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Acting Disabled

Hollywood’s Love Affair with People Who Pretend to Have Disabilities


During the summer of 2006, Oakland was plagued by a rash of murders. I was home from college that year and got invited to participate in a “stop the violence” campaign. The campaign was headed by an organization called the Ella Baker Center, which believes that all people have a right to justice and respect. The lead organizer was excited because she got a rap star named Mr. F.A.B. to lend his support. F.A.B. was getting a lot of airplay at the times with a song about Vans brand shoes. Personally, I thought the song sounded like someone rapping a book report on the subject, but he wanted to assist the campaign and who was I to judge.

A few weeks after the campaign started, I got exposed to more of Mr. F.A.B.’s rapping. The artist seemed to use the phrase “yellow bus” in every song. He even had a local radio show, “The Yellow Bus Hour.”

Mr. F.A.B. wasn’t talking about the yellow buses schoolkids or kids on sports teams ride. No, he was talking about the short bus that is typically used by special-ed students. “You know that I’m a retard, see the yellow bus,” F.A.B. raps in one of his songs.

By the time I had a full grasp of F.A.B.’s lyrics, I had lost track of my comrades, otherwise I would have asked them if they were concerned about the subjects the artist was rapping about. However, later that summer I noticed the possible influence of F.A.B.’s rhymes on the community. I was packing up my things after a disability rights presentation at a youth program when a student said, “My friends and I are just like you. We love to go dumb.” My heart sank, having spent the last hour talking to students about offensive words like “retarded.” I wondered if I needed to bring a thesaurus to my presentations and start going over all the terms that could mean retarded.

I had a hard time understanding the willingness of advocates to not question someone who raps about yellow buses, but I had seen it happen before. A few years ago, a hip-hop group called the Black Eyed Peas released a song called “Let’s Get Retarded.” Since the band had been labeled in the media as conscious hip-hop, they get a free pass by the press for penning a song about being a person with an intellectual disability.

I believe that disability is thought of a “safe” topic to lampoon on a hip-hop track. Unlike race or sex, the backlash about using disability images wouldn’t be as severe as using other stereotypes. For instance, if the group released a song called “Let’s Put on Blackface,” I bet there would be some explaining to do.

The Peas didn’t feel completely comfortable with telling audiences to get retarded since the version that gets played on the radio is called “Let’s Get It Started.” When I heard the version with the R word I thought it was a parody. By only putting the version with the R word on the album, could the Peas be thinking that the people who invest in the CDs don’t have qualms about their word choice because they are diehard fans?

It’s ironic that someone who uses language that targets people with disabilities goes mostly unnoticed, but someone who does things that appear to exploit black culture gets tremendous backlash. In the last few years a rapper named Iggy Azalea gained popularity. Azalea is a white woman from Australia with dreadlocks who “sounds” black. Even before I had heard a snippet of her music, CNN told me that Iggy was the biggest exploiter of black culture of all time. It’s fascinating that people are trying to assume stuff about Azalea by simply looking at her image, while they are less hung up on her use of the word “retarded.”

This double standard of what cultural images are okay to showcase also happens in the world of film. Hollywood seems to reward actors like Sean Penn and Dustin Hoffman for taking on “challenging” roles when they portray people with disabilities. However, they look at people like Tyler Perry and Martin Lawrence with disdain when they portray women.

Why is playing a person with a disability on screen looked at with more favor by critics then the act of playing a woman? Is it because movies like Big Mama’s House and Tyler Perry films are comedies, and films like I Am Sam and Rain Man have a more dramatic tone?

To test out the theory, it would interesting if Arnold Schwarzenegger did a Caitlyn Jenner bio pic called Medals in Mascara. On paper, this looks like a slam-dunk for a movie to win Oscar gold. He would be playing a sympathetic character forced to overcome society’s stereotypes and feel a tiny bit of anger about his condition. However, even though this scenario has brought Oscar glory to actors who portray people with disabilities, I think it might hit a snag in this situation.

To be honest, Hollywood may have more political awareness around LGBTQ issues than disability ones. Questions would inevitably come up around Schwarzenegger’s past interactions with the Trans community and why he was a better choice than a transgendered actor. All these questions should be asked when Hollywood wants to make a film about people with disabilities, but I have the feeling that these questions are not brought up.

