Seeking more ‘everyday’ experiences in movies with disabled characters

Across all media, disability doesn't have to be the focus in order to matter

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by Young Lee |

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Roger Ebert, the late film critic, said many things about the long careers of actors Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. But one particular observation of his has stuck with me over the years. In his review of “Heat,” the 1995 crime drama directed by Michael Mann, Ebert writes that “if Pacino and De Niro go out to study a cop or a robber, it’s likely their subject will have modeled himself on their performances in old movies.”

Ebert’s commentary, I believe, smartly highlights an everyday example of how life can mirror art — how many of us, consciously or not, construct our lives and take our cues based on what we see in the stories we consume. It’s one of the powers of a great story. But perhaps it can be a misleading aspect, too.

Last month, I had the opportunity to chat with Zoé Badovinac, an actor who — like me — has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT). Our conversation about how disability is portrayed in the media reminded me of Ebert’s words.

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As an actor, Badovinac is well aware of how disability has been used and sometimes misused on stage, on television, in the news, and in movies. And while she said she’s happy for the great portrayals of disability she’s recently seen on screens, the performances she most deeply craves are not the kind in which disability is front and center. Instead, she said, she’s hungry for stories in which disabled characters simply exist.

“I want [disability] to be more normalized, rather than just being there as means to allow producers to give themselves pats on the back,” Badovinac said. “That’s what we don’t have enough of in the performing arts world, whether in movies or theater. We don’t have [portrayals of] normal situations that have nothing to do with disability, featuring people with disability who are just talking and having interactions just like everyone else. And that’s what I’m interested in right now — disability featured as it ought to be in normal, everyday life.”

While I’m not an actor like Badovinac, that’s certainly something I’d like to see, both as an audience member and as someone in the CMT community. Indeed, these more mundane appearances by the disabled are the most radical and needed.

It’s not just that disabled actors deserve more opportunities in the arts, and it’s not just that the existence of disabled folks shouldn’t be erased from mainstream stories — although these issues are important as well.

If all of us do indeed tend to internalize what we see in mainstream media, then, much as De Niro and Pacino have influenced the image of cops and robbers for generations, disability narratives in mainstream media give audience members a template on how to think and react when they see disability in their everyday lives.

My fear is that the abundance of certain narratives has been priming audience members to expect to feel inspired, to feel pity, or to look for opportunities to be a hero when they encounter a disabled person. After all, these are the typical story beats of the able-bodied characters in such common narratives.

Perhaps, as Badovinac believes, we just need a greater wealth of depictions of disability in the pop culture sphere.

Of course, more kinds of inclusion would mean producers will need to play a more active role in breaking down the barriers for disabled actors. And the more incidental portrayals of disability may garner fewer kudos from audience members accustomed to seeing more conspicuous acts of inclusion.

But if we want inclusion to be more than performative, such efforts are important and necessary. I know many community members, and actors such as Badovinac, are ready to help.

Note: Charcot-Marie-Tooth News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Charcot-Marie-Tooth News or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Charcot-Marie-Tooth.


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