“That’s a fact, Jack!” – Although any “industry” is made up of the people who work within it – the “system” is a set way of doing business and the people within that system are often relegated to remain conducting themselves within the guidelines of that system. But are they one and the same? Do the individuals within the industry feel the same way and/or are simply fine with the way the business is run? Do they ever speak out if the injustices that are blatantly being practiced within the system are offensive? Even if the injustices do not apply to them directly? That is the question I keep asking myself about the Hollywood “industry” and its system of business, and the “individuals” that work and prosper in the business, and even have the power of directly or indirectly changing the injustices within that system – will any of the businesses, organizations, programs, or individuals stand up for those that cannot stand up for themselves?
The Hollywood “Industry”
It is obvious to anyone who will spend a little time really looking at the Hollywood system of business and the common practices within the business, or will pay but a slight attention to my blog, website, or creative work, that Hollywood is an “industry” that blatantly discriminates against those with a disAbility. And thanks to the television series “Glee” episode 9: “Wheels”, from the first season, we finally know that they know it is offensive to those with a disAbility to fake having a disAbility. But because they used an actor who is faking that he is a “paraplegic” character who is the offended person that another character faked having a disAbility, it seems okay to preach about how offensive it is even if they do not practice what they preach! So, does “acting” like a person with a disAbility become exempt from the definition of “faking” a disAbility? Where is the line drawn between acting and faking, between acceptable and unacceptable, between offensive and inoffensive?
And regardless of how the “industry” feels about this issue – does it really matter if it is faking or not? And if it is not offensive to the masses does it really matter who is offended? It does to those that live with a disAbility and especially to those with a disAbility that have the ability, the training, the passion to be an actor, writer, or director and do so without faking the disAbility! And even if the able bodied population does not care who plays the paraplegic – does it matter if those who are paraplegics care who portrays and represents them in the very limited movies and television programs that feature a paraplegic character? This goes well beyond merely caring about or the popularity of a particular actor who is playing the part, but goes deep into who is portraying and representing the minority status of a character.
I have tried to explain how important this factor is before and because I think it is where most people are either unaware or simply do not care, and addresses the line between “acting” and “faking” I will attempt it once again! There are certain “identity factors” that we now consider as “faking” no matter how good the “acting” is and have become unacceptable except for certain circumstances more prominently for comedic effect that we do not “fake” or “act” a gender, race, or age group. These are important identity factors to an individual person and the group of people they represent. For instance, a man does not play the part of a woman, unless it is for a plot reason and the audience is in on it such as in “Mrs. Doubtfire”, or “Tootise”. Nor does a white person portray a black character unless it is for a specific reason that the character is “faking” such as in “Tropic Thunder”. And also it is not appropriate to have a teenage actor portray a person going through a middle age crisis or as a retired person living their golden years unless it part of the plot like in “Freaky Friday” or “Like Father and Like Son”. Although there were times in the entertainment “industry” that these were acceptable portrayals – because women were not allowed on the stage, and at the beginning of the “motion picture business” blacks were not allowed on the stage or in front of the camera and therefore it was acceptable for Al Jolson to portray a black character and sing black folk songs while wearing a black face to portray being a black person.
There are some factors – like those that go toward a person’s identity – that you do not “act” and you do not “fake”!
Now the question is whether being a paraplegic or having any ADA defined disAbility is a worthy identity factor?
Well since the majority of the time people with paraplegia are often referred to as a “handicapped person” or even as I prefer as a “person with a disAbility” the language is part evidence that it is often an identity factor in who I am. And the visual elements that I cannot hide or be in the closet for since my disAbility as a paraplegic is very obvious – using a wheelchair! This also presents the social aspects in which many “wheelers” find themselves in most of the time – where able bodied people will “talk down” to us. This is partly because of the physical need for a standing person to look down to address a person sitting in a wheelchair and that sometimes cause the subconscious to speak down to the person as well. Not to mention that in our society it is often presumed that a person with a significant disAbility is not a whole person – is less of a person and that is manifested in the way a person often communicates with a wheeler. I have 15 years experience as a paraplegic and this is not only my perceptions but research on the disabled that I have read.
We can also look at the legal aspects of this disAbility identity factor. When we look at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and its federal authority to enforce laws against workplace discrimination we find that the categories that are protected against discrimination of an individual’s race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age, and disAbility are commonly accepted “identity factors”. Yet even with decades of the good the EEOC has done in maintaining fair and equal employment opportunities for Americans in these most often discriminated categories – it seems it looks past Hollywood’s discrimination practices. I suspect that this is because of the legal loophole of having “dramatic and artistic license” to do whatever they want! And legally or morally the “industry” has corrected itself in its former discrimination against most of the EEOC categories such as for gender, race, color, as described above – and yet continues to disregard the category of those with a disAbility! This is especially true in the creative roles of writer, directors, actors who are paraplegics or have another significant disAbility.
Look at it on a human level.
Try and imagine how it would feel for the nearly 6 million Americans (and millions upon millions more globally) who live with paraplegia, or another mobility disAbility to see upon the screen one of the few Hollywood paraplegic characters being portrayed by an actor who is a paraplegic! That would be incredibly empowering especially if it is in a non-stereotypical portrayal and in a mainstream movie or television program – not some documentary or Hallmark inspirational story!
