Blogging Against Disablism Day 2015: Oscarbait

Every year, the online disability community organises and participates in Blogging Against Disablism Day (BADD), a blogswarm that highlights various aspects of living with disability in a culture that discriminates against disabled people. Entries range from personal essays to heavily-researched critiques to pop culture commentary to conversations to discussions about disability issues; they’re all fantastic, and they are all well worth reading. One thing I particularly like about BADD is that it involves so many voices. I often hear that people only hear from a handful of disabled people, or that particular individuals are claiming to speak for the voice of all — and BADD counters that belief and those attitudes, creating a rich and diverse collection of disabled voices who don’t necessarily fall into lockstep with one another.

My own BADD posts have run a wide gamut of subjects, but this year, I’m particularly interested in Oscarbait, and specifically, cripface Oscarbait, because it’s a long and established trend. Three films this year, Cake, The Theory of Everything, and Still Alice, were both gunning for Oscars with leading stars determined to bring home the gold by cripping up and pretending to be something they patently weren’t. And for two of them, it worked, as they attracted a level of attention that wouldn’t have been meted out to films starring disabled talent in the same roles.

When we talk about disability issues, we have a tendency to quickly get into insider language and terminology that can be frustrating and sometimes actively alienating. For the most part, I feel that I’ve done my dues when it comes to talking about disability — I’ve written scores of primers, engaged in a huge number of conversations, and done a great deal of service work on disability awareness, activism, and education. I’ve reached a point in my life where you’ll have to pay if you want me to educate you, but BADD is different. I want to talk about what cripface is, why it matters, and why you need to be part of the movement resisting it, if you aren’t already.

Cripface, also cripping up or crip drag, depending on where you are or who you’re talking to, is the practice of playing a disabled character when you are not yourself disabled. The vast majority of disabled characters are played by nondisabled people, so, perforce, cripface is very much the norm in US film and television. It’s reached the point that I am so pathetically excited by disabled actors in disabled roles that I practically squirm all over the internet with delight when it happens.

The level of detail and research that goes into such roles varies. Some are very obviously and nakedly played by actors who assume they can just wing it. Others clearly involved some research and the use of disability consultants to help actors create a more authentic experience — but it’s not really authentic, because disability is about a lived experience. It’s not something that can be easily slipped on and off, but a core part of someone’s identity. Disabled people can’t decide to be nondisabled for a day, and we’re also subject to a number of social attitudes and stereotypes that have a huge influence on how people interact with us — as seen, for example, in the popular meme of a photo of a wheelchair user getting up in the liquor aisle with the caption ‘it’s a miracle!,’ underscoring the idea that wheelchair users can’t walk, are, in the parlance of ableist society, ‘bound’ to their chairs.

Researching a disabled role well may improve the quality of a depiction, but it doesn’t make it okay. In the first sense, it’s a pure sense of troubling injustice paired with gross assumptions about the realities of disability. People writing and casting disabled roles are showing that they don’t truly understand disability, and aren’t willing to invest in understanding it; unsurprisingly, such roles are often paired with obnoxious social attitudes about disability. Actors in these roles may be under the impression that they are being brave and edgy with roles that push the boundaries, portraying ‘inspirational’ characters that overcome the odds or teach special lessons, or, conversely, being bitter, angry, crippled antiheroes (or villains) who live in a ‘me against the world’ mentality.

The truth about disability is much more complicated, but also much more simple. Disabled people aren’t defined by their disability or their experiences, but, at the same time, they are affected by ableism and social attitudes. Disability isn’t that remarkable and many people live their lives and go about their business without their disabilities playing a significant role in what they do, how, when, and why. Yet, cripface roles — Oscarbait roles, where the point is that an actor is being brave and innovative and daring, ‘living the pain’ or someone ‘suffering’ with disability — make disability into an exceptional burden, building up a mythology around it that turns it into something to pity and gawk at, which is not a healthy relationship to disability.

Such roles don’t just perpetuate harmful notions about disability and devalue the lives of disabled people. They also deprive actual disabled talent of roles in film and television, meaning that people lose out on opportunities and feel discouraged about pursuing industry careers. These are serious issues in an industry struggling with diversity; by cutting people out of the industry, producers, casting directors, and other decisionmakers are making an active decision to reject diversity, even in the face of an era when people are demanding it. And, as Rob Crossan pointed out at The Independentthe roles themselves are usually horribly laced with stereotypes and harmful attitudes.

So what should you, as an individual, do about it? It can be tough to feel like your actions will have any meaning when you live in a world filled with people and structural systems that seem to conspire against meaningful action, but you can do something. You can choose to talk about Oscarbait and why it’s wrong. You can choose not to see such films and to write their production companies to tell them why. You can promote work produced, created, and acted by disabled talent — including not just works about disability, but also works in which disability is incidental to the plot and people just happen to be disabled.

Breaking down the structures that contribute to ableism isn’t easy, but it’s necessary.

Image: Academy Award Winner, Davidlohr Bueso, Flickr