As the movement for greater inclusiveness in American pop culture has gained steam, one of the most heartening things about it is the way it has expanded. Conversations about the experiences and depictions of women and people of color have become more nuanced and fine-grained, expanding to include the specific challenges that face, say, Asian American actors or African American women in an industry traditionally dominated by white men.
And in this broadly dispiriting summer, I’ve been particularly encouraged by the expanding conversation about the way the way Hollywood treats people with disabilities, a term that is as broad in its own way as a category like people of color. Whether it’s the vigorous discussion around “Me Before You,” an adaptation of a novel about a young man with a spinal cord injury, his caregiver and his decision to commit suicide, or the tender storytelling of Pixar’s “Finding Dory,” these discussions have illustrated the limits of the industry’s storytelling conventions and the desperate need for more parts for actors with disabilities.
Of course, all stories and all parts aren’t created equal.
Last week, the Hollywood Reporter published a terrific deep dive into little people’s experiences in the entertainment industry by Seth Abramovitch. The piece, which reaches all the way back to the experiences of the actors who worked on “The Wizard of Oz,” is wrenching in its portrait of the compromises Abramovitch’s subjects have made to be able to stay in the business.
Tony Cox, who starred in “Bad Santa” and had worked on shows like “Rescue Me,” told Abramovitch that his first acting teacher told him that “the only thing you’ll ever be in is a costume,” meaning he would spend his whole career playing costumed elves or lawn jockeys (Cox is black). Abramovitch chronicles the death of Kimberly Tripp, who impersonated Kim Kardashian at a Hollywood cabaret, and the performers, including Miley Cyrus, who have hired little people to perform in their acts.
“Hollywood’s little people,” Abramovitch writes bluntly, “are at once beholden to the entertainment industry, which remains their biggest employer, and enslaved by its vision of them, which, in 2016, largely remains that of the eager-to-please freak.” Getting somewhat more respectful roles can mean playing characters who aren’t human at all; Warwick Davis, for example, broke out as the Ewok Wicket in “Return of the Jedi,” and showed up as Griphook, one of J.K. Rowling’s memorable goblins, in the movie adaptation of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.”
When actors with disabilities, including dwarfism, do get to play recognizably human versions of themselves, rather than comic props, they often do so in stories explicitly about their bodies. Sometimes, those stories treat it as inevitable that people with disabilities will choose to commit suicide. Other times, Hollywood suggests that it’s miraculous that people with disabilities manage to get out of bed, work and form romantic relationships and fantasies. As I wrote this summer when “Finding Dory” came out, it’s pretty depressing that some of the most adventurous, fully realized characters with disabilities in American popular culture are cartoon fish.
Or, as Sophie Morgan, a model, paraplegic and disability-issues activist, put it in a recent interview with the Irish Times: “I would love to switch on my TV and see a disabled person talking about something they are genuinely interested in or acting out a part that doesn’t just focus on their impairment.”
Since broad definitions of disability which include mental illnesses and issues such as dementia suggest that almost 1 in 5 Americans falls into that category, there’s no question that people with disabilities are wildly underrepresented in American popular culture. And they are particularly underrepresented if you’re looking for stories in which disability is relatively incidental to the plot.
I’m a big advocate for specificity in storytelling, particularly for scripts that acknowledge that people of color, LGBT people, women and members of other under-represented groups may have different experiences of the world than the straight, white men who are so often Hollywood’s default, and thus may approach everything from dating to the workplace in new and different ways.
But given that depictions of people with disabilities so often dwell on difference and suggest that a different experience of the world is either crushing or entirely defining, it strikes me that the best possible thing that Hollywood could do for actors with disabilities and audiences at home is to start telling stories about people who work, travel, love and start families, and who just happen to be disabled. If nothing else, don’t we deserve a romantic comedy starring Peter Dinklage already?