I think I touched on this particular topic in a blog a while back (once you turn a certain age, I’m telling you, things just start failing and what used to be an awesome memory is one of those things for me). So I watched The Theory of Everything this weekend. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. It’s based on the book by Stephen Hawking’s wife and tells of their relationship and his initial diagnosis with ALS as a young man. Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar for his performance in the film, something that’s garnered him a lot of praise, but also a lot of criticism. Hollywood is notorious for not representing minorities, women, gay people, transgender people and the like on a large enough scale. But it’s especially known for not representing people with disabilities. When they are represented, the roles are often played by able bodied people. I’ve mentioned Artie from Glee. This was the first time I ever saw a character in a wheelchair represented on a television show. And even though the actor who played him did a great job, he wasn’t in a wheelchair himself.
So this brings me to what I’ve seen to be the two schools of thought on the topic of differently-abled people in the media and actors like Eddie winning awards for representing them. One side thinks that it’s wrong for people who are able-bodied to be playing these roles and winning awards for it. The other is that it’s good that disabilities are finally being represented in movies and television and that these actors should be applauded for playing such roles.
I kind of fall somewhere in the middle. I completely, 100% agree that people will disabilities need to represented more in every form of media, especially TV and movies. Like with the case of Glee, I think that part should have easily gone to someone who was actually in a wheelchair. But when it comes to Eddie Redmayne’s part, I don’t think it’s so simple to say someone with ALS should have played him. He had to show the progression of Stephen’s ALS from being able to walk, to only being able to talk using a computer. So I understand why they cast him for the role as they did. He also did an amazing job and spent a lot of time with people who actually had ALS in order to play the role and represent the disease in the way it truly deserved. I also agree with the second school of thought too. I think that just the fact that movies are being made about people with disabilities and are garnering so much attention is hugely important. It’s unfortunate, but the road to full understanding and acceptance can be a long one. It takes small gradual changes sometimes. The Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted appallingly late in history and before it, people with disabilities were seen as second class citizens or a scourge on society and were given zero protection under the law. So yes, maybe having able-bodied actors play people with disabilities isn’t a huge leap of progress but it’s certainly a big step on the road to progress and you have to start somewhere. I have a feeling there were many people who didn’t even really understand what ALS was or its effects on the body before they saw The Theory of Everything even though it’s a disease that’s been known about for a long time. Bringing up the topic leads to a discussion and a discussion leads to questions and curiosity. Those two things lead to knowledge which then can lead to understanding. And the fact that awards are being given to the people in these roles is also extremely important. It brings even more attention to the film/show and thus, to the subject. If screenwriters and directors and movie producers are seeing how successful a film can be that focuses around someone with a disability, then they’re going to be a lot more likely to make another one. Maybe it starts with ALS, and then it’ll be MD or autism or multiple sclerosis.
I think there just needs to a balance. When possible, disabled actors should most definitely be hired. They’ve lived it so why not? But I also think we need to recognize the importance that movies or TV shows are being made about people with disabilities to begin with. I certainly look forward to the day when I see someone who walks just like me or has the exact same struggles represented on a TV show or in a movie. Seeing all these films and shows coming out now, I have a lot more hope that that day will come sooner rather than later.