Some Important Distinctions

On 7 February, HBO aired a biopic about Temple Grandin. Temple Grandin, for those not in the know, is a prominent woman with autism who has been directly involved in improving American slaughter practices. She credits her connection with animals to her neuroatypicality[1. And no I don’t really want to get into the “how can she say she has a connection with animals when she develops new ways to kill them” debate. If you’ve actually read anything about her or seen/read interviews with her at all she goes into that in pretty exhaustive detail.]. She’s a very interesting woman and I’ve watched and read a number of interviews with her. I don’t entirely agree with some of her positions on autism, but I do think that she’s got a lot to offer, including some interesting insights.

What I find frustrating is that I am reading reviews of this HBO event and people seem to have trouble differentiating between a biopic and a documentary. So I thought I would clarify a few things. In the interests of full disclosure, I will point out that I haven’t seen Temple Grandin and probably won’t, although if I do, I will probably write about it. So this is literally a review of reviews. How meta. I know. You may roll your eyes now.

HBO’s Temple Grandin was a biopic. That means it’s a dramatized version of someone’s life; the term usually involves something with sweeping scope which is attempted to capture someone’s life story. This in contrast with a drama “based on a true story,” which focuses on an event or a series of events. Biopics have been made about all sorts of different people, and I actually happen to be a fan of biopics.

Biographical films, as they are also known, are played for drama. They sometimes feature archival footage and the people actually involved (in some cases people play themselves in biopics if they’re deemed suitably screen friendly). Such films are meant to be entertaining, and also potentially informative, but there’s not an obligation to tell nothing but the truth, to depict things honestly, to report and record.

It was not a documentary. A documentary is not a dramatization. Documentaries can be about individual lives, events, and any number of other things. The goal of documentaries is to, well, document events and people. It’s not uncommon for them to feature dramatized elements which are clearly labeled; if you’re making a documentary about the Holocaust, for example, it’s not like footage of life in the camps is lying around, so you have to stage some scenes if you want viewers to “see” what it was like. Like any reporting, a documentary will come with a slant, but there’s an intent and a goal to inform, and then to entertain, and to try to report things reasonably honestly.

People, the Temple Grandin in Temple Grandin was not Temple Grandin. She was Claire Danes, playing Temple Grandin. So when I see reviews repeatedly saying “Temple this” and “Temple that” they make me very grumpy. When I see people treating a biopic as a documentary and blurring the lines between drama and fact, fact and fiction, it is extremely irritating.

There are a couple of problems with the framing of Temple Grandin which I am seeing emerge in reviews beyond the lack of understanding about what kind of film it is and what the purpose of Temple Grandin might be.

The first is that people are complaining that the film didn’t provide enough information about autism, or didn’t allow people to understand autism. Newsflash: Autism cannot be “understood” in two hours. And this was a film about Temple Grandin, not about autism. If it was about autism then yes I would expect it to provide information and insight. But it’s not.

Would we expect a movie about Christopher Reeve to be about paralysis? No, we would not. We would expect it to be about Christopher Reeve and his accomplishments. Who he was and what he did. Would his disability come up? Most certainly it would, because it was a part of his identity. But it wouldn’t need to be the focal point. Likewise, I would expect a documentary or biopic about Temple Grandin to focus on Grandin herself. Not her disability.

People. We are not our disabilities.

The second is the Temple Grandin-Claire Danes conflation. These two women are both different people. I personally have a huge problem with the casting of Danes because, well, to my knowledge, she does not have autism. I would have preferred to see an actress with autism cast as Grandin. Yes, this despite all of the research Danes did for the role[2. For the record, Grandin herself has given the seal of approval to the film and said she liked Danes.].

I’ve discussed the lack of people with disabilities on television in general, and it plays directly into the lack of roles for disabled actors. When disabled roles come up and they are given to able people, it bugs me. It bugs me because I wish that television had more disabled roles. Or neutral roles; like the Grey’s Anatomy casting which did not specify race, there’s no real reason to specify ability status for casting in most cases. I wish that there were so many roles for disabled actors that having an able actor play a disabled role wasn’t a big offensive deal, but for now, it is, because those roles are so limited.

The reaction to Temple Grandin perturbs me because much of it seems framed in ableism and a lack of understanding about some key things. As indeed are most reactions to disability on television, perhaps because it’s seen so rarely and handled properly even more rarely that people don’t have much of a frame of reference.