Why it sucks that Bryan Cranston is playing a disabled character
A few days ago as I was scrolling through my timeline, I saw a tweet advertising Bryan Cranston’s new movie ‘The Upside’. Until then, I hadn’t heard anything about it but I’m a big fan of his, so I was excited to see his name pop up. Breaking bad is one of my favorite shows of all time. I’m literally in the middle of what is probably my 7th or 8th rewatch of the series and I still remember the ball of anxiety I was as I livetweeted episodes while they aired. So yeah, big fan and was very excited to see the trailer.
Well, at least until I hit play. My short lived excitement turned to complete disappointment the second I saw Cranston sitting in a wheelchair. Once again, we’re getting a story about a wheelchair user played by a white, abled actor. And once again, it’s left to the disabled community to speak up about why this sucks so much.
The first thing everyone needs to know is that disabled representation is incredibly lacking.
And by ‘lacking’ I mean almost nonexistent. The number of disabled characters on screen make up only around 2%, yet nearly 20% of Americans are disabled. That’s one in five people, or over 50 million to put it in perspective. 50 million+ people who are stuck with less than 20 disabled characters a year, who are pretty much all white and/or male, to represent them for the world. And what’s worse – 95% of those characters are played by a nondisabled actor. Something our community refers to as ‘cripping up.’
So why is it such a big deal?
It’s a problem when you’re telling a story – and profiting- about a marginalized community that you exclude at the same time. It’s pretty telling when the abled white guys are celebrated for their roles in a ‘harrowing true story’ about someone disabled and accept an award on a stage that is inaccessible to anyone in a wheelchair. Hollywood isn’t really trying to celebrate our stories or include our community. Hollywood is exploiting.
Still, why can’t abled people play disabled characters?
When an abled person plays a disabled character, it’s far from good representation. They have no idea what the experience is like, so they work off of stereotypes and common ableist narratives that society has been spewing for decades. Basically, their portrayals are nothing more than caricatures.
Before anyone is tempted, pointing out actors who have played disabled characters in movies that received global success and recognition isn’t exactly a ‘gotcha’ moment. I promise you, any example you can possibly think of has been torn apart by the disabled community already. Repeatedly.
If you aren’t disabled, you don’t get to say what’s good disabled representation. You can’t speak for us. Just like I, as a white woman, can’t say what is good representation for the black community, or for men, or for literally any group that I am not a part of.
And before anyone rushes in to say there are no disabled actors to choose from – that is simply not the case.
Plus, if anyone knows that – it’s Bryan Cranston! One of my very favorite things about Breaking Bad is that Walter White’s son is played by a man with Cerebral Palsy. RJ Mitte was his co-star for years, who just so happens to advocate for more roles for disabled actors. Imagine that.
Walter Jr’s character was the perfect example of how having a disabled actor and character can add so much value to a show. It provides a new point of interest and can enrich the entire story. It also proves that y’know what? It’s actually not that impossible of a task to include a disabled cast member after all, despite the common argument used against calls for disabled representation.
We have shows like Speechless or movies like A Quiet Place that show authentic representation of disabled characters can and will be huge successes. People will buy tickets, they’ll tune in, they’ll support and celebrate it. Talented disabled actors exist. Start hiring them.
What if there’s a scene where they’re not disabled, though?
First of all, flashback scenes to show a character without their disability often don’t even need to be there. Better writing could solve that problem for us all. But if they do ‘need it’ – CGI exists. Using a body/stunt double and editing it to look like the actor is a thing that is done. Regularly. Plus, some wheelchair users can walk. So. There’s that.
But isn’t an actors job to step into the lives of those different from themselves?
Well, yeah, that is true. But, you also need to acknowledge the inaccessibility of Hollywood. With disabled people only making up 2% of characters, there aren’t very many roles available for disabled actors to begin with. Is it really fair for nearly all of them to then go to abled actors? Specifically people like Cranston who already have such widespread success and such a vast pool of roles to choose from?
It’s not like disabled people get to take the roles that would traditionally go to an abled actor. How often has a wheelchair user gotten in to audition for a nondisabled character, gotten the part, and had the story adapted to include them? Can’t think of one example? Me either. Maysoon Zayid put it like this – “If a person in a wheelchair can’t play Beyoncé, Beyoncé can’t play a person in a wheelchair.”
Every single time this conversation comes up, people rush to make arguments like “this is taking things too far! Should zombies be played by actual zombies? How about actual vampires?”. The funny thing is, they think this is like, a really clever argument. But okay, Chad. Vampires and zombies are make believe, and disabled people are not. Also, we’re not monsters, so chill out with the comparisons, okay? Thanks.
Representation is more than just seeing a wheelchair or sign language on screen.
I remember reading articles about Kurt from Glee and how he helped bridge the gap between gay kids and their parents. Not gonna lie, I lowkey hate that Glee was the first example I could think of. But my point is that what we see in movies and on tv has a massive impact on how we view the world and each other.
When we see a character on screen that makes us feel something, it helps us to connect. Seeing people from communities you have little to no interaction with can help to normalize the differences between you. Maybe my brother and I wouldn’t be stared at and prayed for every time we left the house if seeing people in wheelchairs who are happy and successful was normal.
But while representation has the ability to make a positive impact, it has the potential to do the opposite as well.
When disabled characters are shown to be miserable and believing that death is a preferable option? People listen. And when disabled characters are objects of pity for the main character? People notice. All those times when disabled characters can’t find happiness until an abled person dedicates their life to them? People believe it.
What we watch on tv is a direct reflection of the popular views held by society. If we keep perpetuating harmful beliefs, those beliefs are never going to go away. Disabled people fight an uphill battle every single day against ableism. It’s so deeply ingrained in our society, and it’s more than just hurt feelings. We face higher risks of violence, poverty, unemployment, etc. than our abled peers.
We deserve the chance to be seen and heard, to represent our community in a way that brings about positive changes we so desperately need. But we will never get the chance with people like Bryan Cranston accepting roles they are not equipped to take and can never accurately (or respectfully) portray.
Besides, isn’t everyone tired of the same 3 tropes that get redone over and over again? We have stories besides unhappiness and inability. We have jobs and families, adventures and romance that never get explored in media because Hollywood doesn’t include disabled people in any step of the process. Not in the writing room, not on the crew, and certainly not on screen.