And if this keeps up, there won’t be any

My pet hate: “Crip Drag”.

Crip Drag is when a character has a disability, but the actor playing that character doesn’t have whatever disability they are portraying. Recent examples that come to mind are Kevin McHale, who plays Artie on Glee, any wheelchair-using villain you see in Doctor Who, and whoever got the role of Eleanor Perry in the Stargate: Universe episode “Sabotage”.

(And those are, of course, just shows that have wheelchair users. How many movies have you seen with a blind character who is played by an actress who isn’t?)

When pushed on issues of Crip Drag, the creators of these shows and movies often respond in one of two ways.

First, the character has the Miracle Cure Plotline, and thus they can’t have an actor with an actual disability play that role.

At first I didn’t question this much, beyond my general irritation with the Miracle Cure Plotline (Hey, television and movie producers: We have more stories than that, thanks), but I’m beginning to be very irritated with that idea the more I think about it. Amongst other things, there are wheelchair users who can (gasp!) walk. They may walk with a cane, or some other assistive device, but as long as you’re not asking them to climb several flights of stairs and then go for a run, they’ll probably be able to manage enough to satisfy the “It’s a miracle, he can walk!” plotline. I suspect blind actresses could act like they could see for the sake of a storyline, too.* It’s almost like they can learn to act like they can see, the way another actress can learn to act “blind”.

The second reason, the one that’s got me all irritated today, is the wonderful excuse that all minority groups get when they point out casting disparities: There aren’t any Big Names that will Bring In The Money who have disabilities, and Do You Know How Hard It Is To Find An Actor Who Could Do This Role At All?

The latest in a long line of insults of this nature is the casting of Abigail Breslin as Helen Keller in the upcoming Broadway production of The Miracle Worker.

For his part, the show’s producer, David Richenthal, claims that the production was unable to find a blind or deaf child actor with the star power to bring in enough of an audience to justify the show’s large budget, saying “It’s simply naïve to think that in this day and age, you’ll be able to sell tickets to a play revival solely on the potential of the production to be a great show or on the potential for an unknown actress to give a breakthrough performance,” he said. “I would consider it financially irresponsible to approach a major revival without making a serious effort to get a star.” The show will, however, be making an effort to find a blind or deaf actress to play Breslin’s understudy — but they won’t make any promises.

Gosh, I wonder why there aren’t any Big Name Child Actresses who are d/Deaf or blind (or both) and can thus play Helen Keller. Do you think it’s because there aren’t enough roles that are given to such actresses so they can develop a name for themselves? Do you think it’s because any roles that could be given to a d/Deaf or blind actress are given to non-disabled actresses? Do you think there might be some sort of bias going on in casting decisions that might be impacting this at all?

I sympathise a bit with the situation Richenthal is in. All he’s trying to do is make sure that an expensive production makes money, and Breslin has the star-draw. Apparently there are no other roles in The Miracle Worker that one could cast a name-drawing star in, and of course it’s foolish for anyone to think that the role of Helen Keller would go to an actress with a disability! What nonsense!

This is, of course, a self-perpetuating system. Disabled people are not cast in roles that would demonstrate their acting talent. They do not get the experience and the face time that the currently non-disabled do, so they can’t increase their name recognition. Then, when a role comes up that is perfect for a person with a disability, the role goes to someone else, because people don’t have a clue who this disabled person is.

The biggest actress, of course, who disproves this rule is Marlee Matlin. However, as much as I respect Marlee Matlin she is not the only actress in all of North America who is deaf. Honestly, I promise, lots of d/Deaf people do act. So do lots of blind people. My husband, who is a full-time wheelchair user, used to do Shakespeare. We are out here, and we are looking for paying gigs just as much as the next person.

Stop the Crip Drag. Stop the Miracle Cure Plotlines. And stop acting like it’s just a wild coincidence that you don’t know of any disabled actresses with the star power to bring in the money for the role of Helen Keller. It irritates me.

Please note: As with all of my posts, my schedule is such that I won’t be able to see comments for hours after you make them. My co-moderators will be approving most comments as they become aware of them, and will try and respond to any and all of them when I’m free.

* I’ve described wheelchair users as male and blind people as female because this is how they are typically cast in North American shows.

65 thoughts on “And if this keeps up, there won’t be any

  1. Heroes has cast a Deaf actor (who was apparently the star on some other show as a Deaf FBI agent) as the Deaf character on their show, though I’d otherwise call their show a hodge podge of racism and sexism, with a side order of classism and heterosexism. (Not really that they’re much worse than many other shows, but they are worse than most shows with such a large ensemble cast — when you have 20 zillion characters, you can have some non-white ones who don’t die within a season and make the women actually important and interesting — and people keep claiming they’re better.)

    I believe they’ve done some miracle cures before, though.

  2. Um…..I’m from the UK, and I didn’t know that north american shows cast wheelchair users as male and blind people as female, so does anybody know, or can anybody tell me, why that is? Is there a reason for that? Does it tie into the whole women-as-sex-objects thing?

    Back on topic, great post. I never knew there was a name for what Zhang Ziyi (house of flying daggers) and hugh laurie (house)did!

  3. I have no idea what reason people give for it.

    The expanded stereotypes are “bitter angry white male in wheelchair” and “kind-hearted white woman with some form of extra-sensory perception as a result of her blindness”.

    I think it’s at least partly based on gender-stereotypes.

    I’ll give Glee one thing: So far, Artie isn’t bitter.

  4. It seems that, except for disabilities with clearly visible indicators (trisomie21, brittle bones, little people), people see “no need” to cast actually disabled actors. Because hey, not only are they not famous, they would also need special accomodations. Who wants to have to take care of, let alone pay for that?

    The fact that there are a lot of great actors and actresses out there who won’t be cast because the casting directors do not think they should is very discouraging.

    At the same time, I think this discussion leads into the biger issue of what/ how much an actor/actress is allowed to pretend. Pretending to be something you are not is, after all, at the heart of that profession. We all agree that colour face is inexcuseable. Is “crip drag” any different? Where is the line? Can only someone who has dealt with depression play a character who is depressed? Can only a person with Aspergers believably portrait a character who also has Aspergers?

