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Unformatted text preview: The Problem Body The Problem Body
Projecting Disability on Film - EDITED BY - Sally Chivers and
Nicole Markotic’ THE OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY PRESS / COLUMBUS Copyright © 2010 by The Ohio State University.
All rights reserved.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The problem body : projecting disability on film / edited by Sally Chivers and Nicole Markotic´.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-8142-1124-3 (cloth : alk. paper)—ISBN 978-0-8142-9222-8 (cd-rom) 1. People with
disabilities in motion pictures. 2. Human body in motion pictures. 3. Sociology of disability. I.
Chivers, Sally, 1972– II. Markotic´, Nicole.
This book is available in the following editions:
Cloth (ISBN 978-0-8142-1124-3)
CD-ROM (ISBN 978-0-8142-9222-8)
Cover art: Anna Stave and Steven C. Stewart in It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE!, a film written by
Steven C. Stewart and directed by Crispin Hellion Glover and David Brothers, Copyright Volcanic
Photo by David Brothers.
An earlier version of Johnson Cheu’s essay, “Seeing Blindness On-Screen: The Blind, Female Gaze,”
was previously published as “Seeing Blindness on Screen” in The Journal of Popular Culture 42.3
(Wiley-Blackwell). Used by permission of the publisher.
Michael Davidson’s essay, “Phantom Limbs: Film Noir and the Disabled Body,” was previously
published under the same title in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Volume 9, no. 1/2,
pp. 57–77. Copyright, 2003, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the
Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell’s essay, “Body Genres: An Anatomy of Disability in Film,”
was previously published in their book Cultural Locations of Disability as chapter 5, “Body Genres
and Disability Sensations: The Challenge of the New Disability Documentary Cinema” (University
of Chicago Press). © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Used by permission of the publisher. Cover design by Janna Thompson-Chordas
Text design by Jennifer Shoffey Forsythe
Type set in Adobe Palatino.
Printed by Thomson-Shore, Inc.
The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the American National
Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials. ANSI
9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 We dedicate this book to Emma, the pre-eminent Vampire Slayer. EMMA THE VAMPIRE SLAYER BY RIVA LEHRER ● Contents
List of Illustrations
SALLY CHIVERS AND NICOLE MARKOTI The Whole Art of a Wooden Leg : King Vidor s Picturization of
Laurence Stallings s Great Story
TIMOTHY BARNARD 23 Phantom Limbs: Film Noir and the Disabled Body
MICHAEL DAVIDSON 43 Seeing Blindness On-Screen: The Blind, Female Gaze
JOHNSON CHEU 67 The Wild Child
DAWNE McCANCE 83 No Life Anyway: Pathologizing Disability on Film
PAUL DARKE 97 “And Death—capital D—shall be no more—semicolon!”:
Explicating the Terminally Ill Body in Margaret Edson’s W;t
HEATH DIEHL 109 viii | Contents
“A Man, with the Same Feelings”: Disability, Humanity, and Heterosexual
Apparatus in Breaking the Waves, Born on the Fourth of July, Breathing
Lessons, and Oasis
Neoliberal Risks: Million Dollar Baby, Murderball, and Anti-National
ROBERT McRUER 159 Body Genres: An Anatomy of Disability in Film
SHARON L. SNYDER AND DAVID T. MITCHELL 179 Coda: “Blinded by the Light,” OR: Where’s the Rest of Me?
ANNE FINGER Filmography
Notes on Contributors
225 ● Illustrations
Chapter 1: James Apperson (John Gilbert), amputee veteran. The Big Parade.
Directed by King Vidor. MGM, 1925.
Chapter 2: Opening credits superimposed over the figure of a man with
crutches who moves menacingly toward the audience until his shadowy
form covers the entire screen. Double Indemnity. Directed by Billy Wilder.
Paramount Pictures, 1944.
Chapter 3: Susy (Audrey Hepburn) tries to put out the light. Wait Until Dark.
Directed by Terence Young. Warner Bros., 1967.
Chapter 4: Le Dr Jean Itard (François Truffaut) tests the hearing of wild child
Victor (Jean-Pierre Cargol). L’enfant sauvage (The Wild Child). Directed by
François Truffaut. Les Films du Carrosse, 1969. United Artists, 1970.
Chapter 5: Ken (Richard Dreyfuss) reacts uncontrollably to the hospital’s
medical treatment. Whose Life Is It Anyway? Directed by John Badham.
