Saturday, April 16, 2011

Why Are There So Few Female Characters Overcoming Disabilities?

(Miramax Films)

I recently got around to watching The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a beautiful film about former Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby's struggle with the aftermath of a massively debilitating stroke. Though not super common, stories about a protagonist overcoming the complications of a disability are getting some attention, what with the Oscar-winning The King's Speech. Even the most recent season of Breaking Bad depicts DEA agent Hank Schrader working through physical therapy after a near-deadly shooting. These stories are part of a niche sub-genre of characters coming to terms with a disability.

But what you don't see in these types of stories are female protagonists. An obvious candidate for a story like this would be a biopic of deaf-and-dumb heroine Hellen Keller, but no such major film adaptation has been done, save a documentary about her released in 1954.

In fact, women are rarely portrayed with disabilities of any kind in film or television in recent years. The last major actress with a disability I can recall is deaf actress Marlee Matlin, who won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, and four Emmy nominations. Much has been written about the lack of interesting roles for women, including something Tad Friend touched on in a piece in a recent issue of the New Yorker on female comedians. But rare as interesting roles are for women, roles for women with disabilities are even rarer.

If a stuttering king is worthy of an Oscar, maybe Hollywood can consider writing such a role for a woman.

Addendum: So many people have pointed out that I have forgotten The Miracle Worker, a 1962 film starring Patty Duke. Though it still doesn't change the fact that far more movies get made about men overcoming disabilities far more often than ones about women do. Commenter Sayantani writes,
As someone who teaches illness and disability memoirs - I've been convinced that it's because disability (or illness) brings masculinity into crisis and these narratives are all struggling with that point of social/cultural crisis.

Since Western masculinity is constructed as autonomous, with bodily control, physically powerful, etc. Lots of great things have been written about the hypermasculine disability narrative (or the male disability narrative struggling with masculinity/virility).
My knowledge of film history is nowhere near comprehensive, but I think the original point I raised is still a valid one.

9 comments:

Matthew White said...

In the aggregate you may be right, but The Miracle Worker about Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, starring Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft was released in 1962, was nominated for several academy awards and both Bancroft and Duke won for actress and supporting actress. It was about both women so maybe it doesn't strictly meet your definition, but it is based on Keller's memoirs.

There is also a movie in theaters right now called Soul Surfer about a professional surfer who fights her way back to top form after having her arm bitten off by a shark.

Again, you might be right in terms of trends, I think you are probably right but it is part of mainstream movie's to ignore strong female characters more generally, but recognition where it is due, no?

Kay Steiger said...

I definitely should've mentioned The Miracle Worker, and I didn't know about Soul Surfer. I'll have to check it out.

sandy_tice said...

The deaf are offended by the phrase "deaf and dumb." You may say in this context "dumb" means mute, then why not use the word mute? In common parlance it means stupid, and you can't take the stink of that off the word.
Please, please, no more Helen Keller. Surely there are other women who's stories have not been told yet.

Weldon said...

Depending on how broadly one defines "disability", I can think of a metric ton of movies about women with mental illnesses.

I wonder how much Hollywood's obsession with women's looks has to do with it? Actresses can portray (attractive) women who are deaf or have mental disabilities that do not alter their appearance, but no studio would make a woman less physically attractive in a movie. Remember all the buzz when they just gave Charlize Theron somewhat crooked prosthetic teeth in Monster? It would be hard to see a studio casting a woman in something like My Left Foot.

As an aside, I also find it odd that I can think of several working deaf actresses (Marlee Matlin, Phyllis Frelich, Shoshannah Stern, Deanne Brey -- all, of course, beautiful enough for Hollywood) but I can't think of any working deaf actors.

BeyondKen said...

Do not forget that Anne Sullivan was blind as a child, and remained visually impaired as an adult. Audrey Hepburn gave a fairly realistic portrayal of a blind woman in "Wait Until Dark' in 1967. Marlee Matlin played a deaf woman in "Children of a Lesser God" in 1986. Rachel Chagall portrayed a woman with Cerebral Palsy in "Gaby: A True Story". Juliette Lewis plays a retarded woman in "The Other Sister" in 1999.

David said...

Arthur Penn's "The Miracle Worker," a 1962 Helen Keller biopic starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, was an academy-award-winning smash hit, based on a smash-hit Broadway play of the same name, based in turn on Helen Keller's runaway best-selling autobiography, "The Story of My Life." Together these three works -- book, play, movie -- were what permanently established Helen Keller as the world's iconic exemplar of triumphant success in overcoming severe disabilities.

Sayantani said...

As someone who teaches illness and disability memoirs - I've been convinced that it's because disability (or illness) brings masculinity into crisis and these narratives are all struggling with that point of social/cultural crisis.

Since Western masculinity is constructed as autonomous, with bodily control, physically powerful, etc. Lots of great things have been written about the hypermasculine disability narrative (or the male disability narrative struggling with masculinity/virility). I recently wrote about how disabled masculinity was juxtaposed to gay masculinity in "Downton Abbey" to problematic ends: http://bit.ly/h2KPws

Thx for a thought provoking blog, and thx @BeyondKen and all for some great resources

Zach said...

In addition to the recent HBO film about Temple Grandin there's an excellent piece on her in one of Errol Morriss' First Person episodes.

I figure that a disabled woman (or man) would be an obvious plot device in a horror film and sure enough searching "blind woman horror movie" results in 1967's Wait Until Dark which sounds like a good thriller and is now in my netflix queue.

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