As the Americans with Disabilities Act celebrates its 31st anniversary, and Disability Pride Month for 2021 ends, I think back to the last full year of theatrical moviegoing, before the pandemic shutdown. I watched two big studio movies. Both were roundly praised, and I didn’t see a single review that mentioned their rampant ableism.
A largely unsung form of discrimination, ableism parallels the central concept of abjection in Lacanian feminist philosopher Julia Kristeva’s seminal 1980 work Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. I shouldn’t be surprised to discover that in the 21st century Kristeva has brought her considerable powers to bear on the subject of disability specifically. (She co-founded the French National Disability Council in 2003.) Her 2010 piece “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity… and Vulnerability” (Women’s Studies Quarterly) codifies the thing disabled people all know: our mere existence is a “narcissistic injury” to people unlike us. To use her terms, we’re a reminder of the nondisabled observer’s (unwanted) potential for vulnerability, and she calls our oppression unique among minorities:
[T]he disabled person opens a narcissistic identity wound in the non-disabled; he or she threatens the non-disabled with psychic or physical death, the fear of falling apart and, beyond this, the angst of seeing the boundaries of the human species itself fall away. Inevitably, the disabled suffer from an isolating discrimination that cannot be shared.
In Powers of Horror, she said this about abjection:
The abject might then appear as the most fragile… the most archaic … sublimation of an “object”… that pseudo-object that is made up before but appears only within the gaps of secondary repression. The abject would thus be the “object” of primal repression. But what is primal repression? Let us call it the ability of the speaking being, always already haunted by the Other, to divide, reject, repeat. (12)
More plainly, abjection is an attempt to preserve sanity, but this is done by forcing away an Other when confronted with the false construction of the Self. It is rejection and revulsion (and awe) in one. This categorization of Other isn’t random; it is artificial, and “necessary” to the Self’s continued existence.
Disabled people remain excluded from the common definition of diversity in all forms of representation in media. When J.J. Abrams announced a plan to hire at his production company Bad Robot according to the percentages of minorities in the US generally, the disabled population didn’t get a mention, although we comprise 26% of adults. Studios still count us out of their diversity development programs. The Annenberg Center’s Inclusion Rider, made a household name by Frances McDormand on the Oscar stage in 2018, includes us, though few seem to know it; UCLA’s yearly survey of Hollywood diversity still does not.
“Diverse” casting is endemic. Women and PoC casts, for example, make money in movies. Female-led blockbusters have enjoyed a decade-long golden age — the Twilight, Hunger Games, and Divergent franchises, to say nothing of the reclamation of Maleficent or the various forms of Snow White. And to list successes featuring nonwhite casts and crew (e.g., Black Panther, the 12th-highest-grossing movie in history) as if the very idea is exceptional feels as ridiculous as the industry repeatedly calling that a hindrance instead of a benefit. All shades of skin are seen in most films and television programs now, a relief and an attempted reversal of historical erasure.
SHAZAM! makes a point of this particular definition of diversity, in the foster home where lead character Billy Batson ends up, but it utterly fails where disability is concerned. SHAZAM! was, in the original Fawcett Comics run, the story of a homeless orphan granted special powers by a wizard. The world’s first transforming superhero, formerly named Captain Marvel (unnamed in this 2019 movie for reasons of corporate rivalry), Billy Batson was chosen “due to his misfortune,” although a later retcon made it that he was “pure of heart.” Being pure of heart is the cited motivation in the new movie, but it’s sopping with the textbook definition of ableism, in which disabled characters are props who light the path of the nondisabled observer. Whatever may happen to them, the story only really exists to clock the effect on that observer. Worst case, the observer observes he sure is glad he didn’t end up like us.
When I was a child, my father used to whip out a platitude every so often, sawing away at old saws I was too young to know were hackneyed or irrelevant. Whenever I cried, or perhaps made a point he was unwilling to concede — history will never know whether I was a brat or deep down could tell when something was fundamentally wrong — he would ignore the subject at hand and say, argumentum ad puerum, “I cried because I had no shoes… until I met a man who had no feet.” I don’t think this saying really prizes the contribution of Footless Joe to the discussion. All it says is: be glad you’re not like that.