    One problem, it seems, is that these arguements can be used to take away chances to shine as actors from those who, due to being differently abled, already have a much narrower pool of roles to chose from- because the industry only acknowleges a limited number of disabilities, limits the characters with those disabilities to a very small number of story lines, and does not seem to be aware of all the other people, all the other stories out there.

    I would probably not take so much offence if a TaB-person playing a PwD was an occasional occurence. I think. But the fact that this is the norm, not the exception, is frustrating.

  5. Crip drag, great to have a phrase for it and this post is so true, it’s disgustingly hypocritical to deny disabled people the opportunity to play disabled and non-disabled roles when I’m sure they wouldn’t be able to discriminate against other groups by totally denying them access to the acting profession. I think blindness is one of the few disabilities which is sexualised in the TAB tv and film world which means that, since women are so often primarily sex objects, that it’s one of the few disabilities they can give a female character and still make her ‘desirable, as long as she plays up to male fantasies by being kind, caring and gentle and of course totally helpless and waiting for some noble man to overlook her terrible affliction and save her! This is such a common trope in films and tv shows that I’m not sure there’s a more charitable way of looking at it than that, for some reason, it’s considered less desexualising than other disabilities, maybe because it’s not a ‘physical’ disability. There’s so much wrong with this assumption but it goes back a long way. Does anyone remember a film with Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman being stalked by a killer or something from the 1960s or The Red Dragon where the sadistic serial killer falls in love with a blind colleague then tries to kill her? I bring these up as examples because I think it shows that a blind woman can be used as a handy helpless victim in movies who will of course, need protection from the film’s male hero. As for why wheelchair users are almost always men, again I think it’s partially because of the ‘bitter cripple’ trope (women aren’t allowed to be bitter apparently!) and partially because men are often less sexualised on screen and therefore depicting them in a wheelchair won’t have the same negative effect. Also, there’s all the ‘bitter cripples’ who then go on to try and destroy the world, disabled bad guys are nearly always in wheelchairs and I think it’s jst not as popular to have female baddies. Anyway, this obviously all needs to change because the ableism on screen is disgusting and don’t even get me started on the miracle cure which has also been cropping up in a number of novels I’ve read recently, no escape!

  6. I don’t have an issue with an actor playing a character with a disability that the actor does not share. But, I do have an issue with disabled actors being so rarely cast. If disabled actors were regularly cast, just like any other actor, in a variety of roles, I don’t think it would be a big deal if a disabled character were played by a non-disabled actor on occasion. Sadly, that’s not the case. Inexcusable, really.

    Years ago, I went to a production of A Christmas Carol at a smallish Equity house. As people filed out of the theatre afterwards, you could hear folks gushing about how fantastic the character of the narrator was, and also some bantering back and forth about whether the wheelchair was “real” or a prop. It was most certainly real – the actor was paralyzed. But the show, and his character, was an example of how to do it right when casting disabled actors. No token-ism, no stereotyping, no tired tropes. I’ve not seen anything like it since.

    Has anyone seen Jennifer Eight? There’s a lot of unsavory stuff going on in that film, if I am remembering it clearly.

    An aside – Audrey Niffenegger’s new book, Her Fearful Symmetry, has a major character who has OCD. Might make for an interesting discussion down the road – the book is excellent.

  7. This, so much. I recall seeing Richtenthal’s comments a few days ago and just being so frustrated with this mentality. It’s as though the entertainment industry is completely oblivious to its own exclusionary practices. And to me it kind of feels like a cop-out to say, “well, there are no Deaf and/or blind actresses, so obviously we had to hire someone else.” It’s punting responsibility, and it seems to me as though Richtenthal didn’t even consider hiring a Deaf and/or blind actress.
    .-= Sarah´s last blog ..Missing in Causation Talk: Actual Autistics =-.

  8. It did seem very much to be a justification after the fact on Richtenthal’s part. “Oh shit I gotta come up with a reason? Um, ‘cos there aren’t any deaf and blind actors no can’t say that outright…”

  9. Geri Jewell as Jewel in the show Deadwood is wonderful to watch. The character has cerebral palsy, and so does the actress. When I mentioned to a friend that the actress was a comedienne and motivational speaker when she wasn’t acting, my friend was surprised to hear that the actress really had the disability her character had. To see a person with a disability onscreen os so rare it hadn’t even occurred to my friend as an option.

  10. My ideal world would have actors with disabilities cast as characters who are fully-realised characters, not just “Oh, we’ll use a cripple! That will give it more meaning” (which seems to be the logic behind SG:U).

    I think that’s what happens with Matlin’s character in West Wing. I’ve only seen a couple of epsidoes, so my friends are catching me up on it. If I recall, though, she really IS a character who just happens to be deaf, rather than someone who “just happens to be” deaf as a plot point.

  11. Something else to take into consideration:
    The fact that so many ablebodied actors are cast to play disabled characters can also contribute to ableism in another way. I am not sure how many people actually do this, but theoretically, TAB people could look at the actors playing disabled characters and think that hey, disability is easy to fake. Therefore, why not asume that a lot of people IRL are faking it? After all, everybody knows how much easier you have it when you are disabled. *eyeroll*

    I have not actually heard this specific arguement before, but all those people who are constantly worried about “fakers” have to get their ideas somewhere, right?

    I am discouraging myself a lot by following these kinds of thoughts.

  12. At least this way we aren’t subjected to articles about how the actor/actress has “overcome” their disability and become successful “despite” their horrible awful “problem”.

    This is meant sarcastically – just in case you couldn’t tell 🙂
    .-= KatieT´s last blog ..Because I Can’t Sleep =-.

  13. what Zhang Ziyi (house of flying daggers)

    SPOILER

    Does it count if the character is not, in fact, blind, and is not presented as blind for most of the movie?

    END SPOILER

    Yeah, I think the idea that all disabled people are in crip drag (and we could get better if we behaved like character X) tends to come from this. Professor Xavier in the X-Men films is another one, but he complicates things yet again by being able-bodied in his own mind – which, while canon-consistent, opens up yet another big squirmy bag of worms.

