Photo: Sia/Merrick Morton/Hanway Films
In an age where the popularly boasted slogan “Anyone can do anything!” is plastered across our television screens, social media accounts, and implemented into school systems, there should come a point in time where we recognize this activism is highly performative in nature. Women can do anything, but if they do too much, they’re “bitchy,” and if they don’t do enough, they’re complacent. People of color can do anything, as long as they’re succeeding to what the white main character wants; Otherwise, they’re probably the antagonist. Disabled people, however- disabled people can do anything. As long as they’re played by able-bodied people.
It is not uncommon to see a disabled character in television and film nowadays, and as time goes on, Hollywood is normalizing the day to day life of someone with a physical or mental handicap. This has been positively received by audiences and has proved popular among circles of disabled rights activist groups, but it is not enough to just have a disabled character in your media. To ensure accuracy and positive representation, disabled characters must be written with a level of personal understanding in their experiences and be portrayed by people who share their disability to provide unequivocal authenticity.
Related article: ‘Deaf U’ Completely Changed My Perspective on the Deaf Community
Why Is Representation Important?
Having a disabled character included in a film or television show does not automatically make it a proper form of representation, and this narrative is outdated and tired. The ever-popular example is Artie Abrams on Fox’s global phenomenon, Glee, performed by the able-bodied Kevin McHale and written by three able-bodied men, Ian Brennan, Ryan Murphy, and Brad Falchuck. Artie is a teen boy in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down, and throughout the series, he participates in his school’s show choir, (traditionally seen as a movement choir) the school’s football team, goes to school for directing, and even attempts to regain control over his legs.
This character is issue-ful in a number of different ways, but the most insulting is that Kevin McHale is a completely able-bodied man. There was no reason to cast this role with someone who does not share Artie’s disability and could have easily been played by a different actor who was more well-suited for the role. Of course, one must consider creative integrity and respecting the wishes of a casting director, but there is no excuse for a situation of this nature. Thousands of actors with disabilities have the talent, drive, and dedication to perform in a role like Artie Abrams, and to deny them of even the chance is affronting to the disabled community.
Sia and Her New Project, Music
Sia, the popular singer and songwriter, has recently made tremendous waves with the trailer drop of her latest movie coming out, simply entitled Music. The story centers around a rehabilitated drug dealer, Kate Hudson, as she learns she is now charged with her teenaged half-sister, a young girl named Music, Maddie Ziegler, with a passion after her name and non-verbal autism. Sparked by the internet, many people are very upset with the choice to cast Maddie Zeigler, who is not autistic, in a role that gives such a large platform to a traditionally stigmatized and ignored group of people. This has been both criticized and analyzed with a hopeful lens within the autism community, and it is most important to look to the genuinely marginalized population first when discussing representation.
Upon hearing the feedback- all of which was considerably polite and well-intentioned- Sia responded in a distasteful way that is, in a way, more telling about her attitude towards the general public. In a tweet by Twitter user HelenAngel, she said “Several autistic actors, myself included, responded to these tweets. We all said we could have acted in it on short notice. These excuses are just that- excuses. The fact of the matter is zero effort was made to include anyone who is actually autistic. #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs,” and Sia responded with a blunt, “Maybe you’re just a bad actor.” Now this, alongside many other fury tweets, is a show to the world that Sia does not care about genuine autistic feelings but instead how she prefers to fictionalize them. The quality in Music’s storytelling is yet to be judged, but it already stands out as a problematic addition to the world of disabled television and film.
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What Is Good Representation for Disability? Hiring Disabled Actors?
All hope is not lost- the tides are slowly turning to get accurate representation within the entertainment industry, and in turn, we get well-rounded, enjoyable, and complex characters that give disabled audiences someone to root for. Some examples to check out: Fargo, the Netflix series, has Russell Harvard playing a deaf hitman who uses sign language to communicate with his counterparts. Sally Harper, played by Sarah Gordy, is a recurring character with down syndrome on Call The Midwife. Sandra Mae Frank plays the fierce Victoria, deaf leader of the Cheermazons, in Netflix’s Daybreak. Deaf West Theater’s Spring Awakening, which saw a four-month run on Broadway, cast over ten deaf actors and Broadway’s first-ever actress in a wheelchair, Ali Stroker. There is plenty of media to consume that gives a voice to disabled creatives, and one shouldn’t have to go searching for it.
Make Hollywood Accessible
At the end of the day, casting disabled actors in roles with a disability should be no different than casting a character of color or queer characters. A lack of strong representation can make or break an otherwise objectively good piece of media, and no one should be denying that delineation to disabled creatives. It is important to show Hollywood is open to anyone, and that any person with a dream of creating something great knows that they can do so if they work their hardest. The disabled community deserves more than the minuscule breadcrumbs they have previously thrown with the expectation that they should be grateful they got anything at all, and it is certainly an able-bodied person’s duty to step aside and allow for disabled creatives to make pathways. Nothing about disabled communities without the disabled communities.
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Jordyn McEvoy is an entertainment writer for Hollywood Insider with a passion for asking the tough questions in our industry today. Believing in the quality of information over scandal and rumors, she focuses on giving honestly positive reviews of films that deserve it and highlighting the true Hollywood movers and shakers. Trusting in Hollywood Insider’s dedication to unbiased reporting, she wholeheartedly agrees that the media can change the world if utilized correctly.