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The Representation Of Disabled People In Film

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 2463 words Published: 25th Apr 2017

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The purpose of this assignment is to critically analyse the stereotypical portrayals of disabled people in the media. It is mainly concerned with the misrepresentation of disability in films, especially the horror genre. It aims to consider the effect that the media has o disabled identity, highlighting the power of body image and personal experience on the development of both individual and group identity.

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In examining the mechanisms of how we read film, the exchange of looks, of identification, and of pleasure offered and obtained, we find that notions of masculinity and femininity predominate spectator text relations. Media often turns people into objects and this can bring terrible consequences as self-image can be deeply affected with their interpretations of what is acceptable and visually pleasing in contemporary bodies. Girl’s self-esteem plummets during adolescence partly because they cannot escape the message that their bodies are objects and imperfect ones at that. Girls of all ages get the message that they must be flawlessly beautiful and, above all these days, they must be thin. Even more destructively, they get the message that this is possible, that with enough effort and self-sacrifice, they can achieve this ideal. The glossy images of flawlessly beautiful and extremely thin women that surround us would not have the impact they do if we did not live in a culture that encourages us to believe we can and should remake our bodies into perfect commodities. Women are especially vulnerable because their bodies have been objectified for so long. According to Clarke’s (1995) media representations of embodiment show how the computer-generated body of the hyperreal world also persist in negating a disabled embodiment. The use of body doubles in films and commercials makes it even less likely that we will see real women’s bodies.

Davies (1997:1) writes, ‘People with disabilities have been isolated, incarcerated, observed written about, operated on, instructed , implanted, regulated, treated, institutionalised, and controlled to a degree probably unequal to that experienced by any other minority group’.

Oliver (1990: 1) writes, ‘Throughout the twentieth century disabled people continue to be portrayed as more than or less than human, rarely as ordinary people doing ordinary things’.

The world is fast becoming a global market place controlled not by individual governments but by transnational conglomerates interested only in profits (O’Shaughnessy, 1999). The influence of these huge and powerful corporations on the media leads to a pernicious kind of censorship. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many of these corporations own and control the media.

‘The media’s development has been affected by commercial interests that recognise that the media are potentially highly profitable industries’ (O’Shaughnessy, 1999:2). This point helps to demonstrate that media representations are not always genuine or accurately reflecting reality. The media uses visual images to tell a particular story ant these experiences often help guide opinions and values. The consumption of the media, and in particular media forms such as TV and film, has become extremely popular. Not only do the media reflect societal values, but it can be assume that it also encourages certain ideals.

Stigma, Stereotyping and Prejudice

There is no established single theory of stigma, which is not surprising as stigma embodies a complex interaction between medicine, political affairs, social science, history, psychology, anthropology (Smith, 2002). Smith goes on to state that the significant stage in the generation of stigma is the ‘perception of difference’ and for stigmatisation to take place, the differences observed will be related to ‘undesirable traits’. Smith used the example of people suffering from a mental illness being stereotyped as being violent and unpredictable.

Marks (1997, p.86) draws attention to the moving image media representations, that divide the able bodied and people with impairments. According to Sarfan (1998) much has been written on the damaging, stereotypical representation of people with all manner of impairments in film. Wahl (1995) states that films with disability themes stigmatise those with similar characteristics as: infantile; savants; sexually abnormal and bitter; deviant and violent and dependent and pitiable.

According to Whittington- Walsh (1997) people with a variety of impairments have been exhibited for amusement and gain as ‘freaks’ for countless years and it proved to be a lucrative business. Even though spectators turned away from the ‘freak shows’ at the beginning of the nineteenth century images of people with impairments as entertainment did not cease to exist. Mainstream film industry has produced many films showing characters with impairments.

More often than not, disabled people in film are portrayed as pitiable and pathetic such as John Merrick, paraded as a freak in The Elephant Man (1980, David Lynch, Uk), or as victims an objects of violence such as Suzy Hendrix who was blind and intimidated by drug dealers in Wait until Dark (1967, Terrance Young, USA) or as asexual such as the disabled war veteran, Ron Kovic, in Born on the 4th of July (1989, Oliver Stone, USA). These are but a few of the distorted portrayals of disabled people in the media. According to Marks (1997, p.86) these individuals are presented as ‘Other’ who are completely different from ‘us’. Very rarely are disabled people accurately shown as leading ordinary lives. Stigmatised individuals and groups frequently lack power to alter such views and as such their status diminishes further.

Our opinions about different groups of people are often totally irrational. They are influenced by factors such as our membership of a group (ethnocentrism) and by our experience, no matter how small, of that group. Some of these ideas may be positive and some may be negative but often these opinions or attitudes are based on very little information.

The process of grouping people together and believing that they are all the same is known as ‘stereotyping’. The term stereotype was introduced by Walter Lippmann in 1922 (cited in Brown, 1986) and was defined as being an ‘oversimplified view of the world that satisfies our need to see the world as more understandable and manageable than it really is’. What he actually meant was that if we can attribute a whole set of characteristics to something, we will not have to analyse the thing each time we meet it in order to know about it.

Stereotyping involves classifying people according to a set of pre-established criteria and this kind of classification is usually made on the basis id something as superficial as their appearance. What the person is actually like is totally irrelevant because we simply attribute all sorts of characteristics to them on the basis of the group that we have put then with. According to Tajfel (1982), the process of trying to give ourselves some kind of positive identity seems to explain why people have what are known as ‘in group’ preferences. If we are assigned to a group, any group, either by birth or by design, we instantaneously seem to feel a kind of innate, automatic preference for that group and give the group a higher status than other groups. The ‘in group bias’ is merely a method of increasing our own self-esteem. If a group believes it is less worthy than others, it will be more likely to accept any prejudice shown to them without objection because they believe it is justified.

