Directed by Jenni Gold, Leomark Studios
I recently and eagerly watched the new documentary CinemAbility: The Art of Inclusion via an Amazon rental. Although I have a couple of complaints, I don’t want to lead with them because the documentary overall was amazing and has been sorely needed. For those who only read articles’ opening paragraphs: you must see this film! You will not regret it.
The documentary was filled with interview clips—actors, directors, casting directors, academics. I apologize in advance because I won’t have the names of some people. While the documentary had closed captioning and Marlee Matlin had an interpreter, one accommodation typically missing from documentaries was also lacking in this one: identifying the speakers every time they come onscreen. I have prosopagnosia (face blindness), so in a film with scores of different speakers I really need their identity to be included every time they appear or I will be lost as far as who is speaking at least half the time, if not more.
The opening clips centered around an academic, Martin F. Norden, a communications professor who teaches film and media studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Norden’s 1994 book, The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies, appears to have strongly informed the entire documentary in form and content. Theories from his book were used to lay the groundwork, demonstrating the pre-existing stereotypes that cinema needs to work past if films and television are going to depict disability in an honest and realistic way that does not harm or diminish disabled people in the name of entertainment.
The documentary also goes through a chronological history of disability, interwoven with interviews, facts, and opinions, and that chronology began at the same time as Norden discussed the three biggest tropes or storyline stereotypes about disabled people: the Saintly Sage, the Sweet Innocent, and the Obsessive Avenger.
The Saintly Sage is usually elderly. A classic example is the old, blind hermit in Bride of Frankenstein (a character who was also spoofed in Mel Brook’s comic satire, Young Frankenstein — not mentioned in the documentary, but I couldn’t help thinking of it, especially as I’ve never seen the original Bride of Frankenstein film). The old man can’t see that Frankenstein is a monster and treats him like a human being until the hunters come looking for him and tell the hermit that he’s been sharing dinner with a monster.
The Saintly Sage is not a compliment—it is using a disabled character as a plot device to illustrate a point or advance the script. Saintly Sage is the disability version of another trope often called the “Magical Negro.” Someone the audience views as “exotic” comes into the story solely to assist the hero with life wisdom inaccessible to “normals.” Another similar trope is the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” who is not a fully-formed character and only exists to help the male protagonist find meaning and purpose in his own life.
The film digresses a moment to show some clips of a homeless, disabled street beggar being used to comic effect while the narrator (Jane Seymour) tells us that this clip filmed by Thomas Edison may be the first depiction of disability ever in film. The image is iconic after all these years of being repeated again and again in much the same tone Edison originally depicted.
The Sweet Innocent is usually a beautiful young woman or a child. This is the prototype for the “good disabled person” that so many of us feel near-continual pressure to be. The Sweet Innocent is kind and good, usually to the level of being completely one-dimensional. They are sexless and childlike and too good to be real. At the end of the movie the Sweet Innocent is usually rewarded for being a good disabled person by receiving a miracle cure.
Several examples of the Sweet Innocent were depicted but the one that most caught my attention was from the movie Heidi where the Sweet Innocent in the wheelchair is taught to walk by Shirley Temple’s Heidi, another character too sweet and good to be true. This is one of my earliest memories of a wheelchair user being depicted in a movie I watched as a child. That illustrates how damaging these stereotypes and tropes can be. Movies are many people’s first education about what disability is, what it means, how we should respond to disability, and so on.
The Obsessive Avenger is the flip side of the Sweet Innocent—the “bad disabled person” who gets punished instead of cured. Some examples include the Phantom of the Opera, The Wax Museum, and Speed. Although not depicted in the documentary, I realized that many of the villains in Batman are also Obsessive Avengers. The Obsessive Avenger becomes disabled and is so infuriated by it that they devote their life to seeking revenge for the wrong done to them and typically die by the end of the movie.
The bad disabled person off-screen is the one who is not always cheerful and smiling and sometimes is angry. I think a lot of Autistic activists get socially punished (or much worse!) because we are viewed as “bad disabled people” for feeling angry about some things, for speaking up for our rights instead of being grateful and happy all the time. Sometimes it feels like all a person has to do to be the “bad disabled person” is mention one thing that needs to be changed.
I really do feel like these movie tropes have trickled through our society, shaping ideas like inspiration porn and so-called mercy killings that affect Autistics and all disabled people. CinemAbility is an important film for Autistic people even though the word “autism” is never spoken in the documentary and there are only a few clips, one to two seconds long each, from movies and TV about or including Autistic people. The ones I noticed were: Rain Man (which went by so fast I didn’t even catch it until I saw it listed in the end credits!), Temple Grandin (which somehow got listed twice in the end credits), and a quick image of Max, from Parenthood. If you add in other developmental disabilities, there was Charly, I Am Sam, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Life Goes On, and Forrest Gump.
