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May 1998, Week 2


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
susan crutchfield <[log in to unmask]>
Sat, 9 May 1998 15:54:50 -0400
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
TEXT/PLAIN (69 lines)
On the fact that most disabled characters in film are played by people who
identify as nondisabled--  I've thought about this a bit for a piece on
the intersection of disability studies and film studies that I wrote for
Disability Studies Quarterly (coming out in an issue this year):
Certainly almost all the disabled characters in film from the beginning
have been played by nondisabled actors. But you might remember the silent
short in which a man is run over by a car, resulting in a
supposedly comical dismemberment but not death--a
real double-leg amputee played that character;  the "freaks" in
*Freaks* were famously disabled themselves; also, a couple of weeks
ago a disabled man played a disabled character in an "ER" episode on
television, so maybe things are changing a bit.  Of course, the currently
most famous example of a disabled person playing same in film is Marlee
Matlin playing a deaf woman in *Children of a Lesser God*.  By the way,
she portrayed a hearing woman in a made-for-tv-movie--so things can even
go both ways.
I think the star system has something to do with the fact that so many d/a
characters get the nondisabled star treatment:  Dustin Hoffman, Tom Hanks,
Audrey Hepburn, etc.  We think of disability as the ultimate difference,
and therefore the ultimate acting challenge for a nondisabled person.  To
remake oneself in the image of a disabled person is to imagine oneself at
the very end (even the bottom) of the spectrum of difference--both
physical and mental. I also think that nondisabled audience members gain a
sense of security in knowing that the actor will change back to his/her
"normal", "whole" self at the end of the performance.
Speaking of "performance", Kaja Silverman has some interesting things to
say about the problems of disabled people playing disabled characters in
her book on male masochism.  She discusses the role of the actor who plays
the double-arm amputee war vet in *Home of the Brave* (hope I'm
remembering the correct film title--I've blanked on the actor's name):
having him reveal the stumps of his own really amputated arms in one of
the film's climactic scenes raises some problems as well as solving
others. How do we deal with the kind of misguided pathos and pity that
such a "performance" of real physical difference brings about?
Certainly, we have different roles for disabled characters now, and that
is one thing that is necessary for change to come about. (But the *ER*
episode struck me as still not quite the right way to go.)
One more point about why so few disabled actors in films:  the movie
industry still hasn't come around to see disabled people (probably the
largest minority group in the country) as a market segment (which shows
up in the fact that so many cinema theater showings are
physically inaccessible in a  variety of ways), and therefore doesn't
consider them when casting parts.  The hiring of disabled
actors/directors/staff would be, I think, a great incentive for the
disabled movie-going public to come out to see or hear a film.
A final anecdote on that point.  I co-directed a conference on disability
and the arts here at the University of Michigan, and when I approached the
local not-for-profit movie theater with the prospect of showing a few
disability-related films (*When Billy Broke His Head and Other Tales of
Wonder*, by Billy Golfus; and *In the Land of the Deaf*, a french film; to
name two possibilities), he said he couldn't do that because he had to be
sure to fill up his theater with viewers.   @$**^@!  A month later, the
place was packed when he showed *When Billy Broke...*.  I felt slightly
Other thoughts?
Susan Crutchfield
University of Michigan
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