Responding to The Shape of Water wins

#DisTheOscars and the fight for disability representation and inclusion

Director Guillermo del Toro holds up two out of four total Oscars for The Shape of Water. Photo courtesy of brecorder.com
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On Sunday, March 2, The Shape of Water (2017) left the 90th Academy Awards with four wins: Best Production Design, Best Original Music Score, Best Director, and, finally, Best Picture. As a disabled person, I wish I could have pulled a Kanye-West-at-the-Grammys and taken the microphone from Guillermo del Toro during the acceptance speech, so I could explain ableism to all of Hollywood.

Ableism is essentially discrimination against disabled people on the basis of their disability. It is favouring abled people over disabled people, excluding disabled people, and not addressing accessibility barriers. To anyone who asks, I like to explain ableism as operating under the assumption that everyone has the same high levels of physical and mental capabilities. Ableism is rooted in a fear of disability—that is, no one wants to believe that they could become disabled at any moment, lest they have to learn how to survive in a world that is constantly ignoring their existence. Even more, ableism is the fear of disability manifested in the form of demonizing people with disabilities or the disability itself.

In The Shape of Water, Sally Hawkins, a speaking and non-signing person, played a non-speaker who communicated using a form of sign language and fell in love with a humanoid monster. Ultimately, this narrative perpetuates the idea that disabled people are other, and can only find belonging amongst monsters. It also perpetuates a toxic romantic narrative for disabled people. Kim Sauder (known online as the “Crippled Scholar”) puts it best when she says on her blog, “Disabled people don’t need more pseudo-romantic movies that romanticize our otherness, that connect us so clearly to monsters. That say if society doesn’t accept you that you might as well embrace the monster that they see in you and join literal monsters in a life away from humanity.”

Telling the story of a disabled person with an abled actor, an actor who doesn’t identify as disabled, and/or an actor who doesn’t experience the same disability as their character, understandably awards a massive thumbs-down from the disabled activist community. Imani Barbarin (“Crutches&Spice” online) even created the hashtag #DisTheOscars to help open up conversations about disability representation in film, or lack thereof. Over the Oscar weekend, Twitter users took to the platform to discuss their frustrations with and expose the lack of disability representation in film. One user, KendallyBrown, used the hashtag to point out that:

As Alice Wong notes in her Teen Vogue op-ed, “Disabled people are everywhere, and yet we are invisible and erased by the people with unexamined privilege in the center.” So why are abled actors continually chosen to play roles of disabled people? As Wong mentions, some actors even go to the extent of “learning” a disability so their performances can convince audiences. Beyond the absurdity of cripping up for a role, this all seems highly unnecessary given the fact that there are certainly more than enough disabled actors and content creators out there to tell our stories.

The Shape of Water and its massive Oscar wins point to a bigger-picture issue of the lack of disability representation in film and inclusion in media as a whole. Disabled character roles are constantly filled by abled actors in film and television. Venue accessibility is a concern in the music scene. Conference organizers who seek disabled speakers/panelists often don’t pay them or ensure the conference venues are accessible. Novels and memoirs with disability at the centre often perpetuate ableist narratives. Disability-related news stories aren’t being written or even edited by disabled people.

After spending countless hours online sifting through story after story of experiences with ableism—and by experiencing or observing ableism myself—it has become apparent that the inclusion trend simply does not include disabled people. As students and professors of higher education, as people involved in the media industry, and as those fighting for the rights and equality of all people, we must all do better.