The Oscar frontrunner The Shape of Water is being hailed as a breakthrough in the cinematic presentation of disabled characters. Its protagonist, Elisa, played by Sally Hawkins, is a mute cleaner who bonds with a mysterious humanoid sea creature and uses American Sign Language to communicate.But, despite the plaudits, The Shape of Water trades in the mainstream cinema tropes of depicting disabled people as The Other, something it has in common with recent films such as Stronger and Breathe, which are about the “horror” of an acquired impairment. Disability in such films helps to define normality and reassure able-bodied audiences that they are “normal” – disability is abnormal and something to be feared. Awards-season cinema is a modern freak show where the able-bodied can watch films about the tragedy of disability and reinforce their fragile sense of self, of fitting in, and be thankful that they aren’t The Other.
Brilliant performer though Hawkins is, the casting of able-bodied actors as disabled characters is increasingly problematic. According to the film website Indiewire, “59 non-disabled actors have earned Oscar nominations for playing disabled characters. History suggests that those nominees have nearly a 50% shot at a win.”Why is this important? Well, the Office for National Statistics has recorded that 14% of people in employment aged 16-64 consider themselves disabled, but only 0.3% of the total film workforce are disabled, according to UK film industry body Creative Skillset. So, disabled people have virtually no influence in cinema and the enduring myths that are being created about them are by able-bodied film-makers. Every time we see a Daniel Day-Lewis or an Eddie Redmayne picking up a statuette for “cripping up”, the issue gets worse. The industry is not giving a voice to a huge section of our society and that needs to change.I am doing something about it: my company 104 Films specialises in deaf and disability cinema and we are working on a new campaigning documentary, The Fourteen Percent, to highlight the inequities of the film industry, using the hashtag #MakeFilmEqual. One of the contributors is the deaf film-maker William Mager, who challenged depictions of deafness and sexuality with his comedy short Hands Solo, about a deaf porn star. He argues that there is an enduring male power fantasy at work in cinema with many deaf female characters depicted as passive and sexually available to a more powerful man. The classic example is Children of a Lesser God but films from Oscar-winner The Piano, to Read My Lips and In the Company of Men are also guilty of this.