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Disability & Cinema


'I know these maimed guys.  Their minds get twisted; they put on hair shirts and act like martyrs.  All of them are do-gooders, freaks, troublemakers.'

Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) in Bad Day at Black Rock

'I do not need a wheelchair [ ... ] wheelchairs are for amputees, for Civil War veterans, old people with one foot in the grave.'

Mr Lightbody (Matthew Broderick) in The Road to Wellville (Alan Parker, US, 1994)

After six years of feeling despair upon realising the extent of the negativity expressed about my own social grouping, I am loath to ask whether it will ever end.  Am I paranoid?  Does anybody else care?  As one pootles along the highway of one's life one tends either to ignore or to dismiss the seemingly innocent constructions by which we all live our lives (Berger and Luckmann, 1991) and, until I had started this thesis, I was a fairly happy kind of guy: ignorance, in this case, really was bliss.  Cinematically (Barnes, 1992; Norden, 1994) and socially (Oliver and Barnes, 1998) the hegemony of the Medical Model is well and truly still in command of disabled people’s lives – including my own. 

As has been shown, in Chapter Two, disability is represented more than merely stereotypically.  This representation is a complex set of constructions which reveals as much, possibly more, about the stereotyper than it does about those being depicted (cf. Oakes et al, 1994).  The literature review prior to Chapter Two, and the identification of most disability imagery by disabled and non-disabled writers as ‘stereotypical’, clearly indicates that the examination of disability imagery has a long way to go.  It can, and will, provide many fresh insights into disability imagery, disability theory and film studies in general.  Conversely, as this thesis has demonstrated, the examination of disability imagery using the Social Model of disability can be useful in the identification of a number of ideologies within mainstream cinema that are not often applied to disabled characters in films or by film studies specialists.  This on its own makes this thesis vital, relevant and applicable outside its specialist domain.

Chapter Three, the concentration on the role of the family and its role in the creation and reinforcement of the hegemony of the normal, demonstrates that disability is not the only ideology at work in any given film text about impairment / disability.  Impairment can be, and often is, utilised in a polymorphous manner with various hegemonic and ideological implications that are supported by, as well as supportive of, numerous ideological specificities in any given text.  Impairment imagery is often as much about supporting other core and peripheral social ideologies as it is about being a peripheral ideology in its own right.  The dissection of the family as an ideology and concept, and its use within the core films studied in Chapter Three, illustrates this point. 

The chapter on the body and impairment clarifies the degree to which the Medical Model of disability is still the dominant form of socio-cultural disability management and that it is still the dominant model in interpreting and dealing with impairment in mainstream cultural expression or so-called ‘entertainment’.  Equally, the role of normalisation is shown throughout the thesis as an implicit part of the cinematic negation of the disabled experience.  Even though normalisation appears superficially to be a step forward, or minimally a change from the past in the management of disabled people and their lives, it is still part of a medicalising hegemony which tends to negate the equality of the disabled person both on film and in society at large.  Chapter Four demonstrated the role and cinematic processes that the represented impaired body have played in the cinematic element of the culturally disabling process that has existed for disabled people over the past thirty years. 

It has not been argued that impairment or disability is the sole currency in the economy of normality or other relevant ideologies, or even that disabling cinematic imagery is a fundamental part of disability per se; that would be foolish, as it is not the case.  Other ideologies such as gender, race and sexuality – amongst others – are just as relevant and legitimate subjects for academic papers about disability.  Equally, I have included issues of class as these were relevant to the films examined.  However, as Garland Thomson has written in the conclusion to her book on disability in literature and freakery (1997), but which is equally applicable to mine:

[b]y focusing on the intersections of the various systems that order and demarcate visible physical difference, I do not wish to suggest that identities are interchangeable – that gender and disability are synonymous constructs, or that disability is a form of ethnicity.  Rather, I propose that gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and disability are related products of the same social processes and practices that shape bodies according to ideological structures.  What I have tried to uncover here are some of the complexities of these processes as they simultaneously make and interpret disability. (pp.135 / 6)

I would simply add the category class to Garland Thompson’s statement.

I have tried to demonstrate three objectives, in the thesis: firstly, that the stereotype of disability in disability imagery is much more complex and revealing (and, as such, rewarding in analysis) than has previously been presumed.  Significantly, the predominant cinematic construction used to depict the disabled as Other is imagery of impairments rather than images of disablement – i.e., the processes of disablement.  Secondly, it has been contended that the ideologies and hegemony of disability are multi-functional; they support other ideologies as much as other ideologies support them.  Thirdly, and finally, I have tried to show that the body is the key in any examination of the ideologies of disability and the cultural construction of both the disabled as abject and impairment as disability.  

