Disabled Character: Able-Bodied (Emaciated) Actresses Only, Please

Laurie and Debbie say:
(cross blogged on Feministe)

We had our attention brought to this casting call for Stargate: Universe, a Stargate franchise TV show due to debut in October of this year as a movie, and then a regular TV show on the Syfy channel.

[ELEANOR PERRY] (35-40) and quite attractive. A brilliant scientist who happens to be a quadriplegic. Affected since childhood, her disability has rendered her body physically useless. However, after being brought on board the Destiny as the only person who may be able to save the ship and her crew from certain annihilation, she is given temporary powers that enable her to walk again and to finally experience intimacy.sptv050769..Strong guest lead. NAMES PREFERRED. ACTRESS MUST BE PHYSICALLY THIN. (THINK CALISTA FLOCKHART).

How do we hate this? Let us count the ways:

1) Do you have any idea how much most disabled people hate the oh-so-familiar story where a disabled character (always in a wheelchair) gets to *drum roll* WALK AGAIN? To take that one apart a little bit, at least two things are wrong with this story.

It plays into the endlessly repeated cultural conviction that walking and being vertical are somehow essentially more fully human than sitting. This is why disabled children are often kept in painful and awkward braces much longer than they should be, and why it’s been necessary to create wheelchairs that bring people up to “eye level,” (whose eye level was that?). It’s so hard to be taken seriously if you’re not vertical.

It also plays into the able-bodied person’s myth that the only interesting story about disability is the one in which it is cured or magically redeemed in some way. This is a thing of our time and place–150 years ago, the only story about disability was about romantic wasting away. Our culture desperately tries to believe that if you take care of yourself, you will live a really long time and never get sick. Seeing disabled people makes us afraid that we might not live fit and forever. Wheelchairs and the people in them become the bogeyman, the goblin who will be you if you don’t watch your health. To fight the cultural fears, we build myths about people who “walk again.”

The “finally experience intimacy” line from the casting call is the clincher for this myth. Apparently, whoever wrote this believes that disabled people can’t “experience intimacy,” which wouldn’t be true even if the phrase was about love, friendship, deep connection, or true confessions. We all know that those three words aren’t about any of those things: they’re about sex. Of course, disabled people can’t/don’t have sex. Because we’re so afraid of what it’s like to be them, we don’t look at or imagine their bodies. When we have to talk to them, we look relentlessly above the neck, which is one reason we’re more comfortable when they’re at eye level.

News flash! People in wheelchairs have sex. People on respirators have sex. Sometimes they have great sex. And what’s more, they can have sex without being fetishized for their disability.

2) If you’re a disabled actor, the “walk again” story has an even nastier angle. It means that the studios “have to” cast able-bodied actors and actresses to play disabled people. They can’t be expected to cast someone who is quadriplegic, or has spina bifida, if the role requires that the character eventually get up and walk. This saves the director and the actors having to deal with all those scary, messy real disabled people. It saves the writers from having to learn anything about real disability. It is yet another factor in keeping disabled people unemployed. (In the last fifteen years or so, the disability activist community has done a great deal of work to get disabled actors into disabled roles, and we’ve seen somewhat fewer “God saved him! He can walk!” plots as a result. It’s not enough. Google Images has only five images for “disabled actresses.”)

3) Wonder why she has to be so thin? Callista Flockhart thin? We can tell you. It’s because if she has any weight on her at all, viewers can say her disability is her fault. People believe that unhealthy behavior, weight, and disability are inextricably linked. People look at a fat person in a wheelchair and think, “That person must not have taken care of herself.” But a thin person in a wheelchair is exempt from blame. She’s a victim, not a bum.

Here’s the casting call we’d like to see:

[ELEANOR PERRY] (35-40) and quite sexy. A brilliant quadriplegic scientist, who has used a wheelchair since childhood. She needs help with basic cleanliness and dressing tasks. Her scientific ability makes her the only person who may be able to save the ship and her crew from certain annihilation. She’s an excellent flirt, and will have an affair with at least one crew member during her tenure on the show. sptv050769..Strong guest lead. NAMES PREFERRED. ACTRESS MUST BE A WHEELCHAIR USER.

Thanks to Lynn Kendall for the pointer.

6 thoughts on “Disabled Character: Able-Bodied (Emaciated) Actresses Only, Please

  1. Yes! Those storylines are played out, uninteresting, and insulting. “Look, we have diversity! It’s a disabled character (but not for long), it’s a black character (but we’ll never address racism), it’s a gay character ( but we’ll never make you see them act gay).

    Sadly there have been few disabled characters that stay that way and are main characters in movies. Josh Zuckerman in “Feast” and Macaulay Culkin in “Saved,” are the only ones I can think of right now. Sadly neither were disabled actors.

  2. Thank you for spreading the word on this.

    It gets even more insidious when you read the casting sides, which explain that this disabled woman will be “body-swapping” with another female character in order to walk and participate in the episode.

    The other female character is a lesbian. (Played by Asian actress Ming-Na)

    The disabled woman is going to use the lesbian’s body not only to walk but to have het sex with a guy the lesbian canonically cannot stand.

    This makes me sick to my stomach every time I think about it. So not only are they wildly offending disabled people, but also women, GLBT people and anyone with half a brain.

    Details of the casting sides are here:

  3. Gosh, I’m starting to feel like a knee-jerk cynic here, but I immediately thought of the Farrelly brothers who have drawn massive amounts of fire for the way in which they used disabled actors.

    Here’s an interesting link
    to an article that discusses disabled characters as “The Other” and how the Farrelly brothers casting of disabled actors has played out, for better, worse, or worst of all in Hollywood terms–how it might have proved unprofitable. The article concludes: “their move to recognize and respect people with disabilities has not been financially profitable, but it has been politically significant.”

  4. As a Stargate franchise fan who has been repeatedly disappointed by the minds behind the show (yet for some reason continued to watch Atlantis and went back and watched SG-1, probably because the actors really redeem the show), I’m feeling a little bit happy in a vicious way that they’re finally getting some flak for the way they deal with characters who aren’t Able-Bodied White Doodz (From America).

    I’ve been following most of the coverage in fandom and the greater blogosphere, I don’t think points 2 and 3 have been made yet, and they’re certainly not things that had occurred to me. Thank you so much for this post. I like your version of the casting sides muuuuch better. P)

  5. I love Stargate, but I completely agree with you on this.

    I’m still waiting for a good sci-fi show to do a disabled character decently (with a real disabled actor in the part, thank you), and I’m still waiting for a main female character to be anything but thin and beautiful. When will scifi stop being so sexist and so biased? Urgh.

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