I have heard directors say that they feel they have to cast able-bodied, known actors so distributors would feel comfortable marketing their films. Yet it’s hard to believe that statement because one sees relatively unknown actors playing people such as Nelson Mandela. These films still get distributed, not to everywhere in Middle America, but to many large cities. Therefore it wrong to assume that audiences are not interested in seeing unknown actors.

It would be interesting if films starring nondisabled actors who portray people with disabilities had to face competition from movies that gave a more authentic version of the story. We can call them “crip versions” and release them in movie theaters or on YouTube. Maybe having versions of a so-called “Oscar worthy” film that is produced by and stars people with disabilities would get Hollywood to reflect on its bias against casting people with disabilities.

Another issue that I see when it comes to film and other artistic mediums is the way people with disabilities are shown as the other. I often hear directors or painters say, “I’m trying to capture how so-and-so experiences the world.” While I agree that people have different perceptions, artists have a tendency to show people with disabilities as being burdened by isolation all of the time. This is particularly true of people with autism and other mental health issues. Some artists are oblivious to the fact that people with disabilities can have large support networks.

Simply boycotting artists, actors, and singers who exploit people with disabilities does nothing to further dialog. As I am writing this, there is a petition to get the TV network ShowTime to remove a special by comedian Gary Owen. On the show Owens uses the word retarded and questions whether people with disabilities have sex.

Although I get the intent behind the petition, I would suggest that a better way to deal with the issue is to have a conversation with Owen. I would be curious about his past experience with people with disabilities. Did he interact with them at school or at the arcade growing up? Also, in his act he says he has a cousin with a disability. I am wondering if that cousin thought Gary’s routine was funny and therefore the comedian decided he had the okay to take the material out to the public.

There is a lot to learn from Owen, but if we ban his art, we won’t get to have the conversation. Instead we will be creating another First Amendment martyr who will prosper at comedy clubs, billed as the man who took on the Special Olympics. Plus, groups like Special Olympics have given their blessing to movies that mocked their organization. Did Owen feel attacked? He could bring up that point thus making Special Olympics seem hypocritical.

Another unintended consequence of censorship is that TV execs might take things to the extreme and decide it’s too much trouble to incorporate characters with disabilities into their product so why bother. While this idea seems far-fetched, it could be already happening. Writers and producers who are scared of offending us, might have already decided to avoid the topic in their work. Threats of boycotts and censorship might lead to fewer roles for people with disabilities, not more.

Instead of asking for censorship to prevent stereotypes in the media, we could use these incidents to get artists with disabilities more exposure. Imagine if ShowTime put together a special where comedians with disabilities confront standup comics who mocked people with impairments. That would be rating gold.

This pattern could work similarly for musicians. Let’s say some artist made a track using the R word. Instead of boycotting that artist, we could pressure the person into giving musicians with disabilities exposure. Getting people to recognize the talents of people with disabilities may have more of a positive effect than any boycott could. Addressing stereotypes in ways that are different than boycotting and censorship will be a steep learning curve for many people with disabilities.

Some advocates want censorship of Owen, because they think that people will be influenced by his standup routine. However, simply putting a routine on television will not start a new fad where making fun of the disabled is cool. If people see censorship as a way to stop stereotypes, then we should launch a campaign to get CNN to censor Donald Trump. Yet instead of calls for censorship, people should be calling for the media to critique more.

I believe that by calling for more constructive criticism rather than censorship, people with disabilities will gain more. When Mr. F.A.B. was ready to support the stop the violence campaign in Oakland, somebody could have asked him why he raps about yellow buses. When the Black Eyed Peas recorded the song “Let’s Get Retarded,” more voices could have asked if there was a less offensive word to put in the song. (The later version mixed for the NBA using “Let’s Get It Started” was even more popular.) Someone could also ask the director of the “The Theory of Everything” why he felt it was necessary to include a scene where Stephen Hawking is dreaming about walking again at the end of the movie. These questions should not cause embarrassment but rather lead to reflection.

In progressive circles, people questions race and gender to stay aware and to challenge their bias or stereotypes. I would love to see activists add the phrase “question ability” to the long list of things we should be aware of. If we could get more folks — from Hollywood execs to kindergarten teachers — to begin to think about their own judgments about people with disabilities, then we might get shifts in understanding and acceptance.

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