This condescending attitude toward disability not only fails to centralize the disabled person, it illustrates the social model of disability precisely. Our problems stem from the attitudes we encounter, not any bodily state we “endure.” Disability has a culture, but it doesn’t look like one thing. As a result we face a pervasive barrier completely distinct from medical challenges (to deny medical issues are challenges is to dismiss them; to call them the obstacles disabled people “overcome” is to dismiss the person) — even as these same challenges are perversely “celebrated” in films full of nondisabled actors purporting to triumph over the one thing never actually seen on camera.
In SHAZAM! this reaches a nadir when Billy Batson is rewarded by the wizard specifically for fighting off the bullies who torment his disabled friend, Freddy Freeman (played by Jack Dylan Grazer, nondisabled nephew of mega-producer Brian Grazer). Freddy, as depicted, lacks the ability to protect himself — and this is the entire basis of the wizard’s choice. This is the extent of Billy’s pure heart. Billy Batson is the focus, Billy Batson is rewarded by the gods for his action on behalf of the poor, poor (FKA) “cripple.”
Oh, and the villain’s father becomes disabled in the prologue and ends up in a wheelchair. And he blames his son for it.
Here disability is given the shape of ancient cliché, the source of all revulsion and judgement — abjection itself. Not to spoil Act Three, but no character, including the disabled ones, is represented as anything other than “cured” by obtaining special powers, which of course is what motivates the villain, who was not pure of heart, not chosen. Freddy Freeman makes a speech later with the upshot: “I wish I could be like you, able-bodied hero… you don’t know how good you have it!” ( Cf. the “shoes” aphorism.) Kristen Lopez calls this definition of disability (particularly for characters who, like Freddy, were not born this way) “the able-bodied buffer”: the industry assumes no nondisabled viewer can relate to anyone who’s not exactly like them. Isolating discrimination is a helluva drug.
Listed next to SHAZAM! in the past year on the HBO app was Pokémon Detective Pikachu. What a sweet notion for a kid-friendly effects-laden brand-aware box office juggernaut. As soon as a character is revealed in a wheelchair, I’m begging the screen, please reverse the trope, just once, please reverse…
It doesn’t, of course. He’s a madman who not only sees the need to “fix” himself via the granting of inhuman powers, he will forcibly do this to everyone else in the city. Double secret reverse ableism! Incapable of seeing disability any other way, ableist fantasy imposes its reflexive view of what disability is back on the disabled character — a version of the Big Lie Technique currently rampaging through American (and Brazilian and Philippine and Austrian) politics, mischaracterizing a population it cannot (or will not bother to) understand, attributing the observers’ behavior to the Othered population. (That this movie character is played by a disabled actor for once makes it worse, not better.)
I sought the film out when a friend described it as “this generation’s Roger Rabbit.” That seems accurate in terms of immersive 3D effects, but was there any ableism in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? All I remember is a decent metaphor for racism using the sublimated Twilight Zone technique: Eddie Valiant’s attitude toward the cartoons (living alongside non-cartoons in 1940s Los Angeles) changes as his investigation of a series of murders forces him to spend more time with members of that population.
Ableism characterizes disabled life as not worth living — an unbearable loss of agency and/or privilege. The fact that the disabled individual may experience momentary feelings of powerlessness at any time (a condition not exclusive to that demographic) does not excuse the ableist for making this sweeping assumption. More to the point, in modern media the overall framework is still decided by the nondisabled, without any disabled perspective. The social media hashtag #MeBeforeEuthanasia was the correct response to the 2016 film of the novel Me Before You, a melodrama that made $208 million depicting the transformation of an able-bodied woman (Emilia Clarke) with zero experience as a home health aide for the fabulously wealthy playboy who decides to die once he becomes quadriplegic (Sam Claflin, not disabled) — even though his parents hired her as “life bait.” Here ableism meets another common trope: the unqualified, uneducated Millennial, unprepared for life, who must win the lottery to be validated (for her personhood, not her choices or skills) — in this case by the retrograde fantasy of The Cute Rich Boy Uncomplicated by Actually Having to Live with Him for Long.
