Disability & Cinema
Chapter One: A Literature Review
'I am not an animal, I am a human being. '
John Merrick (John Hurt) in The Elephant Man
This chapter is split into two parts. The first deals with general representation theories of disability and the second with more specific issues of the stereotypical representation of disability. I refer to the same writers in both sections due to the scarcity of available literature on disability and impairment imagery.
The Representation of Disability (which is actually of impairment)!
There is more literature on images of disability in literature, both the popular and the literary canon, than on film with Dickens (in general) and Edith Wharton (especially her novel Ethan Frome, 1987, also filmed under the same title [John Madden, US/GB, 1993]) singled out for repeated criticism. It is interesting to note how film adaptations of Dickens' work are largely ignored in the literature that exists on disability imagery in films. As an example one need only look at films with ‘Tiny Tim’ in them, films such as A Christmas Carol (E.L. Marin, US, 1938) and Scrooge (B.D. Hurst, GB, 1951; Ronald Neame, GB, 1970 – a musical version). There is also the modernised American version, with the ‘Tiny Tim’ character being black and mute, a film called Scrooged (Richard Donner, US, 1988). Even The Muppets get in on the act with their own Muppet ‘Tiny Tim’ in The Muppet Christmas Carol (Brian Henson, US, 1993). All these titles are adaptations from only one Dickens ghost story but there are many other Dickens-derived films using disability. I shall be discussing those critics who deal with cinematic representations of disability; although these writers often combine the two (justifiably) in order to show the cultural depth and influences that combine to create an abject image of disabled people. It is interesting to note that most critics, especially from America, use the term 'disability' when they actually mean and are referring to impairment – if looked at from a Social Model perspective. The social construction of impairment as Other is rarely intentionally explored in any depth in disability studies (e.g., Gartner and Joe, 1987) apart from the work on ‘freaks’ by Fiedler (1978), Bogdan (1988) and Garland Thompson (1996). In the UK Tom Shakespeare starts to explore the issue in an article in the disability studies journal Disability, Handicap and Society entitled ‘Cultural Representations of Disabled People: [ … ]’ (1994).
Much of what I am about to review is short, intentionally superficial, and taxonomical – listings with very little critical comment. There are now a number of World Wide Web sites, some originating in the UK, with fairly good lists of films about impairment on them. (A recommended listing site can be found at http.//www.caravan.freeserve.co.uk.) One of the reasons for such scarcity is that impairment is seen, almost exclusively, to be as true in reality as its metaphorical meaning in literature and cinema: tragic, sad and unbearable – rooted in the personal tragedy theory of disability (Oliver, 1996). Many writers of fiction, and academic-based literary or cultural studies, who address disability often use it as the key to unlock the psyches of normal people; thereby reifying disability as a quantifiable, justifiable, objective horror to be feared. Leslie Fiedler's book Freaks (1978) is a good example of such a tendency. Bogdan (1988) states of Fiedler's work that his mythological and psychoanalytical approach posits that:
human beings have a deep, psychic fear of people with specific abnormalities. Dwarfs, for example, confront us with our phobia that we will never grow up. Yet although Fiedler's study of 'human curiosities' shifts the focus from 'them' to 'us', it also reifies 'freak' by taking 'it' as a constant and inevitable outpouring of basic human nature. (p.7)
In other words, Fiedler accepts the Medical Model of disability as truth; for him the normal are justifiably afraid of the abnormal (and will always be so) because abnormality exists naturally – somewhat metaphysically - to mystify human comprehension. For Fiedler, disability, abnormality and impairment are a natural state, and all the same thing in essence, that is, pathologically abhorrent; Fiedler argues that culture merely reflects this abhorrence in the arts. Fiedler seems to be unaware – even dismissive – of the idea that abnormality is in anyway a constructed state that various people socio-culturally inhabit (voluntarily in many cases of 'freaks'). Bogdan, on the other hand, shows the process of social construction of the freak in the freak show when he tells the story, in Freak Show (1988), of a showman who meets a tall man. The showman tells him that he thinks that the man is tall, then makes him an offer he cannot refuse: How would you like to be a giant? Such a simple tale shows the extent to which being a giant is less redolent of abnormality than it is of showmanship and publicity: i.e., a construction. Although neither has much to say on disability as seen in the modern world of cinema, Bogdan's book is a useful tool in understanding that the ‘Elephant Man’ was as much a creation in the freak show as he is in David Lynch's film The Elephant Man. Although Fiedler mentions the cinema (i.e., the 'dwarf' in Day of the Locust [John Schlesinger, US, 1975]) it is only to reinforce the idea of abnormality as a natural worry to a normal psyche; a view that continues to mystify abnormality as pathologically deviant and threatening.
Gartner and Joe, in Images of the Disabled, Disabling Images (1987), compile a collection of essays that come much closer to questioning the construction of disability in life and culture than any other book written prior to Barnes (1992) or Norden's (1994) studies of disability imagery. Barnes and Norden are examined in detail later and in the following chapter. Only one chapter of the twelve in Gartner and Joe deals with cinema specifically, but it is placed within a context of the construction of disability in many discourses, discourses that interact to make disability appear to be 'common sense'. By common sense they mean the Medical Model of disability that places it as deviant, pathological and suffered by the individual concerned, with society's only responsibility being to care for, or cure, it. Gartner and Joe’s book demonstrates that disability is as constructed in legislation as it is in literature and classroom technology. The chapter on impairment and cinema is Paul Longmore's 'Screening Stereotypes: Images of Disabled People'.
Longmore looks at all forms of impairment on film and television: impairments of speech, vision, intellect and physique. Longmore's first significant point is that there 'are hundreds of characters with all sorts of disabilities' represented. They range from 'monsters' and 'crippled criminals' to cartoon characters like Elmer Fudd and Mr Magoo (p.65). The reason we forget that images of the disabled are everywhere, for Longmore, is that entertainment is an escape and, as such, the bits that do not help us escape we erase from our memory. Longmore astutely states that such representations:
tell us that the problem is not as painful or as overwhelming as we fear, that it is manageable, or that it is not really our problem at all, but someone else's. (p.66)
Longmore is beginning to explore a key element of impairment representations when he argues that they are a functionalist exercise in social interaction (they enable people to interact with one another more effectively). Longmore fails to continue in this rich vein. Instead, he gives us mere examples of disability imagery he considers negative: negative because, for Longmore, they make disability pathological and the determining characteristic of the character as a natural characteristic of disablement (i.e., obsessive behaviour in characters such as Ahab, Richard III and both the Doctors No and Strangelove). Longmore gives us the first labelled stereotype of a disabled character: that disability is a consequence of his / her own evil, which, in turn, makes him / her bitter and vengeful. I do not disagree with this –there might be an element of truth within the latter part of such a representation. The issue, from a Social Model perspective, is to comprehend the ideological basis of such a representation as axiomatic yet without dismissing the potential validity of such a representation (or behaviour) if it be from the point of view of a character who has an impairment. However, as Longmore states, such villainous and embittered characters do re-validate the generally accepted idea that disability and impairment are inherently linked to evil and that such behaviour is a pathological characteristic of having an impairment.
