Disability & Cinema
Note: This chapter was dropped to due word limit
Dr Darke’s PhD (1999)
The Discourse of Disability Imagery
'I feel that life is divided up in to the horrible and the miserable; those are the two categories, you know: the horrible would be like - um - I don't know, terminal cases, blind people, cripples. I don't know how they get through life, it's amazing to me. The miserable is everybody else. So when you go through life you should be grateful that you're miserable; you're very lucky to be miserable.'
Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) in Annie Hall (Woody Allen, US, 1977)
In analysing, primarily The Elephant Man, The Raging Moon, My Left Foot, and Duet For One, in this chapter, I examine how impairment is constructed in the discourse of disability as signified in dialogue, mise en scène, and the overall narrative. Looking at how characters are used and the particular discourses that are utilised; i.e. medicalisation, personal tragedy theory and any others. Each film tries in its own way to give an insight into what 'disability' is but shows 'disability' as uniform, pathological, and socially unattractive; a depiction which reinforces misconceptions and superstitions about the disabled without ever really challenging them. There is nothing wrong about not challenging a cultural norm if one so wishes, but, these films do imply that they are breaking new ground in their representation of disability when they are not.
I shall show in this chapter how a disabling discourse is used in these films to reinforce misconceptions - discourses and ideologies - about disability. In order to do this I must first give you a brief idea of what those conceptions are (often they are tied in with the stereotypical and archetypal, as you will see). Assumptions of disability as punishment, disabled people as asexual (and/or sex with the disabled as suspect), disabled people as dependent, depressed and preferably segregated (by their own choice). I shall deal with other areas as well as these but if we start on the assumption that these views are the norm we will start on common ground. In using the term 'discourse' (cf. Foucault) I refer to 'the individualised social networks of communication through the medium of language or non-verbal sign-systems. Its key characteristic is that of putting into place a system of linked systems' (Purvis and Hunt, 1993, p.485). Thus, in this analysis, I mean language and sign-system to mean aspects of film itself and the external (social) collective discursive consciousness of disability and impairment (disablist language, medicalisation, abhorrence) discourses that combine in the interpretative process of analysing these, or any, films. The discourse of disability is an economy of ideologies around the construction of impairment and disability which act to construct impairment as disability (the Social Model of disability); all I am doing is identifying one system (disability) in another (film) and examining how they interact rather than counteract one another.
In his book on stigma, Robert Page (1984) states that:
'the individual is assigned a "master status trait": this label will dominate all other "characteristics" of the individual [and all other characteristics] are subordinated to or negated by this trait, which is immediately felt to be more central to the "actual" identity of the individual'. (p.10)
In the case of a disabled person they become their impairment; the disability (the social interpretation of impairment) is displaced and becomes the pathological reality of the individual when it is, in fact, a social construct. The films studied not only pander to this displacement but seem to advocate it, and, consequently, only reinforce the stigma of disability as a pathological and individual state or problem.
In The Raging Moon the central character Bruce Pritchard becomes paralysed from the waist down due to a virus 'similar' to that which causes Polio. Interestingly, we are never given its name, a fact that could have been the beginnings of a positive step, but instead Bruce becomes one of a greater generalised band: the disabled as a collection of tragic individuals. On telling his brother that he is going into a home for the disabled Bruce states that you do not say 'cripple' to people like him because he is 'disabled'. As such, we are already getting statements that are premised on the idea of being individually rather than socially disabled. This is reinforced by the opening scenes in the 'home' he moves into: on arriving a fellow inmate's first question to him is: '[W]hat are you then?'. The questioner is impaired himself, he is in a wheelchair, and is (was) a famous 'real' 'disabled' person in popular culture: Michael Flanders. The knowledge of Flanders’ own situation, and that the question comes from an actually disabled person, validates the whole premise that 'you are what your impairment is'.
From this point on the film's setting (in an institution), as well as the narrative, assumes a naturalness for the characters' impairments. Bruce and all the other characters have impairments and, as such (or because of), they are in an institution; an institution that is questioned in relation to its quality but not in the fact of its existence (something I deal with below). In this film being disabled is synonymous with being in a 'home' (institution). The whole question of labelling an institution a 'home' being characteristic itself.
In Duet For One a quite different scene reinforces the same principle of the individual being their impairment. The central character Stephanie (Julie Andrews) is a renowned violinist and at a birthday party she plays falteringly. It is at her birthday party she plays and it is due to the onset of Multiple Sclerosis (MS), though this is not particularly significant in itself it becomes so. Stephanie’s star pupil, Constantine (Rupert Everett), is devastated and breaks down in tears (the fact that it is a man who cries merely confirms the despair of the situation), subsequently, fatalistic despair pervades the film from hereon. In a retort to Constantine's view that it is the end of her career, Stephanie asks if she should 'just go and shut myself up in a room and rot? Stop what I've done all my life?' Again we have a situation that starts hopefully; but we do not, subsequently, get a character that simply continues to live her life with MS rather than as its victim. The popular misconceptions of the speed and nature of MS are reinforced as the rest of the film proceeds to show Stephanie shutting herself up in a room and rotting until, that is, she realises that she can participate in society. Significantly though, it is participation that is only to ease other people's guilt about her condition, as, at the same time, she abdicates any responsibility from all normal equal relationships.
Stephanie's reaction to impairment is thus justified because not only does she become her impairment, she convinces her psychotherapist that it is the correct thing to do. At the end of the film Stephanie challenges her therapist by asking: '[H]ave you ever felt the pain, or the despair or the fear? You make your living from [client's] suffering and you don't understand a shred of it [ ... ]. Anyone of us is more qualified than you'. 'Us', here, are the disabled and the diseased. That Stephanie claims for her 'group' superior suffering, pain and despair, is negative in itself but when the therapist answers: 'I have no defence for your accusations', we have a situation (Stephanie's decision to 'give up') where irrationality is accepted and seen as preferable. If someone without a disability had withdrawn from society and given in to isolation, such an action would have been seen as a suitable case for strong social, if not medical, intervention. In this case it is justified because the character is 'suffering' from a disease and impairment. Suicide, in Stephanie's case, is seen as unacceptable but only because she leaves behind family and friends; it is so negative an idea that at the end of the film she has to tell her therapist she won't stop seeing him because he is so distressed: '[H]ow could I leave you now in such a state of despair'. The relationship between the therapist and Stephanie turns full circle at the end of the film so as to leave her helping the therapist with his fears; but only after he has convinced her that suicide is wrong because it makes the living (normal) feel bad. If she had no direct relationships, so the logic of the film would argue, suicide would be recommended purely on the basis of her impairment. The film, to some extent, needs to support the idea of disability as pathological (natural) to reinforce and support the idea of musical ability as being natural (or pathological) rather than tied up with class and educational opportunities. Consequently, the discourse of the Medical Model of life (and disability) is reaffirmed at the expense of the reality of MS (and life).
