In an opinion piece for the Daily Mail from 2019, actor Simon Callow argues that actors should play anyone they want, regardless of the character’s race, gender, or disability. Callow wrote the piece in response to Scarlett Johansson receiving criticism for accepting a role as Dante “Tex” Grille, a transmasculine crime boss, for the film “Rub & Tug.” She has since stepped down from the role.
While the piece was initially regarding Johansson taking on a transgender role, Callow discusses the representation of disabled characters frequently. To support his argument that Johansson should be allowed to play a transgender character, he showcases able-bodied actors who have taken roles as disabled characters — also known as “cripping up.” Of course, there is the intersectionality of people who are both transgender and disabled, but exploring both topics (and more) in a 1,200-word news piece minimizes the problems each group faces. I will be specifically focusing on Callow’s thoughts on disability representation to avoid merging all forms of diversity into one issue and solution.
Callow begins by exploring the roles he has played where he didn’t fit them to a tee, such as Captain Hook or Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol.” He also mentions examples of other esteemed performances where the actor didn’t directly correspond to the character’s main traits. Al Pacino isn’t a Mafioso but plays one in “The Godfather.” Anthony Hopkins depicts a cannibal in “Silence of the Lambs” while not being a cannibal himself. And Daniel Day-Lewis is not an Irish painter and poet with cerebral palsy but plays that role in “My Left Foot.”
By using examples like Pacino and Hopkins and comparing them to Day-Lewis, Callow weakens his argument. A mobster is simply a character, but disability isn’t. Disability can be a lifelong experience, and no amount of imagination, observation, or research will provide the level of authenticity casting a disabled actor would. In her book “The Pretty One,” Keah Brown shares, “My cerebral palsy is an integral part of who I am and how I navigate the world” (55). To Brown, her disability is an inseparable part of her and not something to pity.
Callow elaborates, “Day-Lewis … does not suffer¹ from cerebral palsy. Instead, he is bestowed with imagination, powers of observation, and extraordinary physical discipline.” Callow tries to justify this casting by prioritizing the actor’s ability to transform themselves over the feelings of those the character represents.
Even though I support actors’ rights to hone their craft and try on different hats, casting able-bodied actors for these roles creates a false sense of diversity — who does this character benefit? For actors playing disabled characters, there is hope for critical acclaim and award buzz, but they may need to use offensive imitations to “act” disabled.
Shannon DeVido, actor and comedian, said it best during an interview with Bustle, “You’re saying you’re interesting and sad enough to tell your story, but you’re not good enough to be in the story.” DeVido stresses the importance of putting disabled people in charge of their narrative to create honest depictions.
Meanwhile, the playing-a-disabled-character-to-Oscar’s pipeline runs strong — the Academy has nominated 61 actors for roles portraying disability (Bahr). Performances such as Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything,” Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man,” and Day-Lewis’ are just a few who have won awards for acting as a disabled or neurodivergent person. Yet of those 61 nominations, only two have been for disabled actors. Harold Russell, who is an amputee, in “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946) and deaf actor Marlee Maitlin in “Children of a Lesser God” (1986) played their roles genuinely and received critical acclaim for them too. In 1999, when Dan Keplinger won Best Short Subject Documentary for “King Gimp,” he was unable to accept his award because there was no ramp to the stage (Ellis 72–73). Acting in a wheelchair will get you awards, but the Academy could not accommodate a winner being in one.
Furthermore, disability is severely underrepresented in film. According to the CDC, about 26% of adults in America have a disability. But according to the USC Annenberg Initiative, only 2.3% of characters in cinema were depicted to have a disability. Hollywood is ignoring a large community, and casting agents are passing over disabled actors for jobs that they are uniquely qualified, creating depictions that may be doing more harm than good.
To illustrate, the first depiction of disability in film dates back to 1897 with “Le Faux cul-de-jatte” (The False Cripple). The story presents a “disabled” beggar who accepts people’s change, but he runs away once the police show up. The film plays into the trope that disabled people are out there to take advantage of unsuspecting folks’ kindness and that their disability is a ruse. This trope is now known as “disabled con” and is present in more modern films like “Django Unchained” (2012) and “One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975).
