The Elephant Man’s 40th Anniversary: Have Societal Attitudes Towards Visible Differences and Disability Changed?

This article was extracted from Scratch Cinema.

Forty years after the release of David Lynch’s groundbreaking The Elephant Man, StudioCanal is marking the anniversary with a 4K restoration of the film playing in cinemas from March 13th. There will also be a DVD, Blu-ray and 4K UHD release available from April 6th. 

The Elephant Man tells the story of John Merrick (John Hurt), a man with severe deformities living in 19th century London. Shunned by Victorian society, Merrick is exploited as a disfigured circus freak and treated cruelly by almost everyone he meets. Anthony Hopkins plays Doctor Treves, a kindly surgeon who rescues Merrick from a life of prejudice and shelters him at the Royal London Hospital, which becomes his new home. Merrick soon becomes a celebrated curiosity, gaining celebrity status among London’s upper class. Shot in black and white, Lynch’s historical drama explores themes of compassion, the human condition and man’s inhumanity to man. Boasting an outstanding lead performance from John Hurt, this influential film went on to be a commercial and critical sensation with eight Academy Award nominations.

Black and white photo of John Hurt as the elephant man cornered by a crowed of Victorian era men
Image courtesy of Brooksfilms

In Frederick Treves’ memoirs, he mistakenly gave Merrick the first name of John when his name was, in fact, Joseph Merrick. In 1977 this name was used by playwright Bernard Pomerance when he wrote ”The Elephant Man”, a play that premiered to critical acclaim in London. Many often assume that Lynch’s film is based on the play. As a result of a legal case, the film’s introduction carried a statement declaring itself separate from the Pomerance script. 

In the forty years since its release, what impact has The Elephant Man had within cinema and its portrayal of disabled people? More importantly, have social attitudes towards visible differences changed?

From a young age, we often associate visible differences with a negative connotation, with scars and disfigurements making for menacing undertones. The film industry has fed audiences this narrative for decades, showcasing sinister and reclusive villains such as Scar in Disney’s The Lion King, Joker within the Batman franchise, to the titular antagonist in The Phantom of the Opera.

On the other end of the spectrum, modern stories resembling characters with visible differences are often overly sentimental and patronising. Based on The New York Times bestselling book, Wonder is a film about ‘Auggie’ Pullman, a fifth-grader with a craniofacial condition resulting in distinct facial differences. Jacob Tremblay played Auggie, wearing prosthetics and heavy layers of makeup to portray the character’s facial disfigurement. Craniofacial conditions affect 600,000 people in the United States alone, which only strengthens the need for authentic and reflective representation. In Wonder, Auggie is used as a prop to educate those around him about kindness and acceptance, with his mere existence labelled as inspirational. The stories that are told on screen ought to be reflective, powered by authentic storytelling rather than used as an accessory to make non-disfigured people feel better about themselves.

a close up of Auggie's face, he's wearing a spaceman helmet
Image courtesy of Lionsgate, Mandeville Films, Participant Media, Walden Media and TIK Films

Adam Pearson was born with a condition that causes tumours to grow on his face. He has been bullied, harassed and described as Elephant Man for as long as he remembers.  Pearson starred in the critically revered science fiction film Under the Skin along with Scarlett Johansson, enabling Pearson to challenge the stigma surrounding disfigurement on the screen.

In 2018, the casting of a non-disabled actor in the BBC drama adaptation of The Elephant Man sparked criticism, reminding the public that inauthentic disability representation is still a prominent issue within television and film. Charlie Heaton (Stranger Things) had been cast as Joseph Merrick, who is arguably the most recognisable disabled character portrayed within film. Some called this casting a missed opportunity, highlighting the barriers that disabled actors have to overcome to progress within the industry, with inaccessibility being a significant factor. 

