Film Class Examines Hollywood’s Problematic Take on People with Cognitive, Physical Challenges
"Born on the Fourth of July" image courtesy of Universal; "The Shape of Water" courtesy of Fox Searchlight; "The Station Agent" courtesy of Paramount
The 2017 film “The Shape of Water” does something not often seen in a Hollywood hit: It centers its romantic storyline around a disabled person. But University of Maryland students who deconstructed the Oscar winner this fall found it more troublesome than trailblazing, from casting a non-disabled actress as the mute janitor (with problematically bad sign language) to her character’s small pool of potential paramours.
“My students wondered why the only two people attracted to her were a merman and the villain, who was an absolute monster,” said Senior Lecturer Susan Pramschufer. “I think that in just about every film, there's a moment where you’re like, ‘Wow, this was really good until they made this decision.’”
“(Dis)ability in American Film,” a general education class offered through the Department of American Studies, explores the representation of disability across the history of film and how the characters seen on celluloid reflect—and sometimes question—public perception and understanding. From Tod Browning’s silent-era film “Freaks” to more modern-day flicks like “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the course challenges students to critically analyze films and explore how far Hollywood has come—and how far it still has to go.
Spanning the 20th and 21st centuries, Pramschufer and her students tackle a different film each week, while also examining societal opinions and disability rights of the time and how they converge through character stereotypes, screen time, camera work and more. Discussions also dive into the complex ideas around identity portrayed in movies, and how disability intermingles with aspects like gender, race and sexuality. In a recent class, Pramschufer played sections of “The Sessions,” which is based on the true story of poet Mark O’Brien and his quest to lose his virginity. The students, assigned to watch the film before coming to class, discussed the film’s work to normalize sexuality among disabled individuals, yet also critiqued the omission of the protagonist’s more complex sexual identity.
“Even movies that I haven’t watched in this class, I’m now looking at in a different way,” said biological sciences and sociology double major Kelly Rodriguez ‘24. “I remember when I saw ‘Me Before You’ (about a caretaker who falls for her tetraplegic client) so many years ago I thought, ‘Oh, it’s so sad and beautiful,’ but having all of these conversations now I realize it was not good at all!”
The class, Pramschufer said, challenges students to think more deeply about the media they consume, but she also hopes it frames how they view the real world. An observation assignment at the beginning of the semester tunes students into how disability manifests in their own lives, from finding the wheelchair ramp at a building with multiple entrances to hearing a soft-spoken professor in a big lecture hall.
“My goal is that they're just thinking more about disability and the ways in which we can see it either being addressed or ignored in our society,” she said.
While Hollywood has come a long way in representing individuals with various disabilities, the films that truly do it right, Pramschufer said, are usually not the ones making big box office numbers, like “Murderball,” a documentary about wheelchair-using rugby players. The indie hit “The Station Agent,” another film assigned to the class, offers a rare example of unabashed social inclusion and integration in movies that does not shy away from the difficulties faced by the titular character, played by actor Peter Dinklage.
For the final project, students must reimagine a scene from a film of their choice, either through a screenplay or storyboard, using the perspectives about representation and inclusivity learned in class as a springboard. Ellee Noonan-Shueh ‘24, a biological sciences and animal sciences double major, is rewriting a scene from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.” Public policy and American studies double major Tasneem Alim ’25 chose the ending of Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” where instead of a gentle rejection, Quasimodo gets the girl.
“In the original, he’s infantized and kind of portrayed as a charity case,” she said. “I wanted to give him his hero ending.”
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