Dr. Dolmage talks Disability and Hollywood

NBC News photo credit
UWaterloo English’s own Jay Dolmage has been speaking out on the representation of disability in recent films like The Theory of Everything and Still Alice. As the editor of The Canadian Journal of Disability Studies and the author of the award-winning book Disability Rhetoric, this is a matter in which he is deeply invested. For his recent piece in the Waterloo Record, “Hollywood mustn’t shut out disabled” see here.


2 responses to “Dr. Dolmage talks Disability and Hollywood

  1. Although Dr. Dolmage makes several excellent points in his critical analysis of disability in Hollywood, I think he misses an important aspect of “The Theory of Everything”: Stephen Hawking’s sexuality. And while his criticism of Hollywood for not hiring disabled actors is just, it’s important to recognize that there are disabled actors in the entertainment industry.

    One of the many problems with our social & cultural construction of disability is that it is largely de-sexualizing. Someone in a wheelchair, or with a prosthetic limb, or bipolar disorder, neither has sexual desire, nor is an object of sexual desire. While sexual dysfunction may be a side-effect of anti-depressants and other medications, someone with depression (and in a wheelchair, or with a prosthetic limb, etc.) is still a sexual being who can experience desire, be desired, and engage in sexual activity.

    In “The Theory of Everything,” this is explicitly addressed when one of Stephen’s schoolmates asks about his married sex life, and Stephen says “It’s a different system…automatic.” The automatic nervous system controls sexual arousal, which means that Stephen & Jane do have sex (as later proven by the births of their 3 children). There is also a powerful scene in the film in which Elaine Mason and Stephen look at pornography together and flirt. After his divorce from Jane, Stephen will marry Elaine. This film reasserts Stephen’s sexuality, and by doing so, challenges the common misunderstanding of disability as asexual.

    Is Hollywood a progressive environment for people with disabilities? No. But are films being produced that challenge misconceptions about disability? Absolutely. Not every film is “The Hobbit: Battle of the 5 Armies”, where the main villain has a prosthetic limb and many of the orcs are multiple amputees… (sorry Jackson, you disappointed me on this one).

    And although disabled actors certainly don’t populate the silver screen as much as they should, there are shows & films that do hire actors with disabilities to play characters who share those disabilities. In Breaking Bad, the actor who plays Walt’s son, RJ Mitte, actually has cerebral palsy. In Glee, Lauren Potter does have down syndrome. In The West Wing, Marlee Matlin is deaf (she also won an Oscar for best actress in a leading role in 1986 for the film Children of a Lesser God). Peter Dinklage’s dwarfism hasn’t stopped him from garnering fame as one of the main characters in Game of Thrones (and appearing in numerous other shows and films).

    Ultimately I agree with Dr. Dolmage’s points, but I think it’s important to see the good as well as the bad in Hollywood’s treatment and portrayal of disability.

  2. Thanks very much for these excellent points Adan! I do think there are positive aspects of the film. I am unsure though if the representation of Stephen’s sexuality isn’t itself a trope or stereotype: that his heterosexual masculinity has to be clearly established in such an obvious way almost feels like too much, and perhaps done again to manage the fears of “able-bodied” audience members more than anything else. Robert McRuer has done excellent work on the ways that “compulsory able-bodiedness” also requires “compulsory heterosexuality” in his analysis of the film As Good As it Gets. Remember that this statement happens as his best friend carries him drunkenly up a big set of stairs, a very vulnerable moment. And remember that there is no scene like this at all in the book upon which the movie is based. And remember that when the third child is born, not even Stephen’s family believes it is his. Disability gets constructed in a desexualized and emasculating way, even as Stephen’s heterosexuality is so clearly and scientifically “described.” But the tone of my article didn’t leave much space for some of the nuance I think you are quite right to point out exists in the film.

    The Reel Abilities film fest is another place where there are excellent disability films every year, so I agree there is “good” to be seen as well, but I am afraid that I disagree that there is much good coming out of Hollywood right now. I feel the opposite is true and could throw out dozens of examples from TV and movies (Glee is terrifically ableist for example).

    But I really think the spirit of your post is important and I really thank you for engaging and sharing your thoughts.

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