Days leading up to the release of “The Upside,” actor Bryan Cranston was widely criticized for depicting Philippe Pozzo Di Borgo, a quadriplegic, wealthy French businessman, as he himself is able-bodied. In response to the criticisms, Cranston said that it was “another business decision” that he had no input on and that he hoped that it would bring more attention to the lack of opportunities for disabled actors.
Cranston’s response is unfortunately not a unique one, as it’s often used by actors criticized for problematic portrayals and does absolutely nothing except highlight actors’ refusals to confront long withstanding representation issues in Hollywood, particularly in portrayal of disabled characters by abled actors. In its 90-year history, the Oscars have given a whopping two awards to disabled actors and countless nominations and awards to abled actors who have portrayed those with disabilities.
Of course, examples of ableism extend beyond the Oscars and can be seen in both movies and TV. According to a 2016 study by the research nonprofit foundation Ruderman White Paper, across 31 shows on all platforms during the 2015-2016 season, only four actors with disabilities were cast, which is less than 2 percent of all actors on screen. Compared with 20 percent of the U.S. population that is disabled, this makes the disabled population the least represented minority in film. Almost all of the most well-known beloved disabled characters are played by abled, household actors, as can be seen with Augustus Waters, Forrest Gump, and Will Traynor in “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Forrest Gump,” and “Me Before You,” respectively.
While many might argue that these movies are effective at sending oft-heard messages such as “life is worth living,” these messages can seem extremely disingenuous, especially if the actors portraying these roles have no experiences living with these diseases and if the characters in the film are defined just by their disabilities. These movies can even promote dangerous messages to disabled people.
Augustus Waters is depicted as a perfect character with the exception of his cancer illness, which is an unrealistic portrayal of a cancer survivor and sends the problematic message that having a disability is a character flaw. “Me Before You” sends the dangerous message to quadriplegics that suicide is “poetic” and that they are better off dead because something something life lesson.
Actors criticized for portraying disadvantaged characters often fall back on the age-old argument that portraying other kinds of people and characters is acting and therefore acting in disabled roles is warranted. This argument is extremely ineffective because it dismisses the idea that disabled people can be equally good actors and allows abled actors to act on behalf of the largest minority group in the U.S.
Another argument that filmmakers use to justify casting abled actors is that well-known “famous” actors will draw in their core audiences for every role they’re in and make massive amounts of money for their films, while lesser-known (and therefore disabled) actors will make the films less “good” and draw in less money. This simply isn’t the case, as disabled actors do become notable after their major appearances and become huge advocates for their communities. Millicent Simmonds became an advocate for the deaf community after her breakout role in “A Quiet Place” and has since acted in various other roles, while Gaten Matarazzo instantly charmed many after his character’s popularity in “Stranger Things” and raised money for cleidocranial dysplasia surgeries. These actors’ popularities prove that audiences are more drawn to good films and good representation rather than to specific actors and that filmmakers should strive to be more authentic for PR and monetary purposes, if not for the art.
Filmmakers should also strive to create art that more accurately portrays and sends more positive messages about disablism, as many of these shows also tend to be the most well-liked shows amongst audiences. “Game of Thrones” character Tyrion Lannister has had to face prejudices as a dwarf and uses his dwarfism as an advantage. Actor RJ Mitte, who played Walter White Jr. in “Breaking Bad,” was able to accurately portray his own experiences with cerebral palsy while also depicting the character’s complicated relationship with his parents.
Ableism in the film industry is still rampant today and disabled people are still the most underrepresented minority in Hollywood. Rather than plucking well-known actors to play every single role, filmmakers and writers need to genuinely include more disabled people in films. We the audience also need to watch and positively encourage more movies and TV shows like “A Quiet Place” so that we can have more proper representation and more creatively-told stories and characters.
Ashley Zhou is a second-year software engineering major. She can be reached at email@example.com.