• SETH REVIEWS, SETHICS 25.01.2015

    In the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde claims, “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” I’m not sure if everyone quoted below would agree with Mr. Wilde.

    Two film critics, Frances Ryan of The Guardian and Scott Jordan Harris of Slate have recently scourged the propensity, illustrated by the award winning film, The Theory of Everything, of able-bodied actors portraying disabled people in film. While both critics acknowledge that, in this particular case, the casting of able-bodied Eddie Redmayne to play Stephen Hawking may have been a logistical necessity (since the story covers Hawking’s life both before and after ALS disrupted his mobility), the two intrepid accusers nevertheless contend that the film represents a collage of Hollywood injustices against disabled people.

    Slate Article

    Guardian Article

    I think it is a worthwhile discussion and I do empathize with how daunting it must be for disabled actors to find work. Nevertheless, while both critics’ arguments are provocative and useful starting points for this moral discussion, their accusatory presentations seem to ignore the muddiness of these moral waters.

    I’ve thus broken down their arguments into five categories to try to distinguish their philosophical baggage from their more interesting cases for change.


    (1) Portrayals of disabled people on screen by able-bodied people cost disabled actors roles.


    “Like many other disabled people,” Harris says, “I have often argued that disabled characters should, wherever possible, be played by disabled actors. When disabled characters are played by able-bodied actors, disabled actors are robbed of the chance to work in their field.”

    I think this is a legitimate concern (although, I wouldn’t use the harsh metaphor of “robbery,” which suggests that such roles are intrinsically the rightful property of disabled actors). Logistically, disabled people cannot currently play able-bodied people in live-action films. Thus, if they’re going to work in the industry, they must be able to get some of the roles depicting disabled people. And, since such opportunities may exist at a lower per-capita rate, such performers, already generally besot by disadvantages in life, have extra trouble finding work, too.

    This is unfortunate, and so it seems reasonable to me that, as Harris suggests, all other relevant things being equal (or close to), directors should cast disabled people in the roles of disabled people.

    The trouble is that all other relevant things are often not equal. For instances:

    (A) Most roles about people with disabilities involve a spectrum between having the disability and not. Such a role, then, can only be played by an actor who can take on the full range of movements covered in the character’s story. As acknowledged by our bold writers, The Theory of Everything is such a film, and so they admit that it may be forgiven on that basis.

    (B) Sometimes the best available actor for the part does not have the disability that is being portrayed. All people, after all, have multiple dimensions to them, including their physical, intellectual, and emotional states. While a person with a disability may on the surface look the most like the person to be portrayed, they may not on a deeper level possess the desired connection to the character. To pigeonhole disabled characters by limiting those playing them to be equally disabled actors is to suggest that disabled people are essentially disabled, when that is, in fact, just one of many facets of their identity.

    One of my sisters puts this point more eloquently. “’Disability,’” she says, “is not a binary state; there are all sorts of points on the spectrum.  And a happy and well-adjusted [person living in a wheelchair] might not have access to specific feelings… that a standard issue person who’s struggled with depression has, that might be required in certain roles.”

    In my viewing experience, the greatest actor I’ve ever seen is Daniel Day-Lewis. If I were a director of any movie about anything, and Mr. Day-Lewis were available, I would cast him in the lead role, whether it were a disabled man, a four-legged robot, or a two-year old learning to talk. While it may be the case that actors win awards more often than chance when they transform their physical dimensions, they can usually only successfully do so if they are also able to transform their emotional dimension to the point that we believe they are a different person (not just a different mobility level). Nobody, in my opinion, does that better than Daniel Day-Lewis, and so to not cast him for a role just because he lacks certain physical characteristics would be an affront to the art of filmmaking.

    (C) Sometimes the disability in question can impede the person’s ability to portray someone else.

    Ryan highlighted the casting of non-autistic actor, Dustin Hoffman, to play the role of an autistic person in Rain Man. Well, correct me if I’m wrong, Wikipedia, but does not autism generally impede one’s emotional ability to relate to the outside world? Thus, unless we think all autistic people are the same, it might be challenging for most autistic people to emotionally connect with and insightfully portray a different autistic person.