That’s my biggest complaint—how under-represented developmental disabilities were in the documentary. I did some thinking about why that might be and I have a few thoughts on that:
First, I think we had to be “patched in” to be there at all because, as I mentioned, the documentary seemed to have heavily relied on Martin F. Norden’s work and his book was strictly about physical disabilities. The only developmentally disabled character who got any real air time at all was Corky, played by Chris Burke, from Life Goes On, an ABC television show that aired from 1989 to 1993. I watched it when it aired and enjoyed it. Chris Burke, who is also a Down syndrome activist and singer, is a solid actor and Corky was a great character. I didn’t realize until I watched the documentary that the show was made for Chris Burke.
Burke had written to ABC, saying that he was an actor with Down syndrome and wanted a chance to be in a show. Executives and casting staff were charmed by Burke’s friendly and direct request and built Life Goes On just for him. It was ground-breaking television as far as depicting someone with a developmental disability living a happy and fulfilled life.
The documentary shows a clip of a mother of someone with Down syndrome (as I asked my screen why they were talking to a parent and not a person with Down syndrome), Gail Williamson, who said, “The more images we put in TV and film, the more opportunities there are for people to see what Down syndrome is and have a better understanding of it.” She went on to mention that the Down syndrome community had a definite before Corky / after Corky effect: doctors started telling mothers that their baby has Down syndrome but they shouldn’t despair because their child might turn out to be like Corky.
That’s where representation gets sticky, of course. The film didn’t talk about the “super crip” phenomenon at all (although it did, very briefly, mention inspiration porn.) I can’t help wondering how many people felt oppressed by the pressure to be “another Corky” just as so many of us Autistics feel pressure to be “another Temple.” Telling mothers that their child could be another Corky might make the mothers feel better, but at what cost for their children?
There was a short segment about Lauren Potter, an actor from Glee with Down syndrome, and how she grew stronger as an actor because they trusted her to be competent. There was also a short segment about RJ Mitte, who has another developmental disability: cerebral palsy. He was hired to play Walter, Jr. on Breaking Bad because the show wanted to represent reality rather than having an abled actor portray cerebral palsy.
The movie Forrest Gump had a fairly long segment in the documentary, but I noticed it barely grazed upon Forrest’s disability and spent nearly all the airtime focused on Lieutenant Dan’s story arc of becoming disabled, being angry, coming to terms with disability, and going on to have a vibrant, thriving life. It was a great analysis of Lieutenant Dan’s character, but I wanted that spotlight turned on Forrest, too. As I say, what content there was about autism and other developmental disabilities was pretty thin on the ground and added in, since the book that set the framework and tone for the documentary was only about physical disabilities.
Another reason for the low representation of people like me in the documentary is general societal attitudes and assumptions found in the larger disability community. Many times I have been spending time in communities of cross-disability activists and felt alienated as people unthinkingly (at least I’m really hoping they didn’t realize an Autistic was listening to them) talked about how worthy they are because “our minds are fine.” Sometimes the talk even goes so far as, “if there were something wrong with my mind I’d kill myself.” The larger disability community can be unfriendly to Autistics or simply doesn’t think about us enough to remember that we are part of the movement, too.
And part of that is our own fault for isolating ourselves in Autistic or Neurodiversity or Asperger’s spaces and ignoring the larger disability community. We really need to make the effort to reach out past our own issues because we risk being left out of disability representation that way. We also miss the opportunity to learn from a long-standing and results-achieving community when we isolate. We could get our own game so much more on point than it already is by spending more time actively studying what activists and advocates with other disabilities are doing. Finally, we’re cutting ourselves off from potential friendships with people of other neurotypes who care about accommodations and acceptance.
Along the lines of feeling excluded in subtle ways, Marlee Matlin (who I love so much) said, “Don’t look at us as different. We have the same brains. We have the same hearts. We all live and breathe the same air. At the end of the day, just be more open-minded and have passion, not sympathy.” This is such a beautiful message and I laud it—but it’s not entirely true. I don’t have the same brain as non-Autistic people.
That’s just it: I’m neurodivergent. I have a beautiful Autistic brain and it’s both my super power and my downfall. As I saw Neurobeautiful say in the Facebook forum for the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network recently: “most superpowers turn into disabilities in an environment not built to accommodate them.” You may call it a minor thing that Marlee Matlin said we all have the same brains, but it did break my heart a little bit.
That said, I do think we have more in common with other disabled people than we do with neurotypical people who are not disabled. Danny Woodburn, an actor who is a Little Person, (side note: when Googling to see if I should capitalize Little Person, the first site I found was, coincidentally, a conversation between the actor Danny Woodburn and Roger Ebert) said something in CinemAbility that any of us could, sadly, easily imagine being said to the mother of an Autistic child: “Even when I was a baby in the late 60s, early 70s, people would approach my mom and think that she did something horrible in the face of God to deserve a child like me.”
Here’s to working together with our siblings in the larger disability community, to gaining more and better representation in the disability community and society at large, and to being part of the fight for a world where we are viewed as human beings—not plot devices, not inspiration, and not punishments and burdens.