Longmore is expert at demonstrating, with a list of examples, how impairment is shown as being both less than human and indicative of a hatred of all that is human (Longmore relates this to Goffman's (1990) assertion that such a labelling is part of stigmatisation). Longmore (following on from Fiedler) sees disability portrayals as a threat to normal psychology; he states that:
[W]hatever the specific nature of disability, it unleashes violent propensities that normally would be kept in check by internal mechanisms of self-control. (p.68)
Although Longmore continues to explain that the result of this for the disabled individual is social isolation, he fails to accept that the propensities are indeed the case in some situations and this is, as such, a valid representation. By the rejection of a certain kind of behaviour he himself turns into a socio-political negative similar behaviour by disabled people themselves, in turn validating their expulsion from society by advocating its expulsion from the cinema screen. In examining why disabled characters are often dead by the end of the movie, giving The Elephant Man as an example, Longmore states that this implies that it is 'better to be dead than disabled' (p.70). Again, I do not dispute such an interpretation in theory, but he is not accepting that this can be the lived reality of some disabled people. This is especially so when combined with Longmore's assertion (p.70) that a film is negative because it states that 'disability [impairment] means a total physical dependency that deprives the individual of autonomy and self-determination'. The appearance of dependency is not in itself negative, it is the negation of it that is negative. What undermines many of the representations of impairment that Longmore is concerned about, from a Social Model perspective, is perhaps the films’ lack of a critique of the process of disempowerment of the impaired characters in them rather than the actual state of physical dependency.
Longmore isolates two other stereotypes of disability portrayal: individuals adjusting to their disability (or to be more specific, their impairment) and the asexual or hypersexual disabled character. Within the stereotype of the disabled individual 'adjusting' Longmore sees the 'bitter' individual coming to terms with the impairment (and disablement, by extension). However, this is only after the normal lead has shown them the way (e.g., The Men[Fred Zimmermann, US, 1950] - Marlon Brando in a wheelchair for his first film - being cited as a good example). Equally, newly impaired characters are often compensated with some extra talent or special gift. A good example of the extra / special gift scenario is the visually / hearing impaired having exceptional hearing / vision (i.e., The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, Irving Cummings, US, 1939, and Blind Fury, Phillip Noyce, US, 1989, respectively) or both - as in The Story of Esther Costello (David Miller, GB/US, 1957). These are common cinematic themes indeed; Longmore's example of the blind being better able to see into the heart of man is a wonderfully vague example that could be applied to many 'blind' films. ‘Blind’ films such as The Enchanted Cottage (John Cromwell, US, 1945), A Man on the Beach (Joseph Losey, GB, 1956), No Trees in the Street (J. Lee-Thompson, GB, 1958) and Cactus (Paul Cox, Australia, 1986) to name only a selection. The visually impaired also being innately musical is another good example of the crassness of many images of visual impairment (Darke, 1997), as in Blink, Jennifer 8, Frankenstein (James Whale, US, 1931) and Night Song (John Cromwell, US, 1947). Each stereotype Longmore lists could, and often does, overlap with another; the 'brave' or 'tragic' impaired individual is often shown within, or alongside, their criminal, monster or adjusting (and occasionally sexual) stereotype. For example, the 'Elephant Man', Merrick, is made more courageous and then tragic by his adjustment to his deformity. Longmore is right to assert that:
these stories put the responsibility for any problems squarely and almost exclusively on the disabled individual. If they are socially isolated, it is not because the disability inevitably has cut them off from the community or because society has rejected them. Refusing to accept themselves with their handicaps, they have chosen isolation. (p.71)
The above quote ascribes to cinema an ideology of impairment firmly placed within a Medical Model of disability, but this is hardly a surprise when the Medical Model of disability has an almost complete hegemonic dominance within most Western cultures (Oliver, 1991). It is a dominance supported by almost all other forms of cultural and social discourse; be it in social policy (Oliver and Barnes, 1998; Drake, 1999), charity (Hevey, 1992) or legislation (Barnes, 1991). It is naïve to expect anything different, yet it is unfair to be overtly critical of those individuals with impairments who choose isolation. For many disabled people isolation is better than humiliation, the usual result of many attempts by the abnormal to try and enter the sphere of normality (Morris, 1996; Murphy, 1991).
The sexual aspects of impairment are, for Longmore, often portrayed contradictorily. Some characters will be impotent at the slightest hint of disability whilst others will have an insatiable need for sexual satisfaction (often depending upon with which other stereotype of impairment it is overlapping). Longmore relates sexual impotence to the desire of the audience to see disability as not worth living with and my later chapter on disability and the family shows in detail how this is textually achieved. Longmore cites both the play and film of Whose Life Is It Anyway? as, for him, the best example of the stereotype of the disabled person as sexually inadequate. For Longmore it is a wholly negative portrayal of a disabled person with sexual dysfunction as it portrays the individual as 'only half a man' (p.73). Whilst not deviating from the principal point of Longmore's argument, the Social Model of disablement would necessitate that the situation / scenario be placed in its context of a social discourse (cinema itself, for example) of what constitutes masculinity and therefore a man. In such a context the character is right to assume that he is only half a man in his own culture, as he is seen by others both culturally and in reality as, once disabled, sexually liminal. The film's limitations are revealed in its support of such a supposition rather than if it had been either critical of such an attitude or, at least, aware of it as a form of social construction. A strand of argument that Longmore (and others) fail to pursue, the discourse of what man is, is the very discourse that is used to marginalise the impaired and instigate their self doubt (what Gilman  calls 'self-hate'). Such representations are not bad or negative in themselves; rather, there is nothing essentially 'wrong' (socially or culturally) in being impotent or physically dependent.
Perhaps the error of positive disability writers and their discourse is to argue that these negative portrayals should not be presented (a view towards which Longmore leans). Longmore’s philosophy – and the films of which he is rightly critical - serve only to marginalise those who are impotent (or the like) still further in the hope that those who are not impotent (or physically dependent, for example) are treated more fairly. Longmore’s philosophical position reinforces the idea of normality and impairment as disability. Longmore seems to want it both ways. He is critical of films that represent the disabled as sexually dysfunctional as well as those that represent the severely impaired individual as having no trouble attracting the opposite sex; he cites as an example the double amputee in The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, US, 1946). Prior to these examples he states that 'even when a disability does not limit sexual functioning, it may impair the person emotionally' (p.73). Unfortunately, although this is a statement about the negative way some films attribute emotional problems to the sexually functional disabled the sentence is stranded in isolation. It validates such a statement as a 'truth' in itself: the opposite of what Longmore is actually trying to say, but which in many instances is the lived reality of disabled people. Longmore is very close to Fiedler's tendency to concentrate on how they, the normal audience, see us, the disabled, whilst having a view of us that, although based on a Social Model of disability, excludes the social reality of having an impairment in a society dominated by the Medical Model. Longmore (as with Fiedler) succumbs to classifying having an impairment as being a victim, something he himself is trying to condemn. Longmore continues to write that the upper-body limb amputee character in The Best Years of Our Lives is accepted by his wife with no problems and that:
[T]hese depictions fly in the face of the real-life experiences of many handicapped men and women who find that even the most minor impairments result in romantic rejection. (p.73)
Unfortunately, Longmore, in stating the above, is forcing himself into an analytical corner by arguing that disability with and without standard sexual functioning does impair the person emotionally but that any portrayal that shows this factor is inherently negative to all disabled people. Longmore is concentrating on the representation as negative at the expense of social discourse and, as such, he is failing to acknowledge that disability often does lead to an emotional impairment due to the often prohibitive and contradictory socio-cultural discourses experienced by an impaired individual (Barnes, 1991). This, though, is not due to impairment itself but the social construction or view of it and its alternatives, i.e., normality. Longmore continues that:
these features also reiterate, with the active complicity of the disabled participants themselves, the view that disability is a problem of individual emotional coping and physical overcoming, rather than an issue of social discrimination against a stigmatised minority. (p.75)
Longmore is correct to sum up filmic representations of disability in the above manner. What is unfortunate is the criticism of individual disabled performers’ acting and working in films, given the limited opportunities disabled actors have for performing in the film - media - industry (Pointon, 1997). It is unsurprising that they choose to act in a way which is required by the film (i.e., their employment conditions) in order to get experience and seek to change an industry from within (Shaban, 1997; Fernandez, 1997); the alternative is probably obscurity and unemployment. In brief, to show impairment in any other way would be to devalue disability as it is lived by the vast majority of disabled people in this or most other societies. In Western societies disability is about individual’s coping and overcoming impairments and this must be recognised in any broader cultural analysis. Failure to do so would fall into the same trap that the Medical Model encapsulates: insular dogmatism so abstract that it loses its relevance to the lived experience of those with impairments. I would agree that social discrimination and exclusion is the flowering of a Medical Model philosophy of disability construction, but its impact is rooted within the individual’s coping and physically overcoming those socially constructed barriers of disablement as defined in the Social Model of disablement. An awareness of the dominance of the Medical Model in current social processes, its hegemony over the everyday lives of disabled people (Oliver and Barnes, 1998), at least explains why so many disabled people 'enjoy' negative images of their group. Longmore seems to hold the underlying philosophy that the impaired are normal really; an interpretation that is reinforced by his closing section on what a good or positive representation of impairment is.
