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29 Jul 2021, 7:14 am

Cosplaying Oppression: Hollywood’s History of Excluding Autistic People From Their Own Stories

While many praise Hollywood for its “progressive” depictions of Black and LGBTQ characters, one group still continues to face a lack of true and respectful representation from the mainstream media: disabled people, especially autistic people.

“It’s sad how [Hollywood is] so progressive, they’ve really moved forward when it comes to representation,” Catherine Burford, an autistic writer, told Ms. “But not with the disabled community. They’re still like in the past with how they portray it. They still like to rely on those who are not disabled [to portray disabled characters].”

For many in the autism community, the way Hollywood chooses to present them is counterproductive and often defines them by their disability. “You don’t see them as a person; you see them as their disability,” said Tim Boykin, an autistic singer, actor and writer.

Similarly, Robin Roscigno, an autistic educator, educational researcher and founder of AuTeach, lamented how many disabled characters are in some way defined by their disability, without any autonomy.

“Disabled people are not given space to be full characters in of themselves. … We don’t really get a lot of like love stories of disabled people. Disabled people … having any kind of romance or any, like, action or anything that [where] the storyline is not just about the disability, [but] where it’s about disabled people being like, whole real people where disability is a part of our lives, but it’s not the only part of our lives.”

When making films and TV shows about disability, Hollywood often excludes disabled people from the production. Many times disabled characters—such as Dr. Sean Murphy in The Good Doctor and Augie in Wonder —are played by able-bodied, neurotypical actors. Many disabled people call this tactic “cripping up.”

Rebecca Faith Quinn, an autistic actor, writer, producer and TikTok autism acceptance activist, called out the double standard of neurotypical people pretending to be disabled on camera:

“It just irritates me because it’s just like, if you watch [a] movie, knowing that this is a neurotypical person who is not disabled playing a disabled person, I don’t understand why it doesn’t make you, make a person uncomfortable. Because in any other stance, if you pretend to be a disabled person, for money, people will just like they’ll rip you apart. They’ll be like, ‘that’s so offensive’, ‘that’s so horrendous.’ But the second you put a camera in front of them, it’s okay.”

Coined by Australian disability rights activist Stella Young in 2012, inspiration porn is defined as the representation of disabled people as inspirational, in whole or in part due to their disability. According to Young, the use of the word ‘porn’ in this particular term was “deliberate, because they objectify one group of people for the benefit of another group of people. So, in this case, we’re objectifying disabled people for the benefit of nondisabled people.”

Just as porn has historically objectified women for the pleasure of men, inspiration porn, as Burford puts it, “is pretty much a way for non-disabled people to portray disabled people in order to make them feel better about themselves.”

Renke voiced similar disdain for this common narrative, and says it’s “often fueled by the media when describing disabled people in order to make the non-disabled feel good about themselves. … The narrative being that ‘they overcame’ their disability while non-disabled people are praised for helping disabled people achieve these supposed triumphs.”

When it comes to autism, they’re always going down with the Rain Man storylines, the inspirational porn and whatnot, treating them as props rather than actually the actual main characters,” said Burford. “They’re literally unimaginative; there’s literally just recycling Rain Man over and over again. They’re not taking risks.”.

While inspiration porn is definitely the most common archetype for disabled characters, it is not the only one. Romanska detailed the four typical tropes disabled characters are often limited to:

1. Inspirational Cripple
Most “inspirational cripple” roles equate to inspiration porn.

“These stories center on disabled people accomplishing basic tasks or ‘overcoming’ their disability,” said Romanska. “In the inspirational narratives, disability is not a fact of life—a difference—but something one has to overcome to gain rightful sense of belonging in society.”

“The existence of someone should not be considered ‘inspirational,’ just because they’re different.” said Ariel Henley, a writer born with Crouzon syndrome.

2. Redemptive Cripple
Romanska describes the “redemptive cripple” as an offshoot of the “inspirational cripple”—in which the disabled character dies, sometimes by suicide or murder. “Disabled characters are sacrificed to prove their worth or to help the protagonist reach his goal,” said Romanska.

