Hollywood’s Disability ‘Inspiration Porn’ Is Terrible, but Here’s How We Can Fix It

People living with impairments have incredible stories and talents. It’s time they were used for something more than just uplifting or titillating the able-bodied.

Mat Fraser (Photo: YouTube)

Nov 21, 2014· 5 MIN READ
Regular TakePart contributor Holly Eagleson writes about social issues, culture, lifestyle, and food for Redbook, Marie Claire, Glamour, and others.

The general consensus is that American Horror Story: Freak Show is a gift. Sure, the story lines have been teetering on the rails for the last two episodes. But it’s one of a pathetically few places you’ll see a talent like Mat Fraser on television.

Fraser has phocomelia, a congenital disorder that causes malformed appendages. On AHS, he beautifully embodies Paul the Illustrated Seal, a tattooed member of a 1950s freak show under threat of nefarious forces. Unlike so many infantilizing roles for disabled actors, Paul isn’t stripped of his eroticism; he has affairs with two different female characters on the show. Play on, player!

It’s a breakout role for Fraser, a performer who’s well known on the cabaret and burlesque circuits and is also a drummer and playwright. Fraser is fierce by any measure, even more so for his perspective on his new-found fame. In an excellent interview with The Onion’s AV Club, he puts media eager to exploit his story directly in his crosshairs: “I’ve already turned down two offers from really mainstream people, too f---ing mainstream, to do a life-story interview, because I am not interested in ‘inspiration porn.’”

That term may not be familiar, but you know the concept. It’s that soft-focus prime-time sitdown about a “heroic” soldier who lost limbs in battle. The relentless memes of developmentally disabled people as Successories posters. The documentary about a person triumphing over a disfiguring disease to run a marathon and climb a mountain. It’s all to celebrate ability in many its forms, if you’re being generous. In reality, it’s a clarion call to the able-bodied: If these less-thans can do so much with so little, by God, you can do anything! (Cue “reach for the stars” graphic.)

“I love that there’s finally a name for inspiration porn, because it makes me throw up in my mouth,” says disability rights activist Jane Hash. She’s a podcaster and blogger who explores the absurdity of the concept in documentary about her life, Plain Jane The SHOCKUMENTARY. It details her daily experience with osteogenesis imperfecta, a connective tissue disorder that has broken more than 200 of her bones and requires her to use a wheelchair.

Hash made a conscious choice to avoid having the film “feel like science class,” as she puts it, or position her as a hero. When she’s buying bread, she’s just buying bread. And if some scenes seem unusual—she’s at a drum circle, say, or a clothing-optional festival—the joke is on the viewer for surmising she belongs anywhere else. “People should see the reality, not us being put on some pedestal just because we got dressed and got out of bed,” Hash says.

Real-life stories like Hash’s are powerful, but they only do so much to change perceptions when compared with that inspiration porn monolith, Hollywood. Its history of treating disability as saccharine or sinister is laid bare in a compelling new documentary by filmmaker Jenni Gold called CinemAbility. Slated for release next year in time for the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, the film surveys depictions of disability in entertainment much in the same way The Celluloid Closet examined LGBT representation.

“In the beginning it was the person with the disability as the angel, the object of pity, the superhero, or the evil person trying to get revenge,” says Gold. “We thought that as people became more enlightened over time it would fade away, but it kept coming back.”

Gold assembled an impressive cast of disabled actors and industry vets, plus A-listers such as Jamie Foxx and Ben Affleck, to explore the social ramifications of viewing disability as a purifying force or a death sentence. “What happens to a cheerleader who watches Million Dollar Baby, then falls off the top of the pyramid and breaks her neck?” Gold asks. “She’s not going to be thinking ‘My life is great!’ when a quadriplegic character kills herself.”

It’s not just the quality of portrayals that are an issue. Less than 1 percent of series regulars on major network shows had a disability during the 2011–2012 season, according to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s Where Are We On TV report. Apart from CSI and Parenthood, disabilities are more often depicted on cable, in shows such as ABC Family’s Switched at Birth or FX’s Fargo.

