Hollywood’s ‘glass staircase’: On ‘cripping up’ and why it is a problem

Disabled talent and why we should see more of it on the big screen

Reading Time: 4 minutes

A few weeks ago, Lorelle Skelton poignantly demonstrated with the example of the Marvel movie Black Panther, what a joy it is to see multidimensional and powerful black women reflected on the big screen, something that still happens all too rarely, despite the positive impact this can have: Persistent stereotypes are demolished, and young black female cinema goers are presented with strong role models. The success of Black Panther is heartening, as is the general move in Hollywood and on the small screen towards more female-driven stories in the wake of the #MeToo movement. And yet, I cannot help but notice that as far as disability representation is concerned, Hollywood is not catching up. While the glass ceiling is getting more and more cracks, the ‘glass staircase’ presents a barrier as big as ever.

Cripping up, or going disabled is considered as a way for actors to really show off their acting skills.

Granted, every Oscar season is populated with stories about disability, such as this year’s Best Picture winner The Shape Of Water, whose protagonist is a mute woman, or successes of previous years, such as the 2014 Stephen Hawking biopic A Theory of Everything or the classics Rain Man, My Left Foot and Forrest Gump. What all these films have in common is that they use a technique disability activists call ‘cripping up’: This term is derived from the term ‘blacking up’, and describes nondisabled actors portraying disabled characters. Often, these roles are considered ‘Oscar bait’ – going disabled is considered as a way for actors to really show off their acting skills. Indeed, casting nondisabled people as disabled is so common and deeply ingrained in Hollywood’s history that most of us probably don’t even consider it to be an issue. And yet, there is a glaring problem: What about the deaf and disabled actors?

The only deaf or disabled actor to ever win an Oscar remains Marlee Matlin, for her leading role in Children of a Lesser God in 1986. This in itself highlights the biggest problem with non-disabled actors playing disabled: Disabled talent is not given opportunities, whether for disabled or non-disabled roles. Studios often claim that there are no disabled big names that can carry a big production, but if no one casts deaf and disabled people to begin with, this vicious circle will never end. As someone who has just completed a PhD on the work of deaf and disabled artists, I can assure you that there is remarkable disabled talent out there that just needs bigger opportunities to shine.

If Hollywood shies away from the reality of actual disabled bodies, what message does this send to young audiences, both disabled and nondisabled?

Another problem with films that use ‘cripping up’ is that they often showcase one-dimensional characters, or use disability as the story, as something that needs to be overcome or resolved (often with the death or cure of the disabled character), instead of portraying disability as just another facet of a character’s life.

Skelton points out that in Black Panther, black women are allowed to be complex individuals, and that the roles rarely fall into stereotypes or tropes. While ‘cripping up’ is still so common, we cannot even hope for the same development when it comes to disabled roles. If Hollywood shies away from the reality of actual disabled bodies, what message does this send to young audiences, both disabled and nondisabled?

In the UK, less than 50% of disabled people are in work, as compared to 80% of nondisabled people. If we truly want disabled people to be included in society, film and TV plays an important role: If we don’t see disabled scientists, lawyers, shop assistants or teachers on our screens, it makes it much more difficult for young disabled people to believe that those careers are truly open to them, let alone careers in acting or other cultural or artistic sectors. Not to see ourselves reflected in popular culture can make us feel isolated and invisible.

As far as deaf and disabled talent goes in film and TV, I can only think of a handful of actors who are currently working in the mainstream, even though 18% of the UK population have a disability. TV is clearly leading the way: fully rounded, complex disabled characters played by disabled actors are rare, but Liz Carr’s role as forensic scientist Clarissa Mullery in Silent Witness, Peter Dinklage’s portrayal of Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones and the casting of Gaten Matarazzo in Stranger Things show that it can be done, and the popularity of these characters should encourage studios to hire more disabled talent.

And yet the ‘glass staircase’ to Hollywood remains firmly in place. When Best Oscar-winner Frances McDormand urged film makers and actors at the 2018 ceremony to demand ‘inclusion riders’ in their contract, a clause that urges film productions to depict society as diversely as it truly is, the media and Hollywood industry focused on the use of inclusion riders to ensure fair gender and race representation, but disability frequently went unmentioned, even though the original concept of the inclusion rider was developed with fair disability representation in mind, too. In other segments at the Oscars around diversity disability was absent too, with one notable exception: British screenwriter and actor Rachel Shenton, who accepted an award for her short film The Silent Child, gave her speech in British Sign Language, so that 6-year-old deaf actress Maisie Sly, who stars in the film as the titular ‘silent child’, could understand the speech. More than anything, for me this highlighted how utterly inaccessible the rest of the ceremony was.