The examples in two of the other films of their characters' destiny being determined by their impairment, and given as the best course for it, is rather different and based more on the purely medicalised view of disability. For example, Christy Brown (Daniel Day-Lewis) in My Left Foot is helped by Doctor Cole (Fiona Shaw), a 'specialist' in Cerebral Palsy, at a clinic funded by charity. The very presence of a Doctor (who is 'upright' and 'concerned') validates specific treatment for Christy Brown in the specialised field rather than in generalised social interaction (i.e. in an integrated education setting). That a specialist is needed confirms the Otherness of disability as individualised, cause for concern and in need of help: a common discourse of disability management. Such practitioners as doctors appear in all six films of the thesis, a fact which suggests a dependency that must be cared for, controlled and supervised (or cured) by the medical profession; an indirect, rather literal, and non-critical representation of the Medical Model.
Rojek states that: '"care" is used as a euphemism for "control", "normality" for "discipline" [and] "helping" for "administration"' (Rojek et al, 1988 p.62), and the help that is given to Christy Brown is to place him in a therapy centre where he can be as (controlled) normalised (disciplined) as possible. Significantly, he hates it and refuses to go (based on self-hatred rather than awareness, I shall argue below) and is given home therapy instead. No help is given to Brown in his education, only his normalisation, because his impairment determines his life and the nature of the assistance from social agencies that he receives. At one meeting with the doctor Brown slurs the words '[F]uck off' to which the doctor replies (in an attempt to get him to have speech therapy): '[W]ith speech therapy you will be able to say "fuck off" more clearly'. The doctor is in reality offering Brown an attempt at normalisation, a normalisation from which she profits (career wise) as much as he does. The speech therapy also enacts a discipline upon Brown that takes from him his style of speech and replaces it with a normal one that others can understand and use. Consequently, Brown's private and familial language is replaced with a public - normal - language which, in turn, brings him under the hegemonic control of formal linguistic manipulation. Though a degree of conformity is required for communication to take place, the point about Brown's manner of speech is that it is seen as problematic. Problematic because it does not conform sufficiently to make it valid even though it is understood by a few; the same argument used to prevent Deaf people learning Sign Language over the past few centuries, and today (Davis, 1995; and Gregory and Hartley, 1991).
Interestingly, Mrs Brown (Brenda Fricker), Brown's mother, goes to the hospital without him to find out which wheelchair model is best for him, a situation that itself reinforces medical authority and power. Significantly, it is from this visit - the doctor the nurse is speaking to specifically requests Christy Brown’s address - that Doctor Cole traces Brown to enact her medical power upon. The nurse that Mrs Brown asks about the wheelchair is lit very well and is behind a desk which makes Mrs Brown insignificant, further emphasised by the lack of light on or behind Mrs Brown. Concomitantly, the authority of medical knowledge is clarified, and justified, and its silent administration activated. The fact that the doctor traces Brown from this meeting is never explicitly given, yet it must be the case because there is no other explanation obtainable from the film; mean that the silent power of 'administration' is present but never questioned or challenged. The Medical Model discourse of disability is thus shown as being without any apparent trigger and, as such, logical within the narrative; the lack of cause reinforces it as natural.
The case of the medical view of disability determining a disabled person's existence (the need for a controlling environment: i.e. institutionalisation) is more clearly seen in the treatment of John Merrick (John Hurt) in The Elephant Man. In Merrick’s case his impairment justifies his exclusion from society and his total supervision within an institutional environment. Merrick is seen living in the hospital (which later becomes his 'home') and being visited by society's élite, but the head nurse (Wendy Hillier) feels this to be wrong. The head nurse is subsequently accused of not giving Merrick any loving kindness by the surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), to which she replies: 'I bathed him, I fed him and I cleaned up after him. If loving kindness can be called care and practical concern then I did show him loving kindness'. The nurse is positioned looking up to Treves, who is looking down on her due to his height (and social position), and after listening to the nurse he steps back, and is against the wall, and apologises to the nurse. The retort of the head nurse on behalf of the 'front line carer' who does the dirty work ('cleaned up after') confirms and mystifies the reality that Merrick is prevented from doing any of those things for himself by society, in the form of the institution. For example, Merrick does not have free access to a bathroom or wash area. His deformity justifies his treatment regardless of his ability, an ability that is not assessed but which we are left to assume is merely that of making cardboard cathedrals. Thus 'love' and 'kindness' in the face of impairment is equated with feeding and washing; equality, or even friendship and respect, is never an option.
In one scene Doctor Treves is presenting his find, the Elephant Man, to the Pathological Society. We do not see Merrick as he is behind a curtain, we only see a silhouette of him, but Treves' authority is apparent by his title, character and position in front of the society and next to a medical map of the perfect human body. Treves says to the Pathological Society:
[I]n the course of my profession I have come across many lamentable deformities of the face due to injury or disease as well as mutilations and conditions of the body, depending upon like causes. But at no time have I met with such a perverted or degraded version of a human being as this man. I wish to draw your attention to the insidious condition affecting this patient. Note, if you will, the extreme enlargement of the skull, the right upper limb which is totally useless, the alarming curvature of the spine, the looseness of the skin and the varying fibrous tumours that cover ninety percent of the body. There is every indication that these afflictions have been in existence and have progressed rapidly, since birth. The patient also suffers from chronic bronchitis. As an interesting side note, in spite of the aforementioned anomalies, the patient's genitals remain entirely intact and unaffected. His left arm is perfectly normal, as you see.
So then gentlemen, owing to this serious condition: congenital exostosis of the skull, extensive papillomatous growth, large pendula masses in connection with the skin, the extreme enlargement of the right upper limb involving all the bones, the massive distortion of the head and the extensive area covered by papillomatous growth, the patient has been called the Elephant Man. Thank you.