Other tropes of disabled characters include the helpless victim, the villain, and the inspirational hero. The helpless victim stereotype suggests that disabled people can only be happy if their disability is magically cured (or they die). Films like “Million Dollar Baby” (2004) and “Elephant Man” (1980) elicit pity from the audience and contradicts many people’s experience with disability. The villain trope teaches viewers that disabled people are dangerous and should be feared. M. Night Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable” (2000–2019) series features two villains whose catalyst to turn to evil was their disability (Reid). Inspirational hero archetypes only prove their worth when they overcome their disability, depicting disability as something to beat. “Forrest Gump” (1994) is the perfect example of a film that uses a disabled character to inspire the audience (Contingent Magazine).
Callow acknowledges this historical misrepresentation of disability, pointing out that “From time immemorial, disabled people have been horribly misrepresented, mocked, pilloried and demonized.” However, he goes on to say, “those days are long gone.” Although the entertainment industry has made progress since “Le Faux cul-de-jatte,” the examples above prove that those days are still today.
Just this year, conversations about non-disabled actors playing disabled characters have been brought back into the spotlight by Sia’s film “Music.” The film follows Zu, a recovering addict, as she becomes the sole guardian for her half-sister, Music, a non-verbal, autistic child. Maddie Ziegler — who is not on the autistic spectrum — plays Music.
Not only is “Music” harmful, but it is also a bad movie. Casting an autistic actor wouldn’t have saved this film — the issues stem from the research (and lack thereof) Sia completed. Sia failed to understand and empathize with the community that she wished to write a “love-letter.” In the wake of the trailer dropping, she couldn’t even handle criticism from the autistic community.
Some have defended Sia’s right to creative freedom, maintaining she can tell whatever story she wants (Escher). On the other hand, Time Magazine writer Sarah Kurchak explained, “I [do not] have much respect for the kind of creativity that can only imagine disabled people as tools of one’s own expression, not as collaborators, cast members, or even a valued part of the audience.” Kurchak emphasizes that she doesn’t want to limit artistic freedom, but she longs for respectful and empathetic stories from abled artists who wish to tell stories of disabled people.
Furthermore, Callow pretends that everyone has an equal opportunity to be successful in Hollywood. Privilege influences chance, and when studios cast able-bodied actors to bring in box-office dollars, they take that opportunity away from disabled actors.
While promoting his film “The Upside,” actor Brian Cranston, who played a quadriplegic, spoke about the choice to cast him, “The real business dynamic of that is the choice of the studios to try to see if they can make an investment into a film that could bring a return … but I think it points out the lack of diversity in disabled actors and the lack of opportunity in order to be even considered to play the lead role in a film like this” (Flint). He proceeds to say that there is an evident lack of opportunities for disabled actors when studios are hyperfocused on using big stars.
If so many other actors have played disabled characters to critical success, present-day actors may ask, why can’t I? It may seem like people are only angry now with our “politically correct culture.” Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have made it easier for disabled people to share their opinion and make themselves heard (Thorne). It’s not that older films weren’t offensive, but rather that film critics and production companies controlled the narrative. With social media sites where anyone can post and go viral, it is easier than ever to discuss issues within the disabled community.
By contrast, what does good representation look like, and who is getting it right? In April 2019, NCIS: New Orleans released the episode “In Plain Sight,” which featured around 30 disabled actors (Disability Visibility Project). Katherine Beattie, who is a wheelchair user herself, penned the episode. She shared on Instagram that she had been pitching the episode since season 2, and the team was finally able to pull it off in season 5, “I can say is it is the direct result of authentic storytelling and authentic casting.”
Along the same lines, D/deaf critics praised “A Quiet Place” (2018) (Joyner) for casting deaf actress Millicent Simmonds for a deaf role. Not only is the casting authentic, but her character, Regan, is also well-developed and a central part of the story. Simmonds lent her experience to ground the film in reality and provided advice to John Krawsinksi during filming (Verhoeven).
To summarize, the answer isn’t to cast only disabled actors in disabled roles, but to create a more equitable Hollywood where representation in front of and behind the camera is just the norm. While Callow signifies that, “The imaginative leap is what makes the performance: it is the essence of the art,” filmmakers and actors must acknowledge where they are welcome and where they are not. Hollywood needs to see disabled people beyond just a story but as collaborators, actors, directors, and creatives. Representation not only shapes how others see you but how you see yourself. And everyone deserves the opportunity to see themselves reflected in film authentically.
