Representing Disabled People
purpose of this essay is to critically analyse media representations of
disability as the prime example. Of particular interest is the way
portrayed in films, films being an important source of leisure
major area of enquiry within leisure studies. There will be an attempt
why disabled people are often represented negatively and this will
focus on the use of
disabled imagery as a metaphor for evil, idiocy or deviance.The use of
conventions such as stereotypes will be discussed, as will the effects
that the media has on
disabled identities. The essay will be divided into three sections, the
based on a discussion of the media and audience interpretations, the
on the work of Erving Goffman (1959,1963), and the last explores the
(1932) and other movies that have used images of disability as metaphor.
Leisure, Tourism And The Media
Leisure, tourism and media are interrelated areas of study. All are industries that have grown tremendously over the last century and which have developed some interdependence on each other. The media is a vehicle used by leisure and tourism producers to promote a particular tourist destination or form of entertainment (Aitchison and Pussard 2004:ix). The media also serves to produce leisure and tourism images that shape the public’s opinions about specific places or people but these visual experiences are not always positive or authentic.
media representations do not always claim to be real or positive and so
the use of signs
should not be taken out of context. Some films will use negative
disability as a metaphor because the film is belonging to a genre that
is supposed to
shock or scare, for example the horror genre. Therefore it is not
always possible to
claim that media representations are distorted or unrepresentative. The
constructing images to act as signs, which in genre films or fantasy
stories may use
stereotypes as a powerful tool to tell the story without suggesting
that the story is
real, true or accurate. Unfortunately it is very difficult to decode
intended message or
sign being sent by the media producers because of the connotations
This leads to the questioning of the use of Others in the media because
‘other’ highlights the fact that that which falls into the category of
historically been seen as deviant, unnatural and strange because it
boundaries of what the West deems normal’ (O’Shaughnessy 1999:225).
Thus the use of
stereotypes in the media becomes a complicated issue to fully
thought itself’. This suggestion is relevant to both leisure and tourism because the use of images in these fields can only be aimed at a general audience, rather than at everyone. Although representations of other places and Others may be negative and inauthentic, the media does not always do this deliberately. Instead it can be argued that the media uses such stereotypes just to enable the audience to digest the story more easily. However Blau (1990) and others also suggest that there is potential for audiences to decode these stereotypical images and thus reinterpret the story being told despite the intentions of the producers.
many examples within leisure and tourism studies that could be used to
how the media’s use of inauthentic images actually affects the
authentic reality that
the image is attempting to portray. These include tourist brochures of
destinations, news coverage of certain countries and events, and
on TV of women, blacks, disabled people and other minority groups.
This essay will concentrate on the portrayal of disability in films because there are many films that have used disability portrayals inauthentically. This is generally
target audience is assumed to be a cross section of the public rather
than a specified
section, and the majority of the audience are believed to be
The Work Of Erving Goffman
will now use the perspective associated with the Canadian sociologist
and in particular his book ‘Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled
Identity’ (1963) to explore disabled representations in the media.
writes ‘By scratching at the surface of many of our day to day
uncovered a machinery of social interaction’ and it is how this social
deals with Others that is of importance here. Hence Goffman’s (1963)
relevant because it focuses on some of the key issues that people with
impairment face on a daily basis in Western culture. This can then be
the use of stereotypes in film and TV.
Harris (2005) writes ‘First impressions in social encounters are important in helping to construct a social identity, which conveys anticipations and expectations on the part of others’. Although Goffman (1963) was describing face-to-face interaction this perspective can also be used to explain why the media represents the stigmatised in a certain way. Important to this perspective is the notion of ‘virtual social identity’ and ‘actual social identity’ and it can be argued that the media uses ‘virtual social identities’ as metaphors in film.
