At some point, most discussions of the representation of marginalised groups in cinema (and the media in general) lament the absence of whichever group is under consideration. For example, Colin Barnes suggests that the absence of characters with disability in the media has resulted in the widespread cultural belief that people with disability can not participate in everyday life (1). In The Problem Body, however, Sally Chivers and Nicole Markotić maintain that, unlike other marginalised groups, films rarely ignore disability (think of all those Academy Awards for “worthy” performances). Rather, reviewers fail to recognise the sociocultural aspects of disability – instead, they continually locate it in the body – and audiences in general are assumed to be able-bodied.

“Problem bodies” are broadly defined as – but not confined to – representations of disability, illness, ageing, obesity, etc. Through a focus on the filmic projection of problem bodies, Chivers and Markotić seek to contribute to a post-Mulvey mode of film analysis that redirects “the gaze” towards contemporary social issues such as disability. Their definition of disability is much broader than other critical investigations of disability influenced by a social model (which argues disability is exclusively located in social practices, having nothing to do with the body). As a result, The Problem Body broadens the scope of disability cultural analysis. By focusing on the way narrative and mise en scène create the problem body, rather than identifying “damaging” stereotypes, this collection of essays offers new frameworks and modes of analysis.

The Problem Body seeks to distinguish itself from other investigations of disability in cinema by questioning why some bodies invite that “problem” label while others do not. David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder’s work is an obvious influence in this collection, with the first three chapters including the same quote from their book, Narrative Prosthesis: “disability has been used throughout history as a crutch on which literary narratives lean for their representational power, disruptive potentiality, and social critique” (2). This idea is an important concept in the cultural investigation of disability and in understanding how disability is used so frequently in cinema as an image or, as I have previously suggested, a narrative shortcut (3). The contributors to The Problem Body go on to show how disability, and the images it conjures in the minds of audiences, structures many film genres, from the obvious (although neglected in disability studies) illness narratives, to film noir, to classic Hollywood, and Korean and European film. The collection also includes a fictional coda which reassesses the value of disabled people on screen and in the audience. Beyond simple statements about what disability means, however, the contributors also interrogate the way disability is shaped, the way it is treated by the camera and the ways in which a normative gaze is established.

Disability film analysis started gaining momentum in the 1980s and ’90s, with investigations of films such as Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967), My Left Foot (Jim Sheridan, 1989), Born on the Fourth of July (Oliver Stone, 1989) and Whose Life Is It Anyway? (John Badham, 1981). As the theorisation in this area is rich, I was somewhat disappointed that this collection was not bolder in its selection of films. Disability is still a pervasive image in recent cinema and I would have liked to see further investigation of this. As a work of synthesis, however, The Problem Body provides an excellent foundation to this area. While Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004) is mentioned in a number of the essays, I fear that this film is becoming one of the usual suspects in this area which needs to broaden its scope. I’m also reading Transgressive Bodies (4), another new book that includes two chapters on disability using more up-to-date films, such as the films of the Farrelly brothers and the type of documentaries Mitchell and Snyder recommend in their chapter of The Problem Body. If it is true, as Chivers and Markotić suggest, that disability is everywhere in cinema (and it is), then investigations of more films made in recent years would have been a welcome inclusion.

Chivers and Markotić have gathered together authors from every career stage, from the relatively unknown to the well-established. Previously, I have taken issue with the work of well-known disability theorist Paul Darke for not considering the language of cinema (i.e. framing, editing etc.) in his disability media analysis (5). However, his chapter “No Life Anyway: Pathologizing Disability on Film” was a stand-out in this collection, as he seriously considered the importance of the tools available to the filmmaker, offering a sophisticated analysis of Whose Life Is It Anyway? While the film is not contemporary and has been analysed many times before, Darke’s analysis is new and provides a good framework for engaging in this type of critical theory. Timothy Barnard’s essay, “‘The Whole Art of a Wooden Leg’: King Vidor’s Picturization of Laurence Stallings’s ‘Great Story’”, also advances disability studies in cinema through his almost-celebratory analysis of the close-up and mise en scène of the disabled body in classic Hollywood cinema. This is in stark contrast to earlier theorisations that suggested such a practice is exploitative and discriminatory (6). Snyder and Mitchell also celebrate the camera’s treatment of the problem body:

… a variety of techniques, settings, and dramatic situations […] refuse to allow audiences to take up distance from, or distaste of, the presence of disabled bodies. Long shots, close ups, and nonstandard framing give audiences an intimacy with disabled bodies usually reserved for private or clinical settings. (p. 195)

These post-Mulvey, post-social-model ways of looking at disability allow a more complex cultural investigation of how disability features in and structures cultural products such as cinema.

