For the third time, I’m preparing to teach a class on minority representation in the cinema. For the first time, I’m requiring the students to use the textbook America on Film by Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin. Mostly, it’s about racial groups, with some extended consideration of class and gender in the second half. Then – almost, but not quite, as an after-thought – Chapter 16 is called “Cinematic Images of (Dis)Ability.” Though they don’t discuss autism per se (Rain Man is barely mentioned), I personally found a lot to reflect upon. As one of my fellow moms put it, “we’re now in the club that no one wants to join”…but that doesn’t keep us from feeling extra empathy for our club-mates. The chapter starts like this:
For centuries before the creation of cinema, people with congenital impairments and/or other physical anomalies were sometimes exhibited as curiosities in traveling circus “side shows” or “freak shows,” where “normal” people were invited to laugh, jeer, pity, or otherwise be entertained by such “atrocities.” Deaf and blind people were routinely segregated from the world, locked away in special schools or other types of institutions. Early American cinema, which was born in the era of the freak show, sometimes mirrored the freak show’s allure and appeal, using human oddities and freakish-looking characters to frighten or titillate audiences. (On the other hand, the age of silent cinema allowed deaf audiences to share largely the same sense of moviegoing as hearing audiences.) However, just as with the other groups of people examined in this book, things have changed a great deal since then. By the mid-twentieth century, most “freak shows” had been disbanded, and more reasoned and compassionate attitudes began to prevail.
However, as film historians like Martin F. Norden have pointed out, many stereotypical images of disability continue to linger, especially in relation to Hollywood film genres. For example, physical anomalies continue to be staples of mystery and horror films, while acquired disability is a foundational element of many war movies. Disability has also been associated with class, specifically with the idea that poverty somehow causes disability, or conversely that disability results in poverty. Disability in American film is also heavily gendered. As this chapter explores, women with disabilities (especially deafness or blindness) tend to be used cinematically to evoke sympathy and/or victimization, whereas men with disabilities are more often linked to anger, violence, sagacity, and/or tragedy. Nonetheless, the developing contemporary trend, is toward representing people with disabilities as living and breathing human beings, complete with all the joys and sorrows of so-called “normal” or able-bodied people. This chapter focuses primarily on the intertwining historical evolution of cinematic images of the deaf, the blind, and those with physical anomalies either congenital or acquired.
…and then gets into the history, going back to Thomas Edison. They name four stereotypes of the disabled. It goes a little something like this…
Alonzo the Armless exemplifies one particular (and particularly nasty) stereotype of people with disabilities: the Obsessive Avenger. This monstrous character type frequently appears in mystery and horror films. He (and he is almost always male) is a man so embittered by his disability or disfigurement that he expresses his fury through a revenge plot, usually taken out upon the able-bodied people he feels have wronged him.
Examples: The Phantom of the Opera, Jason in Friday the 13th, Freddie Kreuger in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Shakespeare’s Richard III, Melville’s Captain Ahab, Barrie’s Captain Hook (from Peter Pan), the one-armed man in The Fugitive, many James Bond villains (including the eye-blood-leaker in Casino Royale, 2006)
Rather than being regarded as horrifying mistakes of nature, a number of disabled characters were presented in sympathetic terms. While definitely an improvement, such images contained their own problems, and created a new stereotype: the disabled person as the Sweet Innocent. Often, Sweet Innocent characters were also incredibly poor – and were offered up as evidence of the horrid conditions that the poor and working classes faces during the Industrial Revolution. [S]uch characters were made into almost saint-like characters, so that middle-class audiences could shed an easy tear over them rather than feel accosted and/or uncomfortable. Rather than express anger over their conditions, Sweet Innocents were almost implausibly humble, gentle, and perpetually cheerful despite having a disability.
Examples: Tiny Tim in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the love interest in Chaplin’s City Lights, Selina in A Patch of Blue (1965), many fragile flowers in D.W. Griffith films
Disabled veterans in World War II-era films tended to embody one of two stereotypes: the Noble Warrior or the Tragic Victim. The Noble Warrior presents the injured man as heroic and proud, thus valorizing the brave and selfless sacrifices made by members of the armed services. Conversely, the Tragic Victim presents an innocent man cut down in the prime of life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Noble Warrior image dominated films made during the war, showing that America’s injured vets were still strong and committed to victory…Once the war ended, Hollywood social problem films proliferated, and many of them dealt with issues facing disabled veterans…Freudian psychoanalysis suggests that losing a limb, or becoming blinded, is a form of symbolic castration – that it will make a man feel like less of a man. Thus many of these dramas foreground dependency as a form of hell suffered by such men.
…the book goes on to say that things have mostly improved for the better, though it points out many contemporary examples of the old ’types. Rarely does physical atypicality directly symbolize corruption or amorality anymore…rarely but not never. I’ve written a bit about this topic myself, both on this blog, where I discussed Steven Spielberg’s rehabilitation of an American hero, and in my book, where I wrote (before my son was diagnosed):
“Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance in Rain Man (1988), decried as a self-absorbed, over-expressive ‘stunt’ by Pauline Kael, seemed to validate a whole new subspecies of roles: the sentimentalized disabled person as a pinnacle of acting virtuosity or a 1990s equivalent of playing Hamlet, as seen in films like Awakenings (1990), Scent of a Woman (1992), and Forrest Gump (1994).” – Daniel Smith-Rowsey, Star Actors in the Hollywood Renaissance, p. 159
Looking back on Benshoff and Griffin’s four types, I’m struck by the typical ages and stages: the Sweet Innocents are children or young women, the Noble Warriors and Tragic Victims are young men, and the Obsessive Avengers are older men. And the 1990s Hamlets (including Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot (1989), Jodie Foster in Nell (1994), and everyone else that Robert Downey Jr. meant when he told Ben Stiller in Tropic Thunder (2008) “you never go full retard”), arriving in contrast to a decade of Jasons and Freddies, looked remarkably nuanced just by sitting there not chopping people to bits. And then I think: maybe little Dar is just going to go through each stage at each age. Maybe he won’t, but I like having this “blueprint” of types as a thing to work against, to guard against. I don’t need Dar to be a supporting character in anyone else’s journey – not even mine. I want him to become a person beyond typage.