Editor’s Note: Sara Novic is a Deaf writer and assistant professor of creative writing at Stockton University. Her first novel, “Girl at War,” was released by Random House in 2015. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. The Deaf community uses a capital “D” to differentiate between people who identify with Deaf culture and identity, and the physical lack of hearing. The next episode in the third season of CNN’s “United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell” is about the disability community, which airs on Sunday, May 20 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
The 90th annual Academy Awards are nearly here, and one of this year’s front-runners for best picture is Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water.” Sally Hawkins, as the mute Elisa who falls in love with a sea creature, has scored a best actress nomination for the role.
Critics have been quick to declare the film a positive representation of disability – Elisa is employed, independent and a sexual being, a rarity for a group of people often portrayed in movies and books as childlike and asexual. Then again, the only one who finds her sexually desirable is a semi-human sea creature.
Also problematic is Hawkins’ American Sign Language, her only mode of communication in the film, which is abysmal – halting, stilted and not at all like someone who’d been signing since she was a child.
It’s no secret Hollywood has a representation problem. The film industry has been repeatedly called out in the media, and by some of its own, for its whitewashing on-screen and sexism behind the camera. Much less attention is paid to the equally prevalent problem of casting abled actors in the role of disabled characters, a phenomenon the disabled community calls “cripping up.” When disabled people do raise the issue, they are quickly silenced, accused of overreacting.
But representation matters. We learn about the world around us from film, and without the inclusion of disabled people, abled actors and directors will continue to perform tired stereotypes, while the absence of real disabled people further perpetuates the stigma of our inferiority, that we are too grotesque for the screen, or not worthy of a place on it.
Despite the rich tradition of Deaf storytelling and theater showcased by award-winning companies such as the National Theatre of the Deaf and Deaf West Theatre, Hollywood has an equally longstanding tradition of forgoing deaf actors for hearing ones, even for signing and/or deaf characters. And “The Shape of Water” isn’t the only example of this.
In the last three years alone, five other hearing actors have portrayed deaf or signing characters, including Julianne Moore in “Wonderstruck,” Kate Siegel in “Hush,” Jacob Tremblay in “Shut In,” Tessa Thompson in “Creed” and Catalina Sandino Moreno in “Medeas.” And this is to say nothing of the abled actors cast as characters with other kinds of disabilities, including Tremblay in “Wonder,” Alec Baldwin in “Blind,” Jake Gyllenhaal in “Stronger,” Andrew Garfield in “Breathe” and Bryan Cranston in “The Upside” – and that’s just in 2017.
At their core, these casting choices are a classic failure of imagination. Even as filmmakers seek to tell diverse stories, they continue to make casting and production choices out of convenience and fear. By refusing to work with disabled actors, they avoid anything that might force them to stray too far from the stereotypes so ingrained in our culture.
And Hollywood’s failures of imagination have a trickle-down effect. Rather than take a moment to listen to the Deaf/disabled community about why we are upset, abled viewers accuse us of overreaction and align themselves with the able-bodied offender.
Excuses why disabled actors can’t be cast abound – everything from standard lines about diversity not selling tickets to fears that a deaf actor might hurt herself in an action scene. Same with Hawkins’ shoddy ASL – rather than take a moment to listen to the Deaf community about the problematic performance, hearing viewers posit themselves as experts in period sign language, remind us that Hawkins has to sing in the film or provide a favorite mantra: “It’s called acting for a reason.”
But according to many abled people, acting is a one-way street. Not only are disabled actors not allowed to represent themselves, they’re also not cast as “normal” people, even in the background. If acting is really about a transformation of character, it stands to reason that disabled actors should be allowed to play roles that deal with storylines unrelated to disability.
Instead, while disabled actors are shut out of both disabled and nondisabled roles, those who “crip up” to play them are lavishly rewarded. Hawkins is the latest of dozens of actors to receive an Oscar nomination for playing a disabled character.
Why should able-bodied actors have the privilege to move between worlds, when that same allowance is never extended to disabled actors? More succinctly put by actress and comedian Maysoon Zayid: “If a person in a wheelchair can’t play Beyoncé, Beyoncé can’t play a person in a wheelchair.”
It comes down to a question of priorities. If director del Toro had valued an authentic representation of a mute person for “The Shape of Water,” he could have cast a deaf or mute actor and used a voice-over for the song; instead, the value was placed on the ease of casting an abled actor. The team had to spend time and effort teaching Hawkins rudimentary sign language – and an ultimately clumsy performance was the result.
Recent smash hits such as “Black Panther,” “Get Out” and “Wonder Woman” make it clear that audiences crave diverse stories and authentic representation, and the tickets most certainly sell. Until society stops holding up the hearing, able-bodied person as the “default” human, we disabled people will continue to be marginalized in and out of Hollywood. And until we include different kinds of normal in our cultural artifacts, that default will not change.