Representing Disabled People

Rebecca Miller


The main purpose of this essay is to critically analyse media representations of Others, using disability as the prime example. Of particular interest is the way disability is portrayed in films, films being an important source of leisure activityand thus a major area of enquiry within leisure studies. There will be an attempt to understand 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 media 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 first is based on a discussion of the media and audience interpretations, the second concentrates on the work of Erving Goffman (1959,1963), and the last explores the film ‘Freaks’ (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.

Western societies have become somewhat dependent on media representations to inform them about Others. However, it is possible to criticise this dependency because ‘The media’s development has been affected by commercial interests that recognise that the media are potentially highly profitable industries’ (O’Shaughnessy 1999:2). This point helps to demonstrate that media representations are not always genuine or accurately reflecting reality. Often they are presenting the ideas and viewpoints of their producers, rather than the actual truth. Aitchison and Pussard (2004:ix) believe that images and spectacles are used to communicate and entertain. The media uses visual images to tell a specific story and these experiences often help guide opinions and values. The consumption of the media, and in particular media forms such as TV and film, has become extremely popular and so provides a large area of investigation that can be undertaken by leisure and tourism researchers.

The main aim of this essay is to examine how the media’s representation of disability ‘generally act[s] to reinforce values that are part of the whole society’ (O’Shaughnessy 1999:19). Not only does the media reflect societal values, but it can be assumed that it also encourages certain ideals. The media uses visual images as representations, which signify a particular picture or story as a means of involving the audience. Thus the media uses conventions to depict images which enables the producers to utilise straightforward ways of symbolizing ideas. Hence metaphors and stereotypes become common methods of portrayal in film and TV. O’Shaughnessy (1999:64) states ‘Any message, any meaning, can only be communicated through signs and a sign system’. The sign system used by the media is often related to typecast and this is based on culturally shared meanings of understanding.

However, 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 portrayals of 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 media are 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 the intended message or sign being sent by the media producers because of the connotations involved. This leads to the questioning of the use of Others in the media because ‘The term ‘other’ highlights the fact that that which falls into the category of ‘other’ has historically been seen as deviant, unnatural and strange because it exists outside the 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 understand.

An important concept in the understanding of the media is that of the audience and how it reacts to representations. Ball-Rockeach and Cantor (1986:17) state ‘media audiences share certain social and personal realities concerned with understanding, acting effectively in, and engaging in private and social play’. Thus audiences are potentially difficult to predict because each member brings their own ‘issues of representation, repression, otherness, the politics of the unconscious, ideology, and power’ with them when watching a film or TV programme (Blau 1990:26). Audiences relate images to their own experiences but it could be argued that these experiences may not have included interactions with certain Others. This might mean that audiences in some cases depend on media stereotypes to understand the story being told, unaware that the stereotype may be inauthentic. However, it is difficult to define a term such as disability and so a liberal definition could allow for a wide interpretation, thus enabling many people to identify images with disabled people that they personally know. This leads to audiences rejecting the specific image portrayed and its intended purpose.

Blau (1990:26) continues this point by stating ‘In the perceptual dynamics of the audience are questions of memory, mirroring, perspective and the spatializing of

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.

There are many examples within leisure and tourism studies that could be used to demonstrate 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 holiday destinations, news coverage of certain countries and events, and representations 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

because the 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 able-bodied.

The Work Of Erving Goffman

This essay will now use the perspective associated with the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman, and in particular his book ‘Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity’ (1963) to explore disabled representations in the media. Manning (1992:5) writes ‘By scratching at the surface of many of our day to day routines, Goffman uncovered a machinery of social interaction’ and it is how this social interaction deals with Others that is of importance here. Hence Goffman’s (1963) ‘Stigma’ is relevant because it focuses on some of the key issues that people with disability or impairment face on a daily basis in Western culture. This can then be related to the use of stereotypes in film and TV.

Goffman (1963) discusses stigmas as bodily signs that ‘expose something unusual or bad about the moral status of the signifier’. These signs are utilised not only in face-to-face interaction but are also identified by the media. Goffman (1963:14) explains the various stigmas which include: abominations of the body - physical deformity,blemishes of individual character -weak will and dishonesty, and tribal stigmas of race, nation and religion.

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.

A ‘virtual’ identity is one that is assumed by others in society because of stereotyping. An ‘actual’ identity is one that is real and undertaken by a specific

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

reality is often confused by audiences when disabled representations are inauthentic.

This framework is usually associated with the study of authenticity in tourism (MacCanell 19  ,       ). However it is also helpful in this discussion because

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’.

Western society’s dependence on the media allows for ‘virtual social identities’ to be confused with reality. Goffman (1963:12) writes ‘The routines of social intercourse in established settings allow us to deal with anticipated others without special attention or thought’. This is because we are actors on a stage, interacting with each other on a daily basis. However these routines make it difficult for stigmatised people to interact with ‘normals’ which is why negative representations of disabilitycause concern. Goffman (1963:163) adds ‘The normal and the stigmatised are not persons but perspectives’ which are generated in social situations. Therefore, misrepresentations of Others tend to enhance the stigmatisation of disabled people. Goffman’s (1959) analogy of life as a stage for drama/ theatre can help demonstrate how disability as a metaphor in film and TV portrays signs rather than realities. Hence given identities are associated with signs in the media rather than authenticity. Thus the use of disability to dramatise story telling has encouraged a separation between the disabled and able-bodied communities.

Disability As A Metaphor

Disability 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 stereotypes 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 Shakespeare’s Richard III, Stevenson’s Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde, Shelley’s Frankenstein, Barrie’s Captain Hook in Peter Pan, and Melville’s Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. The same ideas and associations are also evident in film and TV.

