Shape of water

These female-led films about disability will change the way you look at life

Posted by for Long Reads

Award season – and the ever-present diversity row – has come to a close. Here, Jennifer McShane, a writer with mild Cerebral Palsy (CP), looks at how female-led films on disability both make an impact and act as a reminder that there is a long way to go before women with disabilities are accurately represented on screen.  

The statistics around how many films there are about people with disabilities are embarrassingly low. In 2015, a report found that just 2.4% of characters in the top 100 Hollywood movies who spoke or had names had disability.

The few that do exist in Hollywood are usually filtered through the male gaze. The Theory of Everything, My Left Foot, Me Before You – these are all films about disability, all with a male lead, and all played by fully-able-bodied actors (an entirely separate discussion which is a constant problem) who go on to win awards.

It’s 2020, yet I’ve never truly seen myself reflected on celluloid. The issue is more than just a lack of numbers: due to the small minority of films made, the disabilities depicted tend to be ‘invisible’ to the naked eye, and instead are something best kept hidden from plain sight (at least, initially). In this, there’s even less acceptance for women on screen with physical disabilities. 

So I look for ‘fragments’ in the select few films which end up being made; traits I see in their female characters that reflect something, accurately, about my life. I look for women with strength, women as sexual beings and women who don’t see their differences as anything other than what makes them, well, themselves. 

The below films don’t get everything perfect but they do make a powerful, lingering mark in various ways. They should be seen and spoken of, if only as a reminder that life for women with disabilities is never simple – even when it comes to how it looks in films. Now, more than ever, we need to see our stories told

The Shape Of Water (2017)

Films about disability: Sally Hawkins in The Shape Of Water.

The character of Elisa Esposito (played by Sally Hawkins) is a cleaner at a government laboratory where an amphibious creature called “the Asset” is kept. Elisa is marked as different with her scars, and her unknown origins, but primarily because she communicates in sign language rather than spoken words. It is this that allows her to form a rapport with the creature, who is very obviously defined as male. 

I can understand why some critics of the film scoffed at director Guillermo del Toro’s attempts to convey disability in this case: some felt both character’s ‘otherness’ was used as a tool to ultimately suggest that those of us with obvious differences should simply just be with those who are similar in kind – and be happy with that.

However, the film asks important questions in this sense. Are we not drawn to those who we feel will have an innate understanding of why we feel alienated in the first place? Why should this be perceived as negative? And most importantly, while Elisa is mute, her disability does not render her character flat, something which is so often the case. She is presented whole, with independence and adult sexual desires. She is in full control of her own story. 

To have this portrayed in a Hollywood film felt revolutionary then and it’s the same now – we’ve yet to see anything else quite like it.

Margarita With A Straw (2014)

Director Shonali Bose was inspired to make a movie when her cousin, who has CP, told her she wanted sex for her birthday. Bose said she had never considered sexuality as part of her cousin’s life in this way, so out of this Margarita With A Straw was born. 

Though the film’s heroine, Laila (played by Kalki Koechline) has a disability, the strength of the film is that she doesn’t see it as a barrier in any sense. It is not something that would ever prevent her from living life to the fullest – this changes not only her life, but the outlook of those around her. A note of disappointment is that, once again, this would have been an ideal role for a disabled actress, but this fact alone isn’t enough to dismiss how impactful the film is.

Laila is determined to break free of the restrictions imposed upon her and travels across continents (much to the chagrin of her mother), from Delhi to New York and back. Her journey represents her emotional growth, from a sheltered teenager living at home with her parents to an independent, self-assured young woman, happy to head to a bar by herself to request the cocktail of the title or engage in a same-sex romance. I’d never seen anything quite like this on screen before. 

Refreshingly, the viewer is left in no doubt that Laila is as prone to fallibilities as anyone else, even in situations which would obviously leave her more vulnerable. The film is told simply and with self-assurance: when it comes to life, Laila isn’t the one with limitations. 

Rust And Bone (2012)

The movie that gets the practicalities of a life ever-changed by disability is Rust and Bone, in which Marion Cotillard plays Stephanie, a woman who becomes a double amputee after an accident. But here, disability liberates rather than confines – Stephanie becomes fully human only when she loses her legs. Prior to the accident, she is emotionally stunted. While nothing is physically different about Ali (played by Matthias Schoenaerts), a character who befriends her, they are much the same, lacking any real sort of emotional connection to anyone, until they find it in each other.

At just over two hours long, the film leaves a lot out about the realities of life and rehabilitation as a double amputee, but it has a no-nonsense approach to the challenges that can be overcome with such a disability, notably in the sex scenes. Stephanie is incredulous when Ali suggests they sleep together so she can see it’s not so difficult – she feels awkward, uncomfortable and embarrassed about it (she shoves her prosthetic limbs out of sight and wants everything in total darkness, which always strikes a chord), whereas he barely bats an eye. Following that moment, much of the sex scenes have the same grittiness about them. There’s little Hollywood gloss but there’s still eroticism; the love scenes, as they eventually become, are presented as an entirely natural aspect of their relationship. This is something that we seldom see in any film about women and disability.  

Children Of A Lesser God (1986)

Children Of A Lesser God is based on Mark Medoff’s Tony Award-winning play about the relationship between a deaf woman and a hearing man. 

William Hurt stars as James Leeds, a bright and energetic speech teacher, who is intrigued when he meets school custodian Sarah Norman (played by Marlee Matlin). Sarah is a beautiful and intelligent young deaf woman, who insists on using sign language and refuses, as Leeds wants, to read lips and learn speech phonetically. It’s this dynamic that gives the film a sense of realism; as they begin to fall deeply in love (I’ve also yet to see another female character with any form of disability on screen be the object of such obvious romantic and sexual desire, as Sarah is for James), the couple is overwhelmed by their mutual inability to find a meeting point “that’s not in silence and not in sound”. 

He persists in her wanting to speak and she becomes overwhelmed at the fact that he refuses, in part, to accept her not wanting to – she doesn’t want to be a poor imitation of the hearing world – which leads them both to breaking point.

In terms of breaking the mould, Children Of A Lesser God is one of the few that actually did this in terms of the Hollywood award system and its non-existent treatment of the disabled acting community. The film received five Oscar nominations following its release in October 1986 and was the first female-directed film nominated for Best Picture. 

It also featured the first significant use of American Sign Language in a mainstream film narrative, as well as a supporting cast of young actors and actresses who were actually deaf. Matlin won the Best Actress Oscar, becoming the first deaf person to win the award – and to date, the only person with a disability to do so.

We’ve had no other film garner this much attention from the Academy Awards over 30 years later. So while we don’t know when, or if ever, we might see any tangible movement for women with disabilities on screen, it does mean we need to make much more noise about the few we already have.    

Images: 20th Century Fox, Unsplash

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