As Hollywood and the world look inwardly at themselves, questions of representation continue to burst forth. In the cinematic world, audiences are generally able to deduce (or debate) when a movie is being misogynist, racist, or transphobic. But one group, time and again, gets lost in this discussion of representation: the disabled. Disabled narratives remain mired in outdated, ableist notions that they’re a quick route to an Oscar nomination. And with disabled actors still appearing in only 5% of films (according to a 2016 study by the Ruderman Family Foundation), there’s increased urgency to refute tropes and stereotypes such as inspiration porn or overemphasizing death and pity. Interestingly, it is in genre cinema that disability representation is taking risks, pushing audiences’ expectations of the disabled, and compelling them to rethink, What makes a good character with a disability?  

 When it comes to disability, Hollywood follows a routine: the movie must be about disability. A character cannot just exist and be disabled; the plot, rising action, character traits, and denouement must all be in the service of overcoming the film’s central conflict, which is the disability itself. This formula is often why it’s assumed disability narratives equal Oscars, because disability is presented as an impediment to be overcome, a struggle on par with defeating Darth Vader. 

Yet where prestige cinema’s views on disability are still behind the curve, genre cinema is at least attempting to push against the established boundaries regarding disabled representation. John Krasinski’s horror feature A Quiet Place and Dwayne Johnson’s action/adventure drama Skyscraper both recently made strides toward breaking down the idea that disability = plot, creating worlds in which characters are disabled but whose narratives aren’t centered on their disabilities 

In A Quiet Place, the film’s young heroine (played by d/Deaf actress Millicent Simmonds) lives in a world with monsters that are attracted to noise. The character herself is d/Deaf, but Simmonds’ character could have been a girl with perfect hearing, in which case the narrative would be similar. The monstersattraction to sound renders her hearing (or lack of it) irrelevant. She is on equal footing with the rest of her family, all of whom can hear. The ending, however, does require Simmonds’ cochlear implants to destroy the monsters, but another sharp noise could have worked, and up to that point, the character’s deafness isn’t the film’s sole focus. If anything, her deafness aids in the monsters defeat rather than serving as a deficit to be pitied or overcome.  

This idea of creating disabled characters but not disabled movies is continued in Skyscraper, wherein Dwayne Johnson must enter a burning building to save his family. Again, the plot is not predicated on the character’s disability. Johnson’s Will Sawyer loses his leg in a hostage situation, but that’s simply an event that creates his background. As opposed to making his disability a superhuman trope, or an enhancement, it is just a fact of his life, not unlike having brown eyes. His disability doesn’t determine the outcome of the plot or his role within it. Like A Quiet Place, Skyscraper avoids the pitfalls of prestige cinema by making the disability an offscreen adjustment. There is no montage showing Will learning to acclimate to his new life, nor is he bitter about his situation. Such day-to-day-minutiae affect his character, but they’re not the basis of his life. And for the movie itself, there’s no need for Will to learn anything about his disability. Because the script has removed the stereotype of “overcoming the disability,” there’s no change to Will’s personality at the end. He doesn’t need to learn to love himself; he and his family already do. 

A Quiet Place and Skyscraper exist in worlds wherein the characters are people with disabilities. Their disabilities don’t define them, nor is there anything for the audience to pity. These movies don’t exist to compel an abled audience to embrace life or fear being disabled; they showcase characters who are living, with disabilities, no different from anyone else. Not to say these movies are perfect—they still use the “able-bodied buffer,a term I officially coined, in a 2017 article for Paste regarding The Greatest Showman, for movies that cast able actors in disabled roles in the hope of helping the audience “bond” with someone it can relate to. 

Disabled actors need to be considered first for these roles, but it isn’t enough merely to cast disabled performers. So much of changing the discussion on disability representation involves breaking the systemic beliefs that movies about disabled people need to be about disability; it matters not just that disabled people are represented, but also how we are represented. Films like Skyscraper show that disability is just a facet of someone’s life, one that doesn’t define that person’s entire life. Skyscraper and A Quiet Place, by not being award bait, can take such risks and be a great place to start for looking at how disability in cinema can eventually include stories written by, directed by, and starring people with disabilities. 



This review originally appeared in ART PAPERS “Disability + Visibility,” Winter 2018/2019.

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