In this case the medical language tends to hide the highly subjective valuations given to 'anomalies' of the individual. In the very beginning Treves calls all deformities: 'lamentable [ ... ] perverted [ ... and] degraded version[s] of a human being'; but this is not objective language based on science, it is the discourse of a normalising profession justifying its own position: if all patients are perverted because of their pathology the corrective nature of medicine is thus validated. The language used is more than the specific language of the period, it is highly medicalised: i.e. papillomatous and exostosis. Terms are utilised which place the historical views of Treves as those of today as well as in Victorian times as they are the same terms used in the present by a profession whose powers of social control, and status, have greatly increased.
Treves speaks the disabling discourse of fear, thus describing Merrick's condition as 'insidious', 'alarming' and 'useless'. These statements are value-laden and the apparent tragedy - the asexual life that is natural for the deformed - of unaffected genitals overtly implied. It is interesting to note that Treves basically repeats his diagnosis twice, once in a common language and once in medical terminology; consequently the language, and the discourse, of medicine is inadvertantly revealed as it fails to take account of the real horror of abnormality in the social sphere. The talk of tumours, afflictions and anomalies is aligned with talk of the insidious and of distortions to create a parallel that clarifies the corrective objectives of the medical profession; here tumours that exist are not objective facts but subjective 'evils' (why else call them insidious) to be exorcised. The closing statement that: 'owing to the serious condition [ ... ] the patient has been called the Elephant Man' does not challenge the association of Merrick with an elephant (as animalistic) at all, it condones it by a lack of condemnation. This is an interpretation reinforced later in the film when a nurse goes to feed Merrick and screams and, without knowing why the nurse is screaming, the hospital administrator says, straight into the camera with all the authority of its performer, John Gielgud: 'Elephant Man'. It is a reaction that accepts the 'horror' of abnormality as inevitable and justifiable.
Within the rest of the film's narrative (i.e. the surveillance and incarceration of Merrick) the professional language of medicine ceases to be a means to change or improvement but a means to an end of maintaining and extending medicine’s power. As when Merrick is institutionalised (under the guise of it being his 'home') with total control exercised over him. Medical discourse is enacted in The Elephant Man to mystify the ideology of disablement that is inherent in it by displacing the cause and reason for disablement onto the individual and their impairment.
Language is one of the main ways in which disability is mythologised as a uniform pathological state that can, and should be, marginalised and managed. Cripple in all of the films studied is given as the name of a certain group of people, all having certain characteristics that are classified as unnatural by their anatomy and bodily state. These films are unable to prevent the appropriation of their disabled characters' bodies by society because the film is a product of that mythologising society, and ideology, itself. Just as Barthes (1983) writes about myth, in this case the term and implications of the word cripple: 'it hides nothing: its function is to distort, not to make disappear' (p.121); he continues: '[M]yth does not deny things, on the contrary, its function is to talk about them; simply it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them clarity which is not that of explanation but that of statement of fact' (p.143). Disability, the cripple, in these films is mythologised as a personal tragedy to purify disablement of any hint of social responsibility for disability; thus disablement is falsified in the name of normality and to mystify society's role in creating it (a similar process/function to that of stereotypes etc.).
When Jill (played by Nanette Newman), in The Raging Moon, tells her father that she wishes to go back to the 'home' because there she can 'be what I am', it naturalises her exclusion from society (in a 'home') as intrinsic and voluntary. ‘[W]hat I am’ can oly mean being in a wheelchair, in a place of her preference and in social isolation, given the narrativive logic of the film. It also disconnects the idea of the home from history as a creation by mystifying it in the emotion, and desire for it, from Jill. The discourse of disability as impairment for these films is premised on de-contextualizing disability from its social context or construction. In dealing with their subjects, openly, these films merely entrap smaller and smaller stereotypes and archetypes of impairment that mythologises the disabled still further into the realm of the crippled. The ‘crippled’ here being the incontinent, dependent, childlike, asexual, liminal and embarrassing people who would prefer that they were left to be 'what they are' in isolation.
The idea of the disabled justifying their treatment because of their own self-hatred is a key element in all the films' evaluation of what disability is but it is impossible to divorce self-hatred from its causation. As such, the character's aspirations are, usually, combined to give us the 'disabled' person's apparent, generalised, state of well being: despair and depression at his/her own situation and not that of society's.
A line from early on in Duet For One demonstrates my point. Stephanie (Julie Andrews) reveals to her therapist, Dr Louis Feldman (Max Von Sydow), that she has MS; she continues: 'Well, it's a god-damned creeping paralysis isn't it, it can strike at any time without warning, no stopping it, no cure. I'm afraid of it. What do you think?' She says this in a 'bitter' and sarcastic tone, with tears welling in her eyes as she sits in a chair which is lost in a background of darkness and void of life. The therapist, on the other hand, is well lit, windows behind him, a desk covered in the artefacts of life (books, diary, family photographs and sweets) with movement - walking about - as his general attitude. On being told that his patient has MS he gets up and starts to walk around and fidget with things; it is as if he needs to re-assert that he has all the power because he has the ability to walk and control his bodily movement.
In calling MS: 'a God-damned creeping paralysis', it is paralleled with God's damnation and will; causation is thus related to acts of God. Punishment indeed, but what for? In the same therapy session Stephanie states that she and her husband David (Alan Bates): 'didn't have time for [children or a family]', because they were too busy with their careers, particularly her. Consequently, one can interpret the scene to infer that a selfish nature is offered as the probable reason for punishment. Self-hatred is also evident here in that she is beginning to hate her body (and herself) now that it is not functioning as it once normally did. The perspective that if body control is not possible it must be hated seems, understandably, to be the view Stephanie has. Significantly, it also seems to be the film-makers’ viewpoint; the narrative logic clearly shows the desire to abdicate from society because one has a disability as admirable and preferable. Subsequently, further into the therapy session, Stephanie begs Dr Feldman for a 'method or some trick' that will cure it as life is meaningless for her now without absolute body control.