When this trope character is challenged, when the Star Trek reboots throw Young Captain Kirk into a war or time warp and leave him to improvise, he can only do what feels right to him. Reflexes, feelings, and guesswork matter more than abilities (!) or logic or even capacity for change. If only a slim subset of the audience under age 40 can relate to expertise, it’s ironic that mass-market movies are usually about expertise (the maverick special agent, maverick doctor, maverick lawyer), yet must also satisfy the subliminal conviction that studying for 14 years and playing by the rules of a hierarchical, RHIP profession cannot be what makes you a success. All you really need is your ineffable exceptional something-or-other.
… unless you’re disabled. The ableist construct where (someone else’s) disability must result in (someone else’s) death is lazier than the unmerited protagonist, and an MGM film of this nonsense reinforces on a mass scale everything dismissive and petty about ableist reaction to physical disability — in particular the emphasis on the nondisabled observer. But big-money movies have to protect their huge investment, and this kind of caution in the populist movie has always been with us. Three Februarys ago Noah Berlatsky surprised me by pointing out that, while Casablanca has Nazi villains, it was careful not to attack Americans who shared the same (Nazi!) prejudices at the time. “Studios are still careful not to push back against bigotry too emphatically,” he writes.
The one-note portrayal of disabled characters in American movies may stem from a similar principle. Systemically, accurate representation is nonexistent, but lots of vague feelings about it persist. Disabled people constitute that rare character class consistently treated as villains who are motivated only by their minority category. As ableism imposes its view of “brokenness” on disabled life, the villain in Detective Pikachu seeks to impose this view on everyone. Unfortunately, this character’s disability is the sole MacGuffin, the motive of all evil at the center of the movie.
This brings me to Shane Black. In The Predator, Black’s not-so-well-received attempt to revive the franchise in 2018, one character’s Tourette Syndrome perplexed the public. Black’s answer during the build-up to the film’s release was the revelation that he too has TS. Nevertheless, in an ableist framework, disability only shows up in a narrative when it’s instrumental to the plot, and that happens here, even though Tourette Syndrome has nothing to do with the movie’s engine.
Critics balked at the ragtag assembly of soldiers headed for psychiatric evaluation in prison — not the worst setup, in theory, for a Predator reboot — carping about both the Tourette’s given to Baxley (Thomas Jane) and the autism given to Rory (Jacob Tremblay), the lead’s son. Tremblay, 11 years old during production, is a non-autistic cripface veteran, having played a disabled character before in 2017’s Wonder, a compelling young actor even if his behaviors here play like clichés. But my first thought was that Rory was present for purely structural reasons. Audiences have been conditioned to think that an autistic child might spot complex patterns instantaneously, so Rory figures out alien tech before your popcorn bucket’s half-empty. Chances are he was there to get the filmmakers over the hump of runtime credibility.
Rory is bullied at school and covers or hits his ears near loud noises. (In real life, statistically, autistic children are more likely to underreact to noise.) His autism, however, plays a more astonishing role. The film’s punchline attempts to explain the Predators’ deeper motivations when it devolves into the assertion that Rory is, as an autistic person, “the next stage of human evolution.” (This line is said by a biologist, played by Olivia Munn.)
At this point I wondered if there wasn’t something really sly coming, because for the rest of the movie Munn’s Dr. Brackett is a card-carrying ableist. When Thomas Jane burps out an obscenity, she harps on it, never comprehending (for several minutes of screen time) that he’s neurodivergent. Dr. Brackett is not from 1955. She is a bad scientist. She later insults Rory’s “psychosis” (wrong word, by a large margin). Eventually the male lead (Boyd Holbrook) challenges the verboten term “retarded” among the rough-and-tumble crew of soldiers, but Black bobbles this when he fails to make the issue any clearer. I supposed for a moment that Munn calling autism “the next stage in human evolution” might lead to a real critique of ableists, but ultimately she’s larded with the Two Worsts pattern: first you demonize, then you call it “magical.”
