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.
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!
- Sexless, or sexually frustrated
…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.
Those of us with disabilities are simply asking people without to try and listen to how we feel about depictions of disability….
— Dominick Evans (@dominickevans) February 24, 2015
right now, people are not even willing to listen to how we feel… our feelings and opinions are often dismissed
— Dominick Evans (@dominickevans) February 24, 2015
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.
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.