  14. If we get started on Professor X and his amazing floating wheelchair of never having a problem with steps and his disability that is shown as being in his head according to the cartoon, I am going to start ranting for hours and I know there’s a post on that subject coming up.

    But I assure you, my rant is awesome. It involves wild gestures and actual hitting of my poor wee head.

  15. for some reason [blindness]’s considered less desexualising than other disabilities, maybe because it’s not a ‘physical’ disability.

    Or rather, it is a physical disability that can be easily masked by a pair of sunglasses, and signified by walking around with your hands out or carrying a white cane or a guide dog harness. There are blind people who have eyes that move strangely, don’t focus, are irregularly formed, and I’d think all of that would qualify as physical things. Also, it’s easier to sexualize blind women (on TV and in movies) because they might be some of the only women who can’t tell when they’re being watched.

  16. I’ve seen a bit into the fifth or sixth season of West Wing, and as far as I saw, yeah, Marlee Matlin’s character actually remained in the “happens to be deaf” category. To the extent that the degree to which she was Unexpected was that the character who was surprised by her had expected her to be a man – the only way her disability plays into this is that he thought her interpreter was, in fact, her.

    This confusion was also played as being a mildly embarrassing faux pas for the guy making the error.

    Her character is spectacularly good at her job and her disability is not central at all. I liked it a lot. (She’s been one of my favourite actresses since I was twelve, so I was thrilled to see her turn up in a show I was watching already.)

    The tragic thing, of course, being that I can’t think of *another* example of this kind of thing.

  17. This reminds me of a film I saw recently, I think it was a short one, where a woman has faceblindness (only it was strangely explained, like she saw nothing at all instead of eyes and noses and such), and her boyfriend is really a stalker who has watched her in her workplace, in crowds, etc etc, and , without her noticing it, eventually made himself her boyfriend and kept bumping in to her in different roles to see if she’d notice, and eventually he reveals it all to her and he kills her.

    A lot bothered me about that film, but what bothered me most was how incompetent the film made her out to be, as if faces (and maybe stuff on faces like beards or bangs etc.) are the only thing to recognise people by. They also have different heights, bodyshapes, mannerisms, stances, voices, smells, etc. All her killer had to do was wear a fake beard and maybe change his clothes for her to not recognise him, even though she had been narrated as having had this all her life and having learned how to compensate. He didn’t even change his voice or bothered masking his natural body odour or his mannerisms or whatever.
    I forgot what it was called though or where I saw it.

  18. Sami,

    Yeah, that’s my thought exactly, about the “just happens to be”. And yet, that’s the exact phrasing people who justify things like that SG:U episode use, and it irritates me to no end. (Hi! How nice to see you here!)

    Norah,
    That film sounds awful.

  19. @lilacsigil – yeah, I think it does count.

    SPOILER WARNING

    Because it isn’t as simple as ‘the character isn’t actually blind’ it is a major plot point in the movie that she *is* blind, and the entire plan to folllow her and find out where the assassins are is formulate on the premise that she is blind.

    END SPOILER WARNING

    I think it is a double whammy for a sighted actress to pretend that she is blind for most of a movie and then reveal that she was in fact sighted all along. I don’t carry a cane all the time. Are people going to remember Zhang Ziyi, and assume that I am only pretending when I am carrying a cane?

  20. So here’s a twist: what about people who have disabilities where those disabilities have changing presentations and where the presentation of the disability impacts the role? For example, I have a tic disorder, should I be preferred over someone without a tic disorder for a character who has, say, Tourette’s or choreia over someone else who doesn’t? The catch being that while I tic, I (obviously) can’t control how my tics present themselves. Just something to think about, one of those grey areas.

    TBQH, when it comes to myself and my own condition, what really concerns me is whether or not the actor/ess portrays my disability realistically.

  21. @SamanthaD:

    I’m really not sure how well this works to compare, but I stutter and I’ve often seen people mention that that might be related to Tourette’s because there are some similarities in how it presents itself. And personally, one of the things that annoys me about the portrayal of stutterers in TV (…well there’s also, you know, the horrible negative stereotypes, the tendency to portray it as symptomatic of negative character trait of your choice instead of a disability, the making fun of, the magical curing and all that but apart from that) is that I can often spot a fake stutter immediately and other stutterers are even better at it. If you live day-in and day-out with this kind of thing, even though the way it presents is always highly individual and differs extremely from person to person, you do get a kind of feel for what it’s like and can often see when people are doing it voluntarily or not putting any pressure behind it. As a result, I would *really* want to see stuttering characters played by stuttering actors, not just because of what has been mentioned but because that’s the only way to /get/ it to be realistic (and even if the stutterer in question doesn’t usually stutter all that often, I think it’s a lot easier for a stutterer to fake-stutter when they normally wouldn’t and make that sound real – in fact, it ironically enough often becomes real! – than for a non-stutterer to fake a stutter).

    It does get tricky if they don’t just want “a stutterer” but “someone who will stutter on X, Y and Z words in order to facilitate this plot point.” Then again, I would argue that a disability shouldn’t be reduced to a single plot point anyway (why hello, Doctor Who, I am looking at you!)

    I imagine this isn’t all that unusual for various disabilities, in fact – that people with the disability in question can often tell when it’s being faked. And, you know, I find the fact that crip drag is used *anyway* very telling – namely, that it doesn’t matter to the people developing the TV show/movie whether PWD find it realistic or not (or are tempted to throw their TV against the wall on account of the horrible portrayal) as long as the currently-abled audience laps it up.
    .-= Kaz´s last blog ..Remember, remember… =-.

  22. SamanthaD, I don’t actually see that as a twist.

    If you’re a good actor, I think you should be up for any role that you can play. That may not include the role you describe, but it shouldn’t exclude different roles.

    The problem goes like this:

    We don’t want to hire actors with disabilities because they don’t have the star power to bring people to see a particular show. Because we don’t hire actors with disabilities, they can’t get the star power to bring people in to see a particular show. There’s nothing about the role of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker that should preclude hiring an actor who is blind or Deaf, or both. But the argument is made that we can’t because they’re not famous enough, and we won’t give them a role that could help make them famous, the way “Children of a Lesser God” helped launch Marlee Matlin’s career.