One where the character and story is not all about having a disAbility but is also not ignored – one like the feature film project “London Time” with the title character, Detective London, a homicide police detective and Dirty Harry type character who happens to be a paraplegic!
The Hollywood “industry” has made it clear they are not interested in changing the limited portrayals and misrepresentation of people with a disAbility as is evidenced in:
- The history of movies and television programs produced that feature a character with a disAbility.
- Through the experiences of thousands of people with a disAbility trying to work in this “industry”.
- The first “industry” report on performers with a disAbility (commissioned & then published by the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) over 5 years ago) showing that discrimination of performers with disAbilities in the entertainment industry – and the continuing efforts by SAG, who report that through a 2009 Casting Report proving these issues are still be ignored by the industry, stating that “this protected category continues to be left out. Fifty-six million Americans — 20% of the U.S.population — have a disability. Despite being the largest minority group in the country, people with disabilities remain virtually invisible in entertainment media.”
- A new report (and the only additional one, from the SAG report mentioned above, about the “industry” to also include those with a disAbility) published by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) in their annual “Where We Are on TV” report for the 2010-2011 television season included for the first time, people with disAbilities among the categories to be included in the study of television series regular characters portrayed. It showed that “only six series regular characters on the broadcast networks, or 1%, are scheduled to appear in the upcoming season are people with disabilities.”
Those are the facts, experiences, and a fairly good look at the “big picture” for paraplegics and others with a disAbility being portrayed as part of the American scene – which is mostly being ignored and excluded from movies and television – but when we are seemingly reluctantly included in a movie or television program, the over whelming majority of those limited portrayals are done by able bodied – well intentioned, but still able bodied actors, writers, and directors – denying, repressing, and/or discriminating against self representation of the paraplegic people, for the paraplegic people, and by the paraplegic people!
The Hollywood “Individuals”
That is the Hollywood industry so what about those that make up the industry – the individuals? Will any dare to stand up for those who cannot stand up? Many will and do stand up for “cases” all around the world – but what about a “cause” that is in their own backyard, their own workplace?
Over the many years that I have been trying to get my work produced and raise awareness to this “cause” – or at least raise the awareness of how important it is to those of us who are paraplegics or have a disAbility in general – to the disAbled community in general and to those trying to work within the industry – I have tried every possible route to get help – from the traditional avenues, to the emerging and non-traditional routes in business, in show business, and even with the disAbled community. On occasion I have attempted to contact individuals that work within the “industry” to help me either raise the awareness of being given a fair and equal opportunity within the industry, or to help me get my work produced to show everyone what “doing the right thing” would mean socially and commercially when dealing with the portrayal and representation of paraplegics and those with a disAbility!
In 2006 and 2007 I spent considerable effort in contacting those individuals in the “biz” to do one or the other in helping me help millions of people finally have an authentic voice, vision, and representation in movies and television. I created an Excel database of Hollywood individuals and companies with contact info, when and how I contacted them and if there were any responses as they happened. This database of mine has well over 100 people whom I felt had the power, knowledge, experience, the heart from either being directly or indirectly connected to a person with a disAbility, or plainly would care enough that as soon as they were presented with the evidence of the discrimination and practices of the “industry” would gladly want to help us correct the years of injustice and provide a brighter and a real inclusive future for those with a disAbility. Despite repeated attempts with several of these individuals and always in a professional manner – I got less than 10 responses. Unfortunately, they all basically said that they thought I was doing a great thing, a wonderful job with a noble cause but none went beyond that and wishing me “good luck”! While I really appreciated any response it was very frustrating that there were so few of them and that none felt they wanted to “dirty” their hands with something they probably felt would go against the “industry” that they worked in.
Since then I have continued to do my work as both a filmmaker and an advocate for disAbility rights in Hollywood. And I have found that many of these individuals do not see any discrimination and therefore think it doesn’t exist! Yet not seeing it should be evidence that it does exist! Hollywood – the industry – has successfully kept us out of being portrayed and certainly out of any of the creative roles in the limited portrayals of paraplegics in movies and television. I am going to make another campaign of pleading to Hollywood individuals and although I am not Santa Claus – I am making a list and checking it twice to find who is naughty and who is nice to our cause!
The question is: should I publish this list – here on my blog or on my website? Maybe this way others – within and outside the disAbled community – will see who in Hollywood, who with the power and ability to help, will care and who doesn’t care about how we are portrayed and misrepresented. And maybe this will cause some to be more apt to help this “cause”? OR this could cause me to be blacklisted as some horrible person trying to make those who do not respond or help as “bad” people and further hurt my chances (on top of being a paraplegic in this industry) at being a mainstream moviemaker who happens to feature paraplegic characters. Will this help or hurt this cause of being the authentic voice and vision and determined to hire paraplegic actors in the roles of my paraplegic characters and therefore providing a completely authentic representation of paraplegics in Hollywood’s mainstream movies and television?!
(Career) Suicide Is Painless — & Could Be Successful
Well since there are very few options I have not tried in the past 15 years – this may or may not be a career suicide move – but I am at the end of my rope any way so do or die and if it is a suicide move it would be painful for me but maybe those in Hollywood – the industry and the individuals that make it work – will finally take notice and give paraplegics and those with a disAbility more than a passing glance or nod when it comes to being truly included in mainstream movies and television. I have been dedicated to this work and “cause” for so long now that anything that will bring a brighter future in the authentic portrayal and representation of paraplegics in Hollywood will be a success.