Hollywood can't have it both ways. If audiences are open to stories about people with disabilities should actors with disabilities be cast in those roles? Is it acceptable for able actors to portray characters with disabilities and if so, is there an obligation toward accuracy and authenticity?
So was the crux of a conversation with a friend when we discussed Ironside
, the revival network series of the late 60s. Blair Underwood
plays lead character Robert Ironside, a police detective paralyzed by a gunshot wound.
"I find able actors playing people with a disability completely insulting" I huffed.
"You didn't think that about The Intouchables." He gently reminded me.
I raved about Harvey Weinstein's The Intouchables
. How was it different? It comes down to believability and sensitivity. Granted, there were some schmaltzy plot devices in the story but there was also an exploration of society's view of people with disability. There were vignettes that exposed Philippe's experiences with autonomic dysreflexia, his lack of sensation or core stability; it didn't shy away from his bowel program, his sense of isolation, etc. The story was made more powerful because he stayed in character the entire time; no flash backs or dream sequences where he walked or danced or ran carefree through fields of flowers. While some of the circumstances were unreal, I felt that overall the depiction of Philippe's paralysis was good.
Fast forward to Ironside. My misgivings started with the Today Show
interview that I found off-putting from tone to content; starting with Willie Geist's introduction of the "wheelchair bound detective." I hate that term for both its inaccuracy and pejorative; especially to describe this sexy, virile, he-man who is still actively chases bad guys.
There's a cultural tone-deafness to the interview that set my teeth on edge. During the interview, Underwood presents his bona fides; his mother uses a wheelchair, so he "gets" disability. In the next breath, Underwood laughs about using his wheelchair to embarrass his kids in restaurants.
Underwood revealed that his character, Robert Ironside will spend a lot of time in flashbacks, so Blair will get to run and jump and sex it up sometimes and then play the conflicted, brooding para who has issues adjusting to disability. You know - a real "character development" role. Oh, please…
Seems a bit lazy and convenient to me; if you're going to play a paraplegic, then stay in character and avoid these weak plot devices. Instead of flashbacks, show us what rugged, sexy, paralyzed men accomplish every single day. While Ironside is fighting crime, will he also fight the negative stereotypes toward PWD? In that case, I'll watch just for the episode where Ironside hails a cab in NYC
. That level of advocacy might be a bit of stretch for network television.
My criticism comes down to stewardship. Underwood is portraying one of us; he needs to do so with some authenticity. His wheelchair is not a punch line to embarrass his children in restaurants. When Underwood is talking about our community in the media, is there a responsibility that comes with the role? Does he have a duty toward sensitivity and advocacy that begins with people-first language and ditching the pejoratives?
Are there no actors with actual disability who could play the role of this sexy detective? How about Mitch Longley
, Daryl Mitchell
or Eddie McGee
? I grow tired of able actors co-opting our stories.
Why is it that actors who are actually paralyzed
don't have larger roles in Hollywood? If Ironside
is interesting to general audiences, why wouldn't they eat up Teal Sherer's
( pictured) scripted comedy, My Gimpy Life
, which currently lives as a struggling internet series with a Kickstarter campaign
to finance season 2? It the funniest, most authentic work I've seen regarding people living with paralysis and it has broad appeal.
Hollywood can't have it both ways. If audiences are open to stories about people with disabilities then actors with disabilities should be cast in those roles. If the character Robert Ironside
is captivating, so is the real Teal Sherer.
fits Hollywood's fixation with stories of justice. Can Hollywood dispense some real justice while exploring these stories of disability?
© 2013 Jennifer Longdon |
| | Read her personal blog.