I went to see The Theory of Everything last weekend. I have to say, it wasn’t as engaging as I hoped it might be, or as the trailers and reviews seemed to promise. But this post isn’t to add to the litany of reviews of this film that are already out there. I want to write about The Theory of Everything in the context of a piece I read in The Guardian Online last week, linked to below.
Frances Ryan, makes the argument therein, that as we would be outraged nowadays at the prospect of an actor ‘blacking up’, as Laurence Olivier once did to play Othello, we should feel similarly outraged at non-disabled actors playing those with disabilities on stage and on-screen. Yet, Eddie Redmayne received a Golden Globe. Ryan cites several potential reasons why we might feel differently about what she terms “cripping up”, including the business-like nature of theatre and television where celebrities sell, and the notion of “disability-as-metaphor” – that it is a symbol of human triumph; pain wasn’t real. Ryan argues that these reasons might account for audiences seeing disability as an “add-on” extra, rather than integral to a person, and therefore not to see “cripping up” similarly to the identity theft of “blacking up”. Following the recent rejoicing over the casting of a black Annie, and, as the possibility of a black Bond, or female Dr. Who are mooted as desirable, I decided to look to the research literature, to see what it can tell us about disability-as-identity, and media representation of disability. Is “cripping up” really bad news…?
The research shows that more representation of disabilities is needed. For example, Bond (2013) looked at the representation of disability in children’s television. He found that characters with a physical disability were rarely portrayed, and when they were, were not of central importance to the plot. Research (e.g., Schwartz et al., 2010) also points to the continued unhelpful stereotyping of those with disabilities in mainstream media. And, according to Haller (2010), negative stereotypes can also have a negative impact on those living with disabilities, while positive representations can promote a self-esteem boost. In their comprehensive report, following interviews with producers, as well as consumers of mass media, both with and without disabilities, Wardle and Boyce (2009) conclude that there needs to be more representation of those with visible loss of function; that story lines might focus on this, as well, as on incidental loss of function, that script-writers should seek to address the real issues faced by those with disabilities, and that they should look to dispel myths and stereotypes (think Captain Hook, Long John Silver…), rather than perpetuate them.
But the need for positive representation isn’t in itself reason not to “crip up”. Couldn’t anyone represent disability? To answer this question, it is important to note that another finding has come from Wardle and Byce’s report, and from other papers (e.g., Fraser, 2014). That is, that those with disabilities would like to see less “cripping-up” and more “real-representation” in the mass media. And according to O’Reily (2009) playwrights with a disability have begun to offer alternative narratives for characters with a disability– different stories, with different endings, with different protagonists. Writing, in other words, that takes full account of the disability.
Further to this, when it comes to disability-as-identity, Weinberg, & Sterritt, (1986) showed that encouraging teenagers with hearing impairments to identify solely as “able-bodied” led to lower social acceptance and poorer academic outcomes, than when they incorporated a disabled identity into their sense of self. More recent research by Rich et al. (2013) showing that when children are given cochlear implants, the inclusion of disability into one’s identity is still valuable. Yet, other research has shown that having this identity can hinder workplace opportunities, with Roulstone and Williams (2012) showing that, at management level, being open about this identity places limits on what others perceive you can do. Thus, it may be argued that disability forms an important part of self-identity, but that barriers to full inclusion sometimes result from it.
It is worth noting that all the research above covers physical disability, rather than intellectual disability, or mental health problems. Nevertheless, it shows that disability is a very real, and valued part of self-identity that can lead to exclusion. And research shows that more representation of people with disabilities would be welcome, by those with and without impairments. But it is also apparent that not just any representation will do. Rather, such representation needs to promote positive images, and should address the specific issues faced by those with disabilities, rather than painting a rose-tinted, triumphant, or metaphorical picture of it. Representing this reality will surely be more difficult if the actor does not have the impairment. And maybe this is the real issue, when it comes to “cripping up”. If an actor has a disability, adjustments may need to be made, issues of accessibility surmounted, on set. The writing – everyone – would need to fully account for that disability. Maybe it is media itself that isn’t yet accessible enough to be able to avoid the use of actors willing to “crip up”. Given the importance of disability for self-identity, and continued barriers to inclusion in the real-world, this would be an issue worth surmounting.