    If there were a lot of roles going to actors with disabilities on Broadway, in television, or in the movies, then I wouldn’t care so much that any particular role didn’t go someone with the disability being portrayed. But people with disabilities are so poorly represented on t.v. that the SAG won’t even give a percentage of actors with disabilities on shows, and Glee is getting a Diversity Award.

  23. This prompted me to look up whether the actor who played Stevie on Malcolm in the Middle was really paraplegic or asthmatic. Since his IMDb page says he enjoys Krunk Bump Dancing and can play all types of roles, not just ones like Stevie (aka I am not disabled, please hire me for other roles now), I am assuming either he had a real-life miracle where he can suddenly dance, or he was in crip drag. I always had a secret hope it wasn’t the case.
    .-= MomTFH´s last blog ..I’m so stoked! =-.

  24. A million times thank you. Crip-drag is such a wonderful new term and I think it puts to bed a lot of arguments regarding “isn’t that just acting” we hear from folks protesting the uproar over casting able-bodied folks as disabled people in film & television. I can’t for the life of me come up with better than what you’ve done here.
    Amazingness and link-spammed 🙂
    .-= etana´s last blog ..This is not the blog you’re looking for, part two. =-.

  25. So, does everyone think Hugh Laurie as Dr. House is problematic? Because, frankly, I just can’t imagine the character being played by anyone else than him. I wonder if that’s my failing? It may well be.

  26. Brilla, a lot of people think that Hugh Laurie as House is problematic, mostly because of how he’s portrayed.

    YMMV, of course. I don’t have a problem with Kevin in Joan of Arcadia, but this may be because I think the character is very nuanced, or it may be because I just like the show and thus obviously it is perfect and wonderful. *grin*

  27. Anna: Thanks for your answer! Do you mean because of the way the character “Dr. House” is portrayed, and not because he’s played by an able-bodied actor? I’m new to reading about disability activism, but can see how he’s not exactly the best image of a PWD. However, he’s, well, funny. He’s certainly portrayed as someone who was always misfit, not just after he got his disability. And I enjoy the show. Right now I have mixed feelings about that.

    As for the actor being able-bodied, I have no idea if he’s doing an accurate portrayal of someone using a cane in daily life. I’ve used crutches and a wheelchair, but both for only some weeks, so I can’t really pick up if he’s believable of not.

    If you or someone can point out more detailed reasons why the character of House is problematic, from disability activism point of view, I’d be grateful and I promise I’ll give it a thought! I googled Dr. House and “crip drag”, but did not find much (except this page again). I know this may be a 101 question, but those were welcome in this thread, right? 🙂

  28. Mr. Laurie is not using a cane correctly when playing Dr. House — the cane goes in the hand opposite from the leg that requires support. I expect they have him do it that way because it exaggerates the way he moves. I recall hearing, though not where, that he’s developed back pain from the improper cane use from the role.

    There are other posts at this very site that address why House-the-show and House-the-character are problematic. The search box at the top of the page should lead you to them. The short version is that those of us with chronic pain conditions who use opioid analgesics as part of (or the entirety of) a pain management regimen are ill-served by that being the popular conception in the U.S. It’s not that he’s an asshole. The portrayal makes our lives more difficult.

  29. Thanks for your answers! I’m a bit embarrassed now for not finding those two threads in this very same blog…!

    A lot of good points were made in both threads, and I’ll think about them some more. I have some comments myself, but as they pertain to the pain management issue and how it’s represented in the TV show, rather than to able-bodied actor acting House, I’ll comment in the old House thread.

    As for Hugh Laurie acting House, I guess I’ll have to go along with what others have pointed out in this thread. I also think it wouldn’t be a problem if an able-bodied actor occasionally acts a PWD, as long as there were plenty of actors with disabilities who also played characters with disabilities. And as long as there were actors with disabilities who played other roles not specifically centered on disability, too. If that’s how things were, then it would be a lot safer to assume that the best auditioner actually did get the role.

  30. In response to #8 Lauren I would respectfully disagree with you as it relates to characters with dwarfism/short stature. In all of the Lord of the Ring films the characters’ sizes were manipulated by CGI. In the film Tiptoes the lead role of Rolfe was played by Gary Oldman. In Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rogue Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was played by John Leguizamo who famously did the pre-release interviews talking about how difficult it was for him to have to film on his knees.
    The roles for PWD are few & far between and because of scarcity of them I do take offense to Crip Drag. Coupled with the fact that casting directors can’t seem to understand that PWD are married, have families, are neighbors and a vast other roles that we “play” in real life but never in reel-life. For the working actors out there you say a good role is hard to find? Try it from our POV.

  31. Regarding the terminology of “crip drag”, I’ve just realized the root of a subtle hesitation I’ve had about this term since I first heard it. I’m 100% behind the concept as completely solid and important, but it occurs to me that the specific use of the word “drag” brings up an association for me of “drag” as in “drag queen”, and the oppressive idea that drag is appropriative and exploitative as well as the stereotype of gender non-conforming folk and trans*folk (which are not synonymous with drag or with each other but are often treated that way) as deceptive (which is also a stereotype of PWD). I mean, I understand that “cripface”, (a la blackface, yellowface, brownface) while reflecting the same fundamental concept, is more muddled as a metaphor because the actual face of the character is not always part of the “cripness” of the actor’s costume, but there’s a part of me that cringes from “crip drag”. I’m talking from a position of multiple privileges though, so I could seriously be talking out of my ass here. If anyone else reading this thread has had thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them.

  32. Hey Jadey,

    A couple of other people talked to me about that, too, and having now seen “cripface” used in a lot of places, I’m going to be adopted that into my lexicon and dropping this one.

    But thank you for bringing it up here. I think the point is valid.

  33. You know, I’m an AFP fan and I found FWD through that whole Evelyn Evelyn thing that’s going on, and I am so glad I did. Posts on here have opened my eyes to so many people’s point of view which I would not have discovered otherwise. Even though I’m able-bodied, I found the Zhang Ziyi HoFD casting to be questionable and uncomfortable when I first saw it, but I was SO QUICK to let myself be comforted by;

    (SPOILER)

    “oh it’s ok, she wasn’t blind all along”. Jesus.

    So thanks you guys, for giving me access to your POV.