Unfortunately, the homestretch (to say nothing of the retconned mythmaking/backstory) relies entirely on her ridiculous statement. Shane Black is a skilled filmmaker and most of the movie has real profluence. Some critics lambasted the film in ways that suggest they weren’t watching, or had never seen the original, but the film’s treatment of disabilities was so simplistic it was called out even by the ableists in the audience. Rory does remain central to the action, but as the child he has to be rescued by adult soldiers with guns (qua soldiers, the ones who die), and every disability in the film is a device to force the audience to swallow plot turns that wouldn’t pass the usual muster. Baxley’s Tourette’s is only there for the Loser’s Paradox (his tic distracts the Predator at a key moment they would all otherwise be killed) and Rory’s autism is there to suspend our disbelief that he can drive the entire plot around him, as with every hated boy genius of science fiction history.
I had hoped that in the “art” world of indie film, things would be better.
Indie genre breakout success Upgrade (2018) ends its first act with a man’s wife being murdered as he’s made quadriplegic by the same pack of violent attackers, an opening volley of both fridging and ableism — his paralysis only sets the stage for the computer chip implant to come. That implant doesn’t just restore his mobility, it secretly talks to him, then gifts him with AI-controlled Super Kung-Fu Action! This is the futurism of the narcissistic Matrix fan hankering for instant martial arts prowess without the years of effort it takes to master. But Upgrade betrays its misguided POV right from the start. “I mean, everything that’s installed just allows you to live a more normal life” is not something anyone (in scrubs) would say in 2021, so the idea that a home health worker in a future full of self-driving cars and police drone surveillance would credibly use this language the day she delivers the paraplegic back to his retrofitted “smart home” is laughable.
The film spends 10 minutes (pricey real estate in any film) letting the character’s new environment as a quadriplegic man sink in, giving his individual emotional reactions (including suicidal ideation) room to breathe. But this movie is not about adjusting. The context hasn’t been thought out except as a(nother) means to the end of this Luddite fable against technology, because the fairy godfather TechCruncher appears by his hospital bed at this point to offer him an out. Of course, the protagonist agrees to the operation (his ableist mother says, “Now you can begin living again!”), after which he doesn’t just move around, the computer can move his body around fast enough to kill bad guys.
Upgrade bails out of even this setup. Modern standards dictate that twists must follow, and, hemmed in by the obvious in all its forms, the film has only one place to go, a denouement that squanders any investment you’ve made in the characters over the last 90 minutes. Upgrade exists to enjoy murder because it enjoys seeing it avenged, a moral stance as bad as ableism. While the lead is ultimately punished for the way he uses the “bounty of mobility” after it’s been removed, the audience is excreted from this funhouse ride whole, having received no insight, not even the character arc usually foisted upon commercial movies. There is very little choice in this film of inevitable outcomes, but even an audience unconcerned with disabled representation may feel Upgrade has incorrectly assumed it’s exhausted every possibility.
The (even) bigger problem is that these films don’t seem to realize what cynical forms of exploitation they are. Together, they grossed over a billion dollars at the box office, but that doesn’t mean the money’s tied to their worst qualities. They will age badly. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) was a ridiculous chartbusting success, but there’s a damn good reason we don’t make films like that anymore. Ableism is no more inevitable than the other discarded clichés of the last century of film history, and all the films I’ve outlined here rely on disability as a subject, which makes it their responsibility to understand disabled life. At minimum, more disabled people must construct films. The alternative — our place in society hijacked by ableists who neither know nor care what it means to be disabled — is unacceptable, and an industry that fails to comprehend this can literally step aside.