For Longmore the most important representational 'breakthrough' came in commercials (for Levi Jeans, Macdonalds and Kodak) in the United States. In these, for Longmore, disabled people:
are not portrayed as helpless and dependent, but rather as attractive, active, and with it, involved and competitive, experiencing 'normal' relationships [ ... ] and smart about what they buy [ ... ] these commercials offer perhaps the most positive media images of people with disabilities to date. (p.78)
It is difficult to see how such representations can be classified as positive, even by Longmore, as they are even less concerned with 'social discrimination' than the films of which Longmore is critical. For Longmore the 'breakthrough' is in having disabled people as normal consumers; a fact which flies even further in the face of reality as disabled people are usually among the poorest people of Western societies (Berthoud et al, 1993; Russell, 1998), increasingly so if you are both black and disabled (Stuart, 1993; Russell, 1998). Like most ‘situated position’ writing about what is ‘positive’, the problem of positive / negative as a battle between the real and the ideal and as either positive / negative is almost never resolved; its basic conclusions invariably tend towards being reductionist. In my view, such positive images as identified by Longmore increase the marginalisation of those who have impairments. Such images marginalise further those who are not willing to be normalised or are not capable of being normalised - the unattractive impairments, the severely speech impaired and the severely disabled who are totally physically dependent - and cannot, or want not to, push themselves around in their wheelchairs playing basketball in Nike trainers. To consider such pseudo-normal representations as positive pushes further back the opportunities for equality than supposedly negative portrayals such as The Best Years of Our Lives or The Elephant Man; at least these films show 'ugly' impairments being confronted by an able-bodied and image-obsessed society. ‘Ugly’ impairment imagery in films such as The Best Years of Our Lives or The Elephant Man does leave a lot to be desired, but at least they make visible – and attractive, to some extent - impairments that are invariably socially constructed as abject and unattractive. It is interesting to note that Longmore sees disabled people as positive in the above-mentioned commercials because they are being physically competitive; one of the most pertinent arenas (sport) of disabling social processes in which the inability to be physically superior is defined. Whilst Longmore sees positivity in, for me, the most negative area of representation, I would argue that such representations serve to re-invigorate the supremacy of physical perfection; a supremacy that must be laid to rest, as a question of moral superiority, if the disabled are to be seen or treated as equal.
Longmore's essay is excellent at showing how impairment has been used to show contradictory impressions of disability, impressions that are not particularly positive as they are based within, and upon, the Medical Model of disability. Perhaps Longmore's error is that he tends to value normality too much, to the extent that he sees positivity only in those representations which show the impaired as normal-like people. As the old disability protest badge said: '[T]he problem with normal people is that they don't exist'.
Jenny Morris, in her book Pride Against Prejudice (1992), is another disabled writer who writes from a Social Model of disability perspective and she also has one chapter on disability imagery with, significantly, her main reference point being Longmore's chapter in the book edited by Gartner and Joe. Morris erroneously makes the point that there are very few representations of women with disabilities; there are a considerable number of women with hearing or visual impairments in various films. There are films such as Johnny Belinda (Jean Negulesco, US, 1948) and Magnificent Obsession (Douglas Sirk, US, 1954), to name only two that both star Jane Wyman. There are also a considerable number of films with female wheelchair users like Morris herself, for example: Kiss of Death (Henry Hathaway, US, 1947); The Man with the Golden Arm (Otto Preminger, US, 1956); The Wheelchair (Marco Ferreri, Spain, 1959); Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, US, 1962); Notorious Landlady (Richard Quine, GB, 1962); Eye of the Cat (David Lowell Rich, US, 1969); The Raging Moon; Annie’s Coming Out (Gil Brearley, Australia, 1984); Poulet au Vinaigre; Duet for One; Passion Fish; Crush (Alison Maclean, Australia, 1992); Persons Unknown (George Hickenlooper, US, 1996); and Dance to My Song (Rolf de Heer, Australia, 1998).
Of disability representations Morris states that:
[T]he crucial thing about [ ... ] cultural representations of disability is that they say nothing about the lives of disabled people but everything about the attitudes of non-disabled people towards the disability. (p.93)
Although cultural representations say an enormous amount about how society views disability it is somewhat reductionist to blame individual non-disabled people for their attitudes. The non-disabled are as equally constructed as are the disabled (Canguilhem, 1989) and, as such, are discouraged - even prevented - from thinking 'correctly' about disability by a dominant social (society) discourse rooted in the Medical Model – that is the reason for the creation of a Social Model in the first place. To perceive it differently would be to embrace the simplistic idea that non-disabled people are obstructive merely out of ignorance. Equally, it is not the case that such portrayals of impairment say nothing about the 'real' lives of the disabled. The most negative portrayal possible validates the impaired individual's own feelings of insecurity, confirming that it is society that discriminates against people with impairments in its structures, relationships and processes (Barnes, 1990) and representations. This is true even in any of the similarly titled film versions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Wallace Worsley, US, 1923; William Dieterle, US, 1939; Jean Delannoy, France/Italy, 1956; and Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, US, 1996 – a Disney animation film). Cultural representations do tell us a lot about disability as it is lived; they must do in order to posit themselves in any form or verisimilitude of realism (as most cultural representations of disability do). Even if cultural representations show only a Medical Model view of disability, one must take into account that it is the model that dominates the everyday lives of most disabled people (Turner, 1995; Rojek et al, 1988; Armstrong, 1983; Armstrong, 1990). As such, they reflect such a nexus’s hegemony back to the majority of impaired individuals who live under its power, gaze and influence.
