Yes, It Is About Disability: Reflections on Disability and Media Criticism After Sundance 2020
*Editor’s note from Alice Wong: full disclosure–I am working as a consultant for Netflix on Crip Camp and this essay was commissioned by the DVP.
The 2020 Sundance Film Festival, which I was lucky enough to attend as part of the 2020 Press Inclusion Initiative, offered plenty of watershed moments around disability representation in film. The most obvious was the opening night documentary Crip Camp, co-directed by James (Jim) LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham.
“It isn’t our lot in life to be excluded. We can fight back. We started looking at all the liberation movements going on at the time, and we decided we needed one of our own.” -Jim LeBrecht
— Laura Dorwart (@laurawritesit) January 27, 2020
A surprising number of the other films on offer in 2020 also dealt with disability and mental illness, whether explicitly or not. In Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear, for example, Aubrey Plaza’s protagonist slices headlong into a couple’s illusory pastoral scene of domesticity. But she also runs from, and through, the minefield of her own trauma history, navigating alcohol use disorder against a backdrop of abusers and enablers.
Similarly, the film Herself (directed by Phyllida Lloyd) features Daniel Ryan, an actor with Down syndrome, in a notable supporting role. And the film’s protagonist, a single mother (played by co-writer Clare Dunne) dealing with the aftermath of domestic violence in contemporary Dublin, addresses both her facial difference (see Carly Findlay’s work on facial difference in film) and the murky emotional landscape of mutual caregiving in ways that are integral to character and thematic development.
But what I found most fascinating, and most indicative of how far we have yet to go in terms of the cultural conversation around disability representation in film and elsewhere, was the reporting on Crip Camp and other films at this year’s festival. In narrative framing, headline phrasing, tone, and content, criticism of films that feature disabled performers or address disability often perpetuates stereotypes in predictable, often unconscious patterns.
In some ways, this was to be expected; after all, our cultural, personal, and political baggage around disability inevitably shows up in the way we write about it. What’s more, disability and mental illness are still murky waters for many critics to navigate and, more importantly, interpret in art, given their frequent erasure both onscreen and off.
If shame around disability—what we reveal when we refuse to look, to witness, to surrender the illusion of sameness, or to accept that disability justice is not a matter of individual overcoming—is in fact the enemy of the story, then recognizing our own role as critics in perpetuating that shame can only help us tell better ones. I hope we can eventually move beyond these patterns in order to afford stories about disability, and those by disabled creators, the kind of critical weight and complexity they deserve.
From its very title, you can tell that Crip Camp is “a different kind of story about disability.” That’s what LeBrecht told audience members at one talkback during Sundance when questioned about the obviously deliberate reclamation of the term “crip.”
An audience member asks about the reason for the title. Jim LeBrecht explains that the campers started to reclaim “crip” and take it back for themselves as a matter of pride. The title also signaled that this was a story told from an insider’s perspective. #CripCamp #Sundance2020
— Laura Dorwart (@laurawritesit) January 27, 2020
The documentary draws in part from archival footage to chronicle the experiences of campers (including LeBrecht himself) at Camp Jened, a 1970s, Woodstock-adjacent summer camp for teens with disabilities that was instrumental in sparking both a disability rights revolution and at least one memorable crabs outbreak. And it was certainly not made to make nondisabled spectators comfortable. From the film’s title to discussions of legendary disability rights activist, Crip Camp is unapologetically a movie about disability.
But according to a number of reviews of the documentary, it’s anything but. Even in major outlets, many film critics insisted that this (very-much-about-disability) film was not, in fact, “about” disability. Instead, it was about ability. Or different abilities. Or focusing on what we “can” do instead of what we “can’t.” Or something.
