Media has portrayed all aspects of society’s strengths, as well as its ugliness, the diversities of its peoples and cultures, political topics, events in history and so much more for as long as television and movies have existed. Often, television and movies try to stay within norms, while, at other times, they push boundaries or raise controversial topics.
- In 1952 on the “I Love Lucy” show, the episode, “Lucy is Enceinte,” aired in which Lucy learned she was pregnant. But the show never uttered the word, “pregnant,” and then she had the first child brought into a family on TV.
- Prior to 1965, black actors did not have leading roles and were not portrayed favorably, until “I Spy” starred a black actor in a leading part.
- Interracial relationships did not appear until 1968 when “Star Trek” aired the first interracial kiss.
- In 1971, “All in the Family” had the first disclaimer for mature audiences due to its content and language.
- In the 1950-60s, gays were portrayed in films but again not favorably. It wasn’t until after the Stonewall Riots in 1970 where “The Boys in the Band” depicted gay people in a more honest light. In 1997, Ellen DeGeneres announced on her sitcom, “Ellen,” that she was gay, making it the first prime time major TV sitcom with an openly gay lead character.
Did these shows “get it right?” Did they represent the people, cultural mores, times and issues accurately? You can be the judge. We each judge the shows we watch, and many of us have different criteria for what is right, good, funny, truthful, accurate, scary, etc. Media’s representation of society’s peoples is hard-pressed to “get it right” when it comes to portraying social groups, including most marginalized people (i.e., people with disabilities, races, genders, ethnic groups, LGBTQ, etc.). It is hard to get it right as we are not a monolith. So, even after research is done, movie producers, writers, directors, actors and actresses can still not quite get it right. When portraying a member of any of these groups, they often miss the mark by over-generalizing, simplifying, sugar-coating, missing the point or highlighting things that we wouldn’t highlight about ourselves. When weaving these characters into media, many factors play their own role in the plot – political climate, story line, social norms and monetary ratios, etc. Even with the best of intentions, movies and shows still miss the mark and offend.
Media has often portrayed these groups through stereotypical eyes, not capturing the depth and diversity within each group – even with the right due diligence in depicting these characters. So, how do they portray the breadth of us in ways that satisfy all of us with accurate representations – when each one of us is so uniquely different?
In 1990, on the series “Life Goes On,” Chris Burke, who has Down Syndrome, played the character Corky. He was the first person with Down Syndrome in a leading role. In 2018, Samantha Elisofon and Brandon Polansky – both autistic actors – were featured in a full-length feature called “Keep the Change.”
Over the years many actors/actresses have portrayed people whom they are not – it is what actors do as their job. In “Rainman,” Dustin Hoffman played an autistic savant. Did he get it right? Did he miss the mark? Did he act in ways that offended some and not others? The answer to these questions is yes and no. This has been happening for years – as long as TV and movies have existed. They portray gay people when they are straight, abused people when they have not been abused, killers when they are kind and gentle people.
Likewise, portrayals of people with disabilities have changed over the years, just like other aspects of our society. Historically, portrayals have often included characters who are one-dimensional, stereotypical and pity-provoking. Disability rights activists often use phrases like “inspirational-porn,” “super-crip,” or “cripping-up” to describe the attempts at representing them in media. Autism, like most disabilities, is challenging to portray. Over the years, representation has changed, but it may still be perceived as exaggerated, stereotyped or unrealistic (i.e., “Good Doctor,” “Big Bang Theory,” “Rainman,” etc.).
“Music,” a new movie about an autistic girl (not played by an autistic person) was recently released, sparking outrage among many people, especially within the autism community (Full disclosure – I have not seen the movie yet). The criticisms are that the character is one-dimensional, the girl is not played by an autistic person and there is the use of restraint to deal with aberrant behavior. No one movie or TV show can represent the breadth of those who are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. As the saying goes, if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. Autism is a spectrum, and a movie character will not be able to hold the diversity of the population; just like a gay character portrayal cannot tell the whole gay experience. Perhaps even if an autistic person played the role, there might still be controversy. Just like when Chris Burke played Corky, there were people who praised the show and others who disliked it because it wasn’t their experience with Down Syndrome.
We have a long way to go in our society regarding equality, acceptance and inclusion of neurodiverse, racial, ethnic, sexual topics and people. So why do we expect movies and TV shows to be different? Our movie and television history demonstrates that we’ve come a long way, change can happen and media does “tackle” issues of the times. Is change slow? Yes, it is. Do we have a long way to go? You bet, especially when it comes to portrayal of people with disabilities and their inclusion in movies as actors and actresses.
I like to approach watching movies about these issues with a wide-angle lens and limited expectations. I view them as being made to inform; enlighten; open the door to others asking questions; promote thinking, awareness, inclusion, acceptance; mirrors to see ourselves in characters – fictional or otherwise; increase understanding and empathy; or share a perspective or different point of view. I also think that the intentions of most directors, actors/actresses, screen writers, etc. are coming from the right place (even if flawed). They are trying to make movies that make a point, share a perspective, increase awareness, promote inclusion, comfort, knowledge, etc. Movies that highlight sensitive topics, controversial topics and marginalized groups are good for us whether we agree with the portrayal or not. If we are outraged and we begin talking and sharing our opinions, especially our first-person opinions, we broaden awareness and knowledge. So even if you strongly dislike a movie, something good may come from it. By my writing this blog and mentioning the movie “Music,” my guess is I have piqued your curiosity if you didn’t know about it. And maybe you might check it out on Google, read the reviews and learn about the controversy. What’s wrong with that? If you do explore it, wherever you land – liking or disliking it – I’m glad you took the time to think about it, asked yourself questions, felt emotions and hopefully will continue to think about how marginalized groups are portrayed in movies.
About the Author
NESCA’s Director of Consultation and Psychoeducational Services Dot Lucci has been active in the fields of education, psychology, research and academia for over 30 years. She is a national consultant and speaker on program design and the inclusion of children and adolescents with special needs, especially those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Prior to joining NESCA, Ms. Lucci was the Principal of the Partners Program/EDCO Collaborative and previously the Program Director and Director of Consultation at MGH/Aspire for 13 years, where she built child, teen and young adult programs and established the 3-Ss (self-awareness, social competency and stress management) as the programming backbone. She also served as director of the Autism Support Center. Ms. Lucci was previously an elementary classroom teacher, special educator, researcher, school psychologist, college professor and director of public schools, a private special education school and an education collaborative.
Ms. Lucci directs NESCA’s consultation services to public and private schools, colleges and universities, businesses and community agencies. She also provides psychoeducational counseling directly to students and parents. Ms. Lucci’s clinical interests include mind-body practices, positive psychology, and the use of technology and biofeedback devices in the instruction of social and emotional learning, especially as they apply to neurodiverse individuals.
To book a consultation with Ms. Lucci or one of our many expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form. Indicate whether you are seeking an “evaluation” or “consultation” and your preferred clinician/consultant in the referral line.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.