The British Film Institute has announced it will no longer provide funding for films featuring villains with visible “scars, burns or marks”, in an effort to end the stigma of disfigurement. “Film has such a powerful influence on society … [and] also is a catalyst for change and that is why we are committing to not having negative representations depicted through scars or facial difference in the films we fund,” said the BFI’s director of film funding, Ben Roberts. The decision is backed by the #IAmNotYourVillain campaign launched by charity Changing Faces, who support those who live with a visible difference.
Choosing to portray villains with physical disfigurements is a lazy and damaging trope that has been favoured in Hollywood films for too long. While the BFI’s action is commendable, it seems so obviously wrong to use departures from “normal” appearance as indications of evil that it is alarming official action against it is only being taken now, in 2018. And yet the stereotype, which should be condemned as an embarrassing relic of the past, continues to crop up, particularly in superhero blockbusters (see most recently in Wonder Woman, 2017 – or don’t, if you value your time).
Not only is this action overdue, but it also eliminates just a microscopic part of the problematic representation of disfigurement and disability in film and television. Not all facial disfigurements are caused by disability, but the social isolation, barriers to employment and bullying that sufferers can be vulnerable to are just as significantly debilitating. As we continue to become more vocal in our criticism of the use of racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic stereotypes in film, it is equally important to unite in combatting ableism, too. Disabled people are largely the most offensively and least accurately portrayed community on screen, and these transgressions go frequently unchecked by mainstream media. From inane punchlines to fully developed yet totally ignorant plotlines and character arcs, films featuring disability too often leave one begging the question: who let this happen?
The Fries Test – disability’s answer to the Bechdel Test – is a handy tool in assessing how a film handles the subject. It asks:
1) Does a work have more than one disabled character?
2) Do the disabled characters have their own narrative purpose other than the education and profit of a nondisabled character?
3) Is the character’s disability not eradicated either by curing or killing?
It’s no surprise that few films pass the first question, let alone the whole test. Just as its feminist counterpart isn’t the ultimate authority on what makes a ‘feminist’ film, the Fries Test isn’t all encompassing of what we should expect from authentic disabled representation, but it does pinpoint seriously overused tropes that are frequently accepted by the majority of audiences. Its creator, disabled academic and author Kenny Fries, expands on the damage caused by films that fail the test: “Through such depictions we learn little about the actual life lived with a disability, but a lot about how our culture uses disability for its own purposes and disvalues disabled lives.”
If the BFI’s stance gains traction in Hollywood, we could be in for an exciting upheaval of the way disability is sold to us in film and television, which could effectively instigate some real change in the way disabled people are perceived and therefore treated in real life. It would be long overdue, but a necessary start. With this in mind, here’s a non-exhaustive (SPOILER-CONTAINING) compilation of other tired and offensive stereotypes, tropes and clichés about disabled people that should be next in the queue to be axed from funding:
The Sickly Villain:
Facial scarring and disfigurement is just the tip of the iceberg – this trope is so prevalent it could almost be labelled a genre in itself. Wheelchairs, canes, prostheses, terminal illnesses or some form of customised life-support (see Bane’s anaesthetic gas-producing mask in The Dark Knight Rises) have all been used to flesh-out villains’ characterisations. But why? It goes beyond rudimentary eugenicist symbolism equating disability with malevolency and able-bodiedness with heroism. Whether used as an attempt to gain sympathy for the villain’s tragic backstory (see Phantom of the Opera, all versions), or an opportunity to exploit a weakness in a villain who the hero cannot destroy through traditional brute force (see the Star Wars franchise) associating disability with fearsome characters does nothing for the disabled community but cause further barriers in being properly understood.
