“And the Award Goes To…”: An Examination of Award Show Culture and its Role in Re-freakification

By Amory Orchard


As many avid television and film viewers know, awards season is upon us once again. Soon it will be virtually impossible to escape the hundreds of red carpet pictures cropping up on our social media feeds, web pages, and TV screens, as designated entertainment experts discuss red carpet fashion. Despite the fashion talk, one question is on everyone’s mind: which actors and actresses will go home with the most esteemed prizes: The Golden Globes, The Screen Actors Guild Awards—and, of course, the coveted Oscars?

For all the glitz and glamour of the season, celebrity and award show culture has rather serious implications when able-bodied actors portray characters with disabilities and other physical features that stray from the perceived norms. In fact, it has become something of a joke in the business to refer to such roles as “Oscar bait” because many of the past Best Actor Oscar winners—Daniel Day Lewis for My Left Foot and Colin Firth for The King’s Speech among them—have depicted disabled people. Some culture critics even assert that actors take on these roles because they attract awards.

“Why is this a problem?” one might ask. Is this not what actors do, stepping into a character’s shoes to shed light on their struggles? Perhaps. But we should not ignore the social implications of their performances. As disability scholar Graeme Turner claims, “There can be no question that celebrity has demonstrated its usefulness as a productive location for the analysis of cultural shifts around gender, race or nationality, for instance. It is important that such work continues” (13). Although able-bodied actors may have the best intentions when taking on such a role, there have been debates for years about the moral ambiguity that comes with able-bodied actors transforming themselves to “look the part,” rather than studios casting disabled actors. However, this blog post will discuss the role of the media attention their performances attract in keeping this a status-quo in the entertainment industry. As a result, the media reinforces the audience’s fascination with the fact that an able-bodied actor can pass as a member of a disenfranchised population. The actor’s transformation—not the story the performance is supposed to convey—becomes the public’s focus.

While campaigning for Hollywood’s top prizes, actors and actresses participate in photo shoots and interviews designed to advertise the film. What happens, however, is that these articles often discuss how an attractive actor “transformed” him or herself in order to play a disenfranchised person. Then, in the reader’s mind, the actor transforms back into their previous conventionally attractive self by the end of the article. This reduces disability to a matter of make-up—something one can take on and off. Although an audience may not realize the deeper implications, this act dismisses the experience disabled people face in their daily lives. This has been the case with several actors within the past year, including 2015 Academy Tony Award-nominated Bradley Cooper for his role as John “The Elephant Man” Merrick.

According to drama scholar Stanton B. Garner Jr.’s research on modern stage productions of The Elephant Man, audiences are captivated by the “physical process of moving in and out of character” (Garner 84). Indeed, this was shown in Bradley Cooper’s 60 Minutes interview, which appeared shortly before the production was opened to the Broadway public. The interview features footage capturing Cooper’s transformation into the disfigured Merrick before an onstage audience of medical professionals while his caregiver  describes Merrick’s medical condition in dehumanizing terms. Cooper slowly begins to hunch over, his mouth stretches, and his voice changes to mimic Merrick’s. Soon after the interview aired, countless news and tabloid publications recapped the 60 Minutes interview. In each case, there is a variation on this line: “[Cooper, who], ironically, was once crowned the “Sexiest Man Alive” by People Magazine, has now been dubbed the ‘best Elephant man yet’” (Hall). Here, the public’s fascination with watching an attractive, able-bodied man transforming into a severely disabled (and dying) person has been encouraged  by the media. In juxtaposing sex symbol Bradley Cooper with the character into which he transforms, the story of the production becomes less about Merrick and more about the actor who portrays him. The appearance, not the experience, becomes what counts.

Academy Award-winner Eddie Redmayne was treated similarly last year while promoting The Theory of Everything, in which he played theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. As in the coverage of Bradley Cooper’s performance, the media discourse contrasts the actor’s physical attractiveness with his character’s appearance. For instance, in Redmayne’s Vogue interview, staff writer Vicki Woods goes to great lengths in describing Redmayne’s personal appearance before talking about his “transformative role” as Stephen Hawking:

Very few men are heart-stoppingly beautiful, in the way glorious women or racehorses or specimen roses unarguably are, so meeting a bona fide male dazzler, with fan sites sprawled across the Web, is interesting. The huge buzz about his new film, The Theory of Everything, in which he plays the British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who suffers from the debilitating neurological disease ALS, is also interesting. (Woods)

Here, Woods describes Redmayne’s appearance with words such as “heart-stoppingly beautiful,” “glamorous,” and “dazzler,” before contrasting his transformation into Hawking who “suffers” from a “debilitating” disease. Woods not only accentuates the transformation, but, in so doing, denigrates Stephen Hawking’s appearance because he is not a young, muscular symbol of youth.In the end, the only mention of Hawking is a brief explanation of the overall premise. The focus is all on Redmayne.

