Why It Stings: Disability & the Oscars

Want to Win an Oscar? Give a Character a Disability. Just Don’t Hire an Actor with a Disability.

Katie Rose Guest Pryal
Disability Acts


Photograph of bee on blue flower. (c) Laura Collins Britton, lcbritton.com. Edit: The photographer has let me know that the “bee” is a “wasp.” I said, “If it stings, then it’s a bee, colloquially speaking.” She said, “Don’t associate me with that nonsense.” Consider this edit me not associating her with my nonsense.

I haven’t watched the Oscars in years, for a variety of reasons. In 2015, there was the complete White-Out of the awards nominations, which is just gross, especially in a year with SELMA. The trend continued this year, and things don’t appear to be improving in Hollywood, and certainly not at an adequate rate.

Even though I didn’t watch the 2015 Oscars, I know who won Best Actor and Actress in a Leading Role. Eddie Redmayne won best actor for playing a person with a disability, famous physicist Stephen Hawking (who has ALS). Julianne Moore won best actress for playing a person with a disability (early onset Alzheimer’s disease).

Neither of these actors are people with disabilities (PWDs) similar to the ones they are portraying. Of course they aren’t.

Their wins made me think back to all of the Oscar wins that traded on performances of disability — on freakish circus act performances of disability.

Here’s my off-the-top list of Oscar winners that traded on performance of disability:

  • As Good As It Gets
  • My Left Foot
  • Forrest Gump
  • The King’s Speech
  • Ray
  • Scent of a Woman
  • A Beautiful Mind
  • Rain Man
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • Silver Linings Playbook
  • Girl, Interrupted

The list goes on and on. And I’m sure there are many more that were nominated that didn’t win.

And none of the actors who portrayed people with disabilities in the films listed above were actually themselves disabled in the way that they were portraying. Jamie Foxx and Al Pacino are not people with severe visual impairments. Eddie Redmayne does not have ALS (that we know of). Colin Firth does not have severe speech disfluency. Russell Crowe does not have schizophrenia (that we know of). Similarly, Angelina Jolie does not have a personality disorder (that we know of), and certainly not one as severe as the one she portrayed in Girl, Interrupted and won an Oscar for.

So what’s my problem? Shouldn’t we, as a society, and we, as people with disabilities, be, you know, thrilled to see people with disabilities portrayed on screen?

No. It’s not that simple.

Like most things, there’s more than one way to do a thing. Most films that trade on disability to garner Oscar nods are doing just that: trading on disability. Too many films trade on the disabilities of their characters to make money and gain prestige while excluding people who live with disabilities from that world of money and prestige.*

Too many films trade on the disabilities of their characters to make money and gain prestige while excluding people who live with disabilities from that world of money and prestige.

The problem gets even trickier when you’re talking about psychiatric disabilities—that is, mental health. For example, As Good As It Gets got all kinds of Oscar nods for a story that revolved around a man with a psychiatric disability, played by a man who, as far as we know, does not have that psychiatric disability.

And yet: How many in Hollywood can talk openly about their psychiatric disabilities without fear of repercussions?

As we recently learned, Hollywood is a world where it’s A-OK for top Sony brass and producers to write these words to each other about someone as powerful as Angelina Jolie:

A further leaked email thread between Sony Pictures co-chairperson Amy Pascal and movie producer Scott Rudin reveals Rudin once again harshly criticising Angelina Jolie. In the exchange, published by Gawker, Rudin describes the actress as “seriously out of her mind” as tension mounts over Jolie’s planned film Cleopatra, for which Eric Roth produced a script.

Who in Hollywood is actually going to come forward and give these assholes actual grounds to criticize their mental health?

I know I wouldn’t.

So here we are, in a world where studios race to put out the latest disability freakshow of a film to win Oscars, but call actors “crazy” behind their backs, shaming them—and all of us with disabilities—into silence.

Studios do not hire actors with disabilities to play characters with disabilities. It’s like the Globe Theater, dressing men up as women.

It stings.

And it’s getting old.

*Bravo to Breaking Bad for bucking this trend with RJ Mitte, a brilliant actor who played a brilliant role on a brilliant, if brutal, show. Also bravo to Michael J. Fox who has been breaking every trend rather constantly, like on The Good Wife. I LOVED THE GOOD WIFE basically all the time anyway so go watch it even though the show just ended.

If you liked this piece, please click the heart below so more people can read it. An earlier version of this piece originally appeared on my blog, katieroseguestpryal.com.



Katie Rose Guest Pryal
Disability Acts

IPPY-award-winning author, keynote speaker, professor of law and creative writing. #ActuallyAutistic. She/Her.