Recently, Pipe Dream published a column by Jessica Gutowitz on the apparent lack of media representation for certain groups. She argues that in an age where “underrepresented groups” are being brought up in our nation’s mainstream media outlets, disabled individuals are left out. While I do understand the angle from which Gutowitz is coming, and it certainly is sympathetic toward her target audience; I respectfully disagree with her stance. I believe what she seeks is another question concerning media representation.
For starters, Gutowitz does not define what exactly “disabled” is in her article. Merriam-Webster defines disabled as being “impaired or limited by a physical, mental, cognitive, or developmental condition.” The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act holds that there are 13 disability categories. Making a bold and specific statement that there is little representation of disabled individuals without clarifying which disabilities Gutowitz is referring to is not helping her argument. After all, there are many disabled people with various disabilities, so grouping them together does not do them justice.
Gutowitz states that disabled individuals are often portrayed negatively, such as Darth Vader or Captain Hook. She failed to note that most villains who are portrayed on screen or in text are not disabled. The Joker, Hans Gruber, the Terminator and the Alien Queen are only a few examples of the nondisabled villains who dominate our pop culture. In looking at examples of “stereotypical” disabled characters, it is not a matter of stereotypes. Would Darth Vader be as infamous if he were not half machine? Would Captain Hook have set himself apart from previous pirate antagonists if he did not have his famous hook? What would he be called then? Captain Steve?
It is also worth noting that Luke Skywalker, the hero of the Star Wars franchise, however, was physically disabled because he had his arm cut off in “The Empire Strikes Back.” This disabled hero then proceeded to defeat Darth Vader in their last battle. Luke is not the only hero who is technically disabled — the biblical hero Moses has a speech impairment. According to the Old Testament, Moses stutters because he put hot coals in his mouth as a child. This stuttering child then went on to liberate the Hebrew slaves from the pharaoh.
Even the Rocky films touched upon this subject. In “Rocky V,” Rocky begins to suffer from a traumatic brain injury and is forced to retire. According to Gutowitz’s logic on disabled stereotypes, Rocky must become the antagonist of the film. Instead, Rocky defeats his rival in an epic street fight and reclaims his dignity.
Gutowitz also states that our media ought to take the stance on representation. It is interesting to see that she now argues for the media to step up when she has been criticizing it for a lack of representation. The message is that the media does not do justice for diversity, but we should use it as our No. 1 reference.
Further, Gutowitz states that U.S. history only consists of “abled-bodied white men.” Disabled men such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt should be shunned because they are white men, according to this terrible logic. Did being in a wheelchair impact how Roosevelt led the United States? The answer is no.
Despite my criticisms, Gutowitz and I do have some common ground. She writes, “Few movie stars are disabled. The stereotypical image of beauty is … an able-bodied person.” I happen to agree with this unfortunate fact. The Nostalgia Critic, an online film critic, made an excellent video titled, “Is White Washing Really Still a Thing?,” in which he highlights the problems Hollywood has when it comes to diversity. He pointed out that what shocked him about “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy was that no one was complaining that “little people” were not hired. How could it be that little people would be cast as “supporting munchkins or elves,” yet not be cast in lead roles that technically should be for them?
Hollywood does promote a negative portrait of what a person should be like physically, emotionally and sexually. This does not mean one should completely tilt to one side of the diversity problem. Each role is different, and we should consider who should be represented very carefully. There is no clear-cut answer, but honest discussion on what constitutes disability and representation is a starting point. Identity politics that exclude others for a variety of reasons cannot be accepted at any cost.
Bradley Horowitz graduated from BU in 2017 with a major in philosophy, politics and law.