MGM Films, 1981.
Chapter 6: Text eclipses the ill body of Vivian Bearing (Emma Thompson).
Wit. By Margaret Edson. Adapted for film by Emma Thompson and Mike
Nichols. Directed by Mike Nichols. Home Box Office Network, 2001.
Chapter 7: Bess (Emily Watson) flees torment from local children. Breaking the
Waves. Directed by Lars von Trier. Zentropa Film Entertainment, 1996. ix x | Illustrations
Chapter 8: The filmmakers procure authenticity for Maggie (Hilary Swank) by
having her purchase her training bag with rolled coins. Million Dollar Baby.
Directed by Clint Eastwood. Warner Bros., 2004.
Chapter 9: The double-amputee war veteran Lieutenant Dan Taylor (Gary
Sinise) lifts himself from a seated position on the floor into his wheelchair.
Forrest Gump. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Paramount Studios, 1994.
Coda: Mata Hari (Greta Garbo) descends toward her executioners, as Lt.
Alexis Rosanoff (Ramon Novarro), her blind lover, “looks on.” Mata Hari.
Directed by George Fitzmaurice. MGM, 1931. ● Acknowledgments Beyond all our fabulous colleagues in Disability Studies, especially the
contributors to this volume, we’d like to thank Martin Boyne for his careful
indexing, Sandy Crooms for her amazing editorial support, Maggie Diehl
for her exhaustive copyediting, Jennifer Shoffey Forsythe for exemplary
patience in vetting and giving advice regarding images, Malcolm Litchfield for his permissions advice, and Jonathan Pinto for his technical
expertise. We also thank our wonderful families and our partners, Louis
Cabri and Wade Matthews, for always reading. Lastly, through our work
on this book, we have developed a remarkable collaborative companionship for which we are both immensely grateful. xi S A L L Y C H I V E R S A N D N I C O L E M A R K O T I C‘
In this compilation we have gathered a set of essays that explore representations of disability on film. One of the quickest paths to critical
acclaim for an able-bodied actor is to play a physically disabled character in a manner that a largely uninformed audience finds convincing.
Filmic narrative fictions rarely ignore disability. Examples of lauded performances include those by Daniel Day Lewis (My Left Foot), Tom Hanks
(Philadelphia), Sean Penn (I Am Sam), and Hilary Swank (Million Dollar
Baby).1 As David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder point out in Narrative Prosthesis, disability in narrative is both excessively visible and conversely
invisible (15). Rather than absent, as other stigmatized social identities
can be (for example, films can entirely avoid lead female or racialized
roles), disability is highly and continuously present on-screen. However,
it is not always agential. Often, disabled bodies appear in order to shore
up a sense of normalcy and strength in a presumed-to-be able-bodied
audience. In this book we follow this argument into narrative film, noting
the contradiction between how many characters in films display disabilities and how seldom reviewers and audiences “notice” disability as a
feature within the film. This characteristic disability haunting of contemporary film merits critical scrutiny and warrants a set of critical terms
that separate disability studies from past film criticism. In what follows,
we focus on critical notions of “projection” and filmic constructions of
“problem bodies” to contribute such scrutiny and such terms.
Filmic narrative often aligns the bodies it represents with an elusive
and ideal norm of the human body that William Blake designated “the
1. All films cited and discussed in the essays are listed in the Filmography at the end of the book. 1 2 | Introduction human abstract.”2 Most bodies are presented as normative by default,
implicitly—self-evidently, or so it might appear to a viewer—achieving
the norm, while other bodies are designated “abnormal,” failing to
achieve, or even to aspire to, that norm. As Robert Bogdan, quoting his
young son in his pivotal publication Freak Show, points out, typically, in
mainstream films, when characters “look bad” they “are bad” (6). Frequently, a disabled body is represented as a metaphor for emotional or
spiritual deficiency. Unlike normative filmic bodies that literally advance
the plot, the disabled body often exists primarily as a metaphor for a body
that is unable to do so.3 Rarely do films come along like Crispin Hellion
Glover’s, David Brothers’ and Steven C. Stewart’s It is fine! EVERYTHING
IS FINE! a film written by and starring a disabled actor, which presents a
disabled character as exactly that—disabled, yet still a fully participating
character in the film.4 So what happens when a disabled body metaphorically becomes a site of projected identity? The essays collected in this
anthology take on the poetics and politics of that question. Projecting Disability
In this book we analyze the “projection” of disability. We include in
our analysis the act of the film projector displaying disability as well
as what film viewers project—in the sense of prediction—disability to
be. According to Sigmund and Anna Freud, projection is an emotional
defense mechanism, whereby one attributes one’s own negative or unacceptable thoughts and emotions to others.5 Rey Chow, in her book on
cultural otherness, Ethics after Idealism, discusses the notion of fascism
as “projection, surface phenomena, everyday practice, which does
away with the distinction between the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’” (19).
