Variety’s Peter Debruge has made a lot of folks upset, and boy do they have a right to be.
His review of Sundance film Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is rife with upsetting ableist stereotypes about disabled characters in film. The ickiest part of the review is this amazing paragraph.
“In the interest of full disclosure, allow me to confess: I’m a sucker for quadriplegic movies. Didn’t put it together until “Don’t Worry” really started to jive (which happens right about the moment Van Sant reveals the cause of Callahan’s injury), but there’s something about seeing real people contend with such extreme disability that gets me nearly every time. Whether they’ve been crippled since birth (à la “The Sessions”) or later in life (“The Sea Inside,” “The Theory of Everything”), their stories have a way of reminding us what really matters. Add to that the circle of support severely handicapped individuals require, and I’m in rapture, for there is nothing more beautiful in all of cinema — nothing — than genuine caregiving.”
The comments section rightly got onto him for his blatant ableism and fetishization. One commenter wrote:
“This is a truly, awe-inspiringly revolting review, patronising, arrogant, and ignorant. That someone can write sentences like ‘Add to that the circle of support severely handicapped individuals require, and I’m in rapture’, or ‘there’s something about seeing real people contend with such extreme disability that gets me nearly every time’ without knowing just how ill-informed and offensive they are being defies belief, as does the fact that this got published at all.”
“Wow. That was horrifyingly ableist and glorifying inspiration porn. You’re a sucker for movies about quadriplegics? Really? Nothing better than seeing genuine caring? There are SO many ways to see genuine human caring without being a sucker for watching feelgood stories about people with disabilities. Like, you know, actually volunteering your time to assist people with disabilities whose stories aren’t Hollywood enough to make it to the screen. Like actually talking to quadriplegics in real life to get their perspectives on the movies that you’re a sucker for. This is disgusting.”
Yet another wrote:
“What a HORRIBLE cringe-worthy review. Ick. Just ICK. “there’s something about seeing real people contend with such extreme disability that gets me nearly every time. Whether they’ve been crippled since birth (à la “The Sessions”) or later in life (“The Sea Inside,” “The Theory of Everything”), their stories have a way of reminding us what really matters. Add to that the circle of support severely handicapped individuals require, and I’m in rapture, for there is nothing more beautiful in all of cinema — nothing — than genuine caregiving.” Are you KIDDING me??? How patronizing and ableist. Yes…how LUCKY he was…this “cripple” being taken care of. *gag*”
A host of folks took to Debruge’s Twitter page to complain about his review, especially that paragraph. In short, there’s tons of discussion and criticism happening surrounding his review, and all of it is something we (especially Debruge) should learn from.
The problem with the review, explained
The problem should be apparent to anybody, whether or not they’re aware of ableism. At the very least, anybody should be able to feel disturbed by this train of thought. If you’re not aware of what’s the issue, let’s break down Debruge’s paragraph.
“In the interest of full disclosure, allow me to confess: I’m a sucker for quadriplegic movies.” This sentence alone should have been enough for an editor to be like, “What a doggone minute. Take this out.”
On the whole, the sentence reduces human beings down to stereotype and trope. A rhetorical question: What, exactly, is a “quadriplegic movie”? What is a movie like this supposed to entail? And what is a person who labels a film as such expect to get out of it? From where I’m sitting, it would seem a movie labeled as such is a movie that centers its emotional weight and worthiness around the non-disabled characters and how much non-disabled characters are able to mine the disabled characters for feelings of worth and status. In other words, such a film is “inspiration porn,” an exercise primarily focused on giving abled audience members feelings of performative empathy.
The next part of Debruge’s paragraph reiterates how he expects this film to be “inspiration porn” when he writes, “there’s something about seeing real people contend with such extreme disability that gets me nearly every time…their stories have a way of reminding us what really matters. Add to that the circle of support severely handicapped individuals require, and I’m in rapture, for there is nothing more beautiful in all of cinema—nothing—than genuine caregiving.”
I think “inspiration porn” is the last thing we need in this age—what we’re supposed to be working towards is entertainment that truthfully tells the life experiences of others. Also, let’s point out that the film itself cast a non-disabled person in the role. Joaquin Phoenix might have jumped at the opportunity to play real life cartoonist John Callahan, but it should be clear he is playing this role for the awards, point blank. Just like how it’s celebrated when actors gain or lose weight for a role, films featuring disabled characters are viewed in Hollywood as that type of “transformational” role that will surely garner them accolades.
Also, why is it expected that a film about a disabled person is supposed to make us feel good about ourselves? No one is put on this earth for others to use for emotional exploitation. What everyone should be forcing Hollywood to do is create films about disabled characters that showcase a truthful, lived-in experience. “Inspiration porn” films shouldn’t exist. Film is supposed to exist to show us the humanity in all people, not just the humanity of a few.
What can be done now?
Debruge’s post shows exactly why inclusive film criticism is necessary. Too often, people assume “inclusiveness” only refers to race and/or gender, when it actually refers to a lot more than just those two identities. We need to start understanding inclusivity as a term that includes disabled people as well. Just think what kind of review could have been written by someone with innate understanding of Callahan’s life? We definitely would have gotten more than just a horrible paragraph with the usage of the cr-word (the reclamation and/or usage of that word should be something that non-disabled people have no say in); we would have gotten a piece of criticism that would have meant more to film criticism at large and would have advanced the conversation surrounding films with disabled characters.
So, with that said, it should be clear that employing more disabled film critics is necessary in bringing the film criticism world to a much higher and more democratic level. That’s not to assert that disabled film critics can only review disabled films—that’d be doing just as much tokenizing as this review does. It also doesn’t assert that there is just one type of life experience a disabled person can have—there are many types of visible and invisible disabilities, and everybody handles their disability(ies) in different ways. Like with anything, there’s complexity and nuance that differentiates everyone’s life experience from everyone else’s. But the point is if we had more disabled film critics on outlets’ staff, there’d be much more thoughtful reporting on films like Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. There’d be analysis that someone who isn’t disabled wouldn’t be able to bring. There’d be an awareness that only comes from having lived experience.
At this moment, though, I just hope Debruge learns something from the amount of online criticism he’s received. I don’t know if he has—at the time of writing this post, I haven’t seen any type of apology or awareness of wrongdoing, and even if an apology was issued, I’d doubt it’d be received warmly. But, at any rate, the rest of us film critics can use this incident as something to learn from; with as much as we call for more seats at the table for people of color and women as a whole, we should also remember to call for more visibility for disabled voices, too.