Cable and streaming series might give showrunners latitude to explore more progressive ideas. That doesn’t guarantee that a disabled character will be much more than a foil to an able-bodied lead. In HBO’s Hello Ladies, a supporting character is depicted as a lothario and gadfly on wheels, but only to underscore how pathetic the main character is at picking up women. Adding insult to injury, he’s played by an able-bodied character, as so many disabled characters often are, even on shows such as Orange Is the New Black.

That exclusion frustrates many disability activists to no end, as Fraser expressed to the AV Club: “We know we’re not allowed to play ourselves in contemporary dramas, because apparently those are reserved for able-bodied actors who want to get Oscars.”

To be fair, some plots require displaying the deterioration of a condition: see disability-themed Oscar bait du jour, The Theory of Everything. And it’s hard to argue that anyone was better suited to play Ray Charles than Jamie Foxx, or that Daniel Day Lewis didn’t slay the role of Christy Brown in My Left Foot. But actors with a disability rarely get even a shot at an audition. That’s because disability in Hollywood isn’t seen an actual human experience, just a role of a lifetime for a “name.”

There are economic drivers at play, but also a failure of imagination among producers and casting directors. Maybe they’re caught up in the old canard that audiences want escapist popcorn fare, not story lines that remind them of their own vulnerability. And yet critically acclaimed showrunners Vince Gilligan and David Milch have called that bluff. They’ve created wonderful roles for actors who have cerebral palsy: RJ Mitte in Breaking Bad and Geri Jewell in Deadwood, respectively. They know that including disabled characters in no way compromises a story, and they’d never insult their audiences by asserting differently.

What’s more, it’s just bad business to exclude the disabled. About 56 million people in the U.S. live with a disability. In the increasingly coveted global market, the number of disabled totals more than 1.2 billion. “What people don’t realize is that the annual disposable income of people with disability is greater than the teen market,” Gold says, referencing the more than $200 billion in discretionary spending that disabled U.S. citizens possess. “The problem is that Hollywood doesn’t think of the consumer as the owner of a corporation but instead as the blind pencil seller on the corner.”

If entertainment industry execs don’t see the disabled as a worthy audience, you better believe it won’t occur to most showrunners or screenwriters to think of disabled actors for bit parts like a quirky next-door neighbor or hardheaded DA. Gold says a select few casting directors insist on regularly auditioning disabled actors. But in a town with countless diversity forums and initiatives, people with disabilities still fight for representation. “I’m still the only minority that can make other minorities uncomfortable at Hollywood events,” jokes Gold, who has muscular dystrophy and has used a wheelchair since the second grade.

Often it’s left to people with disabilities to capture the cadence of their lives with small-budget projects. One of the best is My Gimpy Life, a Web series created by actress Teal Sherer. Loosely based on her experience as a paraplegic woman trying to break into Hollywood, it’s a mix of observational and cringe comedy that would be right at home on HBO. A sample episode: Sherer not only has a stranger at an ATM ask if she can have sex but suffers casting directors who call her “brave” and pat her on the head simply for showing up to an audition.

She also exposes the devil’s bargain many disabled actors confront when offered exposure in demeaning roles, such as one in the fictional (yet easily imaginable) series Cripple Cops. “It’s an awful representation of disabilities, but it’s an acting job that could bring me money and change my career,” says Sherer of the scenario. “How could I say no?”

Nobody but the individual actor can decide what a dignified representation looks like. Still, isn’t it just a little depressing that the best place for disabled actors today is literally on a freak show? In a perfect world, there would be more random roles as mom or judge available to people with disabilities. And here’s a mind-blowing concept: They wouldn’t have to explain why they’re in a wheelchair. It doesn’t have to be aggressive activist stuff. Just decent, and not simply for the edification of the able-bodied.

That shouldn’t be a tall order when there’s plenty of comedy and drama to be mined from life when it encompasses disability. “Living with a physical disability means that you’re put into an awkward or uncomfortable situation every 10 minutes,” says Hash. “But I and many other disabled people choose to defuse these situations with a dark and twisted sense of humor.”