Major spoilers ahead for Coco, The Shape of Water, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi!
Before I was disabled, I never thought twice about going to the movies. Whether it was opening night or a morning matinee, I’d slip into the welcoming embrace of darkness at least once a week, settling in with no expectations except losing myself in a story. Now, thinking about rolling my wheelchair into a movie theater makes me cringe. Movies don’t feel like an escape for me anymore; they’re a reminder that Hollywood sees disability as either something that needs fixing or an indication of villainy. Hollywood’s dismal portrayal of disability through the dual lenses of blatant discrimination and outright exclusion was perfectly illustrated in three of last fall’s biggest releases.
Disney Pixar’s Coco was released in November, and it’s received rave reviews and numerous accolades. It’s the first-ever film with a nine-digit budget to feature an all-Latinx cast, and it’s earned its production costs several times over at the box office. It tells the story of a boy named Miguel and his journey to the Land of the Dead during the celebration of Día de los Muertos. Its accurate, joyful representation of Mexican culture is a huge part of why it’s now the highest-grossing film of all time in Mexico. Alebrijes—a type of Oaxacan folk art sculpture—leap to vibrant life as spirit guides that guard the dead; the score incorporates traditional Mexican ballads like “La Llorona;” and the delicate embroidery on blusas bordadas worn by main characters give a subtle nod to Mexican influences. The disabled Mexican artist Frida Kahlo even makes several cameo appearances in the Land of the Dead, leaping onscreen, designing stage shows, and painting self-portraits.
Coco quickly establishes that those living in the Land of the Dead embody skeletal versions of their human bodies in death—the end of the movie even sees its namesake, Miguel’s great grandmother, Mama Coco, visiting her living relatives from the Land of the Dead. She looks mostly like a skeletonized version of the live woman we met earlier—an aged woman with Alzheimer’s. In fact, every character we meet looks almost exactly as they did when they died—except those who are disabled. Mama Coco’s wheelchair disappears in the Land of the Dead—and so does Kahlo’s.
Kahlo, who couldn’t sit or stand continuously, had her polio-thinned right leg amputated the year before her death. At the end of her life, she relied heavily on her wheelchair and crutches. She painted the many stiff corsets that supported her crushed spine and much of her artwork reflected living a life of chronic pain. Kahlo’s disability imbued a sense of survival into so much of herself, her art, and her life, but was purposefully erased in Coco.
Coco does get points for including a disabled woman in its star-studded lineup: Selene Luna, the actress who played Tia Rosita, is a little person. Unfortunately, Luna’s real-life characteristics weren’t represented in her character.
Although disabled people make up 20 percent of the world’s population, we represent fewer than two percent of speaking roles on television and the vast majority are played by non-disabled actors. A non-disabled actor playing a disabled character is informally known as “cripping up,” and Hollywood has a long history of practically throwing awards at non-disabled actors who crip up for roles. Daniel Day Lewis won an Academy Award and a BAFTA for playing Christy Brown, who had cerebral palsy, in 1989’s My Left Foot. Dustin Hoffman took home an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Raymond, an autistic savant, in 1989’s Rain Man. Cripping up’s not all history, though—Jennifer Aniston was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award and a Golden Globe after playing Claire Bennet, a woman disabled by chronic pain, in 2014’s Cake. In 2015, Eddie Redmayne won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking, who has Lou Gehrig’s disease, in The Theory of Everything; that same year, Julianne Moore won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Alice, a woman with Alzheimer’s, in Still Alice. Not even a full month into 2018 and the Sundance Film Festival has already premiered He Won’t Get Far on Foot, with Joaquin Phoenix filling the role of quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan.
The list, unsurprisingly, goes on and on.
Cripping up was a major issue in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. I love del Toro’s work so much I have a quote from Pacific Rim tattooed on my right forearm, but I still knew there were going to be issues with disability representation from the first preview. Its main character, Elisa Esposito, is a mute woman who communicates primarily through sign language. Sally Hawkins, the actress who plays her, is not disabled and doesn’t sign in her daily life.
In The Shape of Water, Elisa is a janitor working for a government agency that’s practicing unethical experiments on a mysterious amphibian creature. After a series of secret visits lead to her falling in love with the creature, she enlists her two best friends to help him escape before he’s vivisected and euthanized. Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her Black co-worker, and Giles (Richard Jenkins), an artist and closeted gay man, complete the minority triumvirate that I briefly hoped would salvage the casting issues, but instead they acted as foils to illuminate tired disability tropes.
Giles perfectly illustrates the movie’s haphazard commitment to disability rep in an offhand wisecrack made to a love interest. Speaking of Elisa, he jokes, “I work alone and my best friend’s not much of a conversationalist.” Sitting in my wheelchair, I wonder how I would feel if my best friends ever described me as “not much of a walker.”
