Discussing Disabilities in Media

Discussing Disabilities in Media

The Relationship Between Horror and Marginalized Groups

by Lindsay Winters.

Female college student smiling with canvas bag standing in a garden.
St. Edwards University intern Lindsay Winters.

Hey, everyone! My name is Lindsay Winters (she/they), and I am an intern here at Art Spark Texas! I am white, queer, and non-disabled. I am a senior-level student at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas studying communication with an area of specialization in advertising and public relations. I’ve been working with Director of Outreach Susan Slattery and assisting her with outreach, primarily working on developing content for social media. Considering my interest in communication and passion for inclusivity, I am very excited to be working with Art Spark Texas, an organization that does a lot of good for people who otherwise might be left out of the conversation.

During my first week as an intern with Art Spark Texas, Susan supplied me with excellent reading materials and resources overviewing how ableism persists in our society through language. In brief, ableism is the social prejudice or discrimination against people with disabilities that is often expressed and reinforced through language. Ableist language creates harmful stereotypes and encourages a culture of separation based on the unsound belief that typical abilities are superior. However, ableism goes beyond language; we can cultivate ableism as an unconscious bias through mainstream media. Moreover, poor media representation of physical and intellectual disabilities, impairments, and mental illness in film, television, and other forms of media further reinforces these stigmas and societal exclusion.

Before proceeding any further, I’d like to put the three pillars of my life into words: first, stay connected. Connectedness allows you to relate to other people and recognize the challenges, difficulties, and stress they face and strengthens our sense of solidarity and community. Second, employ critical thinking. Analysis and criticism increase insight and perspective, and elicits change. Practicing critical thinking allows us to solve problems and develop new and creative ideas to do so. Lastly, whine about stuff in media that is derogatory and harmful. Although it may feel difficult to admit, our worldview is significantly shaped by what we see in the media and can heavily influence public opinions and societal norms. Being critical of the problematic elements we see within these works can reduce the normalization of harmful stereotypes while still allowing us to enjoy the media we consume for its overall merit.

So, here is my chance to whine about stuff in media that is derogatory and harmful.

Mainly, I’d like to discuss my reservations with one of my favorite media types, film. Specifically, horror movies. Some people like horror movies while others hate them. From the anticipation of what’s to come to watching shadowy figures lurk on screen, I have always enjoyed feeling scared. I can’t get enough of the mystery, twists, balancing between the doomed and the noble, and most notably, the monsters of all shapes and sizes. Whatever the human imagination can conceive, this genre takes it to the extreme. With this in mind, there is something about the horror genre that has never sat well with me; why is it so derogatory towards the marginalized?

Horror depends heavily on the taboo, which is bound to intersect with the ways people are marginalized in society. Further, a lot of horror is lowbrow, exploitative cinema that relies on playing up prejudices. Of course, this doesn’t happen in every horror film, but often enough to make you think twice about it. Like, the “Token Minority” trope, if there’s one Black character in any slasher or scary flick where people are dying in horrific ways, they are destined to be the first casualty. Or how queerness is otherized and associated with evil. For example, in Psycho (1960), the killer kills because they dress in women’s clothing, or similarly, the killer kills because they are transgender, as in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Sleep Away Camp (1983).

In addition, people who are mentally ill are presented as dangerous, whereas in reality, mentally ill individuals are more likely to be victims of violence than the perpetrators. Take Split (2016) for example; in the thriller directed by M. Night Shyamalan, the main character is labeled as dangerous and violent because they live with Dissociative Identity Disorder. Lastly, people who are disabled and disfigured are demonized and seen as villains. This trope is prevalent throughout the horror genre and can be seen in movies like The Chainsaw Massacre (1972), Friday the 13th (1980), Halloween (1978), and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). These four franchises seemingly dominated the genre until the late 90s, with ableist attitudes galore, all attesting to mental illness and physical disabilities.

Such infamous horror films have utilized the disabilities, mental or physical, of the antagonists to pose those with disabilities as a threat. In this manner, disability is depicted as interchangeable with fear.

Discerning the reality of disability, able-bodied and neurotypical people are far more likely to be perpetrators of violent acts than those who aren’t. Ableism is often an overlooked prejudice.

Of course, it isn’t my goal to argue that horror is a problematic or trashy genre as some might presume it to be. Recent movies like A Quiet Place (2018) and Hush (2016) go against the trope that most Hollywood horror films perpetuate. Both films feature protagonists who are deaf and not helpless because of their disability. This could be the start of a potential change in the genre and positive representation of disabled individuals in cinema.

I close by emphasizing a previous statement made above; as viewers, we are capable of noting when the media is being biased. It is likely impossible to prevent derogatory horror from ever being made again, as it is a genre that allows a lot of schlock and low-budget gore to roll through. However, addressing horror as a whole, it is possible to recognize and criticize its treatment of the marginalized groups at hand. I can’t say my confidence in horror is perfect, but I do have hope for it.

About Lindsay Winters: Inclusivity and social reform are my passions. Creating and sharing meaningful and accessible content is my calling. Empowering others to do the above provides me with immense gratification.

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1 thought on “Discussing Disabilities in Media”

  1. Thank you for this much needed perspective, Lindsay! I had not considered the disconnect between disabled characters cast as villains and the reality that disabled people are more commonly victims, not perpetrators, of violence. Centering individuals with disabilities and other differences in the role of protagonist is a huge improvement in representation. While I enjoyed both Hush and A Quiet Place, I think A Quiet Place set the bar of representation even higher in its authentic casting of Millicent Simmonds, an actress who is actually Deaf and communicates in ASL. Hush, on the other hand, cast a hearing actress and seemed to exploit a mainstream audience’s fear of being deaf to a greater extent. For example, in Hush, deafness is treated more as a weakness, depriving the protagonist of the ability to recognize (hear) the killer, while in A Quiet Place, the character’s deafness is treated with more nuance: she becomes fearless by not hearing the monsters but is also disadvantaged by her lack of awareness of her own noises that may lure them to attack her. I very much agree with your point that we can enjoy these films even as we critique them!

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