  

Most recently, I was sent a clip of RJ Mitte’s latest project – Triumph. Mitte’s biggest claim to fame is his appearance as Walt Jr. in Breaking Bad. Seeing Walt Jnr for the first time in 2008, I knew I was watching something different from the portrayals of the past. His disability was present and authentically cast, but it wasn’t a sentimental centrepiece of the story. Instead, he existed as a son and a brother. He could be the sullen and bratty teenager but could also be wildly perceptive of the events around him. It was nothing short of refreshing. 

Despite being part of one of the most critically acclaimed cast ensembles ever, Mitte admitted in a 2019 interview that in the years following the show, he was still being offered roles that didn’t go beyond “drooling in a wheelchair.” While he continues to actively work and be heavily involved in initiatives that aim to improve representation, he has frequently described acting with a disability as being perceived as a ‘liability, and there is a constant drive to make 'woke’ awareness but still heated debate around the lack of authentic casting and real parts.  

Within that period, actors like Peter Dinklage have created a much-needed reinvention of disabled characters on screen. The actor has admitted that early in his career, he frequently had to turn down roles that wanted to cast him as a leprechaun, saying once, “Dwarves are still the butt of jokes. It's one of the last bastions of acceptable prejudice.” 

Even in his earliest roles, it was clear that Dinklage was swimming against the Hollywood current. His first film role as Tito in Living in Oblivion took aim at the stereotypical parts he had once been offered. By his forties, Dinklage was gaining critical acclaim for his performance in Game of Thrones and earning a reported $500,000 per episode during its final season.

It is remarkable to consider that an actor of his stature could gain such success, considering that in the decades prior, actors with dwarfism were constantly relegated to play degrading characters that served as a constant source of ridicule.  

Yet, despite this, actors with disabilities still struggle, and Hollywood continues to produce films that regurgitate the familiar and tired narrative of the inspiring disabled underdog. As Mitte himself has said, “We need characters that are real, that have real heart, that have real soul and are disabled, but that (disabilities) doesn’t matter.” 

This opinion piece was written by Natalie Corrigan. Natalie is CPSN's Membership and Communications Officer and has lived experience with cerebral palsy. Natalie also hosts CP Diaries - a video series exploring the lives and personal stories of people living with cerebral palsy.

Here is the latest episode of CP Diaries - Nat is interviewing Liz on the topic of self-care.

Would you like to share your story? Get in touch with Natalie on (03) 9478 1001 or via email: cpsn@cpsn.org.au

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