Morris concentrates, to start with, on My Left Foot; complaining that it never appreciates Christy Brown's art or fiction but merely wonders at his 'overcoming all odds' (p.95). Cinematically speaking, this is slightly unfair as to expect a bio-pic (biographical films) genre film to do something different is a rarity indeed; most bio-pics concentrate on personal tragedy and triumph rather than the actual work of the subject (Custen, 1992). Equally, Morris is selective in her comments on the film as quite a few of Christy’s paintings are shown. The film is an 'overcoming all odds' drama about impairment that does negativise by its sentimentalisation – the privileging of emotion over reason (Burgett, 1998; Ellis, 1996; Villa, 1998; Zwinger, 1991) - of Brown's achievements (which are indeed considerable considering the time and the place of them - post-World War II Dublin). Morris's next point about My Left Foot reveals her tendency to see as positive impairment portrayal when it is shown as normal-like (see Longmore's comments above), a rather surprising contradiction in a book sub-titled Celebrate the Difference. She writes:
[A]t a formal dinner in a restaurant, Christy abuses the woman who has just told him that she loves someone else, shouting and pulling the tablecloth off the table. In other words, he behaves in an oppressive, aggressive and intimidating manner, not an unusual thing for a non-disabled man to do but film critics seemed to think it was amazing for a disabled man to behave in this way. Somehow, it is supposed to be 'progressive' that a disabled man was portrayed as behaving in a thoroughly obnoxious way. The makers of this film are not actually portraying the lives of disabled individuals; rather the disability is a vehicle for exploring the pain of dependency and vulnerability for men. (p.95)
What Morris seems to be suggesting is that obnoxious disabled characters should not be shown since they give a bad impression of disabled people. If solely obnoxious characters were shown such an assumption could be true, but, as they are rarely shown in that manner, it cannot be claimed that it generalises disabled people as obnoxious. To some extent, the scene should be identified as positive by Morris as it is shows a normalising degree of Christy’s impairment in its attributing stereotypical male norms to him. As Morris states, it is typical male behaviour – though, even here, she is ignoring female bad behaviour both socially and cinematically. If we combine the above comments with Morris's earlier comments that the films in question show nothing of the lives lived with an impairment, we can see that she is setting a particular agenda for how disabled people should be portrayed and how they should behave: an agenda that is a sanitising generalisation and mystification of the disability experience, even more so than that of the film-makers of which she is critical. Personally, the only piece of My Left Foot that I felt really captured my experience of disability was the 'obnoxious' scene, a scene that I had 'lived' in my late adolescence. For Morris to describe the scene as the woman telling Brown that she loves someone else is also a slight misreading of the film. Morris implies that there was a particular relationship between the two characters to start with, when there was not; it could be argued that what the scene does show is the emotional immaturity that many disabled people experience when they are isolated and prevented from participating in usual adolescent emotional experience. Consequently, I would argue that My Left Foot does show, in this incident, a great deal about disability as it is lived. The point is that it is often lived through isolation and ignorance; especially so in post-war Dublin. Within the framework of the Social Model what is wrong, and films such as My Left Foot fail to clarify this point, is that such ignorance and isolation is social constructed and that such constructions legitimate disabling barriers and social exclusion.
Alternatively, Morris sees Coming Home (Hal Ashby, US, 1978) as a positive representation of disability because, fundamentally, the main impaired character (played by Jon Voight) is not impotent (a misreading, since he is impotent; and that is the intended positive point of the film). Again, we have the assertion that positive images are those that are as close to being normal as possible. Morris's major criticism of My Left Foot (and Born on the Fourth of July [Oliver Stone, US, 1989]) is that it:
depends on the stereotype that to be in a wheelchair is to be impotent, unable to be a complete (hetero)sexual being, and therefore not a complete man. (p.96)
The question of impotence as a stereotypical characteristic of disability (lower limb paralysis especially) is an interesting one, but Morris has completely misread My Left Foot as, despite other negative characteristics, Christy Brown is not characterised as impotent. Born On The Fourth of July, to its credit, examines the shock to an individual - grounded in machismo militarism - who becomes the cultural antithesis of all that he was: potent became impotent. As such, it did confront a real experience lived by many men who become, or became, disabled in such a manner. I agree that impotence is a generalised theme for the wheelchair user, but there is a reckless tendency to assert potency at the expense of those who are impotent due to their medical condition or physical impairment. By stressing that all images of impotence are bad and 'stereotypical' one is merely relegating into the abyss of ignorance and stereotyping (or archetyping) those further who indeed are so. What Morris is advocating is that disabled people be represented only as normal human beings; and by ‘normal’ she means that they fulfil standard criteria as laid down in constructed social processes for independence and employability. Such a perspective will result in selective, and attractive, disabilities being included in both cinema and society but such a philosophy (one to which Morris adheres, such as when she states that the advertisements admired by Longmore are 'a joy to watch' [p.113]), is problematic from a Social Model perspective. The perspective is problematic as it creates a hierarchy within disability and necessitates further exclusions for many severely impaired people.
Morris is excellent at describing the way in which various films, which emphasise disability as an individual problem, fail to offer the viewer all the alternatives that could give the disabled character a better understanding of his situation. 'His' situation is a key thread of Morris's criticism. Disabled women are for Morris almost excluded as cinematic characters except when as deaf or blind people. Yet she fails to give a detailed reason for this except to blame male domination of the movie industry and its own concern with its fear of impotency and dependency. Such a view is somewhat reductionist since it ignores the reality that (financially and often educationally at least) women are constructed in discourse as naturally 'disabled' by their being women; as Aristotle wrote: 'the female is as it were a deformed male' (cited in Davis, 1995, p.126). Freud was equally malecentric in his analysis of male / female identities. The notion of ‘woman as disabled’ adds to the complexity of the issue and indicates the way in which a range of social constructions of various categories of people (by race, gender and sexuality, for example) do not work in isolation but that they affect and effect one another. Significantly, though, Morris does point out that no alternatives are given to explain how various impairments and the subsequent disablement can be overcome and / or made less stressful with the use of aids and finance, for example, on the eradication of destructible barriers.
Morris's book is overly concerned with how disabled women get a raw deal in the politics of disability – an emphasis that is not quite true and furthermore belittles those women who have led the movement. A strong riposte to such a view, with examples, is given in Barnes (1996; 1998). Equally, Morris is often contradictory in her treatments of similar situations where there is a male and not a female in the given situation. If one looks at her view of Duet For One, for example, this becomes obvious. She writes:
[T]he (film) is very powerful, not least because it reflects not just the loss which is sometimes an integral part of having a condition such as multiple sclerosis, but also how the nature of that loss is determined by what went before rather than the condition itself. (p.105)
It is difficult to see how Born on the Fourth of July and Whose Life Is It Anyway? (and, in a different way, My Left Foot) fail to do exactly the same. The whole thrust of those movies, and their concern with sexual functioning, is that it is for most people different to have been normal and then become abnormal, especially if the individual has not 'changed' as a person. Thus, I would agree that to examine the past could be a pertinent and valid exercise in looking at acquired impairment, but just as much for a male as a female writer or for disabled characters. Morris misses the point in Duet For One’s narrative conclusion that the protagonist’s (a)moral past is the implied reason given for her present condition, a representation that is an even more suspect use of patriarchy than Morris identifies in the film; but when a male character uses his past to justify his present psychological state, in Whose Life Is It Anyway?, Morris condemns this:
'[I]t is surprising', he remarks of her behaviour when in his room, 'how relaxed a woman can become when she is not in the presence of a man'. To Ken (a newly disabled quadriplegic), paralysis has robbed him of what his masculinity meant to him, and he is thereby robbed of what he defines as his humanity. (p.106)
It is justifiable to say that Ken is mistaken; impairment has not robbed him of his masculinity (if you re-define masculinity as not solely residing in heterosexual penile power), except in his own eyes and those of society in their constructed socialisation of what is masculinity and a ‘real’ man. The film leaves us in no doubt that his past value as a human being was strongly rooted in the power (both symbolical and literally) of his penis, a power he no longer has. Significantly, the statements that he makes do, for many similarly impaired males (whether impotent or not), have a strong element of truth. The film's failure, from a Social Model methodology analysis, is that it does not question of what masculinity consists; it only reinforces one view of it by equating the loss of penis power with death. The film's failure is in not stating that Ken is seen differently by women (et al) because he is now impotent (a realistic portrayal). That disability (rather than impairment) robs the individual of his / her sexuality in this society is a fair statement; what is at stake is that it happens through construction and not as a result of some natural course of action. It is not the impairment that is significant, but the social construction of impotency as emasculation. Morris' philosophy, the idea of a positive representation being that which shows disabled people as normal, robs the individual of the right to see that in this society it is not normal; nor is it experienced - or constructed - as positive to have an impairment. To take it a step further, I would argue that the least positive disabled images are those that show disability as 'a secondary characteristic' (p.112) - the very images that Morris thinks of as extremely positive - because, above all else, disability is not a secondary characteristic for many who are impaired / disabled, as the Social Model and this thesis using that model clearly demonstrate. The positive images, so admired by Morris and Longmore, marginalise those with severe impairments even further because the latter are unable to imitate any semblance of normality or benefit from the attempt to normalise them.