At a later therapy session the doctor tells Stephanie that she has options, one of which she chooses: 'self mutilation'. As a consequence of having an affair with a local scrap metal merchant, Stephanie tells her therapist that she has chosen self mutilation (self-hate) because: '[I]t is dark and warm there'. 'Where?', asks the therapist. 'I'm fucking a totter [ ... ] you know a junk man [ ... ] we fuck on Thursdays [ ... ]', replies Stephanie. On inquiring as to what the point is, the therapist is told: 'Fucking I think'. Consequently, we can see that relationships have ceased to have meaning and have become mere 'fucking' (self-mutilation) for Stephanie, the disabled person. Perhaps it is an amusing joke for the writer that it is with a rag and bone man; when one becomes disabled one is mere junk with respect gone for oneself and, consequently, others too. The film condones such a view by having Stephanie (on becoming rational, i.e. giving up 'fucking') become asexual by only having memories of love with no attempt (or inclination) to experience love in the present. This is signified in the film when Stephanie becomes the doctor's friend and sits under the tree she shared with her husband, in her younger, loving days, alone and waiting for the end (literally, as the final titles roll, but also metaphorically for her in death).
Stephanie is redeemed from her 'fucking' in perhaps the most unsatisfactory way possible. Stephanie successfully encourages her husband to cuckold her with the 'lovely legged' (as Stephanie tells her she is) Penny (Cathryn Harrison), his secretary. At which point the husband becomes a success, has a child, and becomes a better person for it (all within a 'family' unit); an outcome only possible because Stephanie has withdrawn from any rights she has to happiness or motherhood. Stephanie's abdication from normal social relations is aptly summed up by the closing scene under the tree: the doctor, husband and pregnant secretary are all out walking along together, on their way to Stephanie's house for a party, when Stephanie sends the group in together whilst she stays outside. Significantly, Stephanie, on seeing that the group inside are all having a wonderful time in the warm (whilst she is outside in the bleak autumn cold), wanders off to sit under the tree alone and awaiting death.
Stephanie is only happy when she accepts her segregation from society, in fact, in the logic of the film, society cannot be happy or efficient (reproductive) either until she - the disabled - has withdrawn from it; meaning that a disabled person's own rights must be dismissed for the greater good. Disability is here seen to degrade the individual so much so that non-participation in society is essential if the rest of society is to function as it normally should. The husband's sanctioned adultery is rewarded with happiness, success and children whilst Stephanie only gets 'fucked' and is 'fucking' (a metaphor for debased sexual promiscuity) a 'stud' from the lower classes who is breeding other 'crosses to bear' (as the junk man's wife describes their 'hole in the heart' child). Equally, such a liaison implies a classist view of benevolence towards disability that is really malevolent; a considered relationship with a disabled person is implied as one of physical help and not sexual involvement: i.e. you help them get around, you do not 'fuck' them. The junk man, as the father of a disabled child, also places sexual contact with an impaired individual as liable to further breeding of 'crosses to bear' squarely in the realms of the working class. The working class is represented, to make the point crystal clear, in Duet For One as seedy and greedy; similarly to how The Elephant Man represents the working class as well as The Raging Moon and My Left Foot. The fact that the rag and bone man's wife does not mind his liaison with Stephanie, because he is such a 'good' person, implies that the 'fuck' is really only a charity 'fuck' anyway. As Stephanie repays the 'totter' (Liam Neeson) with the gift of a violin worth £250,000, it seems to show that charity pays off and, more seriously, that excessive compensation is essential if any physical contact with the disabled is required.
Duet For One and The Raging Moon are similar in that they are both about characters who become disabled and subsequently denigrate themselves through self-hatred; a practice which validates disablist disability discourse, because if the disabled hate themselves then it justifies the attitudes of others about impairment. It justifies their segregation because those who know about disability, the disabled, hate it also. Individualised self-hatred removes responsibility of oppression and repression from society at large and places it on the individual and, even more dubiously, it accepts it as natural; it is, in fact, a typically essentialist view of what disability is. This aspect of the characterisation of Stephanie, and Bruce and Jill, could be classified as archetypal if taken on its own, but the wider context in which the characters appear makes the overall image stereotypical. What we see in the narrative of these films is the process of the disabled de-valuing themselves to order. A social and body order that separates and marginalises the disabled in this specific era, thus, and this is the key, they are stereotypical images created for a specific contemporary cultural purpose: the validation of institutionalisation and social marginalisation. If the disabled de-value themselves it excuses and justifies others, with or without impairments, doing the same. Equally, the mimicry of normal society within the institution (by Merrick and others in The Raging Moon) infantilises the disabled to such an extent that it metonymically praises, validates and reinforces the ideals of normality. Normality is thereby made, essentially, the most insidious discourse constructed alongside, and out of, the totality of disability discourses.
In The Raging Moon Bruce is told by another resident that: 'in our position we have to take what we can get [ ... and ... ] make the effort to be accepted [ ... because ... ] you don't want to be one of those: the vegetables!'. The speaker is given extra authority by the fact that she is only on crutches and is leaning over Bruce. This speech inadvertently reveals much about impairment and how culture constructs it; it implies that the impaired person's position in society is no one else's fault but their own. Whilst this conversation is going on a group of disabled people in the background are watching television, and on it someone is stating that the problems of modern society are created by 'promiscuity'. The raising of the notion of promiscuity ensures we are left in no doubt of the point be made as during the film that Bruce has been 'promiscuous' is clear. Thus, 'promiscuity' (along with its punishment: impairment and institutionalisation) is the amoral - moral - reason given for Bruce's impairment and disablement.
The discourse of disability represents the impaired as pathetic, thus when another resident gives Bruce a list of 'what they can get' as leisure pursuits they turn out to be a list of craft activities which are the traditional therapeutic activities of institutions (similar to Merrick's building of cardboard cathedrals). When Bruce does get his big chance at employment it is as a telephonist - an occupation often deemed suitable for disabled people as it is traditionally 'easy' work and, as such, 'womens' work'. For someone who is physically impaired it is an occupation in which you cannot be seen; an occupation where the body is invisible to the user of the service. The speech about the 'vegetables' gives an insight into the hierarchy of impairments, both within the disabled community as well as the community at large, from physical to mental impairment with 'the vegetables' being the lowest of the low (now labelled as Learning Difficulty). The language of 'the vegetable' is the key to defining such a hierarchy whilst at the same time implying that the physically impaired should be grateful for not being the mentally impaired. Just as the film tells the normal viewer that they should be grateful for the fact that they aren't impaired physically, the physically impaired are (and told to be) grateful that they are not impaired mentally.