Roscigno calls this trope “kind of a hybrid of a couple of different models: one where the person themselves are redeemed, or [the other] where they redeem others”:

“There’s two versions of [the redemptive cripple]. There’s one where people view disability as some sort of moral failing. Like, ‘you are disabled, you didn’t try enough.’ And so you know, people will ‘overcome their disability.’ And then there’s another version where the child or you know, person’s disability becomes a redemptive arc for their caretaker.”

3. Magical Cripple
The “magical cripple” trope is essentially the disability version of the popular (and racist) “magical Negro” cliche. Just as a “magical Negro” character exists only to serve the white protagonist—think Uncle Remus in Song of the South—with wisdom and lessons that help them develop and grow, a “magical cripple” character is used as “a plot device … to guide the lead character toward moral, intellectual or emotional enlightenment,” said Romanska.

According to Roscigno, the “magical cripple” character doesn’t have any agency and does not receive a full narrative portrayal from the screenwriters or even anyone watching it: “It becomes more about disabled stories existing only to serve non-disabled audiences.”

4. Evil Cripple
Lastly, the “evil cripple” archetype is one of the less-talked about disability archetypes. Rooted in Greek mythology “populated by half-man half-beasts who possess pathological and sadistic cravings,” the “evil cripple” according to Romanska, “represents a form of karmic punishment for the character’s wickedness.”

Many autistic people say this archetype is less seen in depictions of autistic characters. Others, like Roscigno, have a different interpretation of the trope.

“It’s like the whole, like, ‘trapped inside my mind’ narrative with autism. People kind of tend to perpetuate that autism is somehow like in closing or, you know, shielding like your real child that is somehow underneath all of that,” said Roscigno.

Impact on Disabled People
“To other autistic people, I certainly look and act autistic,” autistic artist and audio describer Meg told Junkee.”To anyone without knowledge in the area, I may appear ‘just a little weird’. Their image of autism was informed by inaccurate media.”

The effects of how the misrepresentation of disabilities, particularly autism, go far beyond those who consume it. According to one study, “media representations of talent and special abilities can be said to have contributed to a harmful divergence between the general image of autism and the clinical reality of the autistic condition.”

While inaccurate, negative depictions of disabilities do affect how other neurotypical people view disability. They also impact how disabled people may view themselves.

“In some ways, like, we’re so thirsty for like, any representation that even bad representations seems okay, sometimes because there is none. So when we get something that’s not like, overtly terrible, it sometimes feels okay in the moment, because you’re like, well, there’s not anything else.”

Moving Beyond Disability Stereotypes to True Representation
Luckily, there are ways that Hollywood and society can improve, as many in the disability community have stated.

With 95 percent of disabled characters being portrayed by non-disabled actors, one of the biggest requests the disabled community has for Hollywood is to start casting more disabled actors in the roles of disabled characters.

“With only two Oscar winners openly having a disability in the entire 93 years of the awards, it is even more important to give disabled artists the platform they deserve,” said Renke

Boykin also suggests filmmakers “talk to autistic people. Learn about autism. Hire autistic actors or writers. It also creates a good story. … Show stimming”—self-sensory regulating behaviors and mechanisms—”as not the end of the world. And actually, like show an autistic person as a person. Not just a plot device. We have a lot of talent, so please give us a chance

A lot of themes we talk about in this section wrapped up in one article. They break down categories more then I have. To me categories 1 through 3 fall under “inspiration porn”.

I feel a little weird using the term “crip up”. That seems to me kind of what call today “appropriating” from the physical disability activists somehow.

And three cheers to whomever came up with “Cosplay oppression”. Funny but to the point.

Professionally Identified and joined WP August 26, 2013
DSM 5: Autism Spectrum Disorder, DSM IV: Aspergers Moderate Severity.

“My autism is not a superpower. It also isn’t some kind of god-forsaken, endless fountain of suffering inflicted on my family. It’s just part of who I am as a person”. - Sara Luterman