Whilst carrying out my analysis I have applied the Social Model of disability, an ideal model for such work given its affinity to the method of analysis of film studies used.  This was done in order to reveal, whilst also trying to achieve all three of the above objectives (and the aims outlined in the Introduction), that cinema, its practices and its processes are an essential part of the continuing negation of disability as a social creation.  I have tried to demonstrate that images of disability are part of the political displacement (through cultural processes) of disability onto impairment and the individual.  In addition to the three main objectives I hope that I have offered a fresh perspective on the way in which disability can be viewed in films of any kind and that this is a critical analysis as revealing of the ideologies of mainstream cinema as it is of disability.

Sadly, the films examined are typical, indicative in fact, as most other films with impaired characters represent disability as impairment and, in the process, pathologise disability as a form of essentialist abjection.  They also portray Otherness as abhorrent in the face of the universally presumed supremacy and righteousness of normalcy.  The films discussed and analysed for this thesis are typical of their type; my analysis of these specific films can be applied to most disability / impairment narratives in Western culture to much the same result.  Although there may be variations on a theme, the ideological and thematic thrusts appear fairly constant even in films made in non-English-speaking Western cultures.  Films as seemingly diverse as Mandy (made by Alexander Mackendrick in England in 1952), Born On The Fourth of July (Oliver Stone, Hollywood, 1989) and The Wheelchair(Marco Ferreri, Spain, 1959) can be analysed in comparison to the core films of this study, and one another, and result in virtually the same conclusions’ being drawn.  Each film studied uses the tools of classical cinema to come to a classical ideological standpoint on physical impairment and 'disability': i.e., abnormality as abject with normality an apparently 'real' and supreme state of being.  Indeed, most films about ‘disability’ elicit conventional and traditional claims to the superiority of familial, sexual, bodily, linguistic and stereotypical and archetypal forms, which is, for want of a better term, the illusion of normality.

The problem for most disabled writers, as covered in the literature review and stereotype chapters, is the failure to acknowledge the manner in which we (this author is include), as thriving disabled peoplereinforce the structures that marginalise disabled people in general.  Normalised disabled people can reinforce the structures that marginalise disabled people per se both in successfully existing in the community and by appearing as tokens in response to calls for positive images of disability to predominate in our culture and cinemas and on our television screens.  

The term ‘Disability Correctness’, derived from the pejorative used ‘politically correct’, is beginning to be used against valid criticisms of impairment imagery from a Social Model perspective (Shakespeare, 1999).  This is a consequence of the inherent weaknesses of a narrow negative / positive philosophy employed by some disabled critics.  Nevertheless, and it must be recognised, the ‘Disability Correctness’ lobby – exemplified by the 1 in 8 Group of media lobbyists led by Richard Reiser - has achieved a great deal in obtaining initial recognition for many of the arguments that highlight oppression and discrimination against disabled people in disability imagery.  We must be wary that ‘Disability Correctness’ is not appropriated by the educated middle-classes for their own sanitising purposes as political correctness has been (cf. Shakespeare, 1999).  Whilst the ‘vocabulary’ used plays an important part in forming attitudes, it is these attitudes, formed as I have argued, by wider social processes, which are problematic.

Attemps to cleanse or sanitise what may be considered dirty or distasteful or, for that matter, a personal distaste for any given representation of impairment, are not a basis for pseudo-disability theory criticism.  In arguing for positive images, which many have considered MandyMy Left FootThe Elephant Man and The Raging Moon to be, we as disabled critics ignore the reality that aspiring middle-classness is the basis of those images.  To be accepted one still has to be, fundamentally, ‘nice’, ‘presentable’ and ‘articulate’ as a disabled person.  These films still embody an ideological bias which is supported by the keepers of the hegemonic flame of normality.  It should be asked why else so many of the disability / impairment themed films would parallel and blame abnormality (or its civilised treatment) on working-class manners and morals.  This is indeed the case, as I have shown, in the textual analysis of the core films examined in this thesis (cf. A Day In The Death Of Joe EggThe Raging MoonThe Elephant ManDuet for One and My Left Foot).  

This thesis is not about arguing all images of disability are inherently negative either because they only work within a Medical Model of disability or because they fail to acknowledge the Social Model of disability.  Although such an argument is applied, in the main, to the core films of the thesis and it can further be applied to many, if not most, other films about impairment and or disability.  Certain mainstream Hollywood entertainment films and European Art House films have contained unexpectedly progressive elements in relation to impairment and disability.  If one examines Mr Holland’s Opus (Stephen Herek, US, 1995), for example, its use of imagery as well as sound to create a montage of an era and to demonstrate the passing of time was imaginative and original.  It also had a refreshingly progressive attitude towards Deaf culture as forming a valid and distinct cultural community.

