Just over a year ago, I wrote about Dan Brown's piece of literary genius that is The Da Vinci Code, and since the movie is opening this weekend to packed audiences now seems a worthwhile time to refer back to how both literature and Hollywood use disabled people for dramatic purposes. I haven't seen the film, but already know from the trailer that the book's damaging stereotypes remain intact.
Once again I warn: to understand disability stereotypes and simply apply the most likely one here is to make your own spoiler for the story. If that bothers you -- look away now.
There are two disabled characters in Brown's story and -- surprise! -- they are both the villains. One has polio:
The villain isn't disabled so much as "crippled." Crippled. Crippled. Did I mention he is crippled? Well, Brown does. Over and over and over as Mr. Crippled Secret Villain limps around and other characters comment on the fact that he is crippled. This is to make sure that the densest reader understands that twisted on the outside means twisted on the inside. Why is he a villain? Because he's crippled and that can drive a person to be not nice.This need to establish a certain hinkiness to the character of Teabing not only makes it into the film, it's in the trailer. "What can an old cripple do for you?" Pretty much Ian McClellen's first lines. Also in the trailer, there's a moment where Teabing drops his crutches to lunge and grab an artifact/clue out of the air. While this can be seen as a show of how important the mystery is to Teabing, it's also iconic of the idea that disabled people might be faking their impairments and making fools of everyone. This able-bodied anxiety is part of the stereotypes too, and cleverly, Teabing gets to be like those of us who are actually disabled and living with impairments yet also subject to frequent suspicion about our true identities.
The second villain is an albino man played in the film by Paul Bettany. I mentioned the albinism in my review a year ago, but didn't give poor Silas fair attention. Luckily, Andrew Leibs at Ragged Edge provides the historical context of albinism's stereotypical treatment.
Readers will no doubt recall the stalking Silas, who executes four people in one night doing God's work. Most of the stereotypes common to books and films that exploit albinism are present: red eyes, loyalty that leads to self mutilation and an abusive past that spawns a born-again brutality and proficiency in killing.I disagree with Leibs that Silas is the "only" albino experience that most of the nondisabled public will have, but he's dead-on about the depressingly consistent characterization. For an astounding list of how characters with albinism are portrayed, look here. Evil, they are, the pale Satans of Hollywood!
It is impossible for one with albinism (most of us detest the dehumanizing word "albino") to read Brown's book and not feel diminished. Knowing that Silas is the only experience most people will ever have with albinism is deeply troubling. Such characters take root in the imagination where there are no positive human images to balance them and thereby they assume great power.
In writing this I learned that albinism creates vision problems and people with this condition are considered legally blind. Isn't it interesting though, how portrayals of evil albinos (all those I can rcall) don't include any pesky vision problems that would hinder their ability to terrorize normal people? Too bad evil albino characters aren't played by actors with albinism. Even if they had to act sighted (and presumably get the same acclaim sighted actors get for acting blind), at least they could sort of represent.
But then, disabled characters aren't meant to be acted by disabled people. That would ruin the Oscar race for all the able-bodied actors. It's no accident that Ian McClellan doesn't have any actual need for crutches and Paul Bettany has real no pigmentation issues. Not that this film is Oscar material if most reviews are accurate descriptions. But really, why take a chance?