Difference, Disability, and The Greatest Showman

January 16, 2018
Hollywood likes to tell the stories of the different and disabled, but doesn't like to hire them.

Riddle me these, folks.

How does an able bodied performer get an Oscar?

By playing a disabled person!

How does a disabled person get an Oscar?

By realising that two disabled people in the history of film have won one each! There’s no prize but we can all shut up and know that we’ve had our days of screen-time.

Too bleak? Too negative? As a disabled person I do feel I have two wobbly legs to stand on. As a disabled performer, my wobbly legs are experienced in this matter.

Now, I realise that there are people out there who look at people with disability (PWDs) and think two things. One will be that PWDs shouldn’t get upset about anything. We should be the happy people who want for very little in life so don’t make waves otherwise no one will want to help us. The other will be that we already get everything in life, which includes bleeding the poor government dry, so we should shut the hell up and get a goddam job. I’m forewarning you now that I will do neither. What I will do is float a few ideas in front of your reading eyes that you may not have thought about in regards to disabled performers. I’ll be talking about a hot topic of contention for disabled and able bodied folk alike. This topic is representation.

I can feel the hairs bristle on people’s necks when they hear that word. Those hairs are owned by those who like to use the phrase ‘political correctness’ to mask their discomfort at losing a little privilege. Representation is an important word that needs to be used as much as the word breakfast, and have the same importance to daily life. The fact that it is the year 2018 and the topic of disability representation is needed is quite shameful. It is 2018 and there are still films being released with able-bodied performers playing disabled roles. It is 2018 and Hollywood still can’t bring itself to hire performers with disabilities to play characters with those same disabilities. Those performers exist because I know them. I am one.

I originally began this piece because I was irked at yet another film coming out that prided itself on its content of representation of those with physical difference. Yep, you got it: The Greatest Showman. Then I thought that I didn’t really want to talk about a film that beatifies P T Barnum, who literally bought at least one of his ‘freaks’ for his show. Plus the characters in The Greatest Showman are not specifically disability related, but more something that can be easily faked with prosthetics and spirit gum. Plus it’d be difficult to CG up (or down) a little person without the risk of making them move like those unconvincing horses back in Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf [Sam Humphrey, who has Acrodysplasia, plays General Tom Thumb in The Greatest Showman]. And why would I talk about a single film when there’s a whole Hollywood that needs to change?

I also said that I was going to ignore those worries so let me talk about myself and those close to me. It is so hard and so damn tiring trying to keep your head above water in the performing arts industry when you have a disability or physical difference. Unless, of course, you’re the flavour of the month and Hollywood is giving screen time to one type of disability because they deem that one worthy for the moment. But even when that happens, and the disability community gives a collective sigh of relief at the prospect of representation, it will not always be the real deal. Let’s face it, if Hollywood can fake it and do a proverbial ‘black-face’ to a character with a disability, they will. Just look at Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water. They don’t even need CG to fake a mute person so that saves a bunch of cash. As well as not needing to pay for insurance for a PWD. Going ‘able’ is just cheaper.

Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water

It’s also easy. Now, I’ll be the first person to say that I love the film Rain Man and Hoffman deserved his Oscar without question. But would it have been possible to cast an actor with autism to play the part? Obviously not someone with autism as pronounced as in the film but something I have learned since acquiring my disability is no one knows what my life is like better than me. I don’t have autism but I do have a disability mixed with twenty years of acting experience. Why, then, do I and other performers with disability find it near impossible to get cast as a character who has the same disability? I’m not even going to start on Jared Leto’s wretched performance in Blade Runner 2049 – a sighted actor playing someone who is blind. Blind people can’t focus their eyes, for one. But, you know, if a blind person was on set then there would have to be concessions made and ableism dealt with. It’s just easier to not hire the disabled person.

Jared Leto in Blade Runner 2049

Something that the able-bodied community will not necessarily know is that specified representation of a single disability, let’s say those who are blind, can lead to fractures within the disability community as a whole. I didn’t realise that this was a thing until I became part of the community. I am not blind but I do have a disability that isn’t represented within the performing arts realm. When a single disability is held above others the negativity towards those with that disability by the rest of the disabled community is palpable and hurtful. So can you imagine what it must be like for the disabled person who is being represented in a film when the actor isn’t actually a person with that disability? First that part of the community is shunned by others in the community out of jealousy then the rest of the able world will give the able person playing the disabled role awards for doing it so well. Are you confused? We in the disabled community sure as hell are.

I realise that research will have been done to make sure that the able actor will ‘play’ the disabled character properly but this is denying someone a job. It’s not the same as going out and getting inspiration for a setting by having a look at some pretty flowers or a mountain. Those flowers and mountains aren’t looking for a job. I am in contact with, and have worked with, so many actors and performers who have a disability or physical difference. If we can’t get cast in a show playing someone we are, how will we ever get the chance to open the boundaries and play characters who we aren’t? It is always fantastic to see Peter Dinklage just playing a character who happens to be a little person as he does in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. He is just playing a guy who is little. But as I said before, that’s hard to fake. Also, viewers are used to seeing little people on screen. It has happened for decades. So that barrier was easy to crack. So why would a production company hire a blind person to just play a character when it’s easier and cheaper for an actor to pretend? Do you think it’s disability appropriation? Or should we just stop with the disabled agenda?

So where does this leave us disabled actors and performers? If we’re not flavour of the month or we have a disability that can be easily overcome by an able bod getting plonked in a wheelchair then we’re not left in great stead at all. If we are getting represented by people who are pretending to have our lives then that gives me a bit of a skewed version of reality. Do we really not matter all that much if anybody can pretend to have what we do? How are we to be represented if we can’t represent ourselves?  We are not looking for help because the last thing a PWD wants or needs is to be babied. We want recognition. Recognition that we can represent ourselves better than any able bodied performer ever could.



  1. Jan Ives

    Well said
    I would hope that this perfect stereotype of living, albeit a false view, will start to gain recognition in the arts as normal life instead of a showcase.

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