And The Winner Is… Disabled Mimicry

At the Golden Globes Olivia Colman won what will be surely be just the first of many awards for her portrayal of Queen Anne in The Favourite. Chronically ill after seventeen pregnancies and suffering from gout she was in almost constant pain and frequently used a wheelchair. However Colman does not identify as disabled and does not use any mobility device such as walking stick or wheelchair. Yet again a non-disabled actor is using disabled lives for their own career gain.

But it’s just acting, wail people who’ve no idea what they’re talking about. If it’s just acting then why did they hire a woman? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting they should’ve but if it’s just acting why was it necessary? We used to have men playing women in the theatre, it wasn’t until Queen Anne’s uncle Charles II was on the throne that women were allowed to perform in the theatre.

But would we really sit through a film where a man played Queen Anne? It’s unlikely. The heart of the film would’ve been lost, no man could understand and convey what Anne was going through.

And would the feminists on social media gushing about Colman’s win really have said nothing about the loss of opportunity if the role had gone to a man. No, they would’ve protested the film from the day a man was cast.

I’m sure some would argue that being a woman is who you are, being disabled is not. Of course they’d be wrong, and that hits on a fundamental problem with disabled mimicry. Those who practice it and those who support it do not understand disability or disabled people. Being disabled is part of who we are, for me it’s as important as gender. So how can a non-disabled actor ever give a good performance when it’s something they don’t understand?

Even outside of disability as an identity, non-disabled people rarely understand how disability works. So their portrayal is stereotypical and without nuance. But most of the audience is as clueless as the actor or their director, so not only is a terrible performance not criticised it is often lauded and rewarded. Then in the minds of many a performance will define what it means to have that disability, so when actors blunder in and get it wrong or deliver nothing but a stereotype there can be devastating consequences, never for the Hollywood actor in their privileged bubble, but for real disabled people. For example, Dustin Hoffman’s contribution to under diagnosis of autism especially in women and people of colour can not be underestimated, and Freddie Highmore is continuing this harm.

Disabled mimicry always hurts disabled people.

The final nonsense argument is that of course people would love to cast disabled actors, but either there are no disabled actors that could be cast, that it’s just too difficult for disabled people to do the job or that accommodations are just too expensive. Again this usually said by people who have no idea what they’re talking about.

Bryan Cranston has actually used the excuse that there are no disabled actors who are famous enough to play his role in The Upside, and he thinks that is justification for him taking the part. What exactly does famous enough mean? Because at a point in their career every actor is unknown, every actor becomes known because someone gives them an opportunity. So why couldn’t an unknown have been cast? Kevin Hart and Nicole Kidman are also in the film, they can be used if you need big names to sell the movie.

There is an idea that persists among some non-disabled people that disabled actors don’t exist or acting isn’t something disabled people can do. But the truth is there are lots of disabled actors out there. Most of them struggle to get work because only 5% of role are disabled characters and 95% of those are played by non-disabled actors.

In many cases actors can’t get into auditions as they don’t have an agent or they literally can’t get in due to inaccessibility. It’s also the case that non-disabled actors get hired because non-disabled producers and directors have no idea what disability actually looks like, so they think a badly acted stereotype is more accurate than the real thing.

The other reason that people insist that disabled people cant be hired is that the accommodations as they require are just too expensive. Are these people serious? If you can ensure Julianna Margulies and Archie Panjabi don’t film together, will hire an amputee to walk the steps the lead actor will walk so special effects can convince people the character is actually an amputee or can pay out millions in sexual harassment settlements, you can pay for any accommodations that disabled actors require.

Many people, who are not blind and have no experience of working with blind people will happily announce that there’s no way that a blind actor could’ve played Matt Murdock in Daredevil because according to them he couldn’t do the fight scenes. There are blind MMA fighters, blind Judo is a Paralympic sport, but apparently blind people can’t participate in a choreographed fight scene. And even if they can’t do a fight scene, then that’s when you use stunt performers. Also Daredevil hired someone to teach Charlie Cox to play a blind man so the cost argument is hardly relevant.

On the occasions I do watch a non-disabled performer play a disabled character, I can never really enjoy it. One thought is always there: who am I missing out on? What disabled performer isn’t getting an opportunity? And because I know that the portrayal of my own disabilities is so inaccurate I never trust anything I see, I always wonder what harm is being done.

The only people who gain from disabled mimicry are non-disabled people. It gives non-disabled performers roles where they can claim they’re challenging themselves and allows those watching to ignore the reality of disability. Disabled people lose every single time.