Keywords: deformity, disability, representation, movies, media.
The deformity and disability question has been around for as long as one can remember. If not actively supressed, voices of these individuals have been distorted, twisted or hollowed. Since Grimm’s fairy tales to today, the representation problem is real and complicated. Is negative representation better than no representation at all? Does media affect the way we perceive disabled individuals? Should disability be normalized or should it be portrayed such as it is in reality? These are questions the paper aims to answer or at least grapple with. The aim is thus to ‘explore the current trends of representation of disabled and deformed individuals in select movies’
The intention of this paper is to prove that disfigurement and disability are still grossly underrepresented in popular media- specifically in movies- and what representation there is, leaves much to be desired. The paper focuses on movies from last year (2017) that involve actors portraying disfigured persons. How far these movies are successful in representing them positively, in a real manner without altering their stories or embellishing them is explored. The paper shows how most movies perform appallingly in this respect. Since the corpus of movies that feature disfigured or disabled persons is huge the paper chooses to focus on only a few movies that were released last year. Also, since the intention of the paper is to show current trends with respect to disabled and disfigured persons, recent movies that are fresh in the audiences’ minds have been chosen. The movies chosen for the survey are ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Wonder’, ‘Everything, Everything’ and ‘The Greatest Showman’.
The paper is divided into four distinct sections. The first section talks about disability in general and long-standing stereotypes associated with disability and deformity. The second section talks briefly about the history of deformity in media. This section involves a brief history of freak shows that put such people on display for entertainment. The transition from freak shows to how we view deformities today is traced. The third deals with the movies mentioned above, individually, and details the areas in which it fails. The fourth section comprises possible ways to deal with the issue of unintentional problematic representation with past examples of correct representation. This section includes viewer-responses to the movies.
The chosen movies were arrived by at by browsing the list of movies that were released in 2017. The movies that fit the category of movies featuring disabled and disfigured persons were chosen. These movies are also considerably popular and can impact mindsets of large audiences.
Most of the observations are from primary sources and are inferences from first hand viewing. However secondary resources like articles and journals that are first hand accounts of people with various disabilities and deformities were read. Their complaints and suggestions form a major part of this paper
To summarize the results, movies that are not about able-bodied, normal looking, white people are appallingly few. Hollywood’s failure, time and again, to address this lack of diversity in a positive, real and disinterested way shows a culture that is still not mature enough to grapple with the ‘issue’ of persons they consider to be the ‘other’. What we are left with is examples in media that people with actual disabilities cannot relate to and connect with.
To summarize the problem – these films, while they involve disfigured or disabled characters, are riddled with problems that they either don’t realize or fail to acknowledge. While these movies try to represent positively these marginalized persons, they seldom properly deal with the issue and generally choose to present these characters in a way that would make them acceptable and more appealing to audiences.
What is seen across movies that think their portrayal of deformed and disabled characters is unimpeachable, is that their protagonists have redeeming qualities that are viewed as necessary for society to accept them. For instance, a man whose well-intentioned and heroic deeds compensate for his facial disfigurement and is preferred to one who does no such heroic deed.
Marginalized persons are increasingly played by actors that are not marginalized themselves. As seen in all the aforementioned movies, none of the characters are played by people who have a disability or deformity. They are played by people who cannot have the same experiences as those who face these problems on a daily basis. Their voices are silenced and stolen by those who tell a version of their story that is unfamiliar and appropriated.
Stereotypes about people with disabilities are abundant. When not laughable, they are evil. When they are not evil they are on the receiving end of cruelty. They are usually flat characters and do not have much to define them apart from their disability- the disability is the ‘be all and end all’ of the individual.
Apart from all this, the fact that stories of disability and disfigurement still need larger room in popular media is undeniable. Stories that do make it to popular media are incomplete and, for the most part, not the whole truth.
Embellishing gruesome stories to make them palatable to audiences is a common practice. The need of the hour is a refreshing take on disability and disfigurement, quite apart from the conventional understanding we have. Stories of the persons concerned told by them and no one ese. The conclusion of the research is that portrayal by media affects our collective psyche and hence the media should ensure that the content they choose to put out for the world to see is not negative or untrue. The media is instrumental in forming public opinion and normalizing issues that are not talked about otherwise. This responsibility should be taken seriously and not made light of. As a greater representation of other marginalized sections of society is seen (LGBTQ+, racially diverse content), all representations of disfigured and disabled characters would be a step in the right direction. However, while this is certainly true, it should not hurt the communities concerned.