Morris, as is Longmore, is good at listing the types of disabled people that exist in cinematic representation, such as when she states that:
the most common representation of disability in television and on the cinema screen is a wheelchair user because the wheelchair offers the most obvious and easiest way of presenting a recognisable disability. (p.98)
Morris is right, statistically speaking - for detailed statistical data on disability imagery on television, and films shown on television, see Cumberbatch and Negrine’s 1992 study on the subject, a study which is discussed below. As such it can be said that the common perception of the disabled is related to it: to be impaired is to be in a wheelchair. On reflection, that wheelchairs are the most common images of disability in cinema is not wholly surprising considering that it is an image-based medium that requires speed of recognition in order to establish rapid identification; ‘broad bush strokes’ as Dyer calls it (1993[a]). Stereotypes, however simplistic, ensure through their symbols faster understanding of the director’s (writer’s / film’s) intentions. It could also be said that the wheelchair user is the most often noticed, irrespective of numbers, because they are what constitute 'disability' in the eyes of the viewer and culture at large. The wheelchair and its user are the symbol of disability (even when parking). Personally, I notice more wheelchairs because I use one (as does Morris). In society at large, epileptics have always been a little harder to spot as they are members of that massive army of people with invisible impairments. As such, in films, it is quicker to include a shot of a wheelchair than attempt to portray epilepsy, et cetera.
Another of Morris's main source books is Lauri E. Klobas' Disability Drama in Television and Film (1988). The weakness of Klobas' text is that it has undertaken the massive task of indexing American references to disability on television (in particular) and on film. It is split into sections (e.g., one on 'blindness', another on 'small-stature'), and gives brief production details, synopsis and a comment on whether it is a positive or negative portrayal of disability. Although it is extensive, it is an American orientated text, it does make major omissions of examples from British cinema: films that range from Mandy (Alexander Mackendrick, GB, 1952) to more recent films such as Woman of Straw (Basil Dearden, GB, 1964) and Baxter (Lionel Jeffries, GB, 1972).
Klobas' text is an excellent introduction that is, above all else, taxonomical. Its introduction and conclusion, though very brief, list all the formulae and stereotypes that appear to her to be symptomatic of disability representation. They do not vary significantly from those of Longmore and Morris, but are, none the less, important as a guideline of what to expect when viewing an impaired character on the screen. Klobas states that:
[A]ny critic worth her / his salt will argue that for the most part, film and television stories are repetitive regardless of subject matter. That may be true, but those pieces play to an audience that can evaluate what is being seen from personal experience. On the other hand, the general audience is uninformed about persons with disabilities and has little cautionary discretion for guidance. People with disabilities are broadly defined onscreen as falling within one or two character types: They are defeated, angry people who require help, or they are 'never-say-die' types who accept disability as a 'physical challenge' and go out to conquer the world. (p.1)
I agree, to some extent, with Klobas' two types of stereotype (as my later chapter on the validity of calling all images of disability stereotypical demonstrates), yet the same could be said of blacks, gays, women and even men. It is an analysis that is useful as a starting point but needs developing if one is to appreciate fully the specificities, causes and attributes, of representations of impairment and disability. Klobas does not really extend her analysis, understandably, in any greater depth; instead, she simply lists all the examples she herself and her colleagues can collate – of which there are hundreds.
A key reason for the survival of simplistic stereotypes is that the audience is informed (not uninformed, as Klobas states) by personal experience. Personal experience is as socially determined, or mediated, as is film; equally, disabled people have to live their lives, and base their everyday philosophies, upon the medicalised models that influence cinematic representation. When Klobas rhetorically asks: '[D]oes it ever end?' (p.437), the answer is, without a doubt, ‘No’. No, because the disabled inhabit a 'state' that is placed upon them. Taken to its full extent, if a character or individual in life does not fit one of the two stereotypes Klobas states, he / she is not 'disabled'.
Klobas sees positive representation of impairment (although she also calls it disability), just as do Morris and Longmore, in the advertisements that show disabled people 'as part of life' (p.438); stating that: '[F]or once, episodic television and movies should take a cue from the commercials'. Klobas also writes that the love scene in Coming Home is 'a beautiful and honest love scene' and that it was 'the first decent and honest piece to come along since The Men, twenty eight years before' (p.136) and, as such, it is not difficult to identify Klobas’ polemical perspective. For Klobas, positive representation is primarily that which shows disabled people as normal, sexually satisfying and attractive characters. Yet, as I have already pointed out, this bears little relationship to disability as lived by most people and it relegates those unable to fulfil that role (either physically or due to social constraint) even further down the scale of acceptability.
One can already see that the disabled movement is setting an agenda of what are acceptable 'good cripple' and unacceptable 'bad cripple' representations. There is, however, a misreading of the central character's ability in Coming Home to be sexually penetrative since he is not so. An interpretation of the sex scene in Coming Home which, from a Social Model perspective, is more positive. It is progressive because it shows disability and impotency to be mutually conducive in offering sexual fulfilment and gratification; imagery which is thus antithetical to the conventional. Interestingly, the only film I have seen to date that actively shows oral sex as positive - apart from Coming Home - is a horror movie directed by George Romero, made in 1988, called Monkey Shines (George Romero, US, 1988). Nevertheless, even this potentially positive representation is negated through the central character’s receiving a miracle cure at the end of the film; thereby ensuring that the superiority of normality is eventually reinforced over difference. More recently the Spanish film Live Flesh had a similarly constructed positive view of oral sex but even in this film it was negated in favour of a conventional bourgeois able-bodied familial conclusion.
