difference is not definition – where’s the diversity in our narratives?

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.

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7 Responses to difference is not definition – where’s the diversity in our narratives?

  1. Anne says:

    Argh, yes, it really annoys me when a gay character, or female character, or POC character is defined only by that (it also annoys me when shows ‘bundle’, leading to a whole cast of white/cis/het folks and ONE, say, black lesbian, that writers point to when people complain about diversity). On the Alien front, may I suggest Salt? It’s a much more recent film with a plot written for a man (Tom Cruise, I think) that ended up with a female lead. I believe all they changed was her name and whether she had kids, as the original dude had kids but they figured that their female lead would have opted out.

  2. Ooh, thanks for the tip, I will check it out!

  3. oldfussbudget says:

    Blackface is an insulting caricature, and a telling reflection of its time and place. While respecting its historical reality there’s no excuse for it today.

    With that out of the way, the fundamental truth of actors is that they are acting, portraying something they are not. I see absolutely no reason why any person of any description should be barred from performing any part whatsoever, always supposing that he can portray the character convincingly. If it is presently deemed unacceptable for a white actor to play a black part, or a black actor a white part, or a female actor a male part — fie. Acting is all about art and illusion.

    Fixing the culture so that it notices and considers actors it had previously not is a challenging problem, but I don’t think you can fix it by stipulating that as a social or legal rule certain characters may only be played by certain actors. If such a rule *must* be, let it be a union stipulation with no justification beyond that it was negotiated by the union. The social rule has to be that no person be barred from playing any character.

  4. Ben Miles says:

    Actually, I might be able to help you out on a few points here –

    I actually had exactly the same questions about disabled actors when the Denzel Washington film ‘The Bone Collector’ came out. At the time Christopher Reeve was still alive, and I was curious as to why he wouldn’t be the obvious choice as the paraplegic protagonist in the film. A disabled friend of mine Gary actually helped point out a few things that I had overlooked about the logistics of doing such a thing. Firstly there were safety concerns – although the ‘stunts’ were laughable for an able bodied person, they would have posed serious problems for a genuine paraplegic (especially one scene where he had to fall from the bed to the floor. Denzel? No problems. Christopher Reeve… that might actually kill the guy. Seriously). Plus there’s the logistics – you’ve got to have carers and additional equipment to get the guy on and off set, and the amount of extra complexity this adds to the creative process is unreal.

    This is probably the biggest and the most serious point for using able bodied actors in these roles right here – logistics. Any creative medium has to be innately aware of how everything is put together, stuff that I guarantee the layman overlooks. Where you place a camera or position a shot can make or break a scene, how someone moves can transform even the most mundane of things. This all helps build a sense of immersion, which (especially in a cinema) is the main thing keeping you from falling asleep or going for that wee you’ve been dying for since the opening credits came up.

    Remember the film ‘Willow’? The little people in that film weren’t supposed to look disproportionate in relation to the normal height people, that was just the only way they could pull it off at the time and it causes this MASSIVE dissonance shift – regardless of how good the movie is, you’re always aware of the fact that you’re watching little people acting with people of regular height. And that’s not because you’re prejudiced in any way, that’s just because of how it looks and *tiny* visual clues that keep you informed of this fact. But you never get this feeling in the Lord of the Rings films. You know why? Because everything is set up to give the subtle visual clues that it’s *everyone else* who is too tall, rather than the hobbits being too short.

    So yeah, there are genuine reasons for some of these casting choices. On the other hand your argument has a lot of weight in other areas, especially in terms of character narrative. I like what you said about Alien, as this is one of my favourite go to examples of how you can write strong female characters without having to constantly contextualise their gender (which seems really obvious when you think about it. How many strong, feminine role models do you have in your life who constantly make asides about the difficulties of being a woman whilst in the middle of crisis situations? FUCKING NONE! They’re too busy getting on with sorting their shit out!). I’m not going to patronize you by rehashing the arguments of others on both sides of this, and you’ve done a pretty good job of arguing the ‘for’ corner anyway so that would be redundant. Instead, I would like to invite you to back up a little bit and see things from a wider angle.

    Ultimately we are in a massive period of change in terms of viewing disability. My disabled friend Gary that I mentioned before? He used to be a paralympic athlete for Great Britain. But even in the relatively short time he was involved in this there has been a massive shift in attitudes towards this kind of thing. Time was that the paralympics was something that *nobody* knew about. Wheelchair basketball? What the fuck is that all about? Fast forward to the last olympic games, and they’ve gone as far as televising the events. That’s huge progress! Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a LOOOOOOONG way to go (and in my opinion the coverage was far too limited); but it’s a start. Plus how disabled people are being portrayed is changing greatly too. Used to be that little people were relegated to playing Ewoks and hobbits, but now you’re starting to see genuine stalwart actors like Peter Dinklage coming into the public consciousness and Liz Carr in Silent Witness.

    Yeah, it’s not much. But consider that when Morecambe and Wise first came to the BBC they were turned down because they had *REGIONAL ACCENTS*. Hell, people had a problem with Daniel Craig playing Bond because he had *BLONDE HAIR*! So maybe this is less to do with the fact that we need to show less prejudice in our entertainment industry and more to do with the fact that, when it comes down to it; we’re not that far out of the trees. The more we see of this kind of thing the more accepted it will be, and change will come as it always has.

    Peter Capaldi is still awesome as the Doctor, though. That doesn’t change, gender equality be damned!

  5. jay53 says:

    I was going to say some of what Miles just said. There would be logistical problems with disabled people on the set and what you could ask them to do… not that this should eliminate them from consideration, but this would add an extra dimension when they consider who to cast. Things have to be brought in within budget or the film doesn’t get made (unless you’re hugely rich/famous/inventive/etc).

    Bond? Not sure that’s a good example either, for those of us who read books and then go to the movies. You could argue that the movie Bond has progressed beyond the books anyway (and you’d be right) but translating a book to film can already be so disappointing, why change things more than you have to? Bond was written as blue-eyed, slim, muscular, scarred, not particularly handsome (though not ugly) and according to Ian Fleming apparent looked a bit like Hoagy Carmichael. OK, so you can stretch that to include handsomely rugged actors, but any further and you’re going to upset Fleming fans.

    But as a general rule, yes. If it’s possible to employ a disabled person to play a disabled character, a naturally ‘little person’ to play a dwarf, a transgender person to play transgender etc, why the hell not? One of the bigger problems, I imagine (not being in the film industry myself) is that there might actually be a shortage of talented people from the smaller minority groups. After all, not everyone wants to be an actor, and of those that do, not everyone has the gifts required to be an actor, whatever colour they are, whichever way they swing, or whichever disability (or lack thereof) they happen to have.

  6. Pingback: The Disappearing Cripple: Disabled Actors – A Problem of Access or Perception? | Empty Arts

  7. Pingback: The Disappearing Cripple: Disabled Actors – A Problem of Access or Perception? — Theatre Bubble

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