In recent news, Jo Vigor-Mungovinm, who traced Joseph Merrick’s grave, has been fundraising the estimated £100,000 for a monument of Merrick in his native Leicester. However, prejudice has hindered any such attempt to commemorate Joseph Merrick, with critics declaring that the city is already “ugly enough”.  The city’s reaction is a stark reminder that there are still vocally hostile attitudes towards disability and visible differences. 

a black and white portrait of joseph merrick
Joseph Merrick

Changing Faces is a UK based organisation who campaign for positive and accurate representation, a society free from discrimination and a society that respects difference. The charity launched their latest campaign, ‘#VisibleHate: Together We Can Stop It’, with a video featuring British presenter Adam Pearson and other individuals with a visible difference repeating remarks such as “If I were you, I’d kill myself” and “a face only a mother could love”. Every comment uttered within the video is familiar to many with a visible difference, having encountered such verbal abuse themselves. 

Changing Faces recently published independent research revealing that seven in ten people with visible differences experience adverse reactions such as staring and bullying simply because of the way they look. The study also found that 28% of people with a visible difference have experienced a hate crime and 35% of those people now feel nervous when leaving their homes. Almost half of those who have encountered negative behaviour say they’ve lost confidence and 27% claim it has negatively impacted their mental wellbeing.  

Media platforms are encountering a turning point within our society, as we start to realise the importance of accurate representation of marginalised communities. Media portrayals influence the shaping of social attitudes, distributing a trickle-down effect upon impressionable audiences. It’s time for a shift within the infrastructure to change perceptions towards ‘different’ people. For change to happen, mainstream television and film companies need to reach into underrepresented communities and consult the experiences of marginalised individuals, both positive and negative. Netflix shows such as Special and Atypical are paving the path for mainstream disability representation, but overarching progress within the industry is slow with no momentum or driving force behind it.

It can be said that the release of The Elephant Man was a necessary and critical display of social attitudes towards disfigurement, challenging the social standard for compassion. Lynch’s exploration of hypocrisy still rings true, with his depiction of exploitation under the guise of kindness as a barrier of total liberation and independence for disabled people. Despite the film’s flawed theme exploration, which has only become glaring due to societal progression, Lynch’s The Elephant Man paints a devastating portrait of a man with so much to offer and a heart that never stopped loving.

Atypical’s Journey to Authentic Disability Representation: Shining a Spotlight on College Disability Services

This article has been extracted from Flip Screen.

In 2019, the Higher Education Commission ordered an inquiry into the experiences faced by disabled students, including autistic students, to investigate why educational institutions are failing to support their disabled students. 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the 10th anniversary of the Equality Act 2010, and yet there are still barriers preventing disabled students from achieving their full potential within academia. Policy Connect states that disabled students are more prone to experience social isolation and loneliness, they are generally less likely to complete their degree and they are paid less as graduates. For many disabled young adults, the prospect of higher education brings with it uncertainty as to their capability to commit to the demands of university education.

Typical coming-of-age stories within television often discuss the transition young people face moving from high school to university, exploring the rollercoaster ride of excitement and dread as they prepare to enter the next chapter of their life, away from the safety and familiarity of their status quo. It’s a rarity to see plotlines featuring young people with disabilities contemplating their future and the support they’ll be afforded for a smoother transition.

Atypical is a coming-of-age Netflix series that centres around Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist), an 18-year-old student on the autism spectrum. The show follows Sam as he navigates through high school, dating and family struggles.

Netflix poster for Atypical. Atypical is written in all capitals in the centre, with Sam, his sister, father and mother lying down looking up.

Season one faced backlash for excluding autistic people from the creative teams developing the plotlines, with none of the writers, directors or producers being on the spectrum. The missing discussion resulted in the perpetuation of many stereotypes being portrayed, ignoring the fact that autism is multifaceted with varying symptoms across the spectrum. Instead, we see what neurotypical people think autism is. One of the fundamental pillars of the modern disability rights movement is the principle of “nothing about us without us”.   Inaccurate or one-dimensional depictions of autistic people can be harmful and damaging, especially if the general public are misinterpreting mainstream media as a valid educational source.

