The Shape of Oscar: Why We Need Authentic Disability Representation in Film

Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Karin Willison, The Mighty’s Disability Editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.


The Academy Awards are almost here, and once again a film about disability is among the favorites for Best Picture. ”The Shape of Water” is a powerful, touching film that portrays disability and difference as beautiful and shows people with differences as fully capable of love, sexual expression and having the courage to fight misogyny and hate. I saw the film, and I enjoyed it. There’s just one problem. Once again, people with disabilities were denied the opportunity to represent ourselves in a film about our lives.

In ”The Shape of Water,” Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a janitor who is mute and uses sign language to communicate. Although Hawkins does actually have a disability (lupus) she has no history of speech difficulties, nor did she know any American Sign Language prior to filming. According to many deaf reviewers, her ASL was stilted and not up to par for a character who would have been signing her whole life. They feel a deaf actress would have been more suited for the role.

Although Elisa is not depicted as deaf, there’s no reason a deaf actress wouldn’t have been able to portray her. There’s one scene where she sings, but it could be dubbed, or as “America’s Got Talent” finalist Mandy Harvey illustrates, singing doesn’t necessarily preclude casting a deaf actress. Or someone who had selective mutism as a child. Or who stutters. Someone who actually experienced what life is like when communication is an everyday struggle would have brought greater authenticity to the role.

“It’s called acting!” seems to be the most popular response to calls for accurate disability representation in film and TV. I’ve even seen ridiculous comments online saying things like, “But Doug Jones isn’t an actual sea creature,” as if portraying a being that doesn’t exist is the same as playing someone who is mute. Disability is not a costume nor a performance to be imitated; it is an identity, a core aspect of a person like race or gender. Disability doesn’t fully define a person, just as race and gender don’t, but it plays a role in shaping who they are: how they move, how they communicate and how they perceive the world. An actor without a disability may think they’re depicting a character accurately, but as the deaf community’s response to “The Shape of Water” illustrates, they usually aren’t. You can’t learn how to be disabled by following someone with a disability around for a few weeks. I’ve experienced that jarring moment when I’m watching a non-disabled actor play someone with a mobility disability and even liking their performance, but suddenly they do something that breaks the illusion. They do something their character couldn’t physically have done, but it was done to serve the plot or because the actor didn’t know. They never get it quite right.

You may not think that kind of authenticity matters because you don’t notice it, but it does. ASL is a beautiful language; fluent signers can seem to be dancing with words. Fluent ASL would have enhanced the character of Elisa for everyone. The actress’ movements would have been more natural, and her signs could have added to the romance or rage in a scene because she would have been truly expressing herself through sign, not just struggling to form the words correctly. Yes, “The Shape of Water” was a great film with a positive message about disability, and Sally Hawkins was charming in the role of Elisa. But I believe it would have been an even better film if an ASL-fluent actress had been cast in the role. Films like “Baby Driver” show how much a character benefits from accurate casting of signing actors, and we need to see more of them.

Much as I love Sally Hawkins in general, I hope the Academy will make a statement this year by not awarding her Best Actress. Playing a character with a disability or illness has long been seen as a sure-fire path to an Oscar, but only for non-disabled actors. Approximately half of all acting Oscars, plus numerous nominations, have gone to actors playing characters with a disability or illness. If even half of those roles had been played by actors with disabilities, 25 percent of our most honored actors today would have disabilities. But how many of those awarded actors actually had disabilities similar to their characters? Two. That’s right, only two actors with disabilities have ever won Academy Awards — Harold Russell in 1947 and Marlee Matlin in 1987. This trend extends to TV as well. According to the Ruderman Family Foundation white paper on employment of actors with disabilities in television, only 2 percent of TV characters have disabilities, and of those, 95 percent are played by non-disabled actors. Talented disabled actors have been shut out of telling stories about their own community, and they have almost no chance to break into the industry. If that isn’t systemic exclusion and discrimination, I don’t know what is.

This is usually the time when people start making excuses. “But the character wasn’t disabled at the beginning of the film!” “How would a disabled actor do the stunts?” “Disabled people can’t handle the long hours at a film set!” They seem to conveniently forget the existence of CGI, stunt actors and comfortable buses and trailers for taking breaks, all of which are routinely used by actors without disabilities. And they underestimate what actors with disabilities can do. Some disabled actors (particularly little people) do stunt work for a living. Blindness, deafness and some physical disabilities don’t affect energy or stamina. Even in cases where a disability might require more breaks, a film can still be made. Children can only work limited hours on a film set, yet they’ve managed to make the “Harry Potter” movies and numerous other films and shows starring kids. It simply requires a bit more thought and planning — which will pay off in the long run with better performances. There may always be rare occasions when casting someone with a disability just isn’t feasible, but they should be the exception, not the rule. We should be looking at a world where 75 percent or more of characters with disabilities are played by disabled actors, not the other way around.

In recent years, the film community has begun speaking up about the lack of nominations and awards for actors and directors of color, and things are now changing. The Me Too movement is taking on sexual assault and harassment in the film industry and blazing a trail for women to take on leadership roles. But what about people with disabilities? When will it be our turn? It’s time for the entertainment industry to stop making excuses. It’s time to cast disabled actors in roles so they’ll become more bankable, just like other once-unknown actors who are now major stars. It’s time to hire screenwriters and directors with disabilities, who will know how to tell our stories authentically. It’s time to write stories in which disability is just a small part of a character’s life and not the driving force behind the plot.

So here is my challenge to every film and TV producer and director: hire an actor with a disability for your next project. Look for a great story with a disabled character — or cast them as a character that wasn’t intended to be disabled, and don’t make a big deal about their disability. We can be the teacher with a guide dog, the prosecutor who uses a walker, or the computer geek with hearing aids. We can be the girl next door in the rom-com, where her wheelchair isn’t the problem, it’s that she and the boy (or girl) support rival sports teams. We can be disabled and also people of color and/or LGBT — and none of these things have to define us, but they all matter. Because people with disabilities are part of the diversity of humanity — 20 percent of it, in fact — and we deserve to be represented and to be part of telling our stories.

Photo via YouTube.


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