    By the way, I remember in my Equity (theatre union in the UK) magazine two years or so ago they were having a big campaign to try to raise awareness of the the issue of non-disabled actors stealing all the choicest parts of characters with disabilities. Not quite sure where they’ve got with it, but it seems Equity has quite a high percentage of disabled members…. bit strange that, when people can’t seem to ‘find’ disabled actors for roles….

  34. When you’re directing, you have dozens of factors to consider in the selection of an actor. If a role calls for a certain race, for instance, or if it calls for a shorter/taller person, or a person of a certain build. Probably the most important factor of all, however, is chemistry. Some people just “feel” right in a role, whatever personality or quirk they bring to it. It can make ALL the difference.

    So when your ultimate goal is to make a good film or play, and you’re taking into account physical characteristics, PR, talent, experience, chemistry (both in the role and with the other performers), and myriad other incidental considerations, and THEN you say you’re only going to choose from the very, very small pool of disabled actors, the end result is you’re going to get an actor far less suitable to the role than if you just chose for the good of the performance.

    It’s not a personal decision, it’s a decision made for the good of the work. I’d rather see beautiful and provocative art that can be enjoyed and learned from by people of all different creeds and abilities than strangle it to death with the need for political correctness. Yes, art does have a major effect on culture and politics, which is exactly WHY I don’t want to see it limited by the desire to appease easily offended people.

    Besides, actors play all kinds of differences – nationality, gender/sexuality difference, mental disorder, scarring from abuse, addiction, etc. That’s because they’re actors. If we were only going to match up actors with the conditions that they already had, we would never find actors and we would never get anything done.

  35. Lucy-
    I think it is a fallacy to say ‘there are very few actors with disabilities.’ I am willing to bet there is no shortage of PWDs who would like to act and be very good at it. But currently, roles for PWDs are so few (and often taken by TABs) it leads to the perception that few PWDs want to or can act.

    I agree that some people just feel right for a role. But frankly, a TAB person often doesn’t really do to well at playing a PWD. Many commentators on this site can easily point out what a TAB is doing wrong when portraying a PWD. Often these things are subtle. But they make a difference to the realism of the work, something I would think a director would care about.

    Also, there is the general offensiveness of having the experience of PWDs co-opted by TAB. I think you would agree that blackface is offensive and wrong. TAB actors are similarly offensive when they co-opt the experience of PWDs and take roles a PWDs could play in a more accurate way. It is doubly infuriating when they win Oscars for that co-opting.

    KJ

  36. @Lucy,
    There are many things going on here. There is an overarching argument that the entire performing arts culture discourages PWD from pursuing their passion for acting/performing because there is a lack of roles — the lack of roles being written where the character is a PWD, the lack of PWD being cast in roles that are not specifically written for PWD, and the prevalence of “cripface” Anna talks about here, the casting of non-PWD in roles where the character is a PWD. You’ll notice that if this wasn’t so ingrained, there would no doubt be many more actors with disabilities, and therefore the “very, very small pool” would be larger. Not casting actors with disabilities because you say there are no good actors with disabilities is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Anna and several commentators have pointed out.

    Second, you’re neglecting the fact that an actor with a disability could be better at a role by virtue of hir experience. Of course actors have to be able to think themselves into someone else’s experience, but I don’t think it’s controversial to say that a person who has had similar experiences to their character can — if they are at all talented — bring levels of subtlety and nuance to the character. “Getting it” matters. The actor’s first-hand expertise can also be manifest in the shaping of the character. (Think of the interviews with Gabourey Sidibe where she talked about working with Director Lee Daniels to help him understand that Precious wouldn’t only wear sweatpants, say. If House was played by a PWD, perhaps that person would know how to walk correctly with a cane!)

    Third, this is not at all always true, but my optimistic side would like to think that directors and writers will be less likely to make a character a flat, vicious stereotype of a PWD if the actor playing the character is a PWD. (I hope? Dream? Wish?) So it’s for the “good of the performance” as well as the good of the specific actor. (“For the good of the performance” see the second paragraph, too!)

    Finally, you’re right that often a person is cast who “just feels right” for the role. Can you see how a director might be influenced by ableism? If a director has never worked with a blind actor, for instance, a blind actor auditioning for a role might not “feel right” to the director even if the actor would play the best darn Character ever. It’s funny how the person who “just feels right” for a leading role just happens to be able-bodied, isn’t it? (And usually white, cis, thin…)

    What have I missed, everyone else?

  37. Lucy, I could not disagree with you more. It’s not ‘political correctness’ to ask that performers with disabilities play the roles of characters with disabilities. As another commentator has pointed out above, they have families and mortgages too. Besides, the scenario you describe happens all the time: the writer or director wants to produce a great play or movie, then the money men/studio owners decide they have to pick their leading actor from the relatively small pool of so-called ‘bankable’ actors. That’s why you have the all too common and downright laughable situation of dewy-eyed ingenues playing roles that should have gone to more mature women, for example. Or actors like Harrison Ford and Clint Eastwood appearing to play action scenes that would give them a heart attack in real life. Great for the stunt doubles, no doubt, but does nothing for the realism of the movie.

  38. Oh, yes, I missed something very obvious (thank you, KJ!). It matters to have privileged people as the sole definers of how oppressed people are portrayed. Taking other people’s experience for your “beautiful and provocative” art and portraying it in a way that privileged folks enjoy and that makes privileged folks feel enlightened and thoughtful, without having made any effort to relate to the people who actually live the experience the privileged creator is depicting, is wrong. Sure, it’s probably inaccurate and lacking in artistic depth too — but it’s also exploitative, a reminder that the privileged group are the ones who get to define everyone else’s identities and use other people’s stories however the privileged group sees fit.