A further scene, early on in The Elephant Man, goes further in showing the hierarchy of suffering as validated by the medical profession: after Merrick has been shown to the Pathological Society he leaves and Treves is asked by another doctor about Merrick's mental ability. Treves replies: '[O]h, he's an imbecile, probably, from birth. The man's a complete idiot. I pray to God he's an idiot.' Imbecility (or Learning Difficulty) is seen here as preferable if you have a severe deformity, so much so that Treves prays that Merrick is an imbecile. Consequently, deformity and intelligence are seen in two ways: preferably not compatible and totally unbearable if combined; implying that 'quality of life' is negligible, or not possible, if one is an 'imbecile' and deformed. Also, as Merrick is only 'helped' and 'cared for' once it is discovered that he is not an 'imbecile', not being an imbecile can be interpreted in two ways. Firstly, that deformity combined with intelligence is deemed to be so horrible that it requires as much amelioration as possible and, secondly, that deformity with a mental impairment can, literally, be dismissed. Here we can see the idea of the 'good cripple' and the 'bad cripple' in play; the one that can participate in an institutionally controlled normalising programme is an example of the 'good cripple', and the one that can't is the 'bad cripple'.
The juxtaposition of disability with religion in all these films is quite striking; four of them give exact quotes from Christian religion's official texts and representatives: i.e. the Bible and Priests. Again, these are used to make more than one point: they confirm the cause of impairment as God's retribution for an evil past and they comment upon the supposed essence of disability. The reason for falling back on old myths is perhaps best explained by what Nietzsche says of how language is used as an: '[E]xplanation: that is the expression of a new thing by means of the signs of things already known' (cited in Kiess et al, 1979, p.71). The 'new' thing that needs explaining is the new demands for recognition of disability as a social construct by disability activists; thus a new explanation of impairment is needed by society of impairment in order to return the disabled to a traditionally submissive position. What could be better than to get them to do it themselves through self-hate.
In Duet For One the funeral of Stephanie's piano accompanist takes place, and the scene is strangely lit. It is lit in a way that highlights the priest as an angel or messenger of God, as someone who has come to pass judgement: a beam of light directly lights him whilst all around are in the dark. Previously, the pianist is quite a peripheral character along with having a 'good' nature. The priest states: 'We die the common death of all mankind, for all have sinned, and the wages of sin is death', and the authority of the speaker, from the way he is lit is, quite literally, God-given. There is little else to the scene apart from the priest's address, thus it is a scene that, if taken in context, suggests itself to be a comment on the central story of Stephanie. From what Stephanie has told her therapist about death a terrible death is the only possible result of MS (generalised to disability in general) and the paralleling of death and disability, sin and disability, ensure that disability can be seen as a moral consequence premised on beware, behave and conform signs. The priest states that 'all' die the 'common' death - the pianist had died a peaceful, natural death, Stephanie tells us at one point - but the disabled (i.e. Stephanie) have or are going to have a terrible death. A terrible death due to impairment and illness being seen as symbolic, in the film, as resulting from the evil one has committed. An evil, which in the case of Duet For One, is going against the natural order of family and reproduction. In five of the six films discussed herein in detail the central characters die or are about to die. Even the exception, My Left Foot, was released amid press coverage of Brown's death at a relatively early age (G. Brown,1989).
The use of death is interesting in itself: these films tend to take place in winter or autumn and the talk, or vision, of dead leaves is used in two of the films. Disabled people's lives are, as a consequence, thus seen and represented as liminal lives: not quite alive whilst waiting for death to release them from the misery of their impairments, thereby implying an implicit aspect of most disability discourse. When Stephanie tells her therapist, and dead pianist (a scene in the twilight of her suicide attempt), in Duet For One, that she is going to die a terrible death, she is stressing its imminence and its control over the rest of her life. Consequently, it determines her life as an essentially morbid existence (thus her repeated visions of death) and turns it into a life that is devoid of human sexuality and desire. The dead, the cold, those devoid of corporeality, are her only friends; epitomised in the scene when Stephanie, for the second time in the film, near the end, is waved to by her dead pianist;
All the films under discussion rely upon their main characters dying younger than is perceived to be normal. That some disabled people die young is not really the issue, the issue is that they are overly represented in such a manner, and are seen as merely waiting for the end. Merrick commits suicide, for example, at the end of Lynch's film in a scene that portrays Merrick as carrying out an act of courage, whereas, suicide, under normal (or similarly normal) circumstances, is considered an act of someone who is mentally ill. In The Raging Moon the 'inmate' of the home that Bruce falls in love with, Jill Matthews, dies after they commit themselves to one another (the doctor says to Bruce: 'people like [ ... ]', failing to finish the sentence in such a way as to give the viewer free rein to project their own generalisations onto the disabled as they die); for Stephanie, we are left in no doubt, it is just a matter of time after the closing titles till she dies. Equally, Ken in Whose Life Is It Anyway? fights, and wins, a fight to commit suicide and Joe Egg, the logic of the narrative tells us, is not going to be much longer on this earth. For all the films discussed death and disability are two sides of the same coin; thus they make a coherent image of disability that feeds into and, at the same time, constructs a common discourse of impairment as a liminal state (Murphy, 1991).
The Raging Moon complicity signifies – from a Social Model perspective - the most negative aspect of the discursive and ideological conception of disability as the end of normal and/or fulfilling life; one scene in particular exemplifies this. Early on Bruce is in hospital and his sister-in-law is in the hospital visitors waiting room with her husband. The sister-in-law is given a degree of authority by an earlier scene at her in-laws house when she is the only person who faces facts in relation to the newly impaired Bruce: his previous home's inaccessibility and that he is not going to walk again. In the visitors waiting room she states that she 'feels sorry for him too, but [she and her husband have] got their lives to think about now. I mean his is over'. As she makes this speech she is forefronted with her husband and the hospital ward in the background with the camera looking up to her to reinforce her authority. When she makes this statement ambiguity is present in that she is not a particularly nice person. The film progresses in such a way as to completely validate her statements as the reality of impairment. A reality that is defined as a life of no sport, no sex, no independence and only a blanket across your legs as you wait for death in the very near future (i.e. in the diegesis, etc., of The Raging Moon and the other films discussed).