In popular media, disability has a 2% representation rate, in which disabled actors portray only 5% of disabled characters. Imitated representation of disability often stems from the belief that autistic people, and disabled people on a broader level, can’t share their stories and speak for themselves. Atypical redeems itself in season two and three, in which a part of Sam’s plotline introduces a support group for young adults on the spectrum, all portrayed by actors with autism. 

Photo showing the support group for young adults on the spectrum. Sam is seen sitting in a circle with his peers.

During the third season, we see Sam settling into college and coming to grips with unfamiliar environments and routines. In the third episode, titled ‘Cocaine Pills and Pony Meat’, Sam begins his ethics module and becomes overwhelmed with the demands of the class. He starts to have trouble sleeping due to the changes in his life, worsened by his stern professor. Sam’s father, Doug (Michael Rapaport), talks to him about possibly asking for support from his college. Sam visits the Disability Services Centre where he’s shown around by Sid (Tal Anderson) and Jasper (Domonique Brown).

“…and even if you don’t use the services, you can still use the bean bags.”

The episode finishes with Sam sitting in his ethics class, along with Excited Evelyn (Marietta Melrose), his ‘anonymous’ note taker.

It’s refreshing for audiences to be introduced to a narrative that acknowledges disability services, enabling viewers to conclude that there’s no shame in asking for help as it’s there for a reason. Disability is no indication of limited capabilities, and education should be accessible to everyone. 

In the UK, some of the disability services available to students include mobility training for blind or visually impaired people; lecture notes provided in alternative formats or in advance; notetakers; support workers and alternative arrangements for assessments. Although there is an adequate system in place, there are still fundamental flaws that require attention.

Having said that, it’s crucial to ensure that disabled students are aware of the support that’s available to them. Illustrating everyday dilemmas faced by disabled people is vital in the fight for authentic disability representation within television and film.

Notwithstanding the negative reactions towards Atypical‘s first season, the pioneering show has since made leaps and bounds in its disability representation, narrative and storytelling. The introduction of an LGBTQ+ relationship in the latest season is just another example of how marginalised communities are taking centre stage and breaking through stereotypical dynamics.

Since the release of the third season, audiences have anticipated the announcement of a fourth, which Netflix has not yet confirmed. 

Revisiting A Quiet Place: Disability Representation

A Quiet Place is my go-to film when quoting the success that captioned showings contribute to the film industry. I often argue that cinemas are missing a trick by failing to provide more captioned screenings, an issue that is adjacent to the overall dismissal of accessibility within cinema and the film industry. I discussed the topic of captioned cinema screenings in more depth in an earlier post I wrote.

A Quiet Place is a 2018 American post-apocalyptic horror film directed by and starring John Krasinki. The film also stars Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe. The plot centres a family struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland inhabited by blind extra-terrestrial predators with an advanced sense of hearing. The majority of the film is subtitled as the characters communicate using American Sign Language; there are very few scenes with English dialogue. The film’s suspense and horror element is the direct effect of overwhelming silence.

John Krasinki's character is looking into the camera with his finger to his mouth, signaling to be quiet.
John Krasinki

A Quiet Place was released in the United States in April 2018 and was a significant box office success, grossing over $340 million worldwide. A sequel, A Quiet Place: Part II is set to be released in March 2020.

Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe respectively play the roles of Regan and Marcus, the daughter and son of the family. Regan is hard of hearing and wears a cochlear implant, suggesting that the family were already well versed in American Sign Language. The family’s survival and evolutionary advantage through alternative methods of communication are partly owed to Regan’s disability, a refreshing narrative of disability that is later developed in the film’s progression. The actress cast to play the role of Regan, Millicent Simmonds, is Deaf herself. The filmmakers hired an ASL interpreter so that spoken and signed language could take place on set. Simmonds helped her colleagues to learn sign language, encouraging the fluidity and authenticity of the cast’s use of sign language during the film.

Emily Blunt is telling Millicent Simmonds to be quiet.
A Quiet Place, from Paramount Pictures.