    Meanwhile, a person with a physical disability that is different from the person whom they are playing may struggle – by virtue of their own particular mobility issues – with capturing those of someone else.

    (D) Sometimes, the disability is so specific that there are few people with a severe disability who could conceivably play the role.

    Both critics referenced My Left Foot, the film in which Daniel Day-Lewis portrayed a man with cerebral palsy who could only control his left foot, and yet did so with artistic dexterity. How many actors with a significant disability, I wonder, would have had the unique combination of ability and disability available to convincingly render that particular set of traits?

    (E) Audiences are less likely to see a movie that does not star a well-known actor.

    Unfortunately, in the case of the film industry, as Ryan acknowledges, the ability of actors to draw a crowd does seem to be a vital part of their work. Without predictably large audiences, most production companies won’t invest in projects, and so the promise of a previously-approved actor is more likely to satisfy their bottom-line requirements. This further compounds the problem for disabled actors. Without those first roles, they cannot build their stock in audiences’ familiarity-craving minds, so they don’t get a chance to get easier access to second roles. Most actors attempt to circumvent this problem by making big first impressions in smaller roles, but since there are also relatively few small roles available for disabled actors, they are once again stuck in a doubly daunting position.

    Nevertheless, in spite of the clear disadvantage here for disabled actors, there isn’t an obvious solution to it. Requiring directors to always impose a disability symmetry between actors and roles would surely—by the capitalistic nature of film-making—result in fewer movies being made about people with disabilities.

    (2) We wouldn’t accept black people being portrayed by white people, so we should similarly restrict able-bodied people from portraying disabled people.

    “While ‘blacking up’ is rightly now greeted with outrage,” Ryan says, “‘cripping up’ is still greeted with awards. Is there actually much difference between the two? In both cases, actors use prosthetics or props to alter their appearance in order to look like someone from a minority group. In both cases they often manipulate their voice or body to mimic them. They take a job from an actor who genuinely has that characteristic, and, in doing so, perpetuate that group’s under-representation in the industry. They do it for the entertainment of crowds who, by and large, are part of the majority group.”

    This is a powerful and worrying argument. Expecting acting outfits to limit their roles to actors of similar physical characteristics would be practically and artistically daunting if applied to all cases. Our conventional moral wisdom has made an exception that doesn’t allow white people to portray black people because of the expired but embarrassing theatrical tradition of “blackface,” in which white and sometimes black actors wore black make up and portrayed black people as a cartoonish collection of stereotypes. Without that ugly past, restricting people from one race from portraying another is as arbitrary as restricting a young person from portraying an old person, or a person with or without glasses from taking on the opposite. In a perfect world without racism, race is as meaningless as shoe size. However, because of theatre history’s treatment of black people like puppets in vaudeville shows, blackface has understandably become synonymous, in most people’s minds, with racism. But this hard-earned convention of artistic restriction can have unfortunate consequences, too; consider how high school drama departments must feel limited only to the stories and casting decisions that happen to match the skin colours of their performers. This may mean that they don’t put on a play about Nelson Mandela because they don’t have someone of the right race to play the lead. Such troubling artistic restrictions ought not to be seen as intrinsically righteous such that they are automatically justified in all situations where a minority group has suffered.

    While noting the similarity between race and disability is understandable, we must also consider the differences before consenting to the additional artistic restriction that Ryan suggests. In the film world, now that blackface has been relegated to its uncomfortable place in infamy, and many black actors have found their way to prominence, it is hard to imagine any professional director having difficulty casting the part of any black character. There will never be an issue with discovering an actor who can play all physical states in a character’s trajectory. Moreover, unlike mobility, age, and even gender, race effectively never fluctuates between states. Thus the consequence of restricting white people from portraying black people in film and professional theatre is essentially just a philosophical injunction, which rarely (I assume) has practical artistic repercussions. However, applying the same restrictions to disability would likely have serious consequences in terms of the frequency of stories told about people with disabilities.


    (3) Able-bodied performances of disabled people cost the latter the right to portray themselves on screen.