Films help set the scene which enforces the social identity that ‘actors’ are given.Dahl (1993:1) refers to the media as a ‘cultural form of expression [which] provides evidence of the metaphoric role of disability which is deeply ingrained in our social value’. Hence villains are usually portrayed as deformed, disabled or insane whereas heroes are seen as beautiful, graceful and gallant.Cumberbatch and Negrinne (1992:60-61) argue that it is difficult to avoid the fact that there is often an ulterior motive for including disabled characters in film, stating disability is used to ‘enhance an atmosphere of deprivation, mystery, violence and menace’. It is possible therefore to adapt Goffman’s (1963,1959) work on social and virtual identities to help explain how disability as a metaphor for evil can actually represent disabled people negatively. Cumberbatch and Negrinne (1992:70) also discuss how many films use disability stereotypes to ‘shock or scare the audience’. Thus stereotypes can be seen as unfairlycomplicating the reality experienced by disabled people within their ‘actual social identity’. 

Various films have been made that have used disability to represent wickedness or deviance including: The Unholy Three (1925), The Phantom of the Opera (1925),The Penalty (1926), Freaks (1932) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). More recently such films include: Dr Strangelove (1963), For A few Dollars More (1965), various Bond films with characters like Jaws in Moonraker (19  ) and Bloefield In Goldfinger (19  ), Mini Me in Austen Powers (19  ) although a post-modern parody is so difficult to judge) and Dumb and Dumber (1995).Some media representations portray disabled people as savant which further complicates what can be termed the ‘back stage reality’ for those with disability.Savants can be described as child like and innocent which may be the result of learning difficulties. Such characters have played important roles in the following films: To Kill A Mocking Bird (1963), Rainman (1988) and Forrest Gump (1994)(Whittington-Walsh 2002:696).

Barnes (1992) criticises the representation of disabled people as savant because it often portrays them as super human. Superheroes are often depicted as being isolated from society but can make up for their isolation with super human powers. However, for those impaired by their isolation and disability in reality, this association further complicates issues. Thus there are few representations of ‘normal’ disabled people in film although some have attempted this: The Elephant Man (1980), My Left Foot (1989), Mask (1985), Children of a Lesser God (1986) and Born on the 4th of July (199 ). Barnes (1992:6) continues ‘Blind people are [often] portrayed as visionaries with a sixth sense or extremely sensitive hearing’ which in reality is not always true. Barnes (1992) also discusses how those with disability are often excessively praised for relatively ordinary achievements, a point that Goffman (1963) also refers to. The film My Left Foot (1989) is a clear illustration of this according to both Barnes (1992) and Whittington-Walsh (2002). Savant qualities can burden disabled people with feelings of inadequacy and inferiority.

Whittington-Walsh (2002:698) uses Goffman to explain how social idenitiy is used to understand attributes that disabled people may possess but within the realm of savant like behaviour in films, these attributes become a virtual social identity instead. Although more positive than virtual social identities linked to deviance, savant behaviour never the less is still alien in many cases to the disabled person’s back stage reality.

'Freaks’ Representing Disability

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:

‘Freaks is 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’.

Goffman (1963:40-44) discusses how the stigmatised can be supported by the ‘wise’and in the case of ‘Freaks’ that wise person was the director Todd Browning.Browning was ‘wise’ because, although ‘normal’ (Goffman 1963), he had also worked in circus sideshows for many years before becoming a
Hollywood director.He therefore knew many of the disabled actors that he employed for the film and thus was able to portray them authentically via their ‘actual’ social identity.However, the public were not prepared by the obvious use of real Others in film at the time and their reaction was very paternalistic. People were outraged by the normalising of disabled people acting as themselves in a film, and assumed that the filmmakers were exploiting them. It is unclear whether or not this was actually the case but the film was subsequently banned for nearly 40 years.

Whittington-Walsh (2002:695) believes that ‘Freaks’ was actually celebrating the freak show performers and that it managed to normalise the disabled actors thus presenting them more authentically. Whittington-Walsh (2002:695) continues ‘what truly offends [and] shocks audiences and critics alike (…) is not the visibility of actors with disabilities, but also the fact that Browning and his actors found no shame in showcasing their diversity’. It appears that the producers of the film and the consumers had opposing views regarding the representation of disability which helps to show that intended signs may not always be read accurately, or as intended, by the audience.


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

negative reaction to the film at the time has resulted in a continuation of the misrepresentation 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 perfection” 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 themselves. Oppressed groups such as women, blacks, disabled people, homosexuals, ethnic minorities and minority religious groups are often politically and socially repressed and under represented in the media, a factor which enhances such minority positions.

Barnes (1992:13) believes that increased use of positive disability images will‘explore the complexity of the experience of disability and a disability identity (…)

and facilitate the meaningful integration of all disabled people into the mainstream economic and social life of the community’. Increased media coverage of disabled people based on their ‘actual’ social identity may help eliminate discrimination. Darke (1997:14) claims ‘the way forward is to have films about impairment and disability 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 are portrayed 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 into mainstream society. Thus supporting arguments that believe the media is controlled by the dominant and hegemonic sector of society (O’Shaughnessy 1999). However it has been argued by authors such as Hughes (2002) that society’s transformation into the 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.

The media’s use of representation, particularly of Others, has been explored and the way stereotypes are used to signify particular meanings has been briefly explained.

More research is needed to investigate whether or not post-modernity is able to promote disability in a more positive manner because post-modern society is

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

stereotypes because of the need for uncomplicated readings by the audience. Thus portrayals of 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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