Kill Me Now – ableism is not just rampant in our culture, it’s applauded

Content warning: how we celebrate and reward ableist culture – and the consequences.

I have a post on apps I’ve nearly finished and then I was going to try and finish one on ABA – the latter may end up being more than one once I’m done. (Sorry, not sorry) But a friend on twitter sent me this review of a play called Kill Me Now, by Canadian playwright, Brad Fraser. Kill Me Now is currently playing at the Park Theatre in London, England. The more I read about this play, the angrier I got and so I decided to write. Not just because it’s a positive way for me to process that anger, but because I need people to understand exactly why this play makes me so angry.

Precis of the plot for Kill Me Now, a play by Brad Fraser

The Park Theatre’s website lists the rave reviews that Kill Me Now has received from The Stage Review, The Times, The Independent, Evening Standard and more. And here’s the precis of the play for those who can’t read it from the screencap I posted above:

Normal is relative

Kill Me Now is a black comedy about Jake who has sacrificed his career as a writer to care for his teenage son Joey. Both are keeping secrets – Jake about his love life and Joey about his plans for the future.

But when disaster strikes, they are forced to ask who’s really looking after who.

Bittersweet, fast-paced, ricocheting between the comedy and tragedy of disability, Kill Me Now is a funny and moving play about how we care for the people we love.

There are three characters with disabilities in Kill Me Now but as far as I can ascertain, neither the playwright nor anyone involved with the play has a disability. Here are three reasons why this is simply the latest example of a society that not only doesn’t recognize ableism, it rewards and celebrates it:

It displaces disabled talent

As a disabled blogger and actor wrote after having seen Kill Me Now:

I will say that I hate non disabled actors taking my work. Because I do. I’m always looking for work now, and in the same way I can’t go audition for the Royal Shakespeare Company, or turn up to a Frantic Assembly physical theatre audition why can actors tighten their muscles and learn to drive a wheelchair and still get paid for it?

There are disabled actors, dramatists, producers, directors… but non-disabled people are seemingly the only ones hired to tell stories about disabled people. Here in Ontario, a disabled single adult is expected to live on $12,000 a year if they qualify for ODSP. Meanwhile, non-disabled actors not only get work, but they get glowing reviews, Golden Globes, Oscars!

Kate Winslet may have joked in an Extras episode that to win an Oscar you need to star in a film about the Holocaust, but the reality is that a non-disabled actor’s best bet in order to win an award is to play a disabled or sick person. From Dustin Hoffman to Daniel Day-Lewis, Eddie Redmayne and more, you’re almost guaranteed to score an award if you portray someone with a disability. Screw you, disabled actors on welfare!

It’s ‘cripping up’

It’s not just about non-disabled actors taking jobs from disabled people, it’s that their depictions of disabled people are offensive. When a white actor donned ‘blackface’ to play PK Subban in a year-end comedy show in Quebec, this wasn’t objectionable because he was playing a role that should have been given to a person of colour. The reason we condemn blackface is because it’s incredibly racist.

Historically, when white performers ‘blacked up’ they did so in order to act out horribly racist stereotypes. When white people use black face paint now, it just perpetuates those historical offences. A member of a dominant class is depicting a member of an oppressed class for the entertainment of the majority group. It’s gross, it’s ignorant, it’s bigoted. And it shouldn’t win accolades.

Similarly, when non-disabled actors play people with disabilities, they act out horribly ableist stereotypes. Disabled people are seen as:

  • Burdens. Note, in Park Theatre’s description of Kill Me Now, the parent “sacrificed his career” for his son
  • Inspirational. Sometimes just by living!
  • Pitiful
  • Sexless, or sexually frustrated
  • Incontinent.

…and much more.

While disabled people are loudly decrying these depictions of them as caricatures who are less-than-human, non-disabled people applaud them; literally. The performance of Kill Me Now that Dea Birkett saw was greeted with a standing ovation. In his review of the play, the Evening Standard‘s theatre critic openly praises Oliver Gomm for his convincing imitation of a disabled person:

As Joey, the comparatively unknown Oliver Gomm is a revelation — his keenly observed grimaces and contortions inviting comparison with other able-bodied actors who have played disabled characters, such as Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot and recent Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything.