¹ “Suffer[s] from” is not inclusive language and is offensive. I included this phrase as part of a quote.
Bahr, Lindsey. “Entertainers Discuss Disability Representation in Hollywood.” AP News [New York, NY], 27 Oct. 2020, apnews.com/article/entertainment-academy-awards-harold-russell-marlee-matlin-millicent-simmonds-24a51549c4a5a12506502bd2f6ac0cbc#:%7E:text=And%20it%27s%20not%20entirely%20unfounded,Best%20Years%20of%20Our%20Lives.%E2%80%9D.
Beattie, Katherine. “TONIGHT IS THE NIGHT!” Instagram, 2 April 2019, www.instagram.com/p/BvwiLR1hwPk/?utm_source=ig_embed.
Callow, Simon. “Why Can’t Scarlett Johansson Play a Transgender Mobster? Actor Simon Callow Weighs into PC Debate.” Daily Mail [London, UK], 16 July 2019, www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-7250493/Why-Scarlett-Johansson-play-transgender-mobster-Actor-Simon-Callow-weighs-PC-debate.html#comments-7250493.
Contingent Magazine. “Gump Talk.” Contingent, 19 July 2020, contingentmagazine.org/2019/07/01/gump-talk.
“Disability Impacts All of Us Infographic.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, 8 Mar. 2019, www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/infographic-disability-impacts-all.html#:%7E:text=61%20million%20adults%20in%20the,is%20highest%20in%20the%20South.
Disability Visibility Project. “Disability Representation on TV: Interview with Katherine Beattie.” Disability Visibility Project, 6 May 2019, disabilityvisibilityproject.com/2019/04/14/disability-representation-on-tv-interview-with-katherine-beattie.
Ellis, Katie. Disability Media Work: Opportunities and Obstacles. Springer, 2018. Google Books, books.google.com/books?id=8Z6wDQAAQBAJ&source=gbs_navlinks_s.
Escher, Jill. “The Sia Shaming Spectacle Is a Tragedy for the Arts and the Autism Community.” National Council on Severe Autism, NCSA, 8 Feb. 2021, www.ncsautism.org/blog//sia-shaming.
Flint, Hanna. “Bryan Cranston Says ‘The Upside’ Highlights the Lack of Opportunities for Disabled Actors.” Yahoo [Dublin, Ireland], 8 Jan. 2019, uk.movies.yahoo.com/bryan-cranston-says-upside-highlights-lack-opportunities-disabled-actors-exclusive-134820480.html?guccounter=2.
Joyner, Jazmine. “‘A Quiet Place’ Does What Most Films Have Failed to Do.” Wear Your Voice, 16 Apr. 2018, www.wearyourvoicemag.com/a-quiet-place.
Kurchak, Sarah. “Sia’s Golden Globe-Nominated Music Isn’t Just Offensive. It’s Also Bad Art — and the Distinction Matters.” Time Magazine, 25 Feb. 2021, time.com/5942094/sia-music-disability-representation.
McGrath, Mary Kate. “How To Get Disability Representation In TV & Movies Right, According To The People Doing It.” Bustle [New York, NY], 25 Apr. 2019, www.bustle.com/p/how-to-get-disability-representation-in-tv-movies-right-according-to-the-people-doing-it-17129242.
Reid, Lindsey. “Misleading Media: Disabilities in Film and Television.” The University of Alabama at Birmingham, UAB Institute for Human Rights Blog, 27 Nov. 2019, sites.uab.edu/humanrights/2019/11/27/misleading-media-disabilities-in-film-and-television.
Smith, Stacy. Inequality in 1,300 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race/Ethnicity, LGBTQ & Disability from 2007 to 2019. Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, 2020. http://assets.uscannenberg.org/docs/aii-inequality_1300_popular_films_09-08-2020.pdf.
Thorne, Rebecca. “Social Media as a Communication Tool for Disabled People.” Everyone Can, 7 June 2019, www.everyonecan.org.uk/news/social-media-as-a-communication-tool-for-disabled-people.
Verhoeven, Beatrice. “‘A Quiet Place’: John Krasinski Says Cast Learned Sign Language for Silent Thriller.” The Wrap [Los Angeles, CA], 30 May 2018, www.thewrap.com/quiet-place-star-john-krasinski-on-learning-sign-language-for-the-film-exclusive-video.