Moving away from the superhero and fantasy categories, aside from 2016’s superhero film Doctor Strange, this trope is often seen in a more real-life (by Hollywood standards) setting, for example: Paul Dano’s supporting character as a would-be pilot thwarted by colour-blindness in Little Miss Sunshine. This is a case of disability being used as a plot device (in this instance, to provoke Dano’s character into dramatically bursting out of his vow of silence) rather than an exploration of the everyday reality of the disability itself. This year’s Red Sparrow saw Jennifer Lawrence’s protagonist Dominika forced into a life of sexpionage after a leg injury ends her hopes of becoming a ballerina – not before taking revenge on those responsible by violently beating them with her cane. Again, this film doesn’t develop a narrative on the reality of a (temporary) disability, but uses it as a tactic to bring devastation on the character to the most dramatic effect. In multiple Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby the audience is treated to a doubly clichéd portrayal: not only are protagonist Maggie’s dreams of a boxing career crushed when an accident leaves her a quadriplegic, but her character is also “eradicated” by assisted suicide*. The Dream-Crusher is an unrealistic cliché not because it doesn’t happen in real life – almost all disabled people are certainly forced to re-evaluate their dreams – but because the post-crush trajectory is almost always focussed on the character’s recovery via inner strength, not the ways able-centric society can adapt to their needs. This only reinforces the trite, yet widely-believed falsehood often shared around social media that “the only disability in life is a bad attitude”.
This is a popular trope used often to almost negate a character’s disability by gifting them the opportunity to use it to their advantage – something that rarely, if ever, happens in real life. A common example is when a character is made blind with the sole purpose of showcasing their other superhuman-level heightened senses, for example: Chirrut in Rogue One, a blind man so in tune with his other senses (and The Force) he is a master of martial arts à la Marvel’s sonar superhero, Daredevil. Even less convincing is when the blindness is only temporary, like Game of Thrones’ Arya Stark who, after being blind for less than a year, is able to defeat her sighted enemy by cannily fighting in the dark. On occasion the disability superpower is manipulated into immunity to specific kinds of attacks or danger, as seen in Signs where the protagonist’s son’s asthma attack helpfully protects him from breathing in the aliens’ poisonous fumes**. Whether misguidedly intended to portray disabled characters ‘positively’, or an unwillingness to give airtime to the harsh disadvantages real disabled people encounter, the Superpower trope isn’t particularly helpful in truthful representation of disability.
The Big Faker:
You might think a trope as ignorant as faking disability or illness was left behind with the melodramatic soap operas of yore, but it continues to rear its ugly head. A regular side joke in sitcoms (see Barney of How I Met Your Mother pretending Ted is deaf to gain favour with women) and occasionally the crux of an entire plot – most notably seen in 2006’s (thankfully terribly received) ‘comedy’ The Ex, which depicts Jason Bateman’s character faking paraplegia to receive sympathy and excuse his bad behaviour. In a similar vein as The Sickly Villain, faking disability is a tool often employed by shifty characters in order to make others underestimate their capacity for malice, a textbook example of which being Kevin Spacey’s character’s dramatic reveal in the climax of The Usual Suspects. The truth of the matter is that faking disability is so rare in real life that exaggerating the figures in film and television only feeds into scepticism of real people’s suffering, leading to mistreatment and oppression. Less than two per cent of benefits in the United Kingdom are fraudulently claimed and yet disabled people are faced with punishing treatment in claiming government payments desperately necessary for us to survive.
The list of irksome mishandlings of disability that appear time and time again in film and television is longer than is possible to list here. However, if the industry continues to move in this path carved out by the BFI’s recent action, hopefully we can begin to see some more considered, authentic and beneficial representation of ourselves on the big and small screens. As the end of 2018 draws near, it’s more than about time.
*If it were intended as a catalyst to discuss the ethics of euthanasia this would be a worthy pursuit – but instead it reads as simply abandoning the responsibility of dealing with a quadriplegic character’s story.
**Interestingly, this trope is proven to date back to the medieval folkloric tale of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, in which the only children saved from the Piper’s luring music are a deaf child unable to hear it, a blind child who cannot see the way to follow it and a ‘lame’ child unable to keep up with the others’ pace.