I was pleased that a Deaf actress had been hired to play Regan, disabled actors are usually ignored to such a degree that they are a rarity in film and television’s depiction of disabled characters. Disability is an identity much like race or gender, but the arts are lacking in disability representation. Instead, disabled individuals like myself regularly see non-disabled actors emulate the characteristics of a marginalised group without any outreach into the community they depict. It’s protocol now that non-disabled actors who are cast for disabled characters gain critical acclaim and take home Oscars. John Hurt in the Elephant Man, Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, Holly Hunter in The Piano, Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby, Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and many more have received applause for their performances. It seems that critics adore and advocate for sentimental and exploitative depictions of disabled characters.

Daniel Day-Lewis in the film My Left Foot. He is sitting in a wheelchair with a basket of food on his lap, a woman is behind him.
Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot

My opinion isn’t that non-disabled actors shouldn’t play those roles, but I do believe that the playing field has to be levelled out so that disabled actors are at least allowed the opportunity to audition for these roles. The exclusion of disabled actors is prevalent; it is a systemic problem that is industry-wide.

Millicent Simmonds‘ breakthrough performance brings a level of substance and authenticity to Regan, a role that was close to home for me. I had the opportunity to see this film at the beautifully furnished Birks Cinema in Aberfeldy. I rewatched A Quiet Place on DVD, and while I still enjoyed it, the atmosphere of the film is better suited to quieter cinema screenings with minimal popcorn munching.

Despite my enthusiasm for this movie, I had one major disappointment with the distribution of A Quiet Place. There are some crucial scenes with English dialogue that contribute to the plot, so I had to attend a SUBTITLED version of the film. Instead of subtitling the entire movie, for the benefit of both hearing and Deaf people as the film utilises both spoken and signed languages, some scenes didn’t have sign language or subtitles when English was being spoken. I was frustrated as this was a film that centred a Deaf character and the use of ASL, yet it was only hearing people that were accommodated for the entirety of the film.

Films that portray authentic depictions of disabled characters and prioritise involvement with the disabled community are valued as they help pave the path for disabled people to tell their own stories. If you haven’t seen A Quiet Place, then please watch and support this film, I promise you won’t regret it.

Queer Eye’s Disability Episode was a Disappointment

Netflix’s much-loved reality show Queer Eye returned to our small screens earlier this summer with its fourth season. Audiences once again saw the Fab Five travelling through the Midwest, meeting different nominees of varying backgrounds, helping them to improve different elements within their lives. The Fab Five consists of food and wine specialist Antoni Porowski, interior designer Bobby Berk, culture and lifestyle expert Karamo Brown, grooming consultant Jonathan Van Ness and fashion designer Tan France.

The Queer Eye team are standing alongside each other and are wearing suits. They are posing and looking into the camera. The words QUEER EYE more than a makeover are below the Queer Eye team

Queer Eye’s popularity is partially owed to the show’s deconstruction of stereotypes, addressing polarizing issues whilst maintaining a level of respect and sensitivity for the nominees’ stories. In a nutshell, the show’s purpose is to help good people feel comfortable in their skin. The Fab Five focuses on self-love and empowerment, often bringing touching moments of shared experiences and struggles.

Episode 2 of Season 4 featured the reality show’s first visibly disabled nominee, Wesley Hamilton. Wesley was shot 7 years ago and was subsequently paralysed from the waist down. He is a wheelchair user and community activist, who formed a non-profit organisation that aims to combat mental and physical health issues faced by disabled individuals through the promotion of fitness and a healthy lifestyle. The organisation is named ‘Disabled but Not Really’ something that was also selected as the episode’s title. Queer Eye prides itself on the encouragement of empowerment and the celebration of one’s identity so this episode name felt contradictory to the show’s message. The titling of the episode perpetuates the ideology that identifying as disabled has a negative connotation, that disability is something to overcome. Inaccessibility is the issue that many disabled people struggle with and encounter daily, rather than the disability itself. This criticism isn’t towards Wesley as he is more than entitled to name his organisation ‘Disabled but Not Really’. He has the right to view and address his disability however he chooses.

