Today, many businesses and companies are looking to be more diverse; this often includes showing disabled women and girls in a more positive, realistic way. There have been some interesting campaigns such as Sports England – This Girl Can and the Dove – Real Beauty campaign.
Women from marginalised groups have grown used to either not being shown at all or being misrepresented on screen.
But even though some progress is being made in advertising and, to some extent, television to include a more realistic portrayal of disabled people, when it comes to mainstream cinema, it seems that not much has changed much at all.
Hollywood, in particular, has always had a strange relationship with disability. Think of the number of Bond villains who have some sort of physical imperfection – Blofield, Jaws, Le Chiffre and Safin, to name a few.
Physical deformity being somehow associated with moral deformity or being generally ‘bad’ in some way has been a common trope in Hollywood films. Even as recently as 2020, the film ‘The Witches’ caused controversy, due to the hand deformity of the lead witch played by Anne Hathaway, once again associating physical difference with evil.
When disability has not been synonymous with being sinister, disabled characters are viewed as ‘inspirational’ or childlike. Their only defining characteristic is often their disability.
If mainstream cinema reflected real life, you could be forgiven for thinking that disabled women are something of a rare breed. This, however, is not borne out by the statistics. In the US, according to The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 36 million women who are living with a disability. And in the UK, 21.1% of women have a disability of some sort.
Women, then, are more likely to have a disability than men, but fewer disabled female characters are being portrayed on film than male characters. Why is that?
The idea that a disabled woman might be attractive or a sexually active person is something that Hollywood in particular has a real problem getting its head around.
Think about how many mainstream films have the plot line, boy meets girl (often a ‘meet cute’) and fall in love. You can probably think of dozens off the top of your head. Now think about how many films have a female romantic lead who is, let’s say, a wheelchair user who has cerebral palsy, is an amputee, or has scarring / burns. How easy is it to come up with examples now?
Women and girls still tend to be seen only to have value through their physical appearance. The young and beautiful have more worth and significance than the old and maybe not so perfect. Should we not be moving away from this tired old cliche by now?
Physical imperfection is something that male characters in the cinema might just get away with, but a disabled female character in a mainstream film isn’t afforded such luxury. The most they can expect is a role as a sidekick. If she has a romantic relationship, as in the film The Shape of Water, it is with another character that cinema perceives to be an ‘outsider’. It might be a good film, but would it be such a big ask for the character played by Sally Hawkins to have a romantic relationship with a fellow human being and not ‘Amphibian Man’.
The disabled female characters that have appeared in mainstream films often have ‘invisible’ disabilities and have often been played by non-disabled actors. The statistics show that 95% of disabled roles go to non-disabled actors. There are very few notable exceptions, one being Marlene Matin in Children of a Lesser God – the only disabled woman to have won an Oscar in its 93-year history.
Television does seem to be leading the way in this field, with shows like Silent Witness, British soaps and the recent Channel Four comedy Big Boys to name a few. There have been some interesting independent films which show women with physical disabilities having sexual relationships; the films Dirty God and Rust & Bone spring to mind.
So, wouldn’t it be great if mainstream cinema could wake up to the fact that disabled characters are bankable and will not turn off audiences. Pretending that difference doesn’t exist and only showing perceived perfection gives a false view of the world. If people do not see realistic portrayals of disability on the screen. a sense of otherness can develop, fanning the flames of discrimination and prejudice; industry giants like Hollywood could and should be doing so much more to reverse this perception.