The nature of social power dynamics and group hierarchy make stereotypes particularly oppressive for certain individuals and groups (Operario et al., 1998). In particular:

…individuals whose outcomes are controlled by others, and groups low in the social hierarchy, are vulnerable to the demeaning content of their stereotypes. Conversely, individuals who control others’ outcomes, and groups near the top of the social hierarchy, are more likely to employ stereotypes about others … (Fiske, 1993)

Because of their dependence on the powerful, the powerless direct their attention up the hierarchy and do not categorise those with power. But the powerful themselves are too busy, too unconcerned with accuracy, or too dominance-orientated to pay any attention to the powerless. They, therefore, tend to categorise and form highly stereotypical impressions of those over whom they can exert power (Oakes, 2004). Powerful people simply pay less individuating attention to their subordinates- that is, they treat them less as individuals, while the reverse is true for subordinate individuals and groups. According to Operario and Fiske (2004):

… Not only does power perpetuate beliefs associated with social subordinates and minority groups, it also enables people to act upon stereotypical beliefs through legislation, economic policies, and institutional practices…

A counterintuitive finding is the tendency for the powerless and disadvantaged to show biases that justify and maintain their group’s low status (that is, they accept the status quo). This helps explain why social injustice can endure within cultural contexts that outwardly endorse egalitarianism and equality. But this is not necessarily the same as internalising negative stereotypes. Members of low-status groups tend to achnowledge their group’s disadvantaged status, but minimise perceptions of personal vulnerability to discrimination. In this way, they can maintain their self-esteem and personal control, and avoid feeling personally victimised (Operario and Fiske, 2004).

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Sometimes the attitudes we have towards a group of people are extreme and we call this kind of extreme attitude ‘prejudice’. This prejudice can be either positive or negative depending on the person holding the views. Often these extreme attitudes have virtually no foundation in reality and are based simply on some minor attribute like appearance, are influenced by factors such as the media and the way we have been socialised. Supposing someone has something about their appearance that they have no control over-how must they feel? The studies by Piliavin (1969) in the subway showed that people with ugly facial birthmarks were not helped as frequently. Were they being stereotyped on the basis of some external characteristics and consequently suffering some king of prejudice to do with the fact that their appearance was not perfect?

Even when prejudices are irrational, if they are maintained or perpetuated by society they cab have vey dangerous consequences for the person concerned. The person on the receiving end is likely to develop very low self-esteem, seeing themselves as less worthy than people holding their prejudiced views.

However, there is evidence to show that if you have an expectation that people will be prejudiced towards you, this may in fact lead you to perceive a situation in a different way to people who have no expectation of prejudice. This was demonstrated by a study done by Kleck and Strenta (1980) who applied make-up to their participants to make them look as if they had an extremely large, ugly facial scar. After checking their appearance in a mirror, the researchers applied some cream to ‘set’ the make-up but what they actually did was remove the scar. The participants then spent some time interacting with another person and reported back on whether the scar affected their interactions. Even though there was no disfigurement, the participants reported that their appearance had influenced the way the other person behaved towards them. This suggests that people may well explain the way people behave towards them as being due to their membership of a particular group. This may help us understand the perceptions of minority groups who believe they are being persecuted, even when this is not the case.


Around the time Todd Browning’s Freaks was made the meaning of ‘freak’ was changing. Ceasing to be a celebrated exotic attraction, it was becoming medicalised, developing into a scientific specimen. Freaks was perhaps the first film to use a full cast of genuine sideshow people and expose viewers to images of abnormal bodies enjoying daily life, together with their ‘normal’ sensual desires. However, audiences were engaged not through empathy, but revulsion from the physical differences shown and were outraged by the ‘Freaks’ avenging themselves on so called ‘normal’ bodies. The 30 year ban demonstrates how deeply we share cultural ideas about disabled people and images of impaired bodies.

The bodies of the actors did not match with how the dominant U.S. culture defined what a body should look like or what it should be able to do. Their bodies were considered inferior when compared with people who were considered ‘normal’.

Freaks has often been criticised because of its association with the negative representation of disability within the horror film genre. Conversely, it has also been praised because its portrayal of disability was in fact far more lifelike than that portrayed in numerous other films. Whittington-Walsh (2002, p.698) states: ‘Freaks is unique in the fact that we only see characters with disabilities in their day to day lives and we never see them in the mode of presentation used in Freak shows and other films. We only see them in their actual social identity’.

Fiske, S.T. (1993) Controlling other people: The impact of power on stereotyping. American Psychologist, 48(6), pp.621-628.

Oakes, P. (2004) The Root of All Evil in Intergroup Relations? Unearthing the Categorisation Process. In Brewer, M. B. and Hewstone, M. (2004) (eds) Social Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Operario, D., Goodwin, S.A., and Fiske, S.T. (1998) Power is everywhere: Social control and personal control both operate as stereotype activation, interpretation , and response. In Wyer, R.S. (1998) (ed.) Advances in social cognition (Volume 11) Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Operario, D. and Fiske, S.T. (2004) Stereotypes: Content, Structures, Processes and Context. In Brewer, M. B. and Hewstone, M. (2004) (eds) Social Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.


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