M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass is supposedly the start of Shyamalan’s superhero/villain universe. But for many people, it might just be the continuation of questionable disabled representation.
There’s a lot to discuss here. First of all, the obvious: non-disabled (as far as we know) actors playing disabled people. That in itself is a problem, since these villainous roles played by non-disabled people further perpetuate the stigma surrounding disability.
Society already thinks that being disabled is a “problem” or “inspiration porn”, depending in the story. It doesn’t help anything to have the story literally about evil disabled people. The one thing that could alleviate matters would be to have disabled people play these characters and add some of their own experiences to them to make less stereotypical and more…believable (as believable as Shyamalan’s fairy tale can be).
Keep in mind this statement: I’m not saying every disabled character has to be a saint. Real people come in many shades, so it’d be disingenuous to have a disabled character always be the good person. HOWEVER, if you’re going to have your disabled character be a villain, it’d be cool to have some grounding to the character. One way abled actors do this is through research. However, the easiest and more authentic way to do this would be to simply hire disabled actors to imbue their own life experiences into the character.
Second problem: Shyamalan’s horrible representation of dissociative personality disorder (DID), otherwise known as having a “split personality” or “multiple personalities.” In the media, dissociative personality disorder is usually portrayed as a “Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde” situation. People are usually shown as violently switching back from various personalities just for a shock effect, and there’s no investigation of why this person has developed this coping mechanism in the first place.
Interestingly enough, Split, the first film introducing Kevin (James McAvoy), the villain with DID, does investigate some of Kevin’s background. Many patients who have DID develop the disorder after experiencing traumatic childhoods (usually repeated trauma), and the disorder is a way to exert control and feelings of safety. For Kevin, his disorder was triggered by a mother who suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). He was also forced by teenage girls to commit sexual touching against his will, which was the birth of his first personality, Dennis.
All of this information is courtesy Wikipedia since I haven’t seen the film for myself. Because of that, I also can’t comment on how OCD–something I and many people in America suffer from—is portrayed. I’m almost sure it wasn’t handled in any sensitive way, since society’s relationship with OCD is annoying, to say the least.
But, writer Charles Bramesco saw the film and took it to task in a 2017 article for The Verge.
“The end of the film makes Kevin out to be a literal supervillain and dubs him ‘the Horde’–an appropriate fate, considering how intent Shyamalan seems on divorcing the character from the vulnerability that makes him so compelling,” wrote Bramesco. “He loses sight of Kevin’s fundamental humanity, and in doing so, misunderstands what can really make mental illness a terrifying ordeal. Loads of horror flicks have used mental abnormalities to create fearsome antagonists, but the best of them relate how these conditions also torment the afflicted, who can be as frightened by their own nagging thoughts as the audience is.”
If the film has been so uninterested in Kevin’s humanity, then I can imagine Kevin’s OCD-afflicted mother was also depicted as a monster as well. Too bad, since any opportunity to show how unmanaged disorders afflict sufferers is one to seize. The film could have also been a good time to show how disorders can be comorbid–or build upon–each other, since one person can have two (or many) disorders that affect the sufferer in unique ways. For instance, I believe it’s been stated that one of Kevin’s personalities also suffers from OCD; it would have added some depth to show how his OCD and DID work together to affect his worldview and cause him distress.
Still unsure of how DID really showcases itself? Then check out this video I recently watched, which shows a couple, both of whom have DID, function and relate to each other.
Or this one showcasing a person who has 12 personalities:
Or this video, in which a woman describes her DID and how she copes with living with 11 personalities. She also describes how when she had her DID unmanaged, she would be in situations that were more of a danger to her–such as coming to from an amnesic state in the middle of the street–than to anyone else.
Watching these videos put films like Split in stark relief. People with DID aren’t predestined to be violent criminals. People with DID look like the rest of society, and have the same feelings and concerns as most people have. The only difference is how they experience certain aspects of life. If anything, we should use film to create more compassion for others, not alienate them and turn them into supervillains for an abled audiences’ amusement.
Dr. Garrett Marie Deckel said in a 2017 CNN interview that films like Split can cause much more distress to DID sufferers, including her patients, one of which emailed her because of Split, asking if their disorder scared her.
“You are going to upset and potentially exacerbate symptoms in thousands of people who are already suffering,” said Deckel.
Amelia Joubert, an 18-year-old who has DID, also added in the CNN article that people in the Facebook support group she manages “are upset” by the film. “They’re feeling discriminated against…but this is nothing new,” she said. She added that younger people who have DID were hurt the hardest by the film.
“This is the first big movie they’ve experienced that has a stigma to it,” said Joubert. “It’s hitting hard for that reason.”
I haven’t even begun to tackle the representation of the physically disabled in Unbreakable, the film Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) first appears in. He has Type I osteogenesis imperfecta, which causes a person’s bones to become brittle and break.
Unbreakable is a film I have seen, and when I watched it during a time of life when I was not particularly versed on anything regarding disability, I just took the film at face value. I thought it was, like most Shyamalan films, weird, and in the case of Unbreakable, slightly nonsensical, since aside from internalized ableism, can anyone really name why Mr. Glass felt like he needed a superhero to deal with his disability? But overall, my reaction was basically, “Well, that’s…interesting.”
But fast-forward to 2015 or 2016, when Kid President was a popular feature on the YouTube channel Soul Pancake. Kid President, whose real name is Robby Novak, is a young boy who gives optimistic life advice for us curmudgeonly adults. Some could say he could fall into that “inspiration porn” aspect of entertainment, since he suffers from a disability, but from my point of view, he never made his disability the subject of his YouTube presence. Instead, he showed how people can expect the best out of life regardless of what life shows at us.
So, what’s the disability Novak suffers from? None other than
osteogenesis imperfecta. But instead of being a Mr. Glass-type, he’s a boy who is full of joy.
So, long story short, when it comes to Glass, I’m not really feeling it. The optimistic thing is that I can hope that the film will make people more interested in looking into the realities of these disorders. However, for as many people who will become genuinely curious, just as many could see the film as yet another reason to harbor prejudicial feelings towards the disabled.