When Elisa breaks into her longest monologue, desperately signing to Giles about why the creature deserves rescuing, I groan audibly. “When he looks at me, the way he looks at me, he does not know what I lack or how I am incomplete,” she says as he translates. Disabled Elisa has such deeply internalized ableism that we’re even subjected to a song-and-dance number that has her belting out showtunes in her imagination. I can’t help but notice the other minority characters aren’t imagining themselves as straight or white in order to feel like “real people.”
The movie’s single redemption is Elisa’s clear sexuality, prominently referenced as she masturbates in the opening montage and more subtly referenced as she consummates her relationship with the creature. Disabled people are typically infantilized and desexualized, so this should feel groundbreaking—but is it actually innovative when the disabled character’s love interest “isn’t even human,” in Giles’s words?
The ambiguous ending of the movie leaves us with the distinct possibility of Elisa’s death; non-disabled Hollywood remains obsessed with killing disabled characters, perhaps because they think we’re too grotesque to keep around (Million Dollar Baby, anyone? Me Before You?)The Shape of Water took home two Golden Globes on top of five additional Golden Globe nominations, an AFC Top 10 of 2017 nod, and critics keep lauding it as del Toro’s best.
Like The Shape of Water, the Star Wars franchise has embraced offing disabled characters, even as the franchise has spent the last three years rebuilding the legacy of its universe as inclusive. Darth Vader’s death is integral to the triumphant redemption arc at the end of the Original Trilogy; Emperor Palpatine’s death at Vader’s hands sets the process in motion. Hell, Rogue One opens with Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) shooting a disabled character in the back so his escape isn’t slowed down. In the same flick, actor Donnie Yen was given permission to flesh out his character, Chirrut Îmwe, any way he deemed fit. Îmwe ended up blind—and then dead.
Minority representation has been a driving force behind the success of the reboot— women and people of color have led the charge against the Empire’s newest incarnation, the First Order. Unfortunately, disability has no place with the good guys—Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), one of The Last Jedi’s big bads, echos the disfigurement of his predecessors, Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) sports a nasty facial scar from a lightsaber showdown, just in case you weren’t clear he was the other big bad.
Snoke, unsurprisingly, also ends up dead.
Before Snoke catches a lightsaber to the gut, a stuttering hacker named DJ (Benicio del Toro) is enlisted to help main characters Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran)—both people of color—disable a tracking device to save the dwindling Resistance. I’m not surprised when he suddenly betrays the good guys with a casual shrug and a jaunty tip of his hat, but I am disappointed.
The disabled actors in Star Wars are hidden behind their costumes like Luna in Coco. The actor Jimmy Vee takes over for Kenny Baker as R2-D2, but his visibility as a little person disappears beneath a metal facade of beeps and boops.
Like Coco and The Shape of Water, The Last Jedi struck big at the box office—it was the highest-grossing film of 2017, the tenth highest-grossing film of all time, and the second highest-grossing film of the franchise. Critics lauded the film, and the number of think pieces praising minority representation are too numerous to count. Audiences love seeing some version of themselves represented on the silver screen; as clear testament to this truth, diversity continues to sweep awards and break the bank.
Even as we continue to break new ground in inclusion, Hollywood’s ubiquitous disability discrimination stubbornly remains the celebrated standard. People spend a lot of time consuming media, which informs and is informed by our society. On average, Americans watch almost two hours of Netflix per day and three hours of television separate from that. In 2016, the United States sold just under 1.2 billion tickets to the movies. The stories we tell onscreen are a reflection of what’s going on in the real world.
What does it say about society, then, when stories about disability continually drive home the point that we’re evil, bad, or lesser, simply because we exist in our bodies? Audiences regularly lose themselves in plots that posit disability as something that cannot possibly lead to a life of goodness, happiness, or fulfillment. Non-disabled directors and actors seem obsessed with the fantasy that disability is something that must be changed, fixed, or redeemed—and the simplest solution is usually our deaths.
Disability discrimination is deeply ingrained in the fabric of our society and almost universally enforced by the stories we tell in the media we gleefully consume. It is so pervasive, so entrenched, that even the new radical push against the same bland mainstream story has not yet advanced enough to also include disability as a standard. I dream of a Hollywood that has evolved enough that the full spectrum of stories are told about disability instead of just the horror stories—stories of love, romance, happiness, heroism, and beauty all deserve to exist, and to be told by disabled writers, directors, and actors who are as celebrated as their non-disabled counterparts. I hope second-rate disability representation will somehow become a distant artifact from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away so that I can be enchanted by movies once again.