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"Able-ist" Hollywood Oscar Backlash

When Eddie Redmayne won the Oscar Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, I cheered out loud. His acceptance speech brought tears to my eyes.

Within days I saw a blog blasting Redmayne’s wins leading up to the Academy Awards saying that he didn’t deserve them because he was an able-bodied actor playing a character with a disability; his casting in The Theory of Everything was just the latest example of rampant able-ism in Hollywood. The article’s author was vehemently against the idea of Redmayne winning the Oscar. It was one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever read.

The article talks about one scene near the end of the film when Stephen Hawking is on stage in his power wheelchair giving a speech. A pen rolls off a young woman’s desk and you see the camera pan to Hawking and zoom in; he imagines himself straightening up out of his chair, walking down the steps, picking up the woman’s pen and handing it back to her.

The article stated that this scene is a prime example of Hollywood’s dismissive attitude towards disability because in real life, Stephen Hawking would never be able to do that. The author argues that this is Hollywood portraying disability as an awful and horrible fate, saying that for the sake of entertainment, the media must continuously create structures wherein disability is conquered rather than lived with. Apparently, it is impossible for the able-bodied populous to relate to a protagonist with a disability. The dissection of this scene is a stretch (I’m being polite) and here’s why: almost every person with a disability – regardless of whether the disability is acquired or inherent since birth – has imagined what their life would look like without it. I know I have. This doesn’t mean that we’re ashamed of our disabilities. It means we’re human.

The other issue brought up is that this was a role portraying disability and so, it should have been played by an actor with a disability. The fact is, it it is very hard to find actors with a disability with the capabilities to play such complex roles. This may be a hard truth, but it is truth nonetheless.

I applaud the ability of able-bodied actors who are able to commit to roles portraying disability and playing them convincingly (not everyone can). But the author of the aforementioned article will have none of it; he says that having able-bodied actors play disabled roles is akin to having female characters played by men and ethnic roles played only by Caucasians, which is a gross generalization (again, polite). The Theory of Everything is “based on a book by an able-bodied person, adapted by an able-bodied screenwriter, and directed by an able-bodied director, and it stars able-bodied actors.”

Wait a minute! The whole planet is not comprised entirely of people with disabilities? We don’t rule the world? We are a minority? This guy needs to relax. If Redmayne’s performance was genuinely bad or he was complacent about the significance of the role, or if the depiction of disability in the film was distinctly negative, I might concede that he may have a point. But the movie was fantastic and Redmayne’s performance was brilliant and anyone who has seen his Oscar acceptance speech will know that this role and experience affected him deeply as an actor.

I acknowledge that there needs to be more representation of disability in the media in general and that the representations should be textured, complex and rich rather than one-dimensional and laughable. Whenever possible, I believe that disabled roles should go to actors with a disability but the reality is, there is very limited opportunity for that to happen.

I think Redmayne’s performance in The Theory of Everything triumphed spectacularly in something much more important than all of this blogger’s misgivings combined. It presents a true, complex snapshot into the life of a brilliant man who happens to have a disability; someone who succeeded beyond even the wildest expectations. It shows the world that having a disability is not a barrier to success. More movies like this need to exist regardless of whom plays the parts.

If the disability community really wants to raise awareness about what life is like for us and if we want understanding and compassion from the able-bodied majority, this is one sure-fire way to guarantee it. Redmayne deserved that win. We have gained an ally.

What are your thoughts? To read the article in question, click this link: www.slate.com

To read another positive take on the film, click here: www.disabilityhorizons.com

Layla Guse Salah

Blogger, Social Media Manager

Disability Today Network