The only recent positive example from a feature-length Hollywood production in terms of disability representation comes through the horror movie ‘A Quiet Place’, which features 15-year-old deaf actor Millicent Simmonds and uses sign language and her deafness creatively within the film. The deafness of Simmond’s character is not the story itself, and neither is her deafness something that needs to be overcome – it simply is. It would be wonderful if these kinds of portrayals of deafness and disability would become less rare, and Hollywood could widen its effort to become more inclusive and diverse, so that disability could be part of that conversation, too.

Pictured, Gaten Matarazzo, an American actor who plays the role of Dustin Henderson in the Netflix science-fiction drama series Stranger Things. Gaten has cleidocranial dysplasia, a trait he shares with his Stranger Things character. He uses dentures as a result of his condition, and uses his fame to raise awareness about it. (Ref. Wikipedia).

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  • One thing I really should have pointed out in the above piece is that literally ALL the disabled actors working in the mainstream I can think of are white, which is extremely disheartening and demonstrates how important intersectional thinking is.

  • Thanks for this enlightening piece Nina – I have to admit, I had not heard the term ‘cripping up’ until now and feel rather ashamed about that. I guess that is part of the overall problem – that so often we just don’t ‘think’ about representation and inclusivity as it simply isn’t there on the big/small screen for us to question…going to be doing some research and work on this with my homeschooled daughter over the next few days (prior to going to watch ‘The Quiet Place’) – thank you for opening our eyes. Cx

    • Thanks Camilla, I think you are right – ‘cripping up’ is so normalised on our screens, we don’t even realise that things could be so much better!
      If you or you daughter have any further questions or need more examples, just hit me up! I love that young people are interested in this subject.
      A great film with a disabled character (once again my beloved Peter Dinklage <3) is The Station Agent, although i don’t remember whether it’s interesting/appropriate for younger audiences.

      Another interesting one is the French movie Amélie, where one of the actors is actually missing a hand and they hide this through filming, he plays a two-handed character. If this was more common and disabled people would be cast in nondisabled roles so that everyone could play everyone, cripping up wouldn’t be such a problem.

  • I have thought about this (or at least, around this) a lot lately. It was prompted by the Maltesers advert with the lady who talks about having a fit after meeting a guy… at first I was really pleased to see someone in a wheelchair in an advert but I also felt frustrated because I feel like 99% of the time, when disabled people are represented on screen, their disability IS their story. As an able-bodied person, I don’t know if disabled people also feel this way, but it’s certainly noticeable to me.

    Out of interest, is it also classed as “cripping up” if a disabled person portrays someone with a different disability to their own? For example, someone in a wheelchair but who has their sight plays a blind person?

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response, Harriet! I discussed one of these Malteser’s ads in a university class I taught. The ads are interesting, because in some ways they break with tired stereotypes, and in other ways they uphold them. Partly it’s the form of an ad – you can only tell a very limited story in 30 seconds or so.
      Generally, I think casting disabled people in disabled roles often leads to nuanced characters that are more than just ‘wheelchair guy’ or ‘blind girl’. At worst, these portrayals where disability is the whole story actually increase stigma and prejudice, because disability is cast as an insurmountable problem that overshadows everything else, and this simply is not the reality for most of us.

      Luckily, there are a few exceptions: Liz Carr’s character in Silent Witness, for example, rarely gets storylines to do with disability. When she does, it’s all the more powerful, but she is also just an amazing scientist who solves crime, has a love life, etc. The same is true for Game of Thrones, but there are so few examples.

      • oh, and your other question: for me, the main issue is whether (disabled) roles go to disabled actors, so in most cases I wouldn’t consider it cripping up if a disabled person plays someone with a different disability. The exception, IMO, are cases where someone with a very mild disability plays someone with a much more severe disability, but giving this role to someone with a mild disability is still better than giving it to a nondisabled person!

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