Cumberbatch and Negrine's study for the Broadcasting Research Unit, Images of Disability on Television (1992), is perhaps the best view of disability imagery that I have so far found. This is mainly because it places disability within a context of social meaning and it works with the idea that images are, by their nature, limited in a formula industry. Although it is a study of television, most of the representations discussed are from films that have been shown on television. Relating back to Longmore's point that there are hundreds of portrayals of disability on film, Cumberbatch and Negrine state that:
[T]he type of programme most likely to include people with disabilities (in a study of six weeks television) was feature films, of which 41 per cent portrayed characters with disabilities. (p.51)
However, factual programmes came a very close second with repeated portrayals of impairment in a charity or medical context where they were either 'plucky' or 'brave'. As disability is so often portrayed 'factually' as medicalised or dependent, it can be no surprise that fiction creates its portrayals in a similar vein. The success of Cumberbatch and Negrine's book is in its statistical appraisal of impairment characteristics, even though it fails to connect statistical data to the social constructionist nature of disability.
The false public perception of impairment is that it affects and afflicts the young (Oliver, 1991), and media representations seem to be where the misconception is either coming from or being reinforced. Cumberbatch and Negrine, based on the population census a calculation of the percentage of the disabled for various age groups. They then compared their findings with ‘television population’ statistics that they compiled, an exercise that makes quite astounding reading. The actual number of people under the age of fifty who are disabled in the ‘real’ world is 16.5%, whilst the number in 'television's world' is over sixty per cent. Thus, in the television world, which includes a high proportion of cinema films, not only are younger people much more likely to be disabled in some way but infant disability seems almost compulsory. Cumberbatch and Negrine offer convincing statistical evidence that severe impairments are the most often shown, and that the occurrence is over-represented in comparison to the real population. They state:
[L]ocomotor, behaviour and disfigurement problems are relatively overrepresented in the television population, whereas communication and continence problems are relatively underrepresented. We may explain the prevalence (of one above the other because) they are easiest to represent, they are immediately apparent [ ... ] in a single camera shot. Incontinence may be underrepresented because of lavatorial taboos. (p.25)
Cumberbatch and Negrine are beginning to see that two factors are vital in an understanding of representations of disability in film and on television: firstly, simplicity (and therefore the severity of an impairment) of image is vital; and secondly, that the social process is just as important in determining what image is shown. They continue:
[A] further set of reasons for the choice of disabilities featured on television can be suggested by reference to the ubiquity of the wheelchair as an index of disability, and the readiness with which it is called to mind in relation to disability. People working in (the media) are both a part of our culture, and are themselves aware of it. Thus when they want to include a disabled role, they are likely to think of locomotor handicaps necessitating a wheelchair, and that this is an icon of disability that the public will recognise. (pp.25-6)
Cumberbatch and Negrine accept that film-makers are as constrained by public conceptions as by their own imaginations, which, in turn, are equally socially mediated and constructed.
Cumberbatch and Negrine reveal the importance of seeing the 'disabled role' as an important benchmark for all the other roles in the film. They use as an example The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Sergio Leone, Italy, 1966), citing the scene in the film where Lee Van Cleef's character is engaged in conversation by a character who is a double leg amputee called 'Half Soldier'. Cumberbatch and Negrine not only suggest that amputees are seen as half human but that 'the incapacity of "Half Soldier" contrasts with the physical excellence of the character played by Lee Van Cleef' (p.44). Consequently, we can see that, for these authors, impairment has more than its own specific limitations and / or metaphor in play in the narrative. They give an unidentified example of when the police are chasing a criminal and a wheelchair is blocking the road, causing the police to lose the criminal. They argue that such an incident shows more than just the ability of disabled people to block the road: 'it is almost as if disabled people are interfering with the proper running of society' (p.50). Cumberbatch and Negrine are the first writers I have come across who say more than just 'stop it, it's not true' in relation to what they still see as negative representations of the disabled probably because they themselves are not disabled. Interestingly, the disabled critics (Longmore and Morris, for example) talk of the disabled as a homogeneous group much more than do the non-disabled writers. Cumberbatch and Negrine state that impairment is a multiplicity of conditions that, at the very least, mean different things to different people.
One of the primary methods cinema uses to perpetuate disability (or any) stereotypes, and / or archetypes, is by leaving certain factors absent. Cumberbatch and Negrine state that:
[I]t is instructive to examine what films tend not to emphasise. We very rarely see the topic of disability introduced as a social issue. The customary highly individualistic struggle masks the possibility that disability results not only from an individual's limitations but also from an environment which is designed with only able-bodied people in mind. There are strong suggestions in many films that disability is about courage and achievement rather than suggesting that it is an issue for which society as a whole should take responsibility. (p.54)
It is, for Cumberbatch and Negrine, important to look as much at what is absent as what is present; as such, it is a methodology which enables one to see how impairment is constructed as the Other. Other writers fleetingly mention disability as the Other, but only as a reference to disability as a narrow stereotype that panders to public misconceptions. They do not de-construct the mechanisms by which it is constructed; nor do they relate it to a direct multiplicity of discourses that both affect and effect it.
Cumberbatch and Negrine define three broad categories of disability stereotype in cinema: the criminal, the subhuman and the powerless or pathetic character. I see no reason to challenge these categories as broad taxonomies; the main difference between this, the other works looked at and my research, which follows, is revealed in Cumberbatch and Negrine's conclusion on films and disability:
[I]t is difficult to avoid the impression that there is usually an ulterior motive for the inclusion of disabled characters in films and dramas. Perhaps the most obvious is the use of suffering and disadvantage, followed by bravery and willpower, to stir tender emotions in the audience; though the mechanisms whereby this occurs remains elusive. Other motives are the use of disabled characters [ ... ] to enhance an atmosphere of deprivation, mystery, violence and menace. (p.61)
The aim of my research is to reveal the mechanisms used to create such atmospheres and place them within a context of alternatives. This thesis would argue that Cumberbatch and Negrine under-estimate the power of stereotypes (and archetypes) whilst at the same time acknowledging that they recognise their own text’s theoretical insularity. They claim:
[N]ot to condone the actions of [the media but it] is first and foremost a medium of entertainment rather than a medium of 'social engineering'. (p.102)
Whilst agreeing, to some extent, I would argue that cinema does enable people to construct their own sources of identity and interpret various social processes. Conversely, I do not think that positive images of disability per sewould create a more socially equal society; positive representations of disability are not viable as disability is a negative social construct. The negativity of disability is inherent within it and promoted by disability’s existence as a category (Canguilhem, 1989).
Steve Dwoskin (1991) postulates the idea that disability suffers a media apartheid because stigma is always attached to disability and it is, by logical corollary, negative. Dwoskin fails to see that disability can be nothing else but negative because it exists as a devaluing grouping or label, and is, consequently, created as a socially stigmatised existence that needs to be separated at worst, or simply identified at best, from the rest of normal society. ‘Disability’ per se, in its existence - construction as a reality - ensures that it is interpreted negatively by any group who sees, constructs, labels and interprets impairment as the cause of disablement. Logically, 'interpreters' have no alternative if they wish to maintain the illusion that normality and abnormality are pathological realities as opposed to social constructs: i.e., that disability exists a priori.