    Ryan argues, “When it comes to race, we believe it is wrong for the story of someone from a minority to be depicted by a member of the dominant group for mass entertainment. But we don’t grant disabled people the same right to self-representation.”

    That is a dangerous justification for restricting art. Condemning “blackface” is not, or should not be, about self representation; it is, or should be, about attempting to undermine a specific historical insult. That is all. Limiting roles to people with equivalent backgrounds for its own sake is a scary idea. No one has the right to require performers, writers, and directors to have lived similar lives, and/or come from an equal demographic, to those whom they portray. Artistic freedom would certainly be damned if that were a legitimate demand.

    “When disabled characters are played by able-bodied actors…” adds Harris, “the disabled community is robbed of the right to self-representation onscreen. Imagine what it would feel like to be a woman and for the only women you ever saw in films to be played by men. Imagine what it would feel like to be a member of an ethnic minority and for the only portrayals of your race you ever saw in films to be given by white people. That’s what it’s like being a disabled person at the movies.”

    I find this to be a disturbing essentialist argument. Again, no group has an intrinsic right to a role simply because they match up in one particular characteristic. Stephen Hawking is not only a man suffering with ALS, he is also somewhat of a smart guy, heterosexual, and lacking in perfect vision. So must the person who portrays him also be a mathematical genius who likes ladies, but can’t read his own theories without glasses?

    Of course not. Hawking is not the property of any of those groups. He is a collaboration of many characteristics, and should be portrayed by the person who can capture, without necessarily possessing, the widest variety of them at the same time.

    (4) Portrayals of disabled people by the able bodied are inauthentic because they are just impersonations.

    Contends Harris, “The ultimate ambition of David Oyelowo’s performance [in Selma] as Martin Luther King, Jr. is to express the reality of black life and black history in a way that resonates with those within the black community and educates those outside it. The ultimate ambition of Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Stephen Hawking is to contort his body convincingly enough to make other able-bodied people think ‘Wow! By the end I really believed he was a cripple!’ Our attitudes to disability should have evolved past the stage when this mimicry is considered worthy of our most famous award for acting.”

    I wonder if Harris has any evidence for his claims regarding Selma’s (racially divided) pedagogical intentions. Setting that strange contention aside, I can understand how a disabled person might feel annoyed by someone acting in the way that they have to suffer. Nevertheless, I think the argument to restrict performances for that reason is insufficient because, in the end, all acting is “mimicry.” During the Harris-approved portrayal of Martin Luther King, Oyelowo is impersonating King’s then state of mind, circumstances, clothing, hair style, mannerisms, and voice. Moreover, returning us to the other side of the analogy, even if a disabled person had played Hawking, the chance that such a person would be someone also tortured by ALS at the same rare rate of progression is remote, so they too would have had to mimic the physicist’s movements at some point in the film.

    All acting performances are mostly make-believe. I cannot imagine any coherent line between acceptable simulation and mimicry.

    (5) The direction and writing of stories about disabled people are inauthentic unless done by disabled people.

    “Even if we accept,” Harris explains, “that Redmayne should get a pass to play Hawking, we are still left with a film that excludes disabled people while pretending to speak for them. The Theory of Everything is based on a book by an able-bodied person, adapted by an able-bodied screenwriter, and directed by an able-bodied director, and it stars able-bodied actors. DuVernay’s egregiously under-nominated Selma, burns with authenticity about black experiences because it was made by members of the black community, not by members of the community that has historically oppressed them. In contrast, The Theory of Everything flickers weakly with truisms that can be mistaken for insight only by people who are not disabled, because it was made by—and for—people who are not disabled.”

    Evidence is required for these inflammatory claims. For instance, who says The Theory of Everything purports to speak for disabled people? Maybe it wanted to speak for physicists, or, more likely, for no one, and just wanted to tell a good story. More importantly, though, if it’s the case that disabled people are usually better at directing stories about disabled people than their able-bodied cousins, then—artistically speaking—disabled people ought to indeed get the jobs more often on the basis on their superior merits. But we should never force such a generalization into all cases.

