Disability in Films: Representation or Recrimination?

disabled disney princesses by alexsandro palombo

From Disney to drama, disability in films is full of tropes which don’t do disabled (or abled) audiences any favours.

So, the second Kingsman came out a while back. I was very excited to see the film – and not only for the handsome men in tailored suits, you understand. I was anxious to see a potentially awesome representation of a disabled character. Being classed as a disabled person myself, and a former Media student, I am very interested in disability representation in media.

Films and the media so often fall into disability tropes like portraying disabled people as an object of pity, evil, a paradigm of ‘Eternal Innocence’ (for example, characters with learning difficulties), a victim, asexual or undesirable. With such non-empowering tropes abounding is it any wonder the handsome, ass-kicking super spy Harry Hart in Kingsman seemed like a breath of fresh air?

disability in films harry hart

Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Golden Circle

It could be argued that comics have far more prevalent representation of disabled people than films. I myself only have a passing association with comic book characters but even I know the likes of Professor X and Daredevil. Like this linked BBC article suggests, disability in comics is, at least, visible – and a number of disabled characters have agency than they do in films.

Disability tropes are forced on us from a very young age. Take disability in Disney films: so many ‘baddies’ are disabled, like Captain Hook, or Scar. When the Evil Queen in Snow White becomes her most badass, she comes complete with walking stick, limp and stooped posture. Then there’s Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. He’s so disfigured and ‘adorably’ innocent he hasn’t got a hope in hellfire (Disney nerds will get the joke) of scoring with the beautiful Esmerelda – and nor would we really expect him to.

disabled disney witch

Disabled villains in Disney

disabled snow white

Artist and activist AleXsandro Palombo (see Instagram account) challenged perceptions with a 2014 series of Disabled Disney Princesses.

When it comes to disability in the media, I can’t help thinking of another childhood favourite, James Bond. Bond villains (like Blofeld and Largo, to name but two) typically have physical disfigurements which seem to hold the key to their villainous ways. Even the newer, more ‘enlightened’ Bond falls victim to this trope with La Chiffre (Casino Royale) and Silva (Skyfall). These villains’ disfigurements stand in sharp contrast to Daniel Craig’s chiselled physique. In Fleming’s original novels, Bond was described as being facially scarred. So why – after twenty-six portrayals of the spy with a licence to fornicate – has Bond never sported a facial scar like his creator intended? Is it for fear of making him look ‘ugly’? Or evil? The evidence is as plain as the scar that’s, well, not on his face.

disability in films bond

Bond lacks the facial scarring described in Fleming’s novels

It’s 2018. What gives? We’re all so liberated and inclusive now, right? Yet we seem to cling to these dated notions that disabled people are tainted. Or that their life is somehow worthless.

This prejudice was brought to the fore with the release of the 2016 film Me Before You. Now, I must confess I stopped watching the film pretty early on. Romcoms aren’t really my thing, and the acting was getting on my nerves. I am, however, familiar with the controversy. The basic storyline is: carer falls in love with a quadriplegic man who, despite finding happiness in this new relationship, decides to stick to his original plan to kill himself using an assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland.

Understandably, many disabled people and disabled activists have had a problem with this message and there was a red-carpet protest at the premier. The film appeared to suggest that it’s better to die than to live as a disabled person. Props to the film for starting a discussion about a difficult topic, but it didn’t send out an empowering message and it wasn’t very realistic either. Romcoms aren’t intended to be a great basis for reality, I know, but I had hopes for this one because of the subject matter. The director, Thea Sharrock, is quoted as saying she believes it was “shown in a way that does not make audiences too uncomfortable.”

What about disabled audiences? Don’t they exist too? Maybe they would have been made to feel hugely uncomfortable with the message of the film? And is it really the case that disabled people ultimately make abled audiences uncomfortable? Is that why we have so few positive representations? I don’t have all the answers, but I do know I want my sexy, ass-kicking, wisecracking disabled hero soon.

Main image: AleXsandro Palombo. Art used with permission.