digital-disability

Genres: Horror, Melodrama, Social Realism, Documentary

Disability Perspectives

Search this site

Elizabeth Carr
Elizabeth Carr
Disabled Actor
My favourite disability film is Hitch cock's Rear Window as it captures some of the very personal emotions experienced by disabled people due to their exclusion: being forced to live on the outside, always feeling like you are looking in on what happens around you and not being allowed to be a part of it (no one listening to you as you point out the evils around you). Especially as you watch the future Ironside getting up to no good.

Genres: Horror, Melodrama, Social Realism, Documentary.

 

Disability is evident in all genres of film production; disabled people and disabled characters are in more films that almost any other marginalised group. However, disability seems to hold a particular fascination for those filmmakers working in the horror genre. Tod  Browning was obviously the master of such disability  exploitation, as epitomised by his classic Freaks (1932). Genres as varied as m elo dram a, comedy and even the Western are often distinguished by their use of disabled characters.

What is interesting is the degree to which respected writers (journalists, academics and cultural commentators) are at a complete loss how to treat generic disability imagery. One only needs to read a review of a major film that include-s disability and intelligent people suddenly lose all the clarity with which they write about race, gender or sexuality. Similarly, many disability-themed films which are supposedly in a social realist genre - but which are mere 'normality dramas' - are lauded for their accuracy, detail and realism when they simply perpetuate dubious ideologies rooted in a vast range of stereotypes of gender, sexuality and race. It is important to note that on  television  disabled  people and the issue of disability most frequently appear in current affairs programmes. And it is most often within the context of medical stories. Consequently, we can see that disabled people have a long way to go in order to challenge the idea that disability is a social issue rather than a medical one: film culture is almost as  keen  as  television  to  show disability as purely a medical  issue. Thus there is a plethora of films, documentaries and other film forms that place disability only within a medical and/or institutional context . Ironically, it is also television that has given disabled people an opportunity to make their case. ITV produced the Link television series from the Seven ties until its demise in the late Nineties. From the Edge, a BBC TV series by disabled people about disability, was screened throughout the Nineties. Some critics have rejected this approach as 'ghetto programming', separated from the mainstream. This is in addition to the hundreds of dramas and documentaries produced by all the television broadcasters over the past 50 years. It is equally interesting to note the degree to which disability /impairment is used in animation.

Extreme impairment plays a fundamental role in works which exploit 'body horror'. Although much of this is now achieved through prosthetics and special effects, in the early days of cinema it was often the truly 'disabled ' who were called upon to provide the special effects. An actual amputee , for example, would be used  to show someone who had been in a road accident. Abnormality, disfigurement  or other visually apparent forms of pathological difference provide for filmmakers an easy option when they seek to instigate or evoke some form of body horror. The most obvious example of such a practice is perhaps The Elephant Man (1980) although there are many others. The prevalence of deformity in  body horror  movies  follows in a long tradition which goes back to the freak shows of earlier centuries (such as those which presented Joseph Merrick as 'the Elephant Man').

 

The freak show was virtually outlawed in the UK in the late 19th century as being in both bad taste and against the public interest. In reality this had more to do with the rise of the hegemony of the medical profession: doctors rather than showmen became the guardians of abnormality.

Interestingly in America,  the end  of the 19th  century saw a rise in the popularity of the freak show. Some still exist (such as the one on Coney Island featured in Mat Fraser's Channel Four documentary Born Freak (2002)). It is worth noting that many 'freaks' themselves achieved fame, wealth and a degree of independence that many disabled people today can only dream of - Joseph Merrick became a man-  of  great independence and Wealth. Freaks in cinema have almost always been constructed, diegetically, to reinforce the notion of abnormality as being a deviation from the normal: they have been medicalised to perpetuate the fantasy of normality, such images/films stories of abnormality are usually used to reinforce concomitant ideologies of normality such as motherhood class, mortality and individualism.