Don’t Look to the Movies to Learn About Disability

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Like a lot of girls growing up in the 1990s, I wanted to be just like Cher Horowitz in Clueless. There were obvious barriers: We can’t all live like protagonists in a romantic comedy, and I certainly didn’t pass my teenage years in a mansion in Beverly Hills or possess a remarkable computer program that picked out my clothes. But as a teen girl with disabilities, the differences between my life and Cher’s were particularly pointed. I have brittle bone disease and get around in a wheelchair, which means that even some of the more realistic trappings of her life are unattainable to me. I really wanted to drive a “loqued out Jeep” like Cher when I turned 16, for instance, but that wasn’t exactly realistic — her white Wrangler didn’t have a door, and it certainly wasn’t big enough to fit my best buds and my wheelchair at once.

Most of the characters I’ve laughed at, cried for, and identified with at the movies have possessed different abilities than I do. That should come as no surprise, given how few disabled characters appear in movies in the first place: Though 19 to 20 percent of the American population has a disability, the proportion of disabled characters in cinema “hovers at around 1 percent,”according to Lawrence Carter-Long, a public affairs specialist at the National Council on Disability. What characters do exist are often archetypal and, usually, buzzkills—in his 1991 study, disabled writer and activist Paul Hunt identified 10 major tropes in particular, including a person who is “non-sexual,” “pitiable and pathetic,” or an object of “curiosity or violence.”

As a film critic for the past 10 years, I’ve nevertheless often fielded questions about how I identify with these disabled types at the movies. This kind of curiosity is often well-intentioned, but it operates on an erroneous presumption. Just because I’m disabled, and that movie character you know is, too, doesn’t mean we share anything in common. Nor does it mean that the character in question has insight to give about the real experience of being disabled. Films are works meant to entertain and unite us, but they aren’t the gospel truth; films about disability, in particular, aim less for authenticity than commercial potential. As a disabled person who feels deeply about the movies — I began writing film criticism because of that — I haven’t formed abiding connections with most characters who have disabled characteristics, despite our surface-level similarities.

As a kid, the first disabled characters I remember seeing at the movies weren’t encouraging or inspiring for me—they were just plain scary.

Consider the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. As fantasy characters, the Munchkins’ diminutive statures indicate who they are in Oz, rather than in the real world. Nevertheless, the Munchkins have long been associated with disability in pop culture. Robert Bogdan includes a section on the Munchkins and the disabled typecasting they represent — “characters whom a viewer cannot take seriously” — in his book Picturing Disability: Beggar, Freak, Citizen, and Other Photographic Rhetoric. Personally, I’ve been asked numerous times if I have dwarfism, and have even been compared specifically to the Munchkins: A few years ago in a mall bathroom, when a small child asked her mother what was “wrong” with me, her mother replied that I was “special,” like the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz.

Though dwarves have, as Bogdan writes, historically provided comic relief in Hollywood movies, as a kid I took the Munchkins very seriously. Watching The Wizard of Oz was the first time I remember feeling frightened by the concept of disability.

Watching The Wizard of Oz was the first time I remember feeling frightened by the concept of disability.

While I’m on the milder end of my disability’s spectrum, it comes with its own blend of deformities. When I watched the Munchkins as a child, I first began to fear these long-term ramifications of brittle bones. With their shellacked hair and make-up, coupled with their oddly lock-step kicks, the Lollipop Guild seemed like a cartoonish and over-the-top exaggeration of my own disability. Though deformities are generally fixed before puberty, improperly healed fractures can result in similar complications late in life, and despite the fact that I’ve had surgeries and other real-life complications, it was the Munchkins, dancing in their candy-coated dreamscape, that gave me nightmares.

Years later, Zelda from Pet Sematary, who suffers from spinal meningitis, inspired a similar momentary crisis. The mangled, deformed sister of the matriarch at the center of the film’s events, one who goes mad and eventually haunts her sister, Zelda is a chilling character in general. But Zelda was especially horrifying to an impressionable, disabled young film viewer like myself. Checking up on WebMD after a screening, I learned that scoliosis is common in patients like me; that knowledge, paired with memories of Zelda’s cinematically bent and broken back, left me shaken by the prospect that I, too, could be a Zelda one day.



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