Christy Brown is confronted by a priest early on in My Left Foot and told: '[N]ow son you know you can never get out of hell, you can get out of purgatory but you can never get out of hell'. The philosophy of God's participation in disability is again clear in the logic of this film, as is his judgement on disability itself (purgatory and probably hell). God’s significance to disability is signified by having religion as a key thread of the Brown family - and the film - and by the film's use of religious iconography around the Mother (see below) and the Father. Later in the film we see a self-portrait by Brown entitled 'hell' to reinforce the priest's point that Brown's life as a cripple is hell. It is also backed up by his desire to light candles at church with his mother in order to get other 'poor souls' (as his mother states) out of purgatory. The fact that Brown voluntarily lights the candles, and then as an adult paints a picture called 'Hell', supports the view of cerebral palsy as, in itself, hell; thus the film endorses such a view as a 'truthful' aspect of the discourse (medical and social) of Cerebral Palsy. Put simply, the film is about someone who does his best to overcome the 'hell' of his impairment. Equally, the priest - having read Leviticus one presumes - subsequently suggests (and is unquestioned) to Mrs Brown that Brown not be taken to church for communion; thereby emphasising his marginalisation from society as God-given rather than socially constructed in either contemporary religious or cultural discourse.
My Left Foot is probably the most heavily laden film in relation to the use of self-hatred. The best example is when, upon being taken to the clinic for the first time, Christy Brown has to get into an ambulance which is full of other cripples and, at first, Brown refuses; subsequently refusing to continue going to the clinic because it is full of cripples. Mixing with other people who have Cerebral Palsy is an anathema to Brown as he hates to be with other cripples. The only reason, taken to its logical conclusion, why Brown cannot bear to be with cripples is because he is ashamed of his own condition. Thus it is the impairment that Brown hates and not the treatment of those in society who have a similar condition. Near the end of the film the 'good' Doctor Cole asks Brown to come and do a public appearance for the clinic to help raise funds; the conversation goes like this:
Doctor Cole: It's a good cause.
Christy Brown: The cripples?
Doctor Cole: The cripples!
Christy Brown: I'll try to behave myself.
Doctor Cole: Sure it won't upset you too much?
Christy Brown: I'll anaesthetise myself.
The conversation is shot from Brown's eye-level, above that of the doctor who is sitting low down on a sofa, by a window, the light of which is shining on Brown, making his view positively highlighted above that of the doctor. It is the cripple that is saying it about himself and his 'own kind' (something that happens in both The Raging Moon and Duet For One). Thus, any advance in giving a positive representation of people with Cerebral Palsy is forced back into the past (as spastic) as he talks of himself in such a way that it re-validates the myths of the cripple and the discourse of disablement. When Brown says he will have to anaesthetise himself, he means he has to get drunk in order to be seen with or, more importantly, to be seen as a cripple. What is suggested here is that impairment is something that cannot be faced by others because even if you have one yourself one cannot endure impairments in other people. Thus, society's view of disability is adopted by all the characters, and their reality appropriated by the film and society in turn, in order to justify and validate the oppression and individualisation of disability as impairment. The ideology, in the discourse of impairment as disability, is thus continually constructed whilst reinforcing other aspects of connected discourses and ideologies: medicine, charity and family, to name just three.
Disability as a 'good cause' is not challenged it is represented solely as an upsetting reality in need of charitable and medical assistance or rectification. I do not doubt that the film is reflecting society at large, but the film is not simply representing reality but advocating its representation as true and valid by its acceptance of what it is representing and the disabled characters own submission to it with and through self-hatred. Brown hates the reality of the condition Cerebral Palsy as much (if not more) than the socio-economic factors which restrict his (and his family's) life.
Merrick also participates in self-hatred while having tea at the Treves. Firstly, he apologises for making a 'spectacle' of himself (crying at the sight of the beautifully pure Mrs Treves) leaving one to infer that Merrick is the 'spectacle' that needs apologising for - Mrs Treves' reactions to him can signify little else: i.e. her difficulty in not crying. The irony of what is a spectacle in the home (emotion) compared to the spectacle of the freak is not lost on the film-makers; but it is explored as little more than irony rather than revealing the arbitrary nature of manners and bourgeois cultural norms. Secondly, later in the same scene, he states that he must have been 'a disappointment' to his mother because of his appearance. A comment which, by Treves' attempt to convince him otherwise and Mrs Treves' tears and inability to humour Merrick without crying, reinforces that he is probably right and that to expect differently is deluded and pathetic. Consequently, self-hatred of one's disability is seen as not being dependent upon whether you obtain your impairment later in life or from birth. When Merrick says 'sorry' for crying (etc.) it is for existing as much as his condition; an apologetic stance that permeates all the films looked at here.
When Merrick quotes from the Bible it is from Psalm 23: '[E]ven though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me'. Merrick, as a consequence, places himself in the liminal state so often unquestionably advanced about impairment. Deformity is paralleled, again, with death, evil and God's will. Equally, Merrick's speech is given authority by the fact that he is the only one wearing white (a symbol in the film of purity) in this scene; a scene he shares with two doctors, both of whom are in black coats. Although this view of impairment is middle class, and shown to be so, it is ultimately given as the only metaphysically viable one given the negativity of other interpretations (freak show, working class et al) and the scale of the deformity and need for Christian charity. he whiteness of his attire in this scene is starkly contrasted with his usual attire of a dark garb; a garb in which he normally hides. As Merrick accepts his condition with great dignity, he accepts his isolation and separation from society at large with dignity, along with the assumption that it is God's will and not just that of his society. Merrick's 'sorry' and 'thank yous' are repeated increasingly as he is institutionalised with such statements, consequently, placing him (and the deformed) in a dependent state that necessitates institutionalisation as a pathological necessity only suitable for incarceration.
