Disability and Narrative: an Analysis of On-screen Characters
Disability can be divided into physical and mental conditions that limit a person’s normal movements, senses, or activities. The portrayal of disability can also be observed frequently on the screen, in films and television dramas. When it comes to the on-screen disabled characters, there are several questions deserve consideration: Why do directors portray disability? What are the functions of disability in characters, and how does disability contribute to the narrative of an audio-visual work?
The main focus of this article is disability in films. However, it chooses not only several films but also a television series which depict disability as the objects to demonstrate the different functions of disability. In some films, disability is endued to the main characters. Examples of them are How to Train Your Dragon (2010), The Theory of Everything (2014), Scent of a Woman (1992), and My Left Foot (1989). In other films, disability is observed in the side characters (or supporting characters) rather than the protagonists, which is attested by movies such as The Intouchables (2011) and Rain Man (1988). The TV drama Breaking Bad (2008) also provides an example of this. In fact, the roles of disability in different characters are various on the storytelling, which is in consistence with what the director intends to express.
The General Meaning of Disability On-screen
Illness is politicized and metaphorized, according to Susan Sontag (2002). Disability is likewise. While disability, essentially, is simply a physical or mental condition, different types of disability have incorporated variant metaphoric meanings. These meanings are usually negative stereotypes as they originate from the social bias and discrimination towards the disabled group in history, and this has been criticized by scholars such as David Mitchell in Disability Studies. For example, in the statement of knowing is seeing, misunderstanding and ignorant is deliberately or unconsciously linked to blindness (Vidali 2010). “Heart disease almost always symbolizes a hero’s grave moral flaw; an amputee must crave wholeness” (McCobin 2016); and mental disorder, which leads to the lack of control of a person’s emotion, behaviors, cognition, and social relationship, is linked to the stereotype of endangerment and threat (Szasz 1973).
The semiotic implication of disability may vary in different cultures. However, disability, when it is shown on screen, basically suggests a difference – physical, mental, or psychological – from the mainstream group in society. This is the most direct sense that disability on the screen conveys to audiences. Because of the difference, a sense of isolation from the mainstream of society is generated, and it has thereby led to Otherness. Martin F. Norden has noticed this and argues in his book The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies that the film audiences (especially those of the early films) are associated with able-bodied groups and characters with disability are isolated and reduced to “objectifications of pity, fear, scorn, etc. – in short, objects of spectacle” (Norden 1994, p1).
Disability, according to its meaning of being excluded, can be used to identify certain groups. As disability leads to the limitation of a person’s movement or activity, it is inferred that disability shows a relative weakness compared to the normal condition of human beings. While disability is embedded with the meaning of weakness, the disabled group thereby becomes disadvantaged – they need to be protected, cared about, and treated differently from the normal people.
On the other hand, disability is linked to the notion of evilness and has been a stereotype of antagonists. According to Norton (1994), many literature works in ancient times such as the Bible regard healthy and physical perfection as spiritual goodness. By contrast, illness and disability are caused by sin or the punishment of evil. See in this way, in the old days, a person who is inherently disabled is deemed as an implication of evilness. Besides, it can still be seen in movies that a person is embedded with evilness which is previously caused by disability – “[film directors] especially like giving someone a horrible accident/traumatic illness that turns them bitter and evil — sometimes they’re kind enough to show that transformation on screen, at other times it’s part of the character’s backstory” (Smith 2015). For instance, one of the most common antagonist images usually with disability in movies is the pirate. A blind eye or the lack of a hand or a foot has become a sign of the identity of this group. While this disability might be inborn, representing deterministic evilness, the implication of this type of disability when it is later acquired is violence or battle. This is to say, a pirate with these disabilities marks that he has been involved in violent activities. Therefore, the personality of a pirate is implied through their disability – hostile, aggressive, and violent.
Disability in the Main Character
Although there are still evil antagonists in movies who are consistent with the old stereotypes, one of the common practices of disability in the main characters in contemporary films is to suggest a person’s positive characteristics. Commercial films, especially those in the Hollywood style, usually show the conflict and how the main character at the end solves it. Disability in the main character, in this sense, can serve as a trouble for the protagonist to fight with and struggle on. This is often seen in the films as biographies or based on true stories. These films depict the conflicts and struggles during the protagonist’s dealing with his or her disability and finally achieving success in terms of mental condition or career.
The Theory of Everything (2014), as a biography of Stephen Hawking, portrays Hawking’s (acted by Eddie Redmayne) personal life and career achievements. While spending his early life at Cambridge University as a talented student, he began to show the symptom of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The disease led to paralysis. Hawking became gradually disabled in daily movements such as walking (and later one of his surgery made him unable to speak). The portrayal of Hawking’s disability in this film, together with his academic achievement such as publishing A Brief History of Time, demonstrates the difficulty of making such achievements. In a group of films such as Frida (2002) and My Left Foot (1989), disability in the main character serves a similar function – visualizing the predominant hardness of the main character’s life.