    The best antidote for bad story telling is not to criticize the physical characteristics of the storytellers, but instead to criticize their work. If such complaints about failed authenticity are legitimate, then perhaps The Theory of Everything is unworthy of its many award nominations. As a movie critic, Harris ought to point out what aspects of the film rang shallow (a single example of a false truism obvious to disabled people would be helpful). Thus, the next producers of a film about a disabled person may feel more obligated to get it right, and so perhaps would find themselves hiring a disabled director who seemed to have a better understanding of the issues he or she was intended to illuminate.

    However, to claim a lack of authenticity just by definition of the particular physical characteristics of the people involved is not only bigoted, but will again provoke the natural consequence of reducing the number of stories told about disabled people. Consider the case where an influential and successful able bodied writer or director is contemplating their next project: if, by Harris’s essentialist philosophy, he or she is barred from creating stories about disabled people—sorry, Herman Melville, Captain Ahab is off limits to you!—then surely we’ll have even fewer roles available for disabled actors. (Moreover, such a result may put pressure on disabled writers and directors to only tell stories about disabled people—since no one else is allowed to—even though some filmmakers with disabilities may want to tell other stories, too.)

    In conclusion, I refer us all again to the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which Oscar Wilde claims: “The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.” Once again, I’m not sure if everyone quoted above would agree with Mr. Wilde.

    Posted by SethBlog @ 9:34 AM

  • 7 Responses

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    • Tom2 Says:

      In enjoyed your analysis of the topic. Most telling to me is the extent to which our exposure to the stories of the disabled would be restricted if we were to allow only certain actors to play the part of the disabled person.

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thanks Tom2. Yeah, I think that’s a troubling possible unintended consequence of the critics’ philosophy.

    • Natalie Says:

      Well said, Sethblogs! I too object to the essentialist notion that movies about a particular segment of the world’s population can only be written, directed, and acted by those from that particular group. First, I resent this claim’s disrespect for art, that it cannot be powerful, effective, and, in some ways, authentic, unless the person(s) who created and performed it are exactly the same as the characters. This seems limited and boring, assuming that the most qualified, the most inspired, most insightful art will always be autobiographical. Anyone who goes to a movie and expects absolute accuracy in every single aspect is naïve. Movies are fictional portrayals, interpretations of reality. They are NOT user’s manuals or documentaries, nor would we want them to be. Nor should they necessarily be imbued with a social or political message. They might be insightful and moving in other equally important ways.

    • Tamsen Says:

      Great job, Sethblogs!
      As an actor, I find it very frustrating to hear arguments such as those you quoted for many reasons, and with a little outrage for the patronisation of the disabled mixed in.
      As you said, the disabled are not a singular group that has all the same skills, levels of ability, sensibilities, etc, etc and I would be frustrated (and often am when lazily written roles for females often fall into one of 3 super generalized, patronising categories: girlfriend, slut, ‘strong’ woman aka bitch – sorry, selfish rant, back to the point) that they are being lumped into one group where one disabled person is just as right for something as the next, as they’re all the same: disabled. As you mentioned, wouldn’t that also mean that one black person would be just as good for a role as any other? And a gay actor or actress could never play a straight role? (The reverse is often criticized while not taking into account that gay people often play straight.)
      As much as the disabled are definitely underrepresented in terms of opportunities, there are also instances of disabled actors changing the casting decisions and the character him/herself once they get into the casting room, ie. Robert David Hall (of CSI fame) whose character is not quiet about his loss of limbs. That character was originally written as an able-bodied person. It certainly doesn’t happen regularly, but it does happen.

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thanks Natalie and Tamsen:

      Natalie, I think you have captured the essence of the problem with essentialism better (and more succinctly) than I. As you say, the best art is not always autobiographical.

      Tamsen, thank you for the insider’s perspective. That must be annoying finding that roles available to you come in only three flavours. Similarly, as you say, let’s not pigeon hole disabled people or anyone else.

    • Tarrin Says:

      I think the main insight I took from your essay was that there is no singular all-important trait that a person should possess to adequately capture the essence of a character.

      I’m sure disabled people’s mental states are all over the map, just like non disabled.

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thanks Tarrin. Yeah, well put. Everyone is unique. Even the people who are different from the alleged mainstream. 😉

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