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When Otherwise-Inclusive Movies Like 'The Prom' Use Ableist Language

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This holiday season, in the afterglow of big meals, festive candles, and connecting with loved ones, my husband and I decided to watch a movie. We landed on “The Prom” partly because of Meryl Streep, partly because of Kerry Washington, but mostly because of the anticipated inclusive message of the film.

In “The Prom,” a high schooler named Emma asks another girl, Alyssa, to be her prom date. The Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) legally cannot ban Emma from attending the prom, so they cancel the event for everyone, in a petty anti-LGBTQ+ protest. Broadway stars learn of this unjust decision (cue the musical advocacy numbers) and after legal action, prom was approved once again — though a discriminatory secret plan becomes a meaningful battle between equality and discrimination.

In addition to Meryl Streep and Kerry Washington, “The Prom” includes beloved celebrities like Nicole Kidman, Keegan-Michael Key, Andrew Rannells and James Corden. It also showcases young Hollywood up-and-comers Jo Ellen Pellman, Ariana DeBose, Logan Riley and Sofia Deler. Notably, the film is directed by Ryan Murphy (known for “American Horror Story,” “Pose” and “Glee”). Against the backdrop of the classic high school prom, topics of coming out, bullying, prejudice and growth are depicted with equal parts humor, music and heart.

An adaptation of Broadway’s “The Prom,” this story was initially inspired by similar real-life events — instances of discrimination against students who simply wanted to attend their high school prom. The general tone is endearing, empathetic and inclusive which is why the use of disability slurs felt contradictory to the movie’s desired effect.

Such slurs were introduced when Meryl Streep’s character crashes a PTA meeting and sings, “I won’t play blind, deaf and dumb.” As a reminder, this is a major movie icon, Meryl Streep, singing disability slurs at the top of her lungs in a scene that explicitly claims to promote “an inclusive prom” and address “prejudice and oppression.” Before dissecting the language used in the film, we must address the overarching issue of inclusivity and the frequent misstep of ignoring intersectionality.

Inclusion is the practice of providing equal access and opportunity to people in marginalized groups, groups that have been inherently targeted, attacked or ignored by those in the majority. Ableism involves discrimination against people with disabilities. Cheering for inclusivity when it’s cloaked in ableism is counterproductive to the movie’s messaging. Fighting prejudice while inflicting it against people with disabilities alienated millions of disabled people like myself — people who rarely see reflections of themselves in the media, and on the sporadic occasions they do, it’s often handled irresponsibly.

Nonetheless, disability cannot be ignored when addressing the stigmas of any marginalized group. While watching this scene, I thought of my dear friends and advocates with hearing and vision loss, who I’ve been lucky to call my colleagues. I thought of the people in my life who exist at the intersection of disability and transness, disability and bisexuality, disability and gayness. We cannot say we accept and promote those in the LGBTQ+ community if we don’t also accept and promote that a large portion of that community is disabled.

Some readers may be wondering, “What did Meryl’s character say that was so bad?” First, Meryl’s character, Dee Dee, sings that she won’t “play blind.” By this she means that she won’t display ignorance, and she won’t be uneducated or inexpressive on the issue of LGBTQ+ rights.

The blind experience is not one of ignorance. Living with blindness doesn’t make someone misguided or willfully withdrawn from social issues. Yet its use here perpetuates those false narratives. Similar language is used by people every day in offensive ways — examples include, “It’s like the blind leading the blind” when talking about an incompetent boss, or “I’m not blind” in response to someone asking if you understand a situation? More commonly this offensive language is used in moments of anger — think getting cut off in traffic — when people yell, “What are you, blind?!” It’s often said in exasperated annoyance, which essentially wrongly translates in many minds as, “What are you, stupid?!”

While Meryl’s tone and language for the line “playing blind” doesn’t indicate an intended insult, the unsettling question of its offensiveness is not helped by the words she sings next. Directly following the reference to “playing blind,” Meryl’s character sings the ableist phrase, “deaf and dumb.” This term is extremely offensive to many deaf and hard of hearing individuals. This phrase was introduced by philosophers and teachers who assumed that an inability to communicate like nondisabled people meant the person was unteachable or incapable of cognitive reasoning. The term “dumb” was later adapted as “silent,” which also gravely misunderstands deafness and hearing loss. More commonly, it’s used today by society to mean unintelligent, and this disability subgroup has had to overcome discrimination when people assume their intelligence must be tied to their ability to verbally communicate in the same way as nondisabled people.

Importantly, the aforementioned phrases have been described as offensive by many in the disability community — which in itself should qualify the terms as offensive. I have no doubt that when “The Prom” was written, this offensiveness was unintentional. The vast majority of the film was inclusive and handled LGBTQ+ issues with great care. However, marginalized groups as a whole benefit when one subgroup supports the advocacy of another subgroup. It’s not only important to support the eradication of discrimination in general, it’s essential because often people aren’t just one type of person.

There are millions of disabled people — many of whom are Black, Brown and part of the LGBTQ+ community. Disability is present in every race, ethnicity, orientation and identity. Frankly, it is impossible to fully and effectively advocate for LGBTQ+ equality without advocating for it in its diverse entirety.

As a disabled disability rights attorney who frequently consults on disability and inclusion, I will never understand the willful ignorance shown by writers, directors, producers, actors, studio representatives and crew when it comes to disability. If they aren’t using offensive language, they’re hiring nondisabled actors to play disabled parts (without ever auditioning disabled actors). They’re showing one version of disability. They’re writing about the burden and suffering of people with disabilities and not their joy and ambition. Worst of all, they’re ignoring the disability community’s response to Hollywood’s ableism.

When you wield the media like a weapon against disabled people, you’re not just showing your lack of a conscience — you’re showing your lack of business sense. The disability community is the largest minority in the United States. It’s also the largest minority group untapped by studios and writers, brands and content creators.

They wrongfully assume that the expense and effort required to be inclusive and accessible isn’t worth the return on investment. In actuality, making content accessible and inclusive for those with disabilities isn’t typically this expensive, exhausting effort nondisabled people assume it to be. Most accessibility measures are no-cost or low-cost — and the returns are endless. The most basic disability inclusion step “The Prom” could have taken was to not use disability slurs. It wouldn’t have cost them anything to not put this language in the script.

The disability community deserves to be acknowledged as common members of every community, every consumer group and every audience. Media that portrays life without including disability isn’t an accurate portrayal. Movies that perpetuate ableist language using the most well-known celebrities on the planet, when it is truly unnecessary to the plot, have no place in Hollywood. Writers who can’t craft a story without the use of irrelevant slurs aren’t qualified to write scripts that ultimately reach all of our living rooms.

The true tragedy is that “The Prom” otherwise had a wonderful message needed in today’s media — a message that deserved to openly promote equality for the LGBTQ+ community without controversy. This message deserved thoughtful execution without alienation. “The Prom” should have considered the vast landscape of the group the film intended to champion. However important the film’s message, we cannot allow it to act as a veil shielding creators from accountability. The disability community (and its disabled LGBTQ+ members) deserve an apology. There is no inclusion without them. Millions of us are waiting for Hollywood to get on board, and creators no longer deserve our patience.

Getty image by Jurkos.

Originally published: December 31, 2020
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