There is a marked difference between a film like Mr Holland’s Opus and a film such as Four Weddings and Funeral (Mike Newell, GB, 1994) and its normalisation and integrationist use of deafness rather than Deafness as a simple plot device, or the extreme heroicism of a blind woman in Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, US, 1967).  Equally, some impairment-oriented films have been highly effective in dealing with the emotional side of marginalisation when this is due to a specific impairment: films such as Junk Mail (Pal Sletaune, Norway, 1997) and, my personal favourite, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Robert Ellis Miller, US, 1968) exemplify this in their treatment of deafness.  Perhaps the most successful film I have seen, from the perspective of the Social Model of disability, and one that actually explores disability as a social issue created out of the hegemony of the illusion of normality, is Lars Von Trier’s brilliant The Idiots (Denmark, 1998) - a film about which this author would quite simply like to write a whole specific thesis.  Its approach and techniques – form, style and narrative structure - combine to provide a stunningly perceptive and thought-provoking piece of film art exploring the social concepts of abnormality and normality.  

Dyer (1990[a], p.263) has written, about gay and lesbian images, that the call to be positive depends upon: 'prior assumptions whether what is positive about [gayness] is the degree to which it is like straight life or the degree to which it differs from it'; similarly, I would argue, the prior assumptions with which disability writers have conspired are those of normality (the idea(l)s of the normal family, sexual activity, body and discourse as revealed herein).  Thus, the call for positive – ‘Disability Correctness’ - imagery per se can be retrograde if it reinforces the very basis of our oppression by insisting upon imagery that is, in effect, an image of pseudo-normality.  This can be reassuring for those of us willing or capable to pass, as such, as normal.  However, it skirts the main issue in a similar way to a member of the mixed race community passing as white in the South Africa of apartheid.  

One of the positive aspects of impairment centred films is that at least their Medical Model affiliations are identifiable (despite ideological mystification) and, as such, they enable disability theorists to work from an identifiable basis in order that the latter are able to criticise their content from the perspective of the Social Model of disability.  Once the disabled themselves start to create images that adhere to ‘Disability Correctness’, they risk falling deeper into the abyss of human intolerance.   A good example of this is in The Waterdance, written and directed by the disabled film-maker Neil Jiminez and based on his own experience of paralysis; The Waterdance is a sophisticated example of a ‘Disability Correctness’ film.  Images of ourselves, images of the disabled, which are little more that parodies of normality, validate normal society's every fear of the disabled - who exist in the margins and who are not educated or socialised in the conventions of society.  

What we (disabled and able-bodied critics) must not do in such cases is to criticise individuals for adopting such a hypocrisy of normality since its rewards are immense and its punishment for failure to normalise are considerable (poverty, marginalisation and even death).  We should all seek to support a collective effort that creates bonds rather than divisions.  The failure of positive imagery to account for the various realities of our existence (e.g., The Waterdance) makes such imagery guilty of essentialism on a scale that is equal to that of the films discussed in detail in this thesis.  The Nike advertisement mentioned in Chapter One, and the more recent inclusion of a black wheelchair-using dancer in a UK ITV Nintendo Playstation commercial are good examples, for the reasons already stated, of ultimately harmful images of disability identified as positive.  Equally, all images can, and will be, construed as negative because they concern (or contain) disabled people.  The very fact that 'disabilityexists in its current social situation (as a social construct of the Medical Model from a Social Model interpretation) means that whatever is depicted will be seen as part of that supposedly essential nature of impairment.  

Using another marginalised group as an example: if gayness is considered and constructed as ‘bad’ then, no matter how it is represented, to those who consider or construct it as ‘bad’, it will remain ‘bad’.  What is essential is to eradicate the sense of 'badness'.  If that is achieved then statistical abnormality of sex acts between people of the same sex, will still exist but the construction of them as essentially ‘bad’ will not.  The statistically aberrant should never be considered morally aberrant.

Disability criticism should seek to eradicate the negation of the impaired from the current cultural hegemony of the Medical Model of disability and, particular to this thesis, the cultural norm of disabling imagery.   Consequently, one must strive to validate as positive all that the term, or construction (rooted in the Medical Model) 'disability' implies and supports.  Therefore, eradicating 'disability' per se whilst valuing people with impairments can be achieved; equally, we must validate the specificities of abnormality over and above the similarities that we, the disabled, may have to 'normality' or the so-called ‘able-bodied and respectable’ communities.