I’ve been looking for research on disability in film noir for some time, so I was excited that a chapter in this collection was devoted to the topic. Michael Davidson’s chapter, “Phantom Limbs: Film Noir and the Disabled Body”, did not disappoint; he provides an important rereading of film noir as heavily reliant on the image of the problem body, which is significant to a cultural concern with the maintenance of normalcy. Film noir emerged during the Cold War period as part of a broader concern with this maintenance. Davidson rehabilitates the significance of supporting characters that have a disability, in particular, as working to legitimise normalcy. He also highlights a connection between disability and sexuality through his suggestion that the missing limb becomes a missing phallus. This chapter is one example of the significance of this collection in highlighting the importance of disability to cinema. If your interest is in other genres, periods or national cinemas, then it’s likely you’ll find something useful in this book.

Having been cited repeatedly throughout the collection, Snyder and Mitchell’s importance is clear in their rigorous chapter, “Body Genres: An Anatomy of Disability on Film”: you could not get a better introduction to the investigation of representations of disability in cinema. This chapter is longer than the others and provides not only an introduction to the ways disability has been used in cinema to further exclude people with disability, but also considers the emergence of more thoughtful representations. Snyder and Mitchell start from the assumption that disability is as crucial as gender and they argue that cinema has relied on disabled bodies to produce certain sensationalised extremes. In fact, every genre relies on a specific disability type, and Snyder and Mitchell offer an excellent table to delineate this. While some genres are directly associated or aligned with disability, such as the blind slasher subgenre (alluded to earlier by Johnson Cheu), others use disability as a narrative vehicle, for example the melodrama.

All is not lost, argue Mitchell and Snyder, because recently some films have begun demonstrating an understanding of the social model, taking up disability as “a core element of their storyline, as opposed to freak encounters” (p. 192). Here Mitchell and Snyder turn to the more recent films – such as X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000) and X2 (Singer, 2003) – that I had been yearning to read about, before moving on to what they label “New Disability Documentary Cinema”.

These documentaries demonstrate the possibilities of a new disability cinema that doesn’t refute impairment. Instead, it insists upon the recognition of more examples of the human constellation of experience. Snyder and Mitchell consider examples of this genre such as When Billy Broke His Head (Billy Golfus, David E. Simpson, 1995), Forbidden Maternity (Maternité interdite, Diane Maroger, 2002), and their own film, Vital Signs: Crip Culture Talks Back (1996), to argue that disability culture is diverse and cannot be tied down to a single concept. These documentaries could be labelled avant-garde in their privileging of a disabled person’s voice. A comparison to earlier documentaries, such as Are You Fit to Marry? (John E. Allan, Inc. 1928), reveals the social and cultural construction of disability as reliant on the development of stigma, social changes and events such as the experience of veterans with rehabilitation.

Despite my misgivings that several of the essays tend to concentrate on films that have already been considered in depth within the discipline, this collection offers a coherent framework for the study of disability (or the problem body) in cinema. The acknowledgement of the importance of embodiment to this area of theorisation is an important theme that runs throughout each chapter. The contributors are discussing a well-researched field but they provide the foundation for further scholarship, helping new researchers by offering frameworks to propel this discipline forward.

The Problem Body: Projecting Disability on Film, edited by Sally Chivers and Nicole Markotić, The Ohio State University Press, Columbus, 2010.

Endnotes

  1. Colin Barnes, “Discrimination: Disabled People and the Media”, The Disability Archive UK [insert link: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/disability-studies/archiveuk/Barnes/Media.pdf], first published in Contact, no. 70, Winter, 1991, pp. 45-48, accessed 30 January, 2011.
  2. David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse, University of Michigan Press, Michigan, 2001, p. 49.
  3. Katie Ellis, Disabling Diversity: The Social Construction of Disability in 1990s Australian National Cinema, VDM-Verlag, Saarbrücken, 2008.
  4. Niall Richardson, Transgressive Bodies: Representations in Film and Popular Culture, Ashgate, Surrey, 2010.
  5. Ellis, Disabling Diversity.
  6. See Colin Barnes, Disabling Imagery and the Media: An Exploration of the Principles for Media Representations of Disabled People, The British Council of Organisations of Disabled People, Ryburn Publishing Services, Krumlin Halifax, 1992; Paul K. Longmore, “Screening Stereotypes: Images of Disabled People in Television and Motion Pictures” [1987], in Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 2003, pp. 131-148.

About The Author

Katie Ellis is a lecturer in media and communications at Murdoch University. She is the author of two books on disability and media, Disabling Diversity: The Social Construction of Disability in 1990s Australian National Cinema (VDM-Verlag, 2008) and, with Mike Kent, Disability and New Media (Routledge, 2011). She is currently working on her third book, Disability and the Media (Palgrave) with Gerard Goggin.