A few weeks ago I read an article suggesting that we wouldn’t accept white actors ‘blacking up’ to play black characters, so why would we accept able-bodied actors ‘cripping up’ (their phrase, not mine) to play disabled characters. While I agreed with the general premise of the article the key example used was not ideal and derailed any useful discussion of the points the writer raised. The main example used was Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything”. I have to admit, I haven’t yet seen the movie, but I know enough about it to realise that Redmayne was portraying Hawking as both a young man and an older man, and therefore showing the progression of Hawking’s condition, requiring the actor to play both able-bodied and disabled aspects of Hawking’s life; something that even with the advances of CGI would have been extremely difficult for an actor with ALS. It’s a shame that this article didn’t quite pack the punch it could have done purely by dint of chosing a bad example with which to make the point; because there are many other films and TV shows where a disabled actor could have played a role, but it was handed to able-bodied actors because they were more famous, because CGI can do that now, or, well, I don’t know, just because.
I question casting in so many ways when watching film or TV. Why wasn’t the part of Maura in Transparent played by a trans actor? Why were all the dwarves in all of the recent Lord of the Rings movies played by average sized actors shrunk by CGI? Why wasn’t the part of, well, anyone powerful AT ALL in Exodus played by anyone other than a white dude?
The casting of able-boded actors in roles that could reasonably be played by disabled actors, or cisgendered actors in parts that could reasonably be played by transgendered or non-binary actors is another form of whitewashing and it’s not ok.
But I think there’s an even bigger problem here.
Why aren’t there more disabled actors working in films or tv playing, you know, characters? Not disabled characters, not a character with an ‘inspiration’ story arc about dealing or ‘overcoming’ their disability, just a person, playing a role where that person just also happens to have a disability? Why shouldn’t any disabled actor audition for any part at all and have a fair chance of playing that character, assuming that being partially sighted, or deaf, or a wheelchair user doesn’t actually affect that character’s storyline in any way shape or form? As Mark Povinelli put it, “I’ve got no problem with Ian McShane playing a dwarf, if I’m allowed to play a lawyer or a doctor or all of the things we seem to be denied so often.”
When Liz Carr was cast in Silent Witness as Forensic Examiner Clarissa Mullery, it felt like a breakthrough moment. As Carr said herself, “What I love about Clarissa is that she’s a disabled person but we don’t base the story on that, she just is. We don’t focus on it, but we also don’t deny it, and I think that’s brilliant.” Clarissa Mullery’s disability has absolutely nothing to do with her narrative, with her motivation, with her personality. Why aren’t there more roles like this out there? I mean, out here in the ‘real’ world disabled people go to work, they eat their lunch, they raise their children, play computer games, eat cake, fart, fall over, make mistakes, tidy the house, stay up late – all of those random little every day things that people do because that’s what people do because, you know, they are people. The question isn’t just why aren’t disabled actors being cast as disabled characters, but why can’t disabled actors be cast as any character?
While I was thinking about this lack of diversity in casting when it comes to disability, it occurred to me that this goes even further than disabled actors playing characters where their disability isn’t part of the narrative; in fact if you are anything at all other than an able-bodied white cisgendered heterosexual male, chances are that the thing that makes you ‘other’ – that differentiates you from that able-bodied white cis gendered heterosexual male – that thing will actually be fundamentally important in your character arc. Able-bodied white cisgendered heterosexual male characters get to be ANYTHING. They have all sorts of different narratives, storylines, motivations, flaws, trials and quirks. But if you are, say an able-bodied white cisgender homosexual man, there’s a high chance that your sexual preference will form some significant part of the narrative or feature as a plot device. If you are an able-bodied white cisgender homosexual woman, then the film will probably dwell on that even more. If you are a disabled black transgender homosexual woman, then, well, that entire movie is probably about how this woman is black and trans and gay and disabled.
It’s almost as if any deviation from the ‘default’ able bodied white cis gendered heterosexual man is seen as character or narrative in of itself. This is not the way things should be.
When a movie does manage to escape this idea of a ‘default’, the results can be fantastic. Ripley, for example, was originally conceived as a male character, but when the final draft of Alien was completed she was a woman. There was little difference to the script, to the plot or to her motivation as a result. They didn’t feel the need to throw in any references to PMT or add any sort of sex scene or pregnancy in to make us Get that She was a Woman In Space (at least, not for the first movie. But that’s a whole other blog post…) It didn’t MATTER in Alien that Ripley was a woman because her ‘woman-ness’ wasn’t in any way important to the narrative. Why is this so rare as an example when it worked so damn well? Why is it so rare that the gender, race, ability or sexual preference of a character is so unimportant to the narrative that this is one of the only examples I can think of? A film made 36 years ago?
On some occasions where a non able-bodied white cis gendered heterosexual man has been cast as a character where being an able-bodied white cis gendered heterosexual man DOESN’T EVEN MATTER there has been, well, let’s politely call it ‘consternation’. When rumours went around that Idris Elba could be the next Bond? CONSTERNATION. But really, does being white matter in any way shape or form to the character of Bond? Rumours that The Doctor could be played by a woman? CONSTERNATION. And poor Idris Elba can’t get a break because when he was cast as Heimdall? CONSTERNATION. Because people can apparently suspend their disbelief enough to go along with the idea that a semi-immortal alien race were mistaken for Norse deities while travelling interdimesionally using a rainbow bridge; but the idea that one of them might be black is just a step too far. James Bond’s or Heimdall’s ‘whiteness’, The Doctor’s ‘maleness’ – neither of these have any bearing on the character’s narrative or story whatsoever, so why couldn’t Bond be black, or The Doctor a woman?
Why do we have so many problems even now, 36 year years after Alien demonstrated that gender matters not a whit when it comes to being a badass or selling cinema tickets to awesome movies, in thinking that maybe, just maybe, we can be a little more diverse in how we write characters, how we cast characters?
If we can lose the idea that deviation from an arbitrary ‘default’ is the same thing as narrative, perhaps we can we have more characters who are not defined by their gender or their sexual preference or their disability. Who, like Clarissa Mullery, just are.