And it’s not just that we reward non-disabled people who play people with disabilities. We ignore how problematic it is. Actually it’s worse – we actively drown out the chorus of disabled people saying, “this is not ok”.

Scrolling through my twitter feed on the night of the Oscars and the day after, I could see people rightly, loudly and in great numbers expressing and sharing criticisms of Patricia Arquette’s backstage comments and Sean Penn’s “joke” whilst presenting his friend Alejandro González Iñárritu with an Oscar. But the only people I saw expressing disappointment about Eddie Redmayne’s Academy Award were people with disabilities.

Disabled people don’t (and shouldn’t) care if the portrayal of themselves is ‘accurate’ or not. A member of a dominant class is depicting a member of an oppressed class for the entertainment of the majority group. As The Park Theatre itself said of Kill Me Now, non-disabled actors are representing “the comedy and tragedy of disability”. It’s gross, it’s ignorant, it’s bigoted. And yet it wins accolades; the voices of disabled people are drowned out by applause for the actors who caricature them.

applauding hands - caption - "I'm too busy applauding this person imitating you to listen to your objections"

“I’m too busy applauding this person imitating you to listen to your objections”

It has real life, negative consequences

I’ve written before about how damaging and stigmatizing it is when we see disabled people as stereotypes rather than as who they are – people for whom their disability is an integral part of their identity.

In Kill Me Now, the parent ends up committing suicide. In reality, the person who is usually perceived as ‘better off dead’ is the disabled child. Parents who murder their disabled children are often given a pass by society because we are taught from a young age to both fear and loathe disability. Plays like Kill Me Now perpetuate this fear and loathing.

On Sunday, March 1st, there will be vigils to remember disabled children murdered by their parents or caregivers. Here’s a statement from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) with more information and here is a list of vigil sites (there is a virtual vigil if there isn’t a physical one in your area). This Sunday, rather than buying a ticket to The Theory of Everything or Kill Me Now, consider donating the money you would have spent to people like ASAN and The Autism Women’s Network who actively advocate for the autonomy and personhood of the disabled. And take a little time to remember the people who have died at the hands of those who supposedly loved them most.

My disabled kids. Not burdens.

My disabled kids. Not burdens.

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5 Responses to Kill Me Now – ableism is not just rampant in our culture, it’s applauded

  1. Stanley Renoir February 27, 2015 at 6:27 pm #

    Wrong. Brad Fraser has disability in his family and it’s written from his personal experience. It’s also about a father who suffers from a quickly debilitating illness called spinal stenosis – it’s his own son who looks after his protective father.

    I wouldn’t write an angry post before you’ve seen the play mate.

    • OMum22 February 27, 2015 at 7:54 pm #

      It’s my understanding that Mr Fraser’s nephew has a disability. So my point still stands – the writer isn’t disabled and no-one in the cast or crew is either. If a play, film, tv show, work of art, whatever, about disability is produced by non-disabled people I don’t need to see it to know that it’s about non-disabled people’s perceptions (i.e. stereotypes) of disability.

      I’m not your mate.

  2. Angie Gorz February 28, 2015 at 1:05 am #

    It is completely irrelevant what his family member’s diagnosis is. This is a major issue on an international level, and it very, very wrong and completely ableist.

  3. Midge Caryer March 1, 2015 at 2:59 pm #

    I went to see Kill Me Now last week with my disabled adult daughter. It was wrong on many levels. The disabled character feels he is ugly. My daughter is attractive and knows she is. Much is made of him being lifted out of the bath. If you are disabled you have an adapted shower or bath. Much is made of bum wiping. There are toilets that wash and dry you, etc. etc. Everyone in the play is miserable and their lives have been thwarted by the impairment. My disabled daughter has brought me joy (as well as sadness, same as any child). My life, if anything, has been enhanced by her. No only did it stereotype disability, it stereotyped parents of disabled people. I am very angry about it, as is my daughter. She has written her own play which confronts prejudice with humour. I will be interesting to see if she can find funding for it, or are the major funders more comfortable with tragedycharity model.

  4. feebeeglee March 2, 2015 at 11:36 pm #

    In the last few months, I have gone from “hey, what’s the big deal?” to “I can’t believe this is actually going on!” in re able bodied actors and disabled characters. This sounds terrible. Thanks for your post.

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