The only writer to see that positive images of Otherness cannot exist in a society that constructs an Other - our society - is Sander L. Gilman, who in Disease and Representation (1988) states that:
[A]ll images, artistic or scientific, whether they enter naively or self-consciously into our awareness, are abstractions from diverse phenomena. (p.12)
As disability is constructed within society by a multiplicity of discourses, as a negative experience, as a pathological reality that speaks for itself, then it is irrational to expect a vital, normalising, part of social discourse (cinema) to break free from its own shackles, and from those of a wider society. David Hevey, in The Creatures Time Forgot (1992), shows how charity photography and advertising degrade and make dependent those disabled people they attempt to help (by using black and white photography, in contrast to colour, alongside dehumanising text). Yet, where he advances the idea that alternatives are possible if charities do not exist (i.e., capitalism does not exist), he defeats his own argument. If charities do not exist, disability cannot exist due to the fact that is charities - following Hevey’s own argument - who solely create it: creating it out of their use and abuse of people with impairments, thereby constructing disability as impairment as they carry out their disabling activities of objectifying and (often) institutionalising the impaired. Consequently, it must be stated that positive images of disability cannot exist in a society where disability is constructed or exists, be that by charities or any other disabling discourse. Impairment will always exist, but disability need not; it is disability not the impairment which disables the impaired (Oliver, 1990; Oliver, 1991; Barnes, 1991) from the Social Model perspective.
The value of all of the texts that I have looked at is that they provide, in total, an index of the way the disabled are stereotypically represented. What they fail to do is to show that a recognition of the significant differences in those stereotypes is vital in order to understanding how disability is used to construct and protect a fragile idea(l) of what is normal. The impaired, as an image, are a fairly stable creation (in their many forms they are what normality is not) of what the Other are. Later, I shall show the mechanics through which normality is asserted as positive and how the idea of the disabled stereotype is far too simplistic. For Cumberbatch and Negrine disability can be categorised fairly generally in the following ways (though they use the term 'disability' when they actually mean impairment – even from their perspective):
- disability as an emblem of evil;
- disability as 'monstrous';
- disability as a loss of one's humanity;
- disability as dependent and lacking in self-determination;
- disability as maladjusted;
- disability as sexual menace, deviancy, danger and impotence;
- disability as the object of fun or pity;
- disability as the object of charity;
- disability as having 'Other' (abnormal) talents;
- disability as being in need of extra effort or adaptation.
Much of the writing on impairment imagery seems to be little other than semantics; a dense jungle of words whose variance is negligible. The difference(s) between a stereotype, archetype, type, prototype and sub-type, or even a myth, seems to depend upon the perspective of the writer or the academic discipline that he, or she, is representing; the inclusion of 'disability theory' only serves to muddy the waters further. The most problematic area of definition is between stereotype and archetype. For the sake of clarification I shall start by giving my definitions of the two key problematic areas. A stereotype is a social construction (image, representation or whatever) which denies the truth of that which it represents by replacing it with an alternative which the stereotyper presumes to be true but which is, in reality, socially constructed. A stereotype does not inherently reveal that it is a social construct but passes itself off as a truth. An archetype, on the other hand, works in a similar manner but it is a creative interpretation that is presumed (and designed) to be a universal truth without question by those who construct, consume and appraise it; it has the appeal of a timeless truth which the stereotype does not. Significantly, an archetype may become a stereotype when the subjects of that archetype stand up and challenge the archetype; as was the case with women in feminism (Perkins, 1979), blacks in challenging racism (Cripps, 1977) and gays in Queer Studies (Dyer, 1993[a]). Within stereotypes and archetypes there is no acknowledgement that they are social constructs, but - and this is the key - archetypes are seen as true whereas stereotypes are seen as false by many who consume and appraise them (Oakes et al, 1994). The difference is academic, quite literally, but significant when trying to challenge images (i.e., of the impaired) which are omnipresent and assumed to be universally true.
In general terms I would argue that images, and the reality, of disability are seen and created more archetypally than stereotypically (the accepted view) because disability and abnormality are seen as axiomatic; as self-evidently abhorrent or as a timeless and natural part of Otherness. The next chapter focuses on this more specifically when A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg is used in an analysis of the issue in depth.
Perhaps the reason most disability imagery criticism argues that disability is portrayed stereotypically is partly because it is premised upon a broad definition of what a stereotype is; thus, little escapes its seemingly limitless parameters. As when Barnes, in Disabling Imagery & The Media (1992) writes that:
[D]isability stereotypes that medicalise, patronise, criminalise and dehumanise disabled people abound in books, films, on television and in the press. (p.38)
Barnes' view that images of impairment in the media are somewhat repetitive and seem to be particularly enduring in that they medicalise, patronise, criminalise and dehumanise those portrayed as disabled is sufficient for him to label them stereotypical. I would argue that this factor alone does not make them stereotypes. 'Part Two' of Barnes' monograph is sub-titled 'Commonly Recurring Media Stereotypes' and this sub-title itself seems to encompass the definition of stereotypes that Barnes uses. For Barnes, the very fact of recurrence seems to make an image stereotypical, but that they are enduring and pervasive, and 'commonly recurring', would indicate that they are more than merely stereotypical. That Barnes then lists what he considers to be a fairly exhaustive taxonomy of stereotypes, including eleven sub-types, further indicates, as stated above, that the definition being used is a fairly broad one.
Barnes' eleven stereotypes of disability imagery are:
- the disabled person as pitiable and pathetic (which would include The Raging Moon and The Elephant Man);
- as an object of violence;
- as sinister and evil;
- as atmosphere or curio;
- as 'super cripple' (which would include My Left Foot);
- as an object of ridicule;
- the disabled person as their own worst and only enemy (which would include Duet For One);
- as burden (which would include A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg);
- as sexually abnormal (which would include Whose Life is It Anyway?);
- as incapable of participating fully in community life;
- and ‘the disabled person as normal’.
When Barnes states in the first line of 'Part Two: Commonly Recurring Media Stereotypes' that: 'the link between impairment and all that is socially unacceptable was first established in classical Greek Theatre' (ibid, p.15), it becomes fairly clear that even he sees the images as slightly more than stereotypes. However, he fails to take his observation to its logical conclusion and label them as cultural archetypes, or even myths, about disability and the impaired.
It could be argued that archetypes are simply unrecognised stereotypes. To be more precise, an archetype becomes a stereotype when those that are represented stand up and say they have had enough of being portrayed mythically and / or archetypally. After all, the identification of representations as stereotypical, by definition, implies an awareness of their social construction by those who label them as such. Archetypes and myths, on the other hand, lead one to infer a degree of truth about their subject. It is that inference of 'truthfulness' that perhaps makes some representations of disabled people archetypal rather than stereotypical, especially in their reception and initial construction by film-makers. As most of the writers discussed seem to be more polemical – and writing politically - than academic it should not be doubted that their use of the word ‘stereotype’ is functional rather than analytical. In other words, what they are really saying is that they disagree with the way disabled people have been portrayed so far, as it fails to reflect their perception of the realities (or political dimensions) of physical or mental impairment and disability as these authors personally and politically perceive it.
Disability and impairment imagery has yet to be fully understood, and as a movement disabled people are, at present, much more concerned with getting their point across than with the nuances of theory or philosophy. Such a perspective will, undoubtedly, be more beneficial in the short term, although its long-term drawbacks have yet to be fully understood. It is perhaps the polemical perspective which explains why most writers on disability imagery are often reluctant to go into too much detail, i.e., in providing definitions, or the scope, of terms like stereotypes. Thus, popular conceptions of complex matters (stereotypes) are often left to stand by themselves as entities that are either axiomatic or superfluous to requirements. Even so, it is significant that filmic images of disability are always dismissed as being merely stereotypical. Even Cumberbatch and Negrine's statistical work, which does not have a particularly polemical directive, falls into the same trap as Barnes by using the similarly simplistic idea that repetition alone makes a stereotype (see lists on pages 36 and 37). Equally, such lists are so encompassing that little else is left that one could be represented as being.
