Fighting for more nuanced representations

Sam Hobby is one of our 3rd Year Media and Communications students. He has written this brilliant piece which we republish with permission after it first appeared on the University’s INCLUSIVITY STUDENT BLOG. It’s well worth a read.

My name is Sam Hobby, a third-year media student here on Singleton campus and I am disabled. I was born with Cerebral Palsy and so must use crutches to get around. No doubt some of you have seen me trudging toward my next lecture (or perhaps that is my inflated sense of self-consciousness talking!).  It is interesting to even myself that I have decided to write this piece and stick my head above the parapet as I am not usually so bold as to openly share my feelings regarding my own disability, let alone about how I feel disability can sometimes be represented. Nevertheless, here I am preparing to (very carefully) step aboard my soapbox.

The COAH inclusivity page can be found here

Most of the time I like to think of myself as quite an optimistic person, I tend to point and laugh at my differences rather than succumb to them. However, every now and again the self-pity party rolls into town. It can be little things, like not being able to carry a cup of coffee across campus by myself or just being slower to get to lectures than everybody else. As I said, little things but they are there. Generally, though, when I have one of these days, I brush it off and think nothing of it. Earlier this year however (Before the world turned into a Judge Dredd film) I started to become more and more frustrated with my situation to the point where I considered the amputation of my left leg as a plausible solution to my ‘problem’. I even went as far as fantasising about it.

Sam is in the final year of his degree

Fortunately, I no longer entertain this line of thinking and feel much better for it. The thing about self-pity is it can often make a marathon look like a walk in the park. I used to think that it would all be so much easier if I could replace what I had with an artificial limb without even giving a thought to the myriad problems that amputees have experienced. I used to envision that I would be like The Bionic Man or Winter Soldier. This seems so ridiculous to me now. All of this, of course, does not discount the fact it is okay to not feel 100% all of the time because nobody is and it is important that we do not allow ourselves to feel guilt over these feelings (speaking from experience, a trap that is easy to fall into). Self-pity should act as a reminder to us all of where we are in the present and not what determines our future.

This leads me on to talking about disability in the mainstream media. As a third-year student, I am currently in the process of researching for my dissertation and have chosen the representation of disabled people in film as my area.  After I decided on my dissertation topic I immediately got thinking about examples of disabled characters in film and realised that the majority of the ones I came up with were villains. Whether it’s Mr Glass from Unbreakable, Jaws from The Spy Who Loved Me or even Darth Vader from Star Wars, Hollywood does seem to love a physically disabled person with a grudge! I realise that these examples are from films that some may consider to be ‘old’ and want a newer example, and for that I raise you Gazelle. “Gazelle?” You may be thinking “those things that lions chase?” no dear reader, in fact Gazelle is a character from the 2014 hit film Kingsman who is an amputee and has weaponised her prosthetics. I really struggle in criticising these characters as I would consider some of them to be iconic and to be totally honest Gazelle is really cool! However, I cannot help but think that some of these characters tend to lack depth. I have no problem with a villainous character having a physical disability but that cannot be all that they are. Taking Gazelle as an example, she is mainly characterised by her (admittedly brilliant) ability to behead people with her deadly foot prosthetics, but what are her thoughts? her feelings? What is her character journey? I am aware that her character is a riff on the typically shallow Bond henchman/woman but that does not mean that she has to follow suit.

Hollywood does seem to love a physically disabled person, but only grudgingly, says Sam

I suppose my overall point is that we need to see more characters who are disabled rather than disabled characters. I for one, would find it a lot more interesting if there were more disabled characters we could understand and empathise with. Maybe they are insecure, and they struggle with self-pity like I do on occasion, this would make for a better villain, giving the audience an insight into their thought process. Of course, I am aware that that even some of the characters mentioned above are well developed and three dimensional, but rarely do we get to see their struggle in the context of disability. We never see how Darth Vader handles the day-to-day logistics of living inside of a robotic suit and perhaps for good reason (Imagine the instruction manual!) but if we could just take a peek behind the curtain, and I mean more than just seeing him without his mask, we could connect with the character on an even deeper level.

The Fight for more nuanced representations in the media feeds into and mirrors feelings of self-pity that myself and many other disabled people have experienced. If we are represented not just to the same degree but to the same complexity and depth as able-bodied people, we can use that to elevate and empower ourselves. While current representations might not be everything that we want them to be we must remember that just like even the greatest of pity parties, this moment shall pass and thought processes will change. Our efforts should be focussed on a future where the disabled are seen for their talents and personalities and also their faults and shortcomings because we are after all, only human beings.

To whomever is reading this, thank you for taking the time. I am getting out of here before I fall off this soapbox of mine!