The 87th Academy Awards aired to a lacklustre audience on Sunday—the viewership was the worst since 2009—but it sparked plenty of fireworks, particularly over Patricia Arquette’s incredibly dense comments on women’s rights and equal pay, in which she effectively advocated for the rights of cis white women and nobody else. But there was another controversy buried in this year’s Oscars—or, at least, it should have been a controversy, but no one seemed to pay much attention, other than the disability community.
In a first, both Best Actor and Best Actress went to people performing in cripface rolesmdash;nondisabled people cripping up in performances of disabled characters. While such roles have long been considered Oscarbait, this year’s awards definitely reinforced that, and the Academy’s slap in the face to the disability community will only create a further incentive to crip up in Hollywood. Every actor in sight will soon be clamouring for a disabled role to pick up some awards, rejuvenate a flagging career, and receive endless critical accolades.
Best Actress went to Julianne Moore for her role in Still Alice, in which a middle-aged professor experiences early-onset Alzheimer’s and watches the disease slowly eat into her life. The role made her the darling of critics across the globe, with people falling all over themselves to slobber onto the page about how heartbreaking and inspirational the film wasmdash;Moore quickly emerged as an early leader in the Oscar race, along with the herd of other white actors in Hollywood who are traditionally honoured at the yearly ceremony.
Yet, the film left a bad taste in the mouths of some disabled viewers. It positioned Alzheimer’s as a burden and a tragedy for a family, and at times made Alice out as a selfish, cold, and occasionally bitterly angry person—a classic iteration of the bitter cripple stereotype. The lack of personal experience with cognitive and neurological impairments was also painfully evident in the film, which focused on tragedising disability rather than on an honest and thoughtful depiction of living with early-onset Alzheimer’s and confronting a disease that typically appears in adults who are much older.
Meanwhile, Eddie Redmayne took home a statue for his role in The Theory of Everything, in which he cripped up to play physicist Stephen Hawking. The role, viewers were assured, wasn’t just ‘inspiring’ because he played a noted disabled scientist and researcher, but because it required immense hardship on Redmayne’s part as he researched the physical aspects of life with ALS; as though this is all there is to living with the motor neurone disease.
For disabled viewers, though, this role wasn’t just frustrating because it once again deprived a disabled actor of an opportunity, nor because it represented a poor performance of disability from a man more interested in choreography than life with ALS. The problem was with the role itself, too, and what it said about disability and romance. The film revolves around the life of his protagonist in the context of his marriage, and it positions his disability very specifically as a hardship and a burden.
In The Theory of Everything, Hawking’s wife is depicted as a saint and a hero for staying with her husband after he’s disabled, and for caring him through his disability. He’s treated like a burden, with his disability driving a huge wedge into their relationship. It’s implied that no one would love, let alone want to date or marry, a disabled person, and that people in relationships with disabled people are only there out of obligation or a sense of martyrdom.
This sparked anger in the disability community at the time the film was released, and again on Sunday night as people watched Redmayne being praised for a role filled with hateful stereotypes and attitudes about disability. Actual disabled people with spouses and romantic partners spoke out about their relationships on social media, expressing their anger and upset to see their lives depicted this way. Some nondisabled partners of disabled people also expressed rage about seeing their relationships cheapened, furious at the suggestion that they stayed with their partners out of obligation rather than love.
Both Still Alice and The Theory of Everything relied on disturbing stereotypes and social attitudes about disability, the latter in particular representing a common popular belief, and also a harmful one. Both films chose to focus primarily on friends and family, once again telling the story of disability through the nondisabled lens, for and about nondisabled people. In neither case were disabled people permitted to tell their own stories, with the film instead focusing on producing awards bait for the actors involved.
Moore’s Oscar win was praised by nondisabled people as a sign that she was finally being recognised with a ‘long overdue’ statuette—unsurprisingly, cripping up is a common technique for attempting to snag the little golden man if he’s been elusive throughout an acting career. For Redmayne, on the other hand, the award will clearly launch a career, creating a springboard for plum roles—now that he’s cripped up and received the ultimate praise for it, he’ll be a hot commodity, like other Oscar winners. Notably, Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for his own cripface role in My Left Foot, going on to a highly successful career in film and illustrating that if you want to make your mark in Hollywood, take up a cane, plop yourself into a wheelchair, or otherwise play at disability. Likewise, Daniel Radcliffe took on a cripface role to rejuvenate his career and escape from under the Harry Potter spectacles.
For actors like Redmayne and Moore, the disability vanishes as soon as they leave the set, and they can get on with their lives, heedless to the incalculable damage they’ve caused the disability community and to the personal hurt that many experience as a result of films like theirs. And the Academy will go on rewarding them for it, incentivising more and more writers, producers, and actors to continue turning out cripface garbage.
Photo by Brad K, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license