Cumberbatch and Negrine's philosophy in categorising all images of disability as stereotypical is revealed when they quote from a study of images of disability in newspaper advertising (Scott-Parker's, They Aren't in the Brief, 1989, p.16): '[S]tereotyped images define people by their disability [ ... ] people with differences (should be) seen first and foremost as people'. The main thrust of Cumberbatch and Negrine's work (as is Scott-Parker's) is that the images are stereotyped because they are wrong both factually and morally. In other words, they are not as they - or other interviewed disabled people - would want them to be; what Macherey (1978) has labelled the 'normative fallacy' (which I return to below). It is a perspective which brings us back to the point that the emphasis of these works is polemical and not essentially academic in analysis.
This is not to say that they are wrong, or that they should have been more analytical in their perspective; rather, that they are executing a very specific polemical analysis in an easily understood popular shorthand. As is the case in, for example, the work carried out on: 'cripples in literature' by Leonard Kriegal (1987); on images of the deaf in cinema by John Schuchman (1988); on Disability in Modern Children's Fiction (1985) by John Quicke; and the recent history of physical disability in American cinema by Martin F. Norden (1994). All of those just listed have a similar result to the works of Barnes, Cumberbatch and Negrine, and Scott-Parker: they tend towards being polemical and taxonomical rather than analytical. Kriegal lists four stereotypes of disabled people (impaired characters) in literature: the 'demonic cripple'; 'the charity cripple'; 'the realistic cripple'; and 'the survivor cripple'. Schuchman, on the other hand, lists eight deaf stereotypes: the dummy; the fake deaf person; the deaf person as an object of humour; the unhappy deaf person; the expert deaf lip-reader; the dummy label; the perfect speaker; and, finally, the curable deaf person. Here we can see that many of the stereotypes attributed to disabled people in general are sub-divided for a sub-category of specific impairment disabled people, i.e., the Deaf and / or the deaf.
Rarely does a work on disability imagery escape from being a list of repetitions and, as such, a list of supposed stereotypes. Quicke borders upon a much more critical analysis of disability imagery, yet even he resorts to creating a taxonomy of types, types which include the 'romantic' (where the potential of a disabled character is dramatically revealed to be in excess of their real capabilities) and the positive stereotype (the pseudo-normal abnormal). However, Quicke does give us a clue to his definition of a stereotype, when he writes that:
[I]n general, the problem with stereotypes is that even when they are 'favourable' (e.g., as when the child is portrayed as a 'virtuous victim') they are still counter-productive [ ... ] a stereotype is a trap because it restricts the characterisation to one dominant social identity. (p.156)
For Quicke, a stereotype is that which 'restricts characterisation' or fails to present the disabled character, within any given narrative, as having multiple opportunities. Considering that most cinematic narratives – especially classic Hollywood narratives (Bordwell and Thompson, 1993) - close off opportunities for all their characters (closure is one of the key pleasures offered by fictional narrative that life does not) I would argue that disabled people are often highly developed characters, more so than any other conventional character in a narrative, whether filmic or novelistic. The problem for Quicke, and most of the other disability imagery critics reviewed here, is that if the characterisation of a disabled character is not to the disabled critics' liking it is dismissed as stereotypical, when in fact, at least by Quicke's own definition, this is not the case.
As some writers have shown (Dyer, 1993; Perkins, 1979; Oakes et al, 1994) stereotypes can be, and often are, complex in character, containing subliminal information and adopting the manner in which one stereotype reinforces another stereotype. Quicke demonstrates an awareness of this complexity and mutual support, as does Norden, when they both mention the way in which disabled characters often reinforce stereotypical views about women and their normative roles as carers and 'earth mothers' towards the abnormal. Quicke (p.158) writes that: 'if the mother is always portrayed as the key figure in caring for the disabled child to the exclusion of a father, then this can only reinforce the conventional view of a woman's role'. Such a perspective could easily be applied to My Left Foot (see the chapter, below, on the family). Norden, on the other hand, writes that 'the stereotype of physically disabled people is conspicuously related to the gender issue' (1994, p.315). Norden continues to explain that in his view all images of disability in mainstream films are the enactment of the Oedipus scenario; something which a Social Model methodology cannot accept, as not all people perceive, or treat, the impaired in a universally uniform manner. Psychoanalytic theory is antithetical to a Social Model methodology and, as such, the Social Model perspective interprets psychoanalysis as a normalising 'eugenics of the mind' (Davis, 1995, p.39). Davis calls psychoanalytic theory a ‘eugenics of the mind’ due to its roots in the medicalising hegemony that is the legacy of the Enlightenment. For the Social Model, disability is a social construct, not an innate psychological state of being; for the Social Model even the very personal aspects of impairment are mediated through the culture in which they are experienced.
The degree to which people with mental health problems have adopted the Social Model (in opposition to a psychiatric model) is testament to the degree to which the Social Model and its supporters reject any link with psychoanalysis. See, for example, the work of mental health user groups Survivors Speak Out and Survivors Poetry (Beresford and Croft, 1993). This is not to say that psychoanalysis would not bear positive fruit in its interpretation of disability, only that it would be out of place within a Social Model analysis such as that adopted for the purpose of this thesis. Equally, impairment / disability imagery and psychoanalysis constitute a topic for a thesis in themselves.
One final issue is the question of the 'Kernel of Truth' debate which seems central to much stereotype discourse (Perkins, 1979; Oakes et al, 1994; Leyens et al, 1994). The problem with relying upon such criteria is highlighted by this quote from Quicke (1985, p.157): '[E]ven the stereotype of the disabled person always being "brave" is objectionable, because for many disabled persons it is a distortion of reality'. Alternatively, it could be argued, such a 'stereotype' actually acknowledges that for many disabled persons it is not a distortion of reality; thereby making the 'Kernel of Truth' debate far too empirically dependent (see Neale, 1993; and Oakes et al, 1994) to be of much constructive use. I would argue that to go through life in a disabling society that more often than not inflicts unnecessary pain, hatred, mistrust, contempt, stress, strain and intolerable barriers on the impaired, does require courage.
It is perhaps the individual experience of impairment that is the key to understanding why, and how, many disabled people enjoy ‘negative’ and 'recurring' stereotypes of disability. The 'Kernel of Truth' debate seems in reality to be fairly, though not totally, irrelevant when one considers the stereotype of disability. This is perhaps at the core of how Dyer (1993, p.72) can write that stereotypes can offer: 'an image of Otherness in which it is still possible to find oneself'. Although traditional cinematic narratives individualise what are social problems - or socially constructed inequalities - such situations are experienced in everyday life on an individual basis; after all, we exist as individuals even if it be within a society.
Oakes et al (1994) devote their entire study of stereotypes to developing the idea that stereotypes are highly complex and actually reflect the true realities of inter-group relations within society. They write that 'stereotypes represent group-level realities' (ibid, p.193); not objective realities but the realities of inter-class / group conflicts, interests and identities, which, by extension, means that the apparently objective realities that are so often held up as invalidations of stereotypes are not applicable in an analysis of stereotypes. Thus, the 'Kernel of Truth' debate about stereotypes should not be about an individual's lived reality, or essential truth, but about a higher level of socio-political reality; only then can we acquire a better understanding of the question of ideological function and discursive practices of stereotypes and archetypes.