First, a note on terminology. “Cripping up” is a widely used term to describe the casting of able-bodied performers in the roles of disabled characters. Another term less widely used is “cripface.” Dominick Evans at The Crip Crusader explains in detail why this term is inaccurate and offensive. I will use “cripping up” because it is a term that is generally understood in the disabled community.
Secondly, this isn’t a polemic piece. I’m merely exploring ideas, not condemning or advocating anything. Some may argue that my failure to take a firm position is, in fact, a meaningful and/or harmful action. However, I would much rather put forward a discussion of ideas than an advocacy piece. I’m almost afraid to write this because even the simplest diction choices can be fraught with difficulty.
Thirdly, I’m including in this discussion of cripping up discussions of poor representation that may not simply arise from the casting of an able-bodied actor.
One argument against cripping up is that it takes roles away from disabled performers. In our culture right now, a similar discussion is happening when it comes to LGBT representations. The question of whether straight, cis performers should play LGBT characters is a debate happening among the public at large. The question of able-bodied performers playing disabled characters largely occurs only within the disabled community. One point made in favor of cripping up is that there are few disabled stars who can guarantee a return at the box office. It is true that there are few disabled performers of note. Yet, Marlee Matlin was a complete unknown making her film debut in Children of a Lesser God (1986) and that didn’t hurt box office returns there, nor did the casting of disabled newcomer Harold Russell prevent The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) from making money. However, both of those films featured stars in other major roles. It’s difficult to assess whether a film would make more money with a star in a leading role than with an unknown, particularly in this era of a rapidly changing media landscape where different platforms are changing the position that stars play in the success of a production.
Because cripping up is so rarely discussed, I have to turn to an example from a controversy over casting a trans role to illustrate this point. Scarlett Johansson was recently shamed out of playing Dante Tex Gill, a transman. She was seen as taking away a role from a trans performer, but that was not the case. Her dropping out of the movie did not open up a role for a trans actor. The movie (Rub and Tug) will not be made without her. If the Dante Tex Gill story is presented in a film, it will not be a major film with a $32 million budget, at least, not for a while. The question, then, is whether it’s better for the film to be made even if the performer is cis or better for the film not to be made at all. On the one hand, seeing representations of marginalized people in mainstream productions helps the marginalized people become more accepted in mainstream society. On the other hand, inaccurate representations of marginalized people can create misconceptions among the general public who may not know anyone from those marginalized groups in real life, e.g. if Scarlett Johansson did play Dante Tex Gill, it might further the erroneous notion that transmen are just women in men’s clothes. Sometimes, it comes down to the question whether the story is worth telling if it must be told with non-marginalized performer.
A cripping up performance can present various disabilities poorly. Often, able-bodied performers can’t adequately represent the physicality of their disabled characters. (I’m not going to say that they can’t understand the mental and emotional perspective of a disabled person because understanding and presenting different perspectives is their job, and I respect the craft of acting’s ability to do that.) However, with many mobility-related disorders, able-bodied actors just can’t move right. Hearing actors often poorly approximate the accent of the hearing-impaired or can’t demonstrate fluency with American Sign Language.
Able-bodied filmmakers and TV writers and producers, despite their best intentions, may not understand or be able to present disabilities properly. As far as I know, the only time my own disability, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, was depicted in film or television was in “The Dig” (2011) episode of House. I’ve never seen that episode because 1) I don’t watch the show; 2) people in the EDS community loathe it. From what I understand, the episode presents EDS as a crazy hoarding disease that causes miscarriages. I think seeing it would anger me. I understand, as much as I can, why many disability advocates are angered by poor representations of disability. I say “as much as I can” because I don’t have to see narrative media get it wrong all the time when it comes to EDS.
There’s only so much power a disabled performer can have when it comes to representation. The role on House was written a certain way, and an actress with EDS wouldn’t be able to change that. She might say that it completely misunderstood the disorder but not if she wanted the job. Children of a Lesser God included many hearing-impaired cast members, but none of them had the power to influence the production of the film, leading many of the ASL scenes to be so poorly rendered that they were unintelligible to people who knew ASL.
