Representation of disabilities in popular culture

Hello my dear student colleagues and welcome to our first blog! I thought it would be fun to start off with a little “lighter” angle to our world of disabilities – but something that I´ve been contemplating to write about for some time now. The heading itself might already be self-explanatory. So, when you think of it – when was the last time you saw a real disabled person in a movie, tv-show, in a Netflix series, reality-tv…think about it?

In 1993 a movie came out that shook my world. “What´s Eating Gilbert Grape” was probably one of my favourite films of the decade. To this day, it remains an indisputable classic in my movie library. In the movie we follow the story of the Grape´s, a rather dysfunctional family living in fictional town called Endora – in the middle of nowhere in the U.S. The star-studded cast includes Johnny Depp, Juliette Lewis, John C.Reilly and the amazing Leonardo DiCaprio. It is DiCaprio who completely steals the show with the character called Arnie, a mentally disabled / autistic 17 year old teenager. I will always remember the first time I saw Arnie appear on the big screen and thinking – WOW; here we have an actually disabled person in a major Hollywood role, how progressive is this! And as the movie went along, I became even more convinced of his disability – DiCaprio really fooled me for good as it was the first movie I ever saw him in.

They say – art imitates life. When representing life in art – especially in cinema, everything is an illusion. The different characters who represent someone or something, the storyline which can be totally fictional or based in real life events, the editing, casting, directing…everything that goes into that final piece we see on the big screen. I do however think that in order to speak to as wide audience as possible, and share those stories it is crucial that we (or the movie makers) pay our respect to those who so often are left out. The minorities. When you see a non-disabled person playing a disabled character oftentimes it feels just wrong – especially if the performance isn´t quite “up there” (which definitely was not the case with DiCaprio) – it can also feel intimating and sort of peeping into someone else´s life without a permission. As if back in the days when white folks played black roles by blackfacing themselves – thank god those days are gone. Same goes to straight actors playing gay characters – it just doesn´t “feel right”. It is the lack of soul, or the deep immersion into the story – even though I´m not sure if that would have been the case with Arnie – just check for yourself from this link:

Leonardo DiCaprio in “Gilbert Grape” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1f6LfZjN-Tg

So do I have a point here? Let´s find a point!

It is not only the responsibility of the machinery behind the massive blockbusters in Hollywood, or smaller studios around the world to bring visibility and spread awareness on these matters – but we as movie goers, popular culture junkies, regular folks with regular lives without disabilities who can voice our concerns – who can make the difference. We can vote with our feet for those who cant. We can write for those who have no access. We can see the difference for those who live in the dark. We can and we should at least pause for a moment to talk about these things – and then think how much more vibrant, colourful, less-inclusive, beautiful and less stigmatising our world could be if art didn´t only imitate life – but presented ALL the colours of the rainbow in their amazing beauty.

Yksi kommentti artikkeliin ”Representation of disabilities in popular culture

  1. Nerissa Demetriou

    Thank you for your post Anttie! You shed light to a very relevant and significant topic; representation. Representation truly is the right step towards promoting both inclusivity and equality since popular culture has such a big impact in the modern society. Any person who belongs to a marginalized group knows the sense of empowerment through representation! It can really shift attitudes and aid acceptance, both from an internal level (self-acceptance) and an external, societal level-normalization is the key!

    You also made a good point in regard of using actual disabled actors in aim of sending an authentic message of inclusivity. If inclusivity is the goal of representation why not literally include people that actually belong to a marginalized group? 😉

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