In writing about fascism through the lens of Freudian projection, Chow
2. Blake speaks, for the most part, about the human soul. But his notion that “we” need to make
others poor or unhappy in order to recognize our own satisfaction speaks to the us-them relationship
that normalizes the body as well as the spirit (Plate 47).
3. So, for example, in the film Shallow Hal, the Jack Black character “evolves” emotionally into the
kind of man who could love a “fat chick,” while Gwyneth Paltrow’s character remains a physically
repellent figure, but one who audiences must learn to see as “beautiful on the inside.”
4. Although none of the films in this collection address It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE! much
could be said about the representations of heterosexual masculinity in the film, as well as the ways in
which the film disjunctively approaches the too-often-taboo subject of sex and disability.
5. Citing her father’s book Some Neurotic Mechanisms in Jealousy, Paranoia and Homosexuality, Anna
Freud labels projection as a “defensive method” (43) that immature egos (she speaks predominantly
of children) employ “as a means of repudiating their own activities and wishes when these become
dangerous and of laying the responsibility for them at the door of some external agent” (123). Sally Chivers and Nicole Markotic‘ | 3 insists that the more obvious meaning of projection, that is, “as an act
of thrusting or throwing forward, an act that causes an image to appear
on a surface” (21), shifts the discussion of a subject’s anxiety mediated
via expulsion (from the inside to the outside) to one where the subject’s
apparent lack collides with and thus forms a surface. Film, says Chow, is
the external image that represents both the act of expulsion and projected
Chow’s discussion offers an analysis of the ways in which film creates a literal surface upon which narrative projects identity. Spectatorship (both public cinema viewings and private DVD rentals) allows audience members to take on the unique and contradictory position of what
we call the “panopticon voyeur.” Film critics since Laura Mulvey6 have
outlined and analyzed the myriad ways that film audiences embody the
hidden nature of the voyeur. But as the panopticon’s power relies on its
dwellers’ awareness of being observed, few critics speak to the normalizing power of projected viewing audiences. Unlike the literary notion
of the “ideal reader,” the panopticon voyeurs of film shape and establish
subject matter, cultural representations, and even changed endings (in the
case of audience test screenings). For an example of how projected audiences determine race representations, one has only to look at the contrast
between Disney’s Pocahontas and Mulan films, both of which focus on
“real” historical figures. The former, for the most part, was directed at
non-indigenous audiences, and subsequent criticisms of its racism and
historical inaccuracies did not affect its box-office success. For the latter,
however, Disney, keen to promote films in China, strove to ensure geographical and historical accuracy. The film was, for the most part, praised
for its cultural sensitivity and artistic renditions of local landmarks and a
brave heroine. Although at the time of its filming, Disney did not know
whether or not the Chinese government would permit wide distribution
of Mulan, the studio treated future Chinese audiences as both subject
and object, as spectators who would have a vested (and thus a controlling) interest in the bodies projected on-screen. Chow would say of these
binary positions that, as subjects, spectators react to the filmic narrative
also as studio projections, as viewers assumed by the industry to have a
participating and controlling interest in the storyline and its unfolding.
These projected viewers also act as objects: they accept the film as spectacle and their own physical selves as Disney fodder; they accept the
graphic images on-screen as representative of their bodies as national
story. The panopticon voyeur, then, straddles a position between passive
6. For explication of film and voyeurism, see critics Mary Ann Doane, bell hooks, Christian Metz,
and Linda Williams. 4 | Introduction observer and normalizing surveyor, playing a role both in the film’s ultimate screening and in how a film projects its characters.
