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Gender, race and disability

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Gender, race and disability

Aristotle famously said that women  are  but  deformed men, and  a statement  may account for the relative lack of disabled film roles for women, and of disabled female filmmakers, throughout the history of film. Women are of course not deformed men, but, significantly, what representations of women have shared with those of the disabled is their similar restriction to certain archetypal characters within film narrative . Nonetheless, there have been some notable female disabled film characters, such as Jan e Wyman in both Johnny Belinda (1948) and Magnificent Obsession (1954).


Filmmakers seem to prefer women  to play someone with a visual impairment. This is very revealing about how stereotypes of one group are often connected with another social group's stereotypes or indeed archetypes, as they have a presumed universal truth. In addition, women often play victims of one kind or another in film after film. Any catalogue of such films would run to hundred s of pages, and the 'blind woman in peril' storyline merely adds an additional element of visual tension to such a story.


Stereotypes are created through the dependence of one group's stereotype upon that of another group. Stereotypical representations of disabled people as dependent or ill, or any other received idea, almost always share the screen, even in documentary, avant-garde or short films, with stereotypes of other marginalised groups, especially women. In Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1981) we see not only the stereotype of the disabled as dependent  and burdensome, but also. the concomitant female stereotypes of women as over-emotional, as natural carers, as nurses and as infantile. There is even the stereotype of black people as musical and pot-smoking.

There are some amazing representations of disability connected with race but, significantly, they almost always (and somewhat logically)  come from cultures where  to be white is to be different. The white British culture's depiction of race and disability  has, sadly, been trapped in the old ideologies of disablism and racism. It is important to state, however, that it would be illogical for any culture of whatever colour not to see disability as a personal tragedy rather than in its true light  as a socio-political issue, given the worldwide dominance of capitalism and medicalisation. The remarks above about women in relation to disability are as applicable to images of ethnic minorities and disability. In a culture that is predominant '." white, heterosexual and male anything outside of that narrow zone is usually represented as 'abnormal'. It is important to point out though that many gay or lesbian, black or women filmmakers have disappointed disabled people by often resorting to the old cliched stereotypes of disability.


Many disability-oriented films can easily be placed in the genre of melodrama, a genre often critically dismissed for consisting of 'women's films'. There are a number of reasons for this categorisation but it is safe to say that the sentimentalisation of impairment is a major reason why disability-specific films or impairment films are considered 'women's films' and, as such, melodrama. The whole point of sentimentalisation  (as opposed  to the more vague  notion of 'sentimental') is that the 'sentimental' narrative values emotion over and above 'rational' thinking. Thus, in films where disability is central, feelings, emotions and concepts  such as family, love, guilt, duty  and intuition - all intrinsic to the perpetuation of sexual stereotypes - predominate over any sense of logic. In the sentimental narrative, the absence of logical narrative development requires an extreme suspension of disbelief which often occurs quite 'naturally'. The films already mentioned above epitomise this perfectly. It is worth noting that this is true even if the subject of the film is a man, for example Charly (1968), The Field (1990), The Elephant Man (1980), The Men (1950) and The Secret Garden (1 949) . The principle holds true for the whole  range of impairments, from disease in Camille (1936) to mental illness in Black Narcissus (1947), to learning difficulties in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1972). Consequently, in an impairment melodrama, such as those mentioned above, a decision to kill or seek isolation or death for a disabled character is seen as logical and rational, despite  the fact that in any other scenario such  a decision would be seen as ridiculous and pathetic.

The 'disability' example of sending a child to a special school or institution (or even to their death) outside of a 'disability' scenario would be seen as cruel, heartless and definitely not 'for the best'. Following a similar logic one · can claim that disability-themed melodramas can be about defining for both women and men what they should doin a similar situation or how they should behave under similar emotional duress - a melodramatic definition of 'disability'. Well-worn cliches, such as doing 'what's best for all concerned' rather than what is right for you, instantly come to mind here. It is this ideology, that is intrinsically disablist, sexist and racist, which so often determines not only cinematic representations but also, tragically, a significant degree of national social policy.