Karamo is sitting on a couch, Wesley is in his wheelchair opposite Karamo and they are talking
Karamo and Wesley

However, Queer Eye’s episode titling left me feeling frustrated as it was a display of ignorance and disregard towards the wider disabled community, many of whom proudly identify as disabled. Disability is defined by the disability rights movement as the primary result of society’s exclusion of varying body types through structure and policy. This framework is known as the social model of disability and emphasises the social issues that affect disabled people. It was clear that the Queer Eye team didn’t consult the wider disabled community during production, neglecting their responsibility to utilise their platform to help change the narrative surrounding disability. The episode danced around themes of accessibility, independence and disability pride, barely scratching the surface of the issues and values central to the disability rights movement.

The trending hashtag #SayTheWord came to mind when watching this episode, reminding me of the shared sense of pride within the disability community I often see on the Twitterverse. First coined by Lawrence Carter-Young, this hashtag strives to empower disabled individuals to be proud of their disability, to say the word.

‘If you ‘see the person, not the disability’ you’re only getting half the picture. Broaden your perspective. You might be surprised by everything you’ve missed. DISABLED. #SayTheWord.’

The Fab Five failed to explore this mindset, engaging in the erasure of disability identity and pride.

Woven throughout the episode, there was a reemerging spotlight on the co-dependent relationship between Wesley and his mother, Dawn. Karamo took Dawn aside for a private conversation, commenting “You had to give up your life for 7 seven years”, later asking the question “Has he ever said thank you?”. Dawn simply replied, “He doesn’t have to say thank you.” Karamo attempted to delve into something that he has no business discussing, overstepping his boundary with no consideration as to the implications of the suggestion that Wesley should be thankful. The episode continued to convey the message that disabled people can only achieve independence through interdependence, fueling the stereotype that all disabled people are ‘invalids’, imposing a burden on their loved ones as they care for them. The issue at hand is the lack of accessibility and proper infrastructure which forms a barrier to disabled people seeking independence.

Many non-disabled audiences were inspired by Wesley ‘overcoming’ his disability, on the other hand, most disabled viewers perceived the episode’s narrative as ‘inspiration porn’ and a missed opportunity as Queer Eye chose a narrative that distanced itself from the wider disabled community. I appreciate that each episode is only forty-five minutes long, making it impossible for a total exploration of disability rights and issues, but the episode still missed a trick. It would have been wonderful to see Tan reach out to a disabled fashion designer to discuss adaptive clothing and the options available for Wesley, or for Bobby to consult with a disabled interior designer and collaborate on Wesley’s house. Despite this, I was relieved to see both Tan and Bobby undertaking a practical approach, restructuring Wesley’s house and clothing to accommodate him in every-day life. Bobby comments that “Wesley doesn’t need anyone to do anything for him, the house makes him struggle more than he needs to”. It was refreshing to see Bobby travelling in the city with Wesley to gain a better understanding of his daily commute and the difficulties he faces due to poor design.

The Queer Eye are posing with Wesley in the middle of them

Tan advises Wesley on the tailoring of outerwear such as jackets so that they don’t get caught in his jacket. In one heartfelt scene, Tan cries as they shared their experiences of struggling with self-confidence, Wesley asks Tan how he was able to become proud of his identity as a gay man. This would have been the perfect opportunity to discuss disability pride, that the shame a disabled person may experience stems from external reactions and stigma, rather than how their body works. Instead, Wesley comforts Tan and the episode continues.

In many ways, the episode was heartfelt, especially the scenes depicting Wesley’s strong relationship with his daughter. Nonetheless, I had high expectations for the Fab Five, and they weren’t met. They missed a prime opportunity to examine ableism as well as internalised ableism, a topic that is in dire need of discussion within mainstream audiences.

The Fab Five clinked their glasses to a toast of “Disabled, but not really” and the next episode began playing.