Disability activists frequently point out that those who live long
enough eventually become disabled; the statistical probability that a portion of life will be lived with a disability increases with age. This disability axiom strategically implicates a wide public under the disability
rubric with the political goal of broadening an activist base.7 In keeping
with this axiom, we argue in this book that there are many ways of living
with disability. Narrative film presents some of those ways. How experience is represented textually and how that representation is projected
onto and via audiences are both central aspects of the experience itself.
That is, the representation of disability does not exist separate from disability itself. Accordingly, we propose that—disabled or not—when “we”
all watch a film, we all participate in disability discourse. 8
Film theory requires disability analysis and critique, particularly
because of its longstanding attention to spectatorship and to the gaze.
While the gaze is a form of physicality that disability studies seeks to
redirect, the mis-assumed relationship between looking and knowing is
particularly salient to film reception. In front of a screen—in an audiencedirected cinema or individually at home—lies a space for a normative
and deviant public not just to look but to stare at disabled figures without
censure.9 Before the screen lies a place where many people can take an
extended look at the disabled body and live comfortably or even uncomfortably with their reactions, be they to shudder, to desire, to identify, to
pity, to turn away. While we intervene in scholarly debates about projection and the gaze by refusing to accept the filmic frame as seamless representation, we recognize the value of film analysis and movie watching.
While we challenge basic tenets of film theory, presuming to redirect
them, we also recognize that a collection of essays such as this one contributes to film theory’s continued but expanded relevance to contemporary social issues, notably those involving disability. 7. As James I. Charlton points out, disability is “a significant part of the human condition”; knowledge about disability, he argues, is therefore knowledge about “the human condition itself” (4).
8. The very category of ubiquitous “we” becomes suspect when discussing bodies that do or do
not fit a normative ideal of health and well-being. It is therefore incumbent on each viewer to understand the consequences of such visual participation. For the duration of this essay, “we” indicates “we
two book editors.”
9. The parental admonishment toward children, “Don’t stare!,” insistently commands both a
looking at and a looking away. For a more detailed analysis of the relationship between disability and
staring, see Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s “The Politics of Staring” and her Staring: How We Look. Sally Chivers and Nicole Markotic‘ | 5 “We Are All Handicapable”
In the 1990s, the weekly Canadian television skit show Kids in the Hall
confronted socially problematic comedy. Unlike other male-dominated
comedy troupes (such as Monty Python), dressing up as women (or other
characters physically different from their own bodies) for the actors in
Kids in the Hall is not the punch line. Indeed, representing bodies not
their own (the troupe comprises five male actors) is rarely the source
of amusement so much as are the social situations that represent such
bodies within contemporary mass culture. Although Kids in the Hall
does not deal extensively with issues of disability, the comedy troupe
often focuses its humor on the representations of bodies that do not “fit”
implicit normative standards, thus presenting to the viewer a full range
of what we call problem bodies—awkward, medicalized, edgy bodies.10
Their comedy helpfully prevents the viewer from falling passively into
the long-available role of gawker at nature exhibited as freakish. We
include an analysis of their work here not as an example of television
representation but as an example of cultural criticism of the reception of
cinematic portrayals of disability.
We focus here on one notable Kids in the Hall skit that highlights and
parodies film studio and audience responses to disability-focused movies.
The skit, “The Academy Awards,” plays off a social situation that frequently accompanies celebratory ceremonies for and about mainstream
film, a social situation whose allegorical proportions motivate this collection of essays. This skit makes fun of the “issue film” and its supporters
while at the same time exposing the limits of the metaphorical language
available for disabling declarations. “The Academy Awards” features
four actors receiving nominations for Best Actor category at the Oscars. 11
The skit does more than offer merely another parody of the Oscars, for
it also returns the viewers’ attention back onto the language that des10. The term “problem body” is explicated in the next section of our introduction.
11. In the skit, Kids in the Hall pokes fun at the viewers who participate in what Tobin Siebers calls
The modern cinema often puts the stigma of disability on display, except that films exhibit the
stigma not to insiders by insiders, as is the usual case with drag, but to a general public that
does not realize it is attending a drag performance. In short, when we view an able-bodied actor
playing disabled, we have the same experience of exaggeration and performance as when we
view a man playing a woman. (115)
The Kids in the Hall skit anticipates Siebers’s nuanced critique of actors who “play” disabled and are
then rewarded for their (overly sentimentalized, yet assumed-to-be verisimilitude) role with a shared
Oscar win. In the drag films Siebers points to, audiences expect the depiction to be unmistakably...
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