Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri’s commitment to authentically depicting small town American attitudes, no matter how unpalatable, was a cause of controversy surrounding the film, and whilst the politically incorrect language suited the film’s acerbic, iconoclastic atmosphere, it was openly criticised for its callous approach to race relations. But the film’s insensitivity extends beyond racial issues. There has been an an almost total silence on the treatment of James, a used car salesman played by Peter Dinklage who is also, we are constantly reminded, a dwarf. Jokes about James’ size pervade the film, and although to some extent McDonagh is correct in saying that ignoring societal attitudes to the character’s dwarfism would be “bogus” (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/0/martin-mcdonagh-golden-globe-winning-three-billboards-outside/), the extent of the bullying, along with the absence of any real criticism of such behaviour, is uncomfortable. Perhaps worse, however, is the lack of public scrutiny of this representation, an indication that ableism on screen is still so rife that it passes unnoticed, even in films as critically acclaimed as Three Billboards.
“ableism on screen is still so rife that it passes unnoticed, even in films as critically acclaimed as Three Billboards”
This ableism manifests itself in numerous ways: for example, a history of physiognomy – the assessment of personality from an individual’s physical appearance – has birthed the damaging trope of the ‘evil cripple’. This archetypal villain, whose wickedness is inscribed on their body through physical difference, crops up again and again on screen. Media targeted at children is particularly guilty of abusing this stereotype (e.g. Captain Hook), encouraging an entrenched stigma against physical impairments from a young age. Elsewhere the situation is equally dismal, with mental disability tending to displace physical handicaps in villains aimed at an older demographic. Whether in B-movie slashers, action blockbusters or more prestigious classics like Psycho or Blue Velvet, mental illness is relentlessly conflated with violence, creating a scaremongering approach to mental disability and ultimately enforcing a culture of shame. The screen industry, therefore, has an ethical responsibility to represent disabled people accurately, rather than instrumentalizing disabilities for the purposes of a cheap plotline.
This is particularly true for blockbusters and popular franchises, which reach a large, diverse demographic. Unlike DC, with its fetishisation of mental illness in Suicide Squad, Marvel has excelled in this area by repeatedly portraying heroes who not only overcome, but also find empowerment in their handicaps, providing an antidote to the historical vilification of disability. Outside of the comic book universe, the portrayal of disabled people has been similarly mixed. There’s a whole subgenre of big budget studio films that dramatise the struggles of disabled people, turning the experience of disability into easily digestible, linear story arcs that tend to depict the cathartic triumph of the disadvantaged protagonist over the obstacle presented by their condition. Whilst these films (The Theory of Everything, Breathe, Wonder, Stronger – to name just a few) clearly have some value in their ability to educate and/or empower, it’s hard to ignore the patronising tone of these narratives. Neat success stories that provide the (mostly) abled audience with a feel-good conclusion inevitably distort the everyday experiences of disabled people, who cannot simply overcome their impairments through the power of a motivational monologue and ‘mind over matter’ determination. Furthermore, the narrow focus on the individual in these films diverts attention from the inherently ableist structure of society, the real source of disability prejudice.
“The screen industry has an ethical responsibility to represent disabled people accurately, rather than instrumentalizing disabilities for the purposes of a cheap plotline”
What is required, then, is a more inclusive approach that seeks to normalise disability. Mad Max: Fury Road received praise in this area for the character of Furiosa: the camera treats her prosthetic arm entirely neutrally, never drawing undue attention to what would normally be perceived as an impairment. Yet despite this, much of the film still conforms to physiognomic tradition, with conventionally beautiful protagonists and the worst villains depicted as the most bodily impaired. The Shape of Water has faced similarly mixed responses, as although it features a mute protagonist whose quirkiness characterises her as more than just a token figure, some disabled viewers have argued that the narrative dehumanises people with disabilities. The story arc suggests that less-abled people are alien, and relegates them to the margins of society.
Evidently, portrayals of disability are always going to be a hotly debated area, with every positive representation seemingly undermined by problematic subtext. But it’s not just about what audiences see on screen. Perhaps the biggest problem in all the above examples is the failure to employ real disabled actors, favouring instead big celebrity names who are likely to draw an audience. This seems absurdly unfair given that abled actors have access to a whole catalogue of roles, whilst physically disabled actors are unlikely to be cast in anything that doesn’t explicitly address their disability. So whilst Eddie Redmayne is considered appropriate to play both Stephen Hawking and Newt Scamander, an actor of the same calibre with motor neuron disease would only be considered for the Stephen Hawking role; and even then, given the poor record, they’d be unlikely to get it.
Indie films can sometimes offer a site of resistance to this consumerist driven approach – for example, Under the Skin hired Adam Pearson, a man who genuinely suffers from neurofibromatosis. In a moving interview with The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/apr/13/scarlett-johansson-screen-stigma-disfigurement), he makes it clear how important this kind of action is in destigmatising disability, even likening the casting of abled actors in disabled roles to blackface. Shockingly, statistics suggest that in 2012 only 0.3% of the total film force was disabled, but Millicent Simmonds, the deaf star of A Quiet Place, seems optimistic that her casting is indicative of a cultural shift. And indeed, for all of Three Billboards’ dodgy politics, at least it cast a real dwarf. It’s vital that the rest of the industry follows suit and employs more people with disabilities – only then will it be possible to combat the ableist fantasies of disability that dominate our screens.