  39. Hmmmmn, in England in the 16th and 17th centuries all the female parts were played by men.
    It was thought that women were not able or willing to carry off the gravity of the acting profession (and that they would come into disrepute because many actors were prostitutes, but that may be beside the point).
    It seemed perfectly natural to dress young men up as damsels and older men up as matrons and hags. Caricatures of women.
    Then Nell Gwynn the King’s mistress demanded to be allowed to act, and men were banned from the stage in order for females to get the parts they should have been alotted. The women were captivating, and stars were born.
    This was terrible for those who had made a profession out of and often based their entire persona around playing only female roles. It was an art to them, perfecting their mimic of female behaviour. Lives and egos were destroyed.
    Nowadays it is unusual for a female role to be taken by a male, so much so that it is a statement to do so. Females have equal opportunity to the training and audition process, as well as the confidence to dare to dream that they want to be actors playing roles where they can speak from their lived experience. Women, now even play men. Think of panto and all the gender-bending that goes on there. Cate Blanchett playing Bob Dylan.
    Times change, and art, including the ‘rightness for the part’ argument changes with them. If only we had got half as far with improving the rights and expectations of people who have disabilities as we have in the battle of the sexes. If only we had completely settled any questions of equality come to that.
    All it requires is for people to think outside of the narrow, knee-jerk reaction and consider that their judgements about disadvantaged groups may be based on millenia of strategic bad press. Are you willing to do that? Moving beyond the social or political issues, are you willing to do that for the good of getting the right person for the part? Maybe in the future, if you do, if we all do, we will stand a better chance of finding that person every time.

  40. I’m going to expand on something the others have already mentioned, namely the fact that no, currently nondisabled people are usually not capable of believably playing a disabled character. They are, however, often capable of believably playing a disabled character for a CND audience. And it’s incredibly galling to see all the arguments about “but he was the best actor for the job!” or “but he’s perfectly capable of playing the disability!” when the actor in question actually plays the character in such a way that any person with that disability will go “he’s faking it” in the first five seconds.

    The primary example I can think of right away is Glee: Artie is meant to have been a full-time wheelchair user for years, but I know many wheelchair users have said that it is very obvious that the actor is unfamiliar with wheelchairs and comes across as completely unbelievable – his acting, in short, is not up to the job. From the same show, Tina had a stutter, and although she did turn out to be faking it it was clear that she was supposed to have “gotten away with it” for years. I stutter, and I heard from several people that her stuttering was obviously fake and utterly unbelievable. I was a bit skeptical about this at first, because I know how varied and individual stutters can be and I thought people might just be confused because she didn’t speak like their idea of what a stutter should sound like. However, when I watched a clip of video with her speaking, the first time she opened her mouth I went “oh my god, that is so incredibly fake!” (Other, fluent people later commented that obviously she’d been faking it, because she’d forgotten to stutter sometimes. That is actually not a problem, since stutters do fluctuate in severity and periods of fluency are quite normal. However, the *way* she was stuttering was just completely wrong – repeating a syllable instead of a sound, no secondary symptoms, no pauses, etc. I very much doubt most fluent people caught that. I also very much doubt most fluent people could fake a stutter that I would believe unless they were extremely familiar with how stuttering looks and sounds like – and even then it’s hardly a certainty.)

    Which means that when you cast a CND actor to play a disabled role, not only are you contributing to underemployment of disabled actors and making that a hostile job market for disabled people and a lot of other negative stuff other people are mentioning, not only are you probably *not* casting the best person for the job at all, but chances are you are also implicitly telling your disabled audience that they are unwanted. That it isn’t important that what you do works for them, or that their disability is presented in a fashion that they consider even remotely believable. That it’s only important that CND people think the acting is good and that disabled people don’t matter at all.

  41. I just noticed the new post made drawing attention to my particular post and calling on an army of posters to counteract it, which uses the fallacious reductio ad absurdum, “You’re Easily Offended and People with Disabilities Can’t Act Anyway” which willfully misunderstands my post. Drama much? I’m not trying to attack anyone, you wrote on an interesting topic and I’m interested in having my say. I work in the entertainment industry, and just finished a great class on the politics of contemporary theatrical practice, so it’s a topic I’m quite keen on at the moment. Snooty references to me being short-sighted because I’m able-bodied are, in my mind, no better than if I had said that a disabled person couldn’t critique work about able-bodied people because they didn’t have the experience. I’ll do my best to hit all the points.

    Let me just start by saying I didn’t say anything about the lack of work for disabled actors. I agree that there should be opportunities for everybody, and everybody should be considered for the roles. (Although, if anyone really did become an actor in order to “Support their families and mortgages”, they might want to consider a career change, trust me) And, as you say, sure there are directors with prejudice, who might miss that disabled actor who is just right for the role. There are bosses hiring for all jobs in all fields who are prejudiced. People shouldn’t be prejudiced. I don’t think this really adds anything to the main question that I was contesting: that it is impossible or wrong for an able-bodied person to attempt to understand and portray a disabled person.

    “If House was played by a PWD, perhaps that person would know how to walk correctly with a cane!” – Yes, that’s true. And we would miss out on the opportunity to see Hugh Laurie meet the role he was born for, and bring to life a complex and dynamic character that he suits to a T. Another actor could play the role, sure. But it would be a different House, and, to be blunt, this House is pretty freakin’ brilliant. I’m glad it exists. (Besides, there could be plenty of reasons why the actor might have chosen his walk. Just because it’s not the “right” way to use a cane according to physical therapists doesn’t mean that an individual might, out of habit or stubbornness, use it differently. It’s a character quirk.)

    If you were limiting yourself to actors in the 50-60 aged range who had an infarction in their right leg, you would be limited to a very small pool of actors, which would have excluded HL, who is right for the role. This is not any melodramatic statement about disabled people “not being able to act” as Anna put it. It is simply a matter of math. The fewer people you have to choose from, the less likely you will find the best possible person.

    Basically, I think this is not so much a political debate going on as a fundamental misunderstanding about how acting works. I’ve never lived in Elizabethan England, yet I’ve played traditional Shakespeare. Should Americans who have never been to Russia be restricted from playing Checkov? Should a black actor be forbidden to play Willie Loman because he was written with a white man in mind? What about more experimental performances, like Cate Blanchette playing a man in “I’m not there”? Should we fill our actors with heroine before we let them play addicts?(Oh, and by the way, KJ, I don’t agree with you that performing in blackface is inherently wrong, although it can be. Transgressing taboos can be very important in analyzing race relations, and if it is an honest attempt at shocking the audience or making them re-evaluate the way they think about race, I see nothing wrong with it. It’s the content, not the form, that matters)

    My point is, every single role there is involves imagination. Even a disabled person portraying another disabled person would need to concentrate and put himself in another person’s shoes. Sure, a disabled person will have insight that someone else would have to work much harder for, and do much more research. But does that make it impossible for able-bodied people to understand at all? Then why even bother putting it into a play in the first place?