One issue that concerns cripping up that is not an issue with racial or sexual/gender minorities being played by non-marginalized performers is physical ability. Disabled performers sometimes can’t meet the rigors of filming. The difficulties that hearing-impaired or visually impaired performers may encounter when playing characters with those disabilities would be minimal and most likely would involve on-set safety, which can be accommodated. But mobility-impaired and cognitively impaired performers may be unable to do what is required by filming. I know that most people with EDS would not be able function for 18-hour days, and those with the comorbid condition of POTS (postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome) could not stand to be under the hot lights necessary for filming. When I was a teenager, I attempted to be in a school television show, but I couldn’t do it. EDS often causes photophobia, and I couldn’t keep my eyes open because of the brightness of the studio lights.
Certainly, a sincere effort can be made to accommodate casting a disabled performer. Micah Fowler (Speechless) manages to star on a sitcom. Lionel Barrymore was able to continue his career without any seeming abatement after he became confined to a wheelchair. I would be interested to learn what accommodations had to be made to allow Christopher Reeve to star in the TV-movie remake of Rear Window. I’m willing to accept, however, that some stories can’t be adequately told with disabled performers—for example, stories presenting characters before and after a disabling condition arises. A disabled actor often could not portray the “before” scenes. A good example is The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996). Much of the movie takes place before Flynt is paralyzed. Those scenes are necessary to the story being told. The scenes could not be rendered with a body double. An able-bodied actor, in this case Woody Harrelson, needed to be used. And this film is refreshing in that the story is not about a character being disabled. It’s a story about a man who happens to be disabled. There are not enough depictions where disability is just a fact of the person’s life and not the defining element of their story. A more recent example of a film where an able-bodied actor needed to be used to tell the story is The Theory of Everything (2014). A performer with ALS would have been unable to portray Stephen Hawking because the character goes through stages of ability that a disabled performer could not depict.
The Theory of Everything brings up another issue. Performers (both able-bodied or disabled) often win awards for playing disabled characters. Eddie Redmayne won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Hawking. In most cases, I find those awards to be undeserved—usually because the actor ends up playing the disability and not the character. My litmus test is imagining the performance without the disability as a factor and questioning whether the performance as the character is award-worthy. This test, however, is often insufficient because it ignores the question of whether the portrayal of the disability is accurate. That’s a difficult question to answer because able-bodied people are usually unfamiliar with the way a disability is supposed to look. Most hearing people wouldn’t be able to tell that Sally Hawkins’ ASL was atrocious when she played a mute character in The Shape of Water (2017). She was nominated for an Oscar. Yet, a performance where a performer who mangles an accent playing a non-disabled character would be jeered. Even disabled people are often unable to determine what is inaccurate in the performances of disabilities that are not their own.
A trickier issue arises when disabled performers are lauded for their performances. Performances by disabled performers can foster a greater understanding of that disability. My knowledge of disabilities outside of my own largely comes from depictions in movies, television, and books. Those depictions can foster empathy and understanding, particularly when created by performers with a disability. Consider how our view of the character might be altered if Captain Hook were portrayed by an actual amputee. And, yet, when disabled performers win awards, there’s often the question of what’s being acknowledged—the acting or the disability. The quality of Harold Russell’s performance in The Best Years of Our Lives and whether it deserved the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor can be debated. However, he also was presented with a special award for that performance for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans,” which sounds a lot like inspiration porn. (Note: Russell’s was the only case where two Oscars were awarded for the same performance.)
Personally, I would be thrilled if a movie or TV production was made with a character with EDS. I want one to be made with a big star so everyone will hear of it. I want Charlize Theron to play me. I don’t want the Charlize Theron from Monster all uglified. I want the glamorous Charlize Theron strutting around in her Dior gown, falling over when her knee subluxates, and, then, shoving that sucker right back into place (we do that). I’m not being flip—okay, I am being somewhat flip. I want EDS done right, not as a crazy-hoarding-miscarriage disease. But while I would reject outright misrepresentation, I would be happy with imperfect depiction. Above all, I want awareness. EDS is not a disorder that it widely known and, thus, research into it is poorly financed and organized.
This is not intended to be the last word on cripping up. These are just my thoughts as they spill out of my head on a Thursday evening.