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May 1998, Week 2


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Martin F Norden <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 11 May 1998 02:14:56 -0400
Martin F Norden <[log in to unmask]>
TEXT/PLAIN (56 lines)
On Wed, 6 May 1998, William A Goodman wrote:
> Thanks to all who responded to my request regarding films and
> disabilities.  On the subject of scarcity, I don't consider 25 films
> featuring disabled characters to be very many in relation to all the
> films available.  Think how many more films examine gender or race
> relations in comparison.  Also, the films that most know of that feature
> disabled characters center around their struggles with their
> disabilities.  There are little, if any, films that feature disabled
> characters simply living their lives along with the rest of society.
> Just like other minorities, we disabled people are here in society, but
> are drastically underrepresented in film.  Any comments?
A couple of thoughts, William.  With regard to the sheer number of films
with disabled characters, let me say that the ones mentioned in this
thread constitute a mere fraction of the films out there.  Years ago, when
I was researching my book, I consulted the AFI catalogs and looked up such
key terms as "amputation," "blindness," "disabled persons," "invalids,"
"paralysis," "paraplegia," and so on.  I learned that there were more
than 400 movies *during the 1910s and 1920s alone* that depicted people
with disabilities, and that number doesn't include the countless one- and
two-reelers.  (I hesitate to cite a specific figure based on the AFI
catalogs, since they're not infallible.  They don't note, for example,
that the John Gilbert character in _The Big Parade_ loses a leg or that
the female lead in _The Strong Man_ is blind.)  Anyway, my point is that
hundreds, if not thousands, of films with disabled characters have
been produced over the years.
I do agree with your second point, though.  When Hollywood filmmakers
aren't associating disability with consummate goodness or consummate evil
(or slapstick comedy), they frequently treat it as a problem to be
"overcome."  They have almost always framed the struggle as a "tragedy and
triumph" sort of thing and placed the burden squarely on the individual.
Their movies suggest that sheer strength of character is sufficient to win
the day (often in the form of a climactic passing-for-able-bodied scene)
in a world where such nasties as discrimination and architectural barriers
seldom raise their ugly heads and wise able-bodied people save the
disabled folks from themselves.  Hollywood has occasionally moved beyond
the "problem-picture" level to recreate the everyday-ness of disability
(e.g., several relatively low-key moments in _Coming Home_ and _The
Player_), but such instances are rare.  The incidental treatment of
disability in the movies, it seems, is still a long way off.
--Marty Norden
          Martin F. Norden
  OO      Dept. of Communication, Box 34815      [log in to unmask]
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