    At the end of the day, what makes a good performance is a good actor in the right role. And a better performance means the audience will identify more closely with the subject.

    I hope more disabled artists do come forward, and start getting more roles. I just hope they’re the right roles for them. And I hope we won’t let the instinct to place disabled people as “other” keep us from allowing the Oliviers of our time bring out disabled characters’ universal humanity.

  42. So Lucy, you’re willing to admit that “physical characteristics” might be a factor in choosing an actor (height, hair color, skin color, what have you), but not that having a disability should count as a factor? I find that frankly a little offensive (as a currently able-bodied person).

    And, since you brought up playing “gender differences,” I do also find it offensive that trans* characters are almost entirely played by cis* actors. I’m going to talk to that, since it’s an experience I have more connection to. As a trans* person, seeing cis* actors play a role that they have no conception of (and either playing the character as tragic, or as comedic, which is also common in the depictions of PwD in cinema and theater), OFTEN makes it impossible for me to view it as “beautiful” or “provocative,” because, as LSG says (quite well), it quite clearly places me outside of the “normal” audience. It isn’t exactly provocative to place currently abled people or cis* people as the “center” of experience, and to view PwD or trans* individuals as peripheral or good teaching tools.

  43. Lucy, how many people with disabilities do you think there are? You do realise that, depending on the region, people with disabilities make up a not-insignificant portion of the population, yeah? Here in Nova Scotia, it’s 22% if you include children, and 35% if you don’t. That’s not really a “small pool of people”.

    You are not arguing something that we’ve never been told before. The number of comments on posts about actors with disabilities that are, in essence, “well, they picked the best person for the job, and that is obviously not a person with a disability, we don’t want to hire them just because they’re disabled after all” and “Political correctness!!!!!!!”… well, Google around. You’ll see various iterations of your comment on any open discussion about casting non-disabled actors in Oscar Bait roles that essentially reduce disability to a series of tics and catch phrases. The situation is so absurd that Cracked did a mocking of it at Academy Award time. Frankly, your theory that casting an actor with a disability in a role would be casting an inferior actor is unimpressive. Acting talent is not limited to the non-disabled.

    I would also suggest that it may be worth looking around a site you’re unfamiliar with – reading the comment policy before commenting is usually helpful. This is a site that centers the voices of people with disabilities. If you’re uncomfortable being in a space where people with disabilities are invited to push back against specious arguments presented by people arguing from a non-disabled perspective, perhaps you will feel more welcome elsewhere.

  44. However, I should note that, should you choose to continue to comment, I will not approve any more comments that claim that black face and cis* people in trans* roles are okay. I do not have the energy to debunk those notions. Google will be happy to lead you to places that will.

    Ack, I got my movies mixed up. You didn’t say anything about cis* people in trans* roles. I’m sorry for accusing you of saying something you didn’t say.

  45. I think that a lot of great discussion is happening in this thread; commenters are talking about a lot of different angles and, since this argument, that there simply aren’t enough disabled actors or that the ‘art’ outweighs everything else, comes up again and again, I think that this thread will be a useful resource for many people looking for a quick reference of points to refute it.

    It’s of interest to me that Lucy seems to be assuming that no one who writes, reads, or comments here is involved in the entertainment industry and thus that we need to have it explained to us. That’s an erroneous assumption, and it’s backed by assumptions like the idea that casting calls are not specifically exclusive to disabled actors (either in the sense that the text of the casting call specifies physical ability or in the sense that the facility where casting is conducted is not accessible). Or that there aren’t people with disabilities already in the industry struggling to land roles.

    I would like to further note that appropriating marginalised identities is not ‘transgressive’ and that there is a significant difference between identities such as race and ability status and experiences such as living in Elizabethan England. And that there is a very long history in the arts of appropriating identities. This is not new, it’s not edgy, it’s not shocking, it’s just passe.

    As for Dr. House, well, of course you like him. He’s the House you know.

    I also want to note, Lucy, that we are very specifically keeping this conversation in our space, where we are very careful about comment moderation; you can choose to engage at your own level. This courtesy is not often extended to us when people ‘call on an army of posters’ to ‘counteract’ something we have said and they show up not only here, but in our inboxes, on our personal sites, and in other places we frequent. You chose to leave an incredibly offensive and ignorant comment on a site which centres the voices of people with disabilities, and like our comments policy says, this is a place where we are allowed to bite back; one of the few places, in fact, where discussions like this can even happen, because usually the voices of people like you are allowed to drown out the voices of people like us.

  46. Anna sorry, I brought up cis* and trans* issues because Lucy said (dismissively) “Besides, actors play all kinds of differences – nationality, gender/sexuality difference, mental disorder, scarring from abuse, addiction, etc. That’s because they’re actors. ” which I took the bolded portion to be a reference to trans* characters played by cis* individuals.

  47. Oh, TheDeviantE, I think it’s very relevant! I was more thinking of her reference to the Bob Dylan biopic. For reasons likely to do with being exhausted, I was thinking of a movie that’s coming out soon where a cis* woman is in a trans* role, but that’s not the film she’s talking about. I think in the comment here, she’s referring to cis women playing cis men, which is what I meant in my clarification.

  48. “Snooty references to me being short-sighted because I’m able-bodied are, in my mind, no better than if I had said that a disabled person couldn’t critique work about able-bodied people because they didn’t have the experience.”

    So much misunderstanding on so many levels. People can become disabled, very easily, we are very fragile. As able-bodied people, we would do well to remember this, that’s why Kaz uses the term ‘Currently Non-Disabled’, because actually the likelihood is that one day we will join this particular section of society, especially if we live to a ripe old age. So yes, disabled people can very well speak with experience on what it is like to not have a disability, in many cases. Also, it may be best to watch how you regard and judge others, because you may well end up in their shoes, wishing that people would treat/speak to you fairly.
    You are not short-sighted because you are able-bodied, you are short sighted because you don’t consider that they way you have learned things could possibly be not only wrong but hurtful and oppressive. Being able-bodied has no impact on the relevance of your views, but the amount of consideration for others that you engage in before you choose to speak does.