The use of a Bible quote in The Raging Moon is used to de-sexualise, reinforce the punishment theory of disability, and infantilise the disabled. When Bruce upsets a few visitors, at the open day that the 'home' is having, he is called into Matron's office and summarily 'told off'. During this censure - an act that alone trivialises the lives of disabled people to infantilism - the local priest states that God will undoubtedly admit Bruce to heaven one day. Bruce retorts: '[N]o, not me. Deuteronomy chapter 23, verse 1; and I quote: "[H]e whose testicles are crushed or whose male member is cut off shall not enter the assembly of the Lord". That's me ladies and gentleman [ ... ]'. On hearing this I suspected that it was supposed to be a typically 'bitter' jibe from Bruce, but these are the exact words of Deuteronomy 23, verse 1. These quoted words from the Bible, God, reinforce the idea that impairment is a punishment for transgressions against the existing order of things. Thus Bruce's earlier 'promiscuity' and subsequent 'castration' are represented as true with the desexualisation of disability reinforced. The reality is that, at worst, Bruce is only impotent; but 'castration' is an exaggeration that places Bruce as sensitive, and bitter. The fact that Bruce can be seen as characteristically 'bitter' can be traced to his infantile tendencies; as when he refuses to talk to his brother when he leaves Bruce in the 'home'.
On first introducing himself to Jill, Bruce says: '[D]epressing isn't it. All these people sitting around here in wheelchairs'. Bruce's attitude is seen as 'bitter', even by Jill, but it also puts Bruce in the position of feeling that if you are in a wheelchair it is intrinsically depressing irrespective of it being a lived reality for both himself and all the other 'inmates'. Being an 'inmate' in an institution is thus given as a metaphor for being imprisoned in a wheelchair and a prisoner within one's own body. An image reinforced visually in all the films under discussion in this thesis.
Again, I do not doubt that some disabled and ordinary people are impotent, but in all the films studied sex and disability do not mix in any conventional method. Duet For One has the sex act turned into self mutilation; with the only relationship that could be sexual with mutual respect being given as a lesbian one and therefore presented as aberrant. Although superficially one could argue that these relationships are based upon a simple power inequality the additionality of impairment increases the power inequality to being something greater: an apparent natural (pathological) inequality. In Merrick's case sex is a non-starter (and a couple, with restricted growth are so simplistic that they are represented as basically children). Equally, My Left Foot deals with sex in a way that doesn't admit it as a possibility. The other films in the thesis are no different either. Christy Brown's main sexual excitement in My Left Foot is when he sees his sister's naked shoulder, and disgust and frustration at hearing his parents bed rattling one night. Brown wishes to develop his relationship with his doctor into a fuller relationship but the relationship remains platonic; culminating in a drunken scene in a restaurant, a scene which only indicts Brown and verifies and validates that he is seen as asexual by intelligent and educated people. The ‘cripple’ is here the mere object of platonic relationships. The scene's exaggerated reaction to the uneasiness of normal people in the presence of impairment also cites Christy Brown as guilty of intolerance; a failure on his part combined with 'bitterness' to accept his condition and place within society towards his reality. Brown's abuse merely mystifies - rather than reveals - the construction of normal people's uneasiness behind the drunken embarrassment that Brown causes.
Consequently, I would argue, the discourse of disability as asexual, or sexually deviant (another reference back to the stereotype as identified by Barnes, 1992, et al), is implicitly referred to in the scenes that use sexuality to further demean those with impairments as second class citizens. The film implicitly enacts a common cultural stereotype of impairment to demean and negate the impaired both politically and sexually.
Brown's sexuality is given an interesting twist that is equally rooted in a general misconception of impairment as disability, a misconception (shared belief, ideology) which states that disabled people marry nurses who care for them, rather than have sex with them, as they are asexual. As when Brown marries his nurse, a nurse who has already likened herself to his mother in her actions and appearance: early on in the film she states that Brown: 'shouldn't think [she's his] mother just because [she's] looking after (him)'. A statement that immediately plants the parallel logic of mother/nurse/wife in relation to those who marry with someone with an impairment such as Cerebral Palsy. It is, of course, a break from the discursive thrust of The Raging Moon, which emphasises the perspective that impaired people should only marry other impaired people. A discursive thrust signified when the sexual contact between Bruce and Jill (however oral) turns out to be fatal for Jill, adding to the view that when the impaired do 'relate' it should not be of a sexual nature.
The discourse, and ideology, of disability and impairment is not coherent or particularly consistent in its cultural manifestations and processes, the coherence is in its invalidation of people with impairments as equal in their physical or mental difference. These films are part of the overall disabling discourse but they are not the whole story (Liachowitz, 1988; Barnes, 1991; and Barton, 1996, clearly demonstrate this); their significance in the overall picture is that their cultural currency is considerable.
Earlier on in the film The Raging Moon Jill is due to marry a normal man, not a 'real' man (no 'real' man would want to marry a cripple in these movies), a man: 'looking for an out', as Jill states. Thus we have a disabled woman being put in a position where she can obtain independence outside the institution but chooses not to, preferring instead a stifling institution which is, to her, her 'home'; making it another example of the disabled choosing the institution instead of society through self-hatred. Interestingly, I would argue, Jill's decision is supported by the terribly negative persona of the normal man: a weak person with a touch of campness to him; an un-masculine man with no charisma. Consequently, no 'real' man would be drawn to: 'a thirty-one year old crippled woman', as Jill describes herself to him, and, as such, there would have to be something wrong with any 'real' man that would even consider marrying a cripple.
There is a tendency for disabled people to be an embarrassment in these films; with terms used which imply potential embarrassment as well as actual embarrassment. For example, when, on arranging to take the two characters in The Raging Moon to the seaside, Bruce suggests (however jokingly) to the 'good' helpers that they had: 'better pack an extra bedpan'. Bruce implicates his own bodily functions as uncontrollable and liable to be in evidence whenever he (a person with impairments) leaves the institution. An interpretation confirmed at the end of the film when Bruce returns from the hospital (having heard that his fiancée has died) in the 'home's' van having: 'pissed [himself ... ] all over [his] chair'. Consequently, disabled people are deemed as uncontrollably incontinent, stigmatised, by such incontinence and to be avoided because of it.
The error is that incontinence is generalised and deemed intolerable; as when one of the helpers tells Bruce: 'It doesn't matter', to which he replies: '[I]t does matter. Everything matters. If I don't believe that I've had it'. Some people are incontinent and others aren't, this scene acts to differentiate between the 'good cripple' (who tries his best to control his bodily functions) and the 'bad cripple' (to whom it doesn't matter). The normalising effort, and effect, only marginalises further those unable to fit the normal idea(l) of continence. The principle is similar to that of the disabled who can function well in a normalising society; it is all well and good for them but it negates those who cannot, through no fault of their own, or anybody else's, function normally due to their impairment. Equally, faeces is only faeces, it is not some sign of inner evil (et cetera), as it is often seen and represented as in the discourse and ideology of physical and moral Otherness.