In How to Train Your Dragon (2010), while disability in the protagonist still functions as an obstacle that needs to be dealt with, it has multi-layered meanings apart from it. Hiccup, the main character as an adolescent in a Viking village, is different from the other villagers because of his weakness. Hiccup’s father regards him as ineligible to be a warrior to fight dragons, their enemy. Nevertheless, this disability becomes a source of his empathy with a dragon which loses a part of its tail and is unable to fly. The empathy motivates Hiccup to find another way facing dragons – not by committing violence but by training them to create a companionship. Hiccup, in the end, loses one of his feet, and the disability makes him more similar to his dragon friend. Disability in the protagonist, therefore, not only stands for an obstacle that the character needs to defeat in his life but also becomes a prop in the narrative of this film. It helps define the personality of the main character, resonates to the disability on the dragon, and paves the way for Hiccup to discover the new relationship with dragons.
Disability in the Side Character
Disability shown in the side character can also serve as an obstacle that requires the protagonist to deal with, especially when the disabled character has a close relationship (such as family) with the protagonist. For instance, in the television series Breaking Bad (2008), the son of the protagonist Walter White has cerebral palsy which makes him have trouble walking. The disability, together with Walter’s diagnosed lung cancer and his wife’s unexpected pregnancy, becomes a tripled burden on him. The disability of the son in the TV series later also be one of the motivations of Walter’s decision to earn an amount of money for the family before his death.
In other films, disability in the side character generally helps contribute to the personality of the main character. To be more specific, the protagonist’s personality can be depicted through how he or she treats the side character with disability. The French film The Intouchables (or known as Untouchable) (2011) is one of the examples. There are technically two main characters in this film: Driss, an African immigrant, and Philippe, a wealthy man who was injured in an accident and cannot move any body parts under his neck. While Driss shows no interest, he is hired by Philippe to be his live-in caregiver because, as said by Philippe, Driss treats him like a normal person rather than a disabled patient. Indeed, Driss usually forgets that Philippe is disabled. In the film, he passes a ringing mobile phone to Philippe and several seconds after, he realizes that Philippe cannot take it. This personality shown through Driss’s attitude towards the disabled is one of his precious traits which can be observed by the film audiences. Likewise, Rain Man (1988) also has an able-bodied protagonist and a disabled side character. The way that Charlie treats his autistic brother Raymond has gradually changed from the beginning to the ending. Whereas initially, Charlie just wants to get the father’s legacy from his brother, he understands more about Raymond in his journey and generates the feeling of intimacy with him. This alteration suggests the mental growth of Charlie as he learns about love rather than caring only about money.
In the South Korean film Silenced (도가니, 2011), disability in the side characters also plays a crucial role. The main character of this movie is a teacher with physical perfectness employed by a deaf-mute school for children. Occasionally, he found that many students in the school are suffering from sexual abuse from the school’s headmaster. Discovering this, the teacher starts his struggle to protest and find legal assistance for these disabled children. The deaf-mute disability in this movie, on the one hand, refers to the real disability in the kids. On the other hand, it has a metaphorical meaning that the kids are silenced by the patriarchal power in the school as well as in the whole social-political system. In this way, the personality and the behavior of helping the children of the main character have also shown dualism – when he cares about the disabled group, which shows his kind attitude towards them, he also fights for the silenced victims against the patriarchal power system and the unfair law.
Disability, as a physical or mental condition, has been linked to metaphoric implications and influences storytelling when it appears in motion pictures and other audio-visual work. The above films demonstrate that while disability in the main character is often used as an obstacle, its use in side characters usually helps contribute to the personalities of the main character. However, there are still a large number of films depicting disability that are not touched upon in this article. For example, City Lights (1931) directed and acted by Charlie Champlin, Forrest Gump (1994) in which both the main character and the side character have different disabilities, and films from non-Western culture involving disability such as the Chinese film Breaking the Silence (2000). Disability can be decoded in different ways when it is perceived on screen, and this probably depends on the film’s or the television’s narrative and directors’ intentions.
McCobin, Julianne. 2016. “Disability and its metaphors”. http://disability.virginia.edu/2016/03/14/disability-and-its-metaphors/.
Norden, Martin F. 1994. The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
Smith. s.e. 2015. “Disability as metaphor, and why you shouldn’t”. http://meloukhia.net/2015/05/disability_as_metaphor_and_why_you_shouldnt/.
Sontag, Susan. 2002. Illness as Metaphor; And, AIDS and Its Metaphors. London: Penguin Classics.
Szasz, Thomas S. 1973. “Mental Illness as a Metaphor.” Nature, 242(5396). https://doi.org/10.1038/242305a0.
Vidali, Amy. 2010. “Seeing what we know: Disability and theories of metaphor.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 4, no. 1 (2010): 33-54.
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