The initial way forward for disability imagery analysis is perhaps revealed by Dyer (1990[a], p.274) in his analysis and critique of 'affirmation' gay movies.  Dyer argues that ‘affirmative’ gay movies indicate ‘three, not altogether compatible, things: thereness, insisting on the fact of our existence; goodness, asserting our worth and that of our life-styles; and realness, showing what we are in fact like'.  He continues: 'thereness and goodness were at odds with the other positivity, realness - conflict, self-hate and oppression, to say nothing of the rag-bag of human iniquities that are a part of gay / lesbian reality (and conflict is not even necessarily a negative one)'.  Dyer not only sees the value of presenting Otherness - gays in Dyer's case, but in this thesis the disabled - in a more three dimensional and challenging (to normality) manner, but he also identifies a creative form in which marginalised groups can appropriate and use the archetypes and stereotypes of Otherness that culture has perpetuated as truth.

The disability theorist, the disabled, as the object of so many popular films, can, through such films, initially validate the Social Model perspective that disability is a social construct.  The disabled critic can identify that impairment is made negative in any appropriate narrative and by using those identified, oppressive images of ourselves can reflect back to the culture the myths that it has perpetuated about us.  We can even use these myths in our own culture to subvert the conventions and traditions which society uses to legitimate the oppression of disabled people.  This technique is used to great effect by key Disability Arts artists such as Ann Whitehurst, Snoozyland and the Centre Consultants.

The 'affirmation' manner of representation (despite the fact that disabled people have yet fully to create any satisfactory degree of affirmation, let alone go beyond it) gives us a key into a way in which 'successful' disabled people can include the forgotten disabled (those already dead, the segregated, those trapped in day centres or those unable to advocate on their own behalf) and, furthermore, in a way that simplistic idea(l)s of positive imagery fail to accomplish.  Also - and this is another way in which the disabled and impaired can appropriate various images and subvert them - disabled theorists can argue that the images given as negative are not in fact negative but positive, because they show the impaired’s disabled 'reality' and normal culture's rejection of it.  Such negative images similarly show the disabled, (i.e., the reality of disablement) how society has constructed them.  

We, all of us, can validate a wider acceptable central point only by making the outer edges more acceptable, by which I mean that disability theory analysis (of all kinds) must validate the severely disabled first (people with learning difficulties, people with severe mental health problems, etc.) if any degree of equality in difference is to be achieved for all disabled people.  Society must value those people, disabled or not, who are in the margins of our society, in order to validate fully the mildly abnormal who tend to be the socially peripheral.  Although it may appear that some disabled people are accepted as honorary normal people, they are not, and therein lies the mystifying essence of the social construction of disability.

My analysis of the core films has, it is hoped, gone some way towards revealing both the manner and the nature of the social construction of impairment as disability both within the films themselves and the culture in which they circulate; also, in the way in which the films, by implication, give credence and status to those idea(l)s of normality socio-culturally supported by the Medical Model and numerous other ideological hegemonies (be they corporeal, or familial, for example).

Is normality really fragile?  Do normal people have such limited self-esteem?  Does normality fear abnormality with such a vigour that it must eliminate it at every opportunity?  All these are questions for future research. 

Normality does not exist, but it is a complex social construction that we use to make sense of the everyday.  As such, the Social Model theorists’ aim is to show that 'disability' does not exist as a reality and that it is merely a complex social construction of impairment as abnormality.  Thus, in applying the Social Model, I have shown in action the cinematic part of that process of construction in action in the films analysed in this thesis.  In doing so, I have achieved the ultimate goals of this thesis.

Many areas of research for the future offer exciting opportunities for new insights into the analysis of disability imagery; for example, the question of how disabled people from ethnic minorities are represented is an area of considerable importance but is one that has hardly been addressed.  Equally, I feel that considerable rewards may be gained from analysing the nuances of specific impairment representations such as epilepsy, visual and hearing impairments, and spinal injuries; regularly 'represented' impairments which, for example, vastly out-number the occasions on which congenital impairments are represented. Why?  Significantly, I have yet to see a major representation of Spina Bifida and / or Hydrocephalous – other than as an abortion scenario in Eastenders (BBC 1, 1998, on-going plot line) - even though it is a well-known impairment and more prevalent than many other impairments that are regularly represented in entertainment.  I would hope that future work would examine the specific issue of the representation of congenital impairments in an era when ante-natal and genetic screening (usually leading to a termination) is reducing considerably the number of people born with an impairment.

Finally, I would hope that much more theoretical work, both creatively and academically, is carried out by disabled people on, and in, all forms of media.  The wider the range of people creating images and writing about them the greater the scope for a recognition of the diversity within all communities, let alone within the disabled community; leading eventually, one would hope, to a fully inclusive cultural community that values people for their differences as much as their similarities.