person in relation to themselves and not society’s impression of their reality.Therefore a ‘virtual’ identity is based on relationships with others and an ‘actual’
identity is more personal and individual (Manning 1992:98). Manning (1992:97) discusses how ‘Stigma’ was written to show how people manage
their stigmas or ‘actual social identity’ when that identity or stigma is seen as negative by society as a whole. Manning (1992:97) continues ‘[there is a] distinction
between ‘virtual’ and ‘actual’ social identity, where the former is assumed and unchallenged and the latter is demonstrated and proven’. The media, and its use of
stereotypical disabled imagery, enforces ‘virtual’ identities that in reality may not authentically exist. Thus ‘actual’ and ‘virtual’ identities become confused and
audiences may be unable in some cases to differentiate between the two.Goffman’s ‘front/back stage dichotomy’ (1959) can also be utilised to explain how
often confused by audiences when disabled representations are
Goffman’s (1959) use of dramaturgical descriptors is also relevant to media studies.Goffman’s stage dichotomy comes from his book ‘The Presentation of Self in
Everyday Life’ (1959). The social drama model adapted by Goffman describes how all members of society are actors even in reality. Disabled people are also actors but their ‘reality’ is often inaccurately portrayed by the media. MacCannell (1972:590) states ‘Goffman has described a structural division of social
establishments into what he terms “front” and “back” regions’ and these divisions can also be linked to the media. There is a long history of disability
misrepresentation in literature, the precursor to entertainment forms such as TV and film. Literary characters have often portrayed disability negatively, a point that will be further discussed on page . Therefore literature, film and television are acting as a stage, the front being what the audience sees - the ‘virtual social identity’, and the back being the existent reality faced by disabled people - the ‘actual social identity’.
Disability As A Metaphor
has become a metaphor for evil characters, savants and idiots,
deprivation and deviance
(Cumberbatch and Negrinne 1992:67). These metaphors have proved useful
throughout literature, film and television because they have provided
that audiences can easily identify.It has
already been mentioned in this essay that literary characters have
often used disability or
impairment to signify evil or immorality. Examples include
Richard III, Stevenson’s Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde, Shelley’s Frankenstein,
The 1932 film ‘Freaks’ is often criticised because of its association with the negative portrayal of disability within the horror genre. However, ‘Freaks’ is also praised because its representation of disability was actually more realistic than that portrayed in many other films. Whittington-Walsh (2002:698) comments:
unique in the fact that we only see characters with
disabilities in their day to day lives
and we never see them in the mode of presentation used in Freak shows
and the other
films. We only see them in their actual social identity’.
Solutions To The Problem Of Misrepresenting Disability
The film ‘Freaks’ offered a more authentic representation of disability, even though it was part of the horror genre, than is often the case still today. However, the
reaction to the film at the time has resulted in a continuation of the
of disabled people in the majority of cases.Whittington-Walsh
(2002:706 citing Hughes 1999) argues ‘in order for emancipation,
people with disabilities “need to challenge the non-disabled gaze of
by participating in the “social act of vision”.’ There is a need for
disabled people to be
more visible in the media to enable legitimate representation of
Oppressed groups such as women, blacks, disabled people, homosexuals,
ethnic minorities and minority religious groups are often politically
repressed and under represented in the media, a factor which enhances
facilitate the meaningful integration of all disabled people into the
mainstream economic and
social life of the community’. Increased media coverage of disabled
on their ‘actual’ social identity may help eliminate discrimination.
(1997:14) claims ‘the way forward is to have films about impairment and
made by disabled people themselves’ but he also realises that this
claim is naïve because
not all disabled people share the same experiences.This poses
difficulty for film and TV producers because their reliance on
stereotypes adds negative
connotations to the representation of disability in society. Stigmas
negatively and so are signs relating to disability. Impairment as a
metaphor for evil or
deviance in film and TV has done little to integrate disabled people
society. Thus supporting arguments that believe the media is controlled
dominant and hegemonic sector of society (O’Shaughnessy 1999). However
it has been
argued by authors such as Hughes (2002) that society’s transformation
post-modern era may help promote disability because post-modernity is
more able to
celebrate difference and Otherness (Hughes 2002:580).
This essay has used the work of Erving Goffman (1959,1963) to demonstrate how society feels towards visual stigmas and spoiled identities and how this can be
related to media representations of Others. Goffman’s (1959) front/back stage dichotomy has also been used to show how we are all actors on a stage but certain groups are unable to escape from their ‘virtual’ social identity thus weakening their ‘actual’ social identity and their standing in society. Goffman’s use of dramaturgical references means his work can easily be adapted to help understand the media and its use of disability as a metaphor for evil or deviance.
use of representation, particularly of Others, has been explored and
stereotypes are used to signify particular meanings has been briefly
expected to be more open minded towards celebrating difference. Values are changing within society but the fundamental way in which disabled people have
been portrayed in literature, film and TV still resounds. Although the media often reflects dominant ideological viewpoints, it is possible to justify its use of
because of the need for uncomplicated readings by the audience. Thus
disability are often inauthentic but as the disabled community
continues to grow in
strength, it is hoped that negative depictions of disability in the
media will be recognised
simply as virtual signs rather than actual identities.
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