The disabled in these films are seen to be equally liable to embarrassing verbal outbursts against those who 'help' or 'care for' them. Brown's drunken scene at the restaurant is one such scene, as is Bruce's references to his testicles and male member. Stephanie's character in Duet For One does and says similarly 'embarrassing' things to her therapist, maid, agent, husband and friends; and says the word 'fuck', and its derivatives, to a good many people. Merrick's very presence in public is given as cause enough to start a riot. Disability is thus given as embarrassing and to be avoided, preferably institutionalised, when there is a potential for such embarrassment to occur or get out of hand (such as the riot Merrick causes). Such extremes of reaction, potential and real, are all part of the normalizing pressure (from all implicated cultural discourses) that disabled and non-disabled people face; thus it is unreasonable to ever blame any individual for their disabling attitudes either against an impaired person or from impaired people against themselves. It does not stop it being in error, or wrong, but it does explain it.
The institution as 'home' is clearly stated as preferable in both The Elephant Man and The Raging Moon. Merrick in The Elephant Man is taken into the institution firstly for examination, secondly for treatment and finally as a resident. Upon being admitted permanently, the head nurse says: 'Welcome Home'. It is implied that this hospital, and many like it, is the rightful abode of all those who are deformed. A view reinforced by Merrick's own response to being 'welcome[d] home': he joyously, and with pride (tears welling in his eyes), responds: '[M]y home'. The reality is that he is being admitted to an institution merely because his appearance scares, terrifies and demeans non-middle class citizens. Citizens' whose fear and horror is validated by Merrick's own acknowledgement that: '[N]aturally some people do find my appearance disturbing. People are frightened by what they don't understand; and it is hard to understand even for me'. If we combine this with the fact that Merrick screams at the sight of his own face when shown it in a mirror (on two occasions), this validates an intolerance of what one looks like if that someone is deformed. Public understanding is not likely to improve by institutionalising and separating him from mainstream society; a fact born out by recent improvements in the social acceptance of the disabled due to integration over the last twenty years. That many people can, and do, accept his appearance (including us as we watch the film), highlights an inconsistency in the film and in society's treatment of the deformed. Such an inconsistency is an inconsistency that the ideology of disablement - of which these films are a part - is 'designed' to either erase or mystify its subject but which, in the process, reveals itself at the same time.
One of the helpers in The Raging Moon has hopes of: 'building an ideal home for cripples; locks on the doors, a bar, the lot' and Bruce asks to be one of its first 'inmates'. Independent Living for disabled people is never mentioned as an option for Bruce and Jill within the community, at least never in a practical way, in a period just when it was taking of as concept and social work option (Barnes, 1990). In fact, Independent Living as a couple is ridiculed by all except the starry eyed lovers who are portrayed as being like two children and, as such, can be dismissed or simply humoured. The institution is again validated as the only real option for people like Jill and Bruce (the disabled), so much so that even a totally separate community is here being advocated; a closed community where even a drink can be had on the premises. Institutionalisation seems to be a slightly out-dated aspect of disability discourse as other forms of social management of the deformed, the abnormal, have been developed, primarily abortion and genetic screening and counselling. Significantly though, institutionalisation is still highly prevalent as part of the discourse and the lived reality of many people with impairments of one kind or another. Many normal people still see institutionalisation as positive and beneficial for the individual and the community at large (Oliver and Barnes, 1998).
Another example of disability discourse at work in The Raging Moon is when Jill tells her father early on in the movie that she wishes to go back to the home as: 'they leave you alone there, you can be what you are, you can be independent'. A slight misrepresentation of the reality to say the least; the film clearly shows that the residents are never left alone, not allowed to leave the premises without permission, that there are no locks on doors and that independence is not possible. Independence is a word that means one of two things to the disabled community. Firstly, independence to do things for oneself and/or, secondly, independence to have the assistance you need to do what, where and when, you wish done at your convenience or desired time; neither is possible in this institution yet Jill still wants to be in it. The key to Jill's statement that 'you can be what you are' is revealed by her seeing herself as being a dependent human being, interpreted in the most negative way possible. Dependence for Jill meaning all meals cooked for you in a regimental style of set times, along with set meals and a set life and constantly supervised like an innocent but potentially naughty child. Impairment as disability is consequently seen as an essentially dependent state due to one's nature; as Jill states that she can be 'what she [is]' in the institution it is an inescapable conclusion that she (the disabled in general) is best institutionalised where she (the disabled) is manifestly dependent. Such representations as this of the disabled are the popular currency of Western culture's more overt disabling discourses; discourses that are at the core of these films' discourse, discourses which can only be challenged and subverted through analysis and discussion.
The discourse and language of disability revolves, in these films, around ideas of death, punishment, liminality and self-hate and a reality of dependence mystified as independence or as a pseudo form of normality. The intentions of the language do not really matter, what matters are its implications; implications that do little for disabled people and put their freedom and rights further and further back. Disability is spoken of in terms of incontinence, embarrassment and the Other in such a way that it reinforces these facets of human experience as essential and natural parts of what the experience of impairment is (not disability as I use the term). It is very difficult in a study such as this to split the meaning and implications of disabling language and discourse into small compartments that imply this or that. So often a phrase or a word may imply an attribute and an interpretation: i.e. disability and normality and, most importantly, the Other.
I have shown how being disabled or deformed is seen as justification for instigating a whole life-determining force which would be unacceptable to ordinary members of society: specifically, institutionalisation and marginalisation. The labelling of an individual as disabled or crippled (etc.) in these films can best be summed up by what Marcuse calls the language of absolute administration. An absolute administration that Marcuse says is: 'the language which gives cohesion to total administrators, the functionaries of large bureaucracies, and mediates their reality' (cited in Shrift, 1990. p.137). Thus, the process of labelling, or calling an individual 'disabled' or 'crippled' - which mediates the reality that the disabled are forced to inhabit - is cinematically supported by these films. The process is reinforced despite any pretensions to be anything other than what they are: cultural artefacts reinforcing the discourse of social disablement of people with impairments. The films studied herein, and many other films of their type, are the easily understood and readily consumed (and identifiable) meta-language of a wide-ranging disabling discourse of disability.