"In the end, Crip Camp isn’t about disability" @AskDebruge
No, sir. It's called Crip Camp. It is explicitly & entirely about disability
What it is NOT about is your anxieties, assumptions & misconceptions about disability.https://t.co/G8eeBNVWp5
— Dr. Jason Dorwart (@HamOnWheels) February 27, 2020
These patterns, incidentally, follow in the footsteps of two distinct histories of cultural navigations (and sidestepping) of disability: the freak show, which attempted to contain the specter of disability through the collective, ritual practice of fear-driven voyeurism and sensationalistic othering, and the institution, which excluded disabled people from participation in public life in part due to a culture of fear.
Today, we see these legacies around disability in many ways: in parents who yank children away from visibly disabled people in public for fear of “offending,” for example, and in the many infantilizing, distancing, and euphemistic alterna-terms for disability. While these gestures may be well-meaning, they (whether in person or in writing) promote the practice of looking away from and erasing disabled people rather than acknowledging, listening to, and learning from them.
This tendency, although ostensibly meant to be empowering, effectively decenters disabled people from their own stories.
It can also work to push the negative implications of disabled identity back onto people who have already refused them. Imani Barbarin writes in “#WhenICallMyselfDisabled, Your Opinion Doesn’t Matter” at Crutches and Spice: “Everything good in my life, everything I have worked for came through not denying the word ‘disabled’ but embracing it. It doesn’t make any of it easier, but it has set me free. I’m free. My greatest burden associated with my disability wasn’t the diagnosis, but the shame others imposed on me because of it.”
Claiming that a story by disabled creators is not about disability, but about ability, also implicitly assumes that the spectator themselves is nondisabled. As Rebecca Cokley writes about the unintended consequences of euphemisms for disability in a 2017 piece for CNN, “These aren’t words anyone like me (meaning disabled) came up with—they were defined by society because the concept of ‘disability’ makes nondisabled people feel uncomfortable.”
This common claim also (unwittingly) reifies the word “disabled” as inherently shameful, dipping it once again into the stagnant pool of stigma that warns us to “stay away” from the word and its many implications. The refusal to name and center disability works to erase disabled identity, culture, and community in order to protect the illusion of sameness and invulnerability in which so many of us shroud ourselves.
Challenging Assumptions About What Disability “Looks Like” Onscreen
The refusal to name disability and mental illness for what they are can also hinder our interpretations of character development and storytelling, even in films that aren’t explicitly focused around disability themes. Naming disability for what it is, without fear, can also work to challenge underlying assumptions about what it means for a film to be “about” mental illness or disability.
Disability is everywhere, and is thus represented and referenced everywhere, whether well or not, whether correctly or incorrectly, and whether we name it or not. And when we don’t, as writers, notice and name disability—not only with the word itself, but with our critical interpretations—we often miss the mark, thus relegating “disability-related films” to the usual bargain bins marked with stereotype, cliché, and stigma.
This, too, is partly a matter of perspective. Commissioning more disabled, neurodivergent, and mentally ill critics (like Kristen Lopez and Angelo Muredda), as well as disabled filmmakers (like Dominick Evans, founder of #FilmDis) would inherently lead to more interpretations that treated disability as a possible part of any given piece of art, rather than as something that must be earmarked with an obvious narrative arc and subsequently treated with kid gloves that work to limit the possibility of story.
Making Space For Anger
Another persistent tendency in cultural criticism around disability and mental illness is the urge to present disability as a problem to be hastily addressed and made “right” in the space of a review (or, alternatively, with the help of benevolent abled onlookers).
Dominant disability narratives, as Amanda Leduc points out in her book Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space, are often packaged around a pat ending that “solves” the “problem” of disability through erasure of it altogether, whether by death, cure, or charity (i.e., pity). In other words, they make off with the emotional loot of feel-good vibes or catharsis in a sort of narrative robbery, without addressing systemic oppression or even the actual people involved.
Echoing David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder in Narrative Prosthesis and Stella Young’s iconic work on “inspiration porn,” much of the reporting that addresses disability attempts to make it less than what it is. Limiting the scope of disability makes it easier to consume in bite-sized pieces of emotional capital: the bullying survivor who inspires pity and compassion; the overcomer who finds a cure.
