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Narrative prosthesis: how disability as metaphor is shaping on-screen casting diversity

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If there’s one word dominating current discussion of the Australian film and TV industry, and indeed the world’s, it’s diversity.

The rise of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag in the US is indicative of a larger cultural shift – social media has given a platform for those who are underrepresented (both on-screen and behind-the-scenes) to voice their discontent with what they’re being delivered[1].

Under these conditions, savvy media institutions have a vested interested in staying ahead of the curve, proactively auditing (with the aim to start improving) their own diversity outcomes. In this sense, it felt particularly timely when Screen Australia released their national report on television diversity in 2016.

Seeing Ourselves: Reflections On Diversity In Australian TV Drama offered a quantitative breakdown of TV diversity in three key areas – cultural background, sexual orientation/gender identity, and disability[2]. As a disabled TV lover (to clarify, I’m disabled - my TV is nothing if not Freeview enabled) I was unsurprised with the lacklustre results that came up in that third category.

A table outlining the percantages of characters with a disability who appear on australian tv

While it was validating to have my disappointment in the low number of disabled characters backed up statistically (in a third-act-Ingrid-Bergman-in-Gaslight kind of way) there was a part of the discussion that the screenwriter in me felt the study had only scratched the surface of – the quality of the disability representation being written.

The study presented a particularly interesting statistic in reporting that 77% of all the disabled characters on Australian TV could be found on either Home and Away or Neighbours.

At face value, that could be seen as an achievement for these two shows, but my intimate knowledge of them (my mum and I were very addicted to Home and Away while I was having bi-weekly stress breakdowns in Year 12) meant that I knew this 77% stat was not necessarily made up of great, nuanced portrayals of disability.

Rather, soap disabilities are often disabilities acquired by beloved abled characters in dramatic on-screen ways, like motorbike crashes, boating explosions or soft-incest mishaps. They are treated as inherently tragic, depressing and/or intriguing (amnesia being the soap genre’s favourite disability for hitting all three) before ultimately being “overcome” within a few weeks – and never brought up after that point.

Take, for instance, fictional Australian treasure Toadfish ‘Toadie’ Rebecchi from Neighbours, who was paralysed after a bouncy castle accident (you heard me) in 2015 - an event that actor Ryan Moloney teased as something that “could be a permanent way of life” in an interview with DigitalSpy[3].

Toadfish Rebecci being attended to after a jumping castle accident

However, after a couple weeks of drama about whether his disability meant he could still be a father, or sexy, or “normal”, he began to walk again - returning to the Classic Toadie™ bipedalism we all know and love.

Rather than simply being a part of a character’s identity, disability in literature, film and television has a legacy of being used as an expendable plot point or a visual metaphor for juicy inner turmoil, a phenomenon referred to by critical theorists as ‘narrative prosthesis’.

The term ‘narrative prosthesis’ was coined in 2001 by David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder in their book of the same name[4]. In one of academia’s finest play-on-words, the term gives language to the ways in which disability helps prop up narrative - with maybe the purest distillation of this being how basically every Bond film uses disability or disfigurement as shorthand for villainy, expertly skewered in the Funny Or Die video James Bond Sensitivity Training with Jane Seymour.

It’s this utilitarian fickleness to disability portrayal that is part of the reason Neighbours and Home and Away have such (comparatively) high rates of representation. And since the majority of these disabilities are used for representing tragedy and loss to propel plot, disabled people are rarely cast on these shows - as it's dramatically key to see their abled normalcy disrupted and then cured.

Statistically, the majority of this nation's "disability representation" walks into Ramsay St or Summer Bay played by an abled actor - and they’ll usually walk out in one piece too, even if they were disabled for a bit in the middle. But soaps aren't the only type of drama with a problematic narrative relationship to disability.

Consider Barracuda, ABC’s adaptation of the Christos Tsiolkas novel of the same name, by all accounts one of the most prestige, non-soap dramas of 2016. Barracuda follows teenager Danny Kelly as he rises to success as an Olympic swimmer – before his shocking fall from grace, substance abuse and eventual rehabilitation.

A picture of a young swimmer holding afloat a man

In the final episode of the series, the now-disgraced Danny takes a job at a disability physiotherapy centre, where he begins to help Dennis swim[5]. Dennis lives with an acquired brain injury due to a motorbike accident. His obsession with his motorbike ultimately led to his loss of ability, a direct narrative reflection of Danny’s arc – whose hyper-focused Olympic ambitions led to him losing his friends, alienating his family and being charged with assault.

Through their swimming lessons, Dennis’ loss begins to give Danny perspective on his own “tragic loss”, allowing him to make peace with himself. In short, the functional role of Dennis’ disability to the plot is as a loss metaphor, servicing the character development of the protagonist. 

But is this a cut and dry example of narrative prosthesis when you consider that Dennis is played by an actor with a disability, Chris van Ingen?

While Barracuda is streaks ahead of most TV shows and films because it actually cast a disabled person (sorry, not sorry Guillermo del Toro and Sally Hawkins - although I did love that fish butt!), it still offers a valuable insight into the impacts of narrative choices on production realities when you consider van Ingen has cerebral palsy – a condition he was born with.

Had the fictional Dennis been given a congenital disability in the adaptation to mirror the actor that was cast, the “loss” narrative couldn’t have been replicated for Danny’s benefit. Even for supporting characters, narrative prosthesis strongly preferences depictions of disability where ability is the norm, i.e. acquired disability.

When disability becomes a narratively “useful” way of externally illustrating a protagonist’s internal arc, it creates a dynamic where disabled characters often cannot be protagonists themselves.

Writers that identify the symbolic utility of disability position disabled people as object to an abled person’s subject, and this becomes its own self-perpetuating pattern, as the critical success of a program like Barracuda (or the long-running financial success of Neighbours and Home and Away ) reinforces these as popular choices in writers rooms.

Which is not to say the Australian screen landscape is devoid of hope when it comes to breaking past disability’s metaphoric trappings. In recent years, Australia’s independent screen industry has shown a greater willingness than the mainstream to explore, elevate and critically engage with disability (and narrative prosthesis) through authentic writing and casting.

Indie success Pulse - the 2017 feature written by and starring disabled creative Daniel Monks - could be read as a satire of narrative prosthesis in the way it flips the cliche of a cure narrative to cast ability, rather than disability, as a primary antagonistic force. Recent ABC Fresh Blood webseries The Angus Project, created by Nina Oyama & Angus Thompson, presents us with a disabled millennial lead that’s just as useless & hedonistic as any other millennial lead. And upcoming feature Kairos, written and directed by Paul Barakat, gives space for a feature-length protagonist performance from actor Chris Bunton - a rarity, nationally and internationally, for performers with Down Syndrome.

But without acknowledging that disability’s usefulness to narrative is a foundation to the problems we see in its representation, then characters that are disabled for no particular reason will struggle to enter and proliferate the Australian film and television landscape.

And without characters that are disabled for no particular reason, it will be even rarer to see them portrayed authentically by actors with the same disability, or any disability at all.

Or, to break it down to material realities: if writers don’t start unlearning the cliches we’ve inherited and internalised from centuries of narrative prosthesis, disabled actors won’t get the paychecks they’re due.

Alistair Baldwin is a writer & comedian based in Melbourne but loyal only to Perth. His work has been published by SBS, Vice, un. Magazine, Archer, Art+Australia & more, and he is currently a writer for ABC’s Get Krack!n. Follow him on Twitter at @baldwinalistair for content with a much smaller character count than this article.