Wheelchair users playing a casual pickup game of basketball

Here we go again: Oscar season and disability porn

The 87th Academy Awards are this weekend, so it’s a good time to talk about a familiar old friend: Oscarbait. Three films this year were definitely having a go at taking home a gold statuette via one of the most time-honoured traditions of Hollywood: Cripping up. On a routine basis, one or more actors dons disability for the year, usually in a film that critics refer to as ‘inspirational,’ ‘heartwarming,’ and ‘profound.’

This year, The Theory of Everything, Still Alice, and Cake all gunned for Oscar gold and other awards, with Eddie Redmayne, Julianne Moore, and Jennifer Aniston playing disabled characters for the big screen. None of these actors has publicly identified as disabled, while all three are being taken as authorities on disability — after all, they’ve done a bit of research and it can’t be that difficult. Moreover, the fact that these kinds of roles set actors up for awards hasn’t escaped them, rest assured.

The Theory of Everything takes on the life of Stephen Hawking, noted scientist and international phenomenon in his own right for his amazing, boundary-breaking work. Unfortunately, Hawking has become famous not just for the nature of his work, but because he happens to have a disability, and uses a wheelchair for mobility along with a communication aide because he has difficulty speaking.

Eddie Redmayne reportedly went through a ‘rigorous, painful process‘ to depict the scientist, though undoubtedly it wasn’t as rigorous and painful as having amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in the first place. ALS is a motor neurone disease that causes a variety of symptoms, including loss of mobility over time. Redmayne may be a good actor, but disabled he is not, and while his depiction of ALS may have been informed by interviews with patients as well as consultation with a choreographer, he was still cripping up. And the problem wasn’t just that he was cripping up for the role in an attempt to garner some awards attention.

Rob Crossan at the Telegraph discussed the fact that the role also repeated dangerous, outdated, and harmful tropes about disability, as is common in cripface roles.

…even if an actor with a genuine disability were to play the role of Hawking in The Theory of Everything they would still have to deal with the quite horrifyingly sentimental script which climaxes in a dream sequence where Hawking stands up and walks across a lecture theatre to retrieve a pen from the ground.

He made a sharp point: Disability activists have been highly outspoken about the denial of roles to disabled actors and the struggle to make a place in Hollywood, but sometimes to the neglect of discussing harmful depictions of disability in media itself. It’s important to recognise that both things are significant issues.

Instead of depicting chronic pain as a serious issue in women across the US, and a condition that is both underdiagnosed and poorly treated, the film depicts a drug-seeking woman with a nasty attitude who lashes out at everyone around her.

Take Cake, in which audiences are supposed to weep over the decline of a woman who experiences chronic pain. Instead of depicting chronic pain as a serious issue in women across the US, and a condition that is both underdiagnosed and poorly treated, the film depicts a drug-seeking woman with a nasty attitude who lashes out at everyone around her. That stereotype is often iterated around people with chronic pain, particularly women, who are expected to be sweet and silently suffering, instead of outspoken about their pain.

Pain hurts — that is, in fact, the very nature of pain. People who are in pain understandably want it to stop, and in a culture where pain is not acknowledged and women in pain are belittled for the symptoms they experience, women often have trouble accessing the treatments they need to live comfortable. The stereotype that people with chronic pain become drug seekers addicted to their medications is widespread, and extremely harmful. It puts patients with chronic pain in the position of having to justify the medications they need to live comfortably, and creates an environment where medical providers heavily scrutinise pain patients seeking relief.

Thus, for example, a patient forced to an ER for breakthrough pain because her doctor does not prescribe enough medication for her to last the month is treated automatically as a drugseeker. When she outlines the medications that have been effective for breakthrough pain in the past, the attitudes of ER staff are affirmed — because what patient arrives at the hospital with a self-diagnosis and list of recommendations? Perhaps a patient with a chronic condition and a known course of treatment that’s been effective in the past?

Likewise, when a woman with chronic pain experiences breakthrough pain and needs to withdraw from a social setting or feels irritable, she’s targeted for unpleasant comments from people who think that she should be able to ‘deal with it’ and put on a pleasant face instead of making everyone uncomfortable. The ideal patient is friendly, personable, entertaining, and focused on entertaining other people, rather than being ‘self-absorbed.’ Getting accommodations isn’t just a challenge socially, but also in the workplace, where people with chronic pain may be abused by supervisors and coworkers for needing accommodations to do their jobs well.

None of this is present in Cake, a film that many critics seemed delighted with, with only a few calling out its ‘maudlin‘ nature. The San Francisco Chronicle, for example, said that ‘Of course, she should have been nominated for a best actress Oscar, especially this year, with such a weak field,’ referring to her much-maligned Oscar ‘snub’ — evidently Cake didn’t turn out to be the Oscar vehicle she was hoping it would. Even those who thought Cake was a little the worse for wear were less concerned with what it had to say about chronic pain among women and more distressed at the sheer tackiness and tearjerker style of the film.

This was a film acted by a woman who doesn’t have any firsthand knowledge of the condition she depicte

Still Alice had us watching a sharp, intellectual woman experiencing early-onset Alzheimer’s, and it played the mawkish and sentimental up to the hilt; even the trailers attempted to woo the audience into tears. Gallingly, Peter Debruge at Variety described the film as being told ‘from the patient’s point of view,’ when it fact nothing could be further from the truth: This was a film acted by a woman who doesn’t have any firsthand knowledge of the condition she depicted.

And it actually focused much more on the lives of her friends and family, told through a nondisabled lens and played for a nondisabled audience. Audiences were supposed to weep over a woman in cognitive decline, but some things were left unclear. Was Still Alice sad because it was about a woman experiencing a degenerative condition, or because it was about the loss of intellect, and the slow ‘destruction’ of a great mind? Was the film supposed to be particularly tragic for the viewer because of who Alice Howland is?

This comes up as a common theme in these sorts of movies, which often focus on people prized as especially intelligent, talented, or otherwise notable. For Still Alice, the important takeaway wasn’t that she struggled to retain her independence — a common issue for people with cognitive impairments that make it difficult to accomplish tasks of daily living — but rather than her great mind was being eaten away. And, of course, the film unabashedly preaches for physician-assisted suicide, without much nuanced discussion of a sensitive and extremely complicated social issue. Because who wouldn’t rather be dead than disabled?

Disabled playwright Christopher Shinn wrote last July that:

Disabled characters are often seen as symbolizing the triumph of the human spirit, or the freakishness we all feel inside. That may be another reason disabled actors are overlooked—they don’t allow disability-as-metaphor to flourish as easily.

His comment, embedded in a critique of the practice of cripface, also spoke to the tendency to tragedise disability in media and pop culture. It’s not insult enough, apparently, to cast nondisabled actors in such roles. Nondisabled people specifically have to make them unbearably sentimental and ‘inspirational,’ for this is how nondisabled people view disability, as a tool for their emotional development.

Cripface roles work best when they’re also tragic narratives of heartbreak and misery — the Tiny Tims of the world. It’s extremely rare to see a character who just happens to be disabled, played by a disabled actor, because that defeats the point in the eyes of the creator: Disability is an Issue, and depicting Issues garners critical attention.

Image: Wheelchair Basketball, Chris Scott, Flickr