When a story by a disabled creator or about disability is more complex and steps outside those bounds—by involving sexuality, for example, or anger about injustice—critics often try to reduce that complexity, oversimplifying and even misinterpreting what we see in order to cram it back into its predetermined frame.
One way we do this rhetorically is by writing about a disabled character or disability-focused story as a teaching moment, a parable for an implied “the rest of us”—belying an assumption that disabled people exist for the benefit and edification of nondisabled onlookers. Buzzwords like “heartwarming,” “overcoming,” “triumphant,” and, of course, “inspirational” are often clues that a review will take this shape.
We can also see these tendencies in criticism that glosses over the reality of disability rights as a political and social movement in favor of presenting it as a series of feel-good and tearjerker moments strung together by acts of individual goodwill.
But anger, for disabled people as for all marginalized groups, can be a propelling force. In “Musings from an Asian American Disabled Girl,” Alice Wong offers advice to her younger self about the value of anger as it pertains to maintaining disability pride and agency in the face of oppression. “Keep reading and stay angry,” she writes to a younger Wong.
But in a great deal of cultural criticism, disabled anger and rage are not allowed-for emotions.
In the case of Crip Camp, for example, many reviews focused on the more immediately palatable (and predictable) emotional aspects of individual pain, loneliness, and triumph rather than allowing space for the righteous anger that pervades much of the film to breathe. By opening up the range of emotions we are “allowed” to associate with disability, we can work to push back against the false narrative that disability rights were and are eventually “given” to disabled people in some sort of benevolent act of charity instead of hard-won with strategic political planning, direct action, and yes, rage.
Letting Disability Be
Mapping out the way we write about disability as cultural critics is not just a matter of avoiding offense or speaking more sensitively. It is also a matter of noticing how we map our own existential anxiety, shame, and discomfort onto the bodies and minds we perceive as other (which may even be our own, as we internalize these attitudes). The stereotype- and stigma-laden tendencies we take on when we interpret disability representation often lead us to miss the point—to miss the story in favor of a trite narrative we’ve already heard before.
We are ashamed, in many ways, by the familiar, by the stock characters of dystopian dreamlands. When we nightmare nervously about sweaty-palmed exams or a stranger bursting in on us in the buff, it’s because we have already been told countless times about what it implies to be a bad student or a naked stranger. Similarly, many of us think we know the endings of stories about disability, inhabited by a predictable set of stock characters, because we’ve heard them all before: that they should engender pity, perhaps a charitable tearjerking sort of uplift, and most of all, embarrassment and apology.
If I were to contribute to a style guide for journalists and critics writing about disability, my personal recommendation—which would likely get me kicked off the editorial team on the basis of insufferableness—would be to let disability be.
To let it live on the screen as it is, as open-ended and kaleidoscopic and confusing as everything else. To allow it the same complexity, creative analysis, and critical breathing room as every other human experience. To be unafraid to fix an analytical lens on it instead of allowing it only a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it glance for fear of offending (or, more commonly, for fear of having to confront your own anxiety). To get close to disability, critically speaking, instead of giving it a wide berth and a furtive look. To stop treating disability like Medusa or a car crash: either something you should look away from or something at which you can’t stop staring.
In this way, as critics evaluating disability in art, we might eventually move beyond awareness to analysis, past pity to empathy, and from inspiration to inquiry.
Laura Dorwart is a writer with bylines at The New York Times, Bitch, Bustle, The Guardian, SELF, McSweeney’s, VICE, Forbes.com, Playboy, SheKnows, TalkPoverty, and many other outlets. She has a Ph.D. from the University of California, San Diego; an MFA in nonfiction writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles; and a B.A. from Barnard College. Laura lives in Oberlin, Ohio, with her husband, Jason Dorwart, and their daughter. Follow her work on Twitter at @laurawritesit or at www.lauradorwart.com.
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