  49. Psst…as one of the severely myopic contributors at FWD, I would love it if we could come up with a phrase other than ‘short-sighted’ to describe ‘not thinking outside your comfort zone’ or ‘unwilling to be challenged’ or ‘not forward-thinking.’ I’m short-sighted and fully capable of considering oppressions I don’t experience!

  50. My apologies S.E. I didn’t mean to offend, I thought that parroting the language in Lucy’s second post would respond more directly to the content of her message, and draw some parallels. But I clearly did it without thinking about the context of that language, and how it might upset you. Consider it retracted. I hope my point is still legible without slurs in it.

  51. Thanks, Cicee! It’s a phrase that’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine, for obvious reasons, and I certainly understand why you wanted to mirror her language.

  52. I’m really, really amazed at the quality of comments here, and I’d like to expand on one point: s.e. smith’s point that “As for Dr. House, well, of course you like him. He’s the House you know.” How is it possible to determine that Hugh Laurie was “born to play” House? Sure, he was born to play this House. (Maybe.) But House could be House with other character nuances, and/or someone who is disabled could play House with the character nuances Laurie brings to the role or at least similar ones. It’s impossible to tell, and we’ll never know, sadly.

  53. I just discovered (via access_fandom) a link to an interview with Larry N. Sapp, a producer who started a company which focuses on working with actors with disabilities. It seems highly relevant to this thread, so I thought I’d drop a link. There’s lots of good stuff, but here’s a quick quote:

    With this kind of representation, or rather lack of representation, a kid, a teenager, a college student, or even an adult with a disAbility have no reason to dream of being an actor, let alone to become a star in Hollywood. These producers and entertainment makers are the very reason they do not have more options–by never giving those with a disAbility a chance, an opportunity to express their talent, expand and grow their skills as actors.

  54. Oh Anna, that makes sense. I see now what you were responding to in Lucy’s second comment. Honestly I had missed the a good bit of her second comment because while reading it I just keep finding my mind going blank with anger at the willful ignorance and continuing refusal to acknowledge her own privilege and her therefore limited understanding of the world.

    On a related topic to the post, I wanted to point out my continuing happiness from when I learned that the actor who plays the coroner on CSI (the original) indeed is disabled and that they hadn’t even written the part specifically for a cane user, but that they’d decided “oh, hey, he’s good” and realized it wouldn’t be a big deal if for once a part that wasn’t EXPLICITLY for a person with disabilities nevertheless went to someone with disabilities. And I know that I’ve read somewhere that he often will point out to them how they have a shot set up that his character would have trouble navigating. This all makes me happy, but it makes me sad that it seems like this story is just about the only positive one that I have on the topic.

  55. One point Lucy made was about parts being written “for” people with specific physical characteristics. I’d like to question the assumption that this is the best way to do things. Even as far back as plays at primary school the casting was always flexible: the teachers switched the sex of two of the characters without changing the dynamics between them. Why not write parts for *people*, and fill them with actors of all races, sexes, sexualities, disabilities etc? We don’t have any trouble accepting actors without superpowers playing characters with superpowers 😉

    The plot doesn’t have to revolve around “the disabled character(s)” or “the skinny white man and woman who are going to fall in love as long as her fat friend and his black friend advise them well”. Surely the plot is just the story that unfolds around the characters. I mean obviously some movies/tv series are going to be about a particular group of people, and I wouldn’t want to take that away from those groups. But couldn’t the blockbusters mix it up a bit?

  56. @DeviantE – I don’t think Lucy is willfully ignorant, rather brought up not to see the privilege inherent in being CND (so stealing that term from now on!), and the effect that this might have had on forming a viewpoint about issues like this. I’m not saying ‘Oh poor little privileged folks, they have it so hard when they finally have to wake up and smell the coffee’, but I think it’s one of those times in life where you have to dislike the behaviour but not the person underneath. I know it’s so, so hard when you are offended and hurt, and worn out by putting up with the same rubbish over and over again, but we should all really try not to make assumptions about anyone’s personal character or motivations. Coz it is a bit of a shock to the system realising that you’ve been being a giant tosser by not waking up sooner.

  57. I think I’m going to nip this bit of the conversational bud off here. Lucy isn’t really the topic under discussion – her comments, and the many similar drive-by comments this post gets on a regular basis – is.

    There’s a couple of comments in mod on this post right now that I’m going to have to look at once I’ve gotten some sleep.

  58. Amusingly enough, I’ve only ever seen the “kind-hearted black man with some form of extra-sensory perception as a result of his blindness”.

    … the old man in the live action movie Unleashed/Danny the Dog and the blind soul reaper character in the Japanese anime/manga series Bleach. No miracle cure there.

    Well, Tousen Kaname is kind-hearted in his own messed-up way even after he’s revealed to be… well, you know. He takes care of an Arrancar (despite the fact that they’re essentially heartless creatures) that behaves like a mostly non-verbal mentally disabled child.

    He only acts entirely unlike himself when he briefly gains eyesight and is too caught up in his newfound ability to dodge attacks he easily could have fielded blind. A nice twist in the manga, but made a bit inaulting in the anime where characters felt the need to repeat over and over that he “saw so much more when he was blind.”

    (Tousen is my favourite character, really. Of course, there are SOME stereotypical feminine aspects to his character, but he’s no Yumichika. For example, he loves cooking and makes tea on a regular basis… but he’s otherwise a very stoic and calm (aside from his justice rants), no-nonsense character.)

    The only other blind character I know is an animated bat in the Canadian cartoon Silverwing.

    Was the actor who played the wheelchair-using boy in Malcom in The Middle disabled? I don’t remember any miracle cure plots there.

    … those are really the only characters I know of who are disabled, bar one-shot characters like Gabriella in The Little Mermaid series and the old blind black (I think) guy in Gargoyles. Yikes.

    Hearing there are even less instances of actually disabled people getting those roles is just depressing.

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