By Anton Spivack
Recently I posted this article, calling out the musical Jagged Little Pill for its non-binary erasure, to a Facebook page for Mensans who are fans of Broadway.
None of the commenters supported me, they just blasted me, accusing me of calling them transphobic and dismissing everything I had to say. When I likened the process of casting cis actors in non-cis roles to casting non-disabled actors as disabled, a subject with which I am way too familiar, they insisted, as many around me have done, that it’s no big deal for people to portray a disability or non-cis gender identity they do not have in real life because “that’s why it’s called acting.”
Eventually I deleted the post, still I continued to take heat for not presenting my case well enough, even from other spectrumites.
The portrayal of disability and non-binary gender identities in the mass media is crucial because for many of us it is our main exposure to such identities.
Those with such marginalized identities want to see them portrayed accurately, in a way that reflects our own experience, while those without these identities tend to care more about an effective portrayal, and if someone who does not actually have the disability or gender identity can pull it off, well more power to them, right? Or else these people want themselves on the back just for watching, feeling more open-minded without having to do the work.
Though about fifteen percent of the world’s population has some form of disability (according to the World Bank), and the same applies to 20% of the U.S. population, including 1 in 4 adults, as of now less than 3.5% percent of characters on broadcast scripted television in the U.S. are disabled and of those characters, more than 95% are played by nondisabled actors.
In the disabled community, having a nondisabled actor play a disability they do not actually have is called “cripface” or “disability drag.”
The commenters I encountered dismissed this term, arguing that blackface, unlike cripface, is meant to ridicule Black people. While casting nondisabled actors as disabled characters may not come from malicious intent, it is still insidious, because it conveys the message that disabled people are not the ones who can tell their own stories.
As for disabled characters in most of film and television, they are usually consigned to secondary roles, either as foils whose treatment by the main character determines whether or not to root for them, or as helpers to inspire the non-disabled protagonist. They usually fall into any of three problematic tropes:
“Tragically disabled,” where their disability is meant to evoke pity, like Tiny Tim.
“Magically disabled,” who possess some special ability or wisdom that compensates for their limitations, like Rain Man, Professor X or Daredevil. Often, like the Magic Negro, Manic Pixie Dream Girl, or Gay Guardian Angel these characters often no inner life and are only there to serve the nondisabled protagonist.
“Evil Cripple,” whose disability is a reflection of their wickedness, like Richard III, Dr. Strangelove, or Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life.
The first two of these categories are two sides of the same coin, shown in cases of disabled people overcoming their limitations, or being hailed as praiseworthy for performing mundane tasks. Those in the disabled community call this “inspiration porn,” because it dehumanizes the disabled person at the center for the sake of the nondisabled audience, as if to say “you don’t have it so bad,” or “a disabled person can do it so what’s your excuse?”
I doubt that Helen Keller would be so well-remembered today if she weren’t blind and deaf. Not to mention the redemption arc, which shows disabled people sacrificing their lives for the greater good, as in Simon Birch or The Year of Living Dangerously.
The common thread is that those with disabilities are somehow less than human, that their limitations are a fate worse than death and their only worth lies in how they benefit nondisabled people. Of course this is because such characters are portrayed and written by those without disabilities, who are often acclaimed for being sympathetic and understanding. We are not asking for pity, we are asking to speak for ourselves, to be seen, heard and respected.
So how does this go back to nonbinary casting?
I would say the guidelines should be similar, to only allow casting as long as it does not deny a marginalized person their own perspective. If anyone knows how to portray a disability or a non-cis gender identity, it’s someone who actually has that identity, not some cis or nondisabled actor trying to score cheap points with the critics and awards voters. Of course some would say that this is one-sided, like how blacks and Latinx people can play founding fathers in Hamilton, but white actors can’t play black parts.
You know what’s one-sided?
That there aren’t enough parts for BIPOC, disabled or non-cis performers. It isn’t coincidental that parts meant to be open to anyone usually end up going to those who are white, male, hetero, cis and nondisabled.
To those who say “it’s only acting” I ask, who gets to decide what makes a good portrayal of a marginalized person. Those with such an identity value authenticity. As for marginalized people playing nonmarginalized roles, they know more about the lives of the dominant culture than those of the dominant culture know about them.
I’m not aiming for equality, but rather equity.
The difference being that things are not equal and in order to level the playing field, some have to be given more than others. It might not seem fair, but then again neither are the circumstances. Circumstances that allow some to ignore or dismiss what others have to constantly endure.
Anton Spivack is a native New Yorker who writes, acts, sings, and cartoons. He hold a BA in theatre from Bard College at Simon’s Rock and has also performed with the sketch comedy group MONKEYS TYPING SHAKESPEARE, plus has been a member of EPIC Players for two years, where he has played the leads in The Tempest and The Little Prince. Anton has written the play Mixed Messages, which has had several readings over the years. He has also written a full-length musical, THE AMBER CRYSTAL, with his father, musician Larry Spivack, and they are working on another, Let Down your Hair!, based on Rapunzel. Read more about Anton here.