It is true that some award-winners have been disabled themselves. For instance, both Harold Russell (who lost both his hands in World War II) and Marlee Matlin (who is deaf) won awards for the films The Best Years of Our Lives and Children of a Lesser God, respectively. However, they are two rare exceptions. As Award Show Season 2016 kicks off, countless speeches will be made by winners, often thanking the real people they portray. Redmayne himself made such a speech last year, dedicating his Oscar to those diagnosed with ALS, vowing he will act as a “custodian” of the prestigious award. However, it is imperative for average audience members watching these award shows to consider the persuasive media “buzz” that led to this actor being nominated in the first place and the way they discuss those people whose likenesses the actors are representing. After all, part of the fascination with his performance lies with us, the media consumers: the underlying fact that he can convincingly transform into someone else—but can always transform back.


Works Cited

Garner Jr., Stanton B. “In Search of Merrick: Kinesthetic Empathy, Able-Bodiedness, and Disability Representation.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 29.2 (2010): 81-103. Print.

Turner, Graeme. “Approaching Celebrity Studies.” Celebrity Studies 1.1 (2010): 11-20. Routlage: Taylor & Francis. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. <http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/19392390903519024&gt;.

Writing about People with Disabilities: Teaching or Displaying?

By Sarah Keck

In freak shows, people with physical differences–such as conjoined twins, those with fewer limbs than the norm, and those who can perform unusual actions–are displayed for the public to gawk and stare at. Because their differences from the “normal” concept of the human are emphasized, they are made to seem inhuman to spectators. Displaying human difference in this way is clearly a problem. However, can this sort of dehumanizing display be done in writing, even though the only things writing presents to be stared at are literally written words on a piece of paper? Sure. Here’s why:

A few definitions of the verb “display,” according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, are “to put or spread before the view,” “to make evident,” and “to exhibit ostentatiously.” When writing about people with disabilities, writers are not literally displaying them for people to view (although people are capable of envisioning what’s written down in detail), but it is still a form of exhibit. Julia Twigg describes this in her article “Social Policy and the Body” in the book Rethinking Social Policy: “An emphasis on the bodily potentially demeans disabled people, presenting them as the rejected ‘other’ of the freak show, subject to…pitying gaze of the dominant society” (135). This emphasis on a person’s bodily “abnormality” can occur physically or in writing.

Twigg presents an example from her own research, in which she decided that a description would amount to a demeaning display. She was writing about a disabled woman whose caretakers did not arrive at her house at the right time. In the midst of writing that the woman wouldn’t just “eat, sleep and live but also excrete in the bed,” she stopped herself because that last detail would “expose and lessen” that woman (135). Readers should learn about disabilities, but their focus shouldn’t be solely on the disabled body to the point that they forget the disabled person’s humanity. Focusing on the woman’s body, in this case, could present her as animalistic because hygiene practices are one of things that we see as separating humans from animals, and, without a caretaker, this woman was denied access to these practices. Also, although excretion is normal and natural, it is considered private, and this privacy is central to human dignity.

In the play The Elephant Man, Bernard Pomerance challenges the dehumanization of disabled people in writing. Although the play is meant to be performed, the challenge comes through to a reader as well. In Scene 3, the main character, John Merrick, is put on display due to his body being disabled. Dr. Frederick Treves, the surgeon who takes in Merrick, describes Merrick’s body in his medical display:

…From the upper jaw there projected another mass of bone. It protruded from the mouth like a pink stump, turning the upper lip inside out, and making the mouth a wide, slobbering aperture…The deformities rendered the face utterly incapable of the expression of any emotion whatsoever…developed hip disease which left him permanently lame, so that he could only walk with a stick. (Pomerance 5-6)

Though this written display of Merrick focuses dominantly on his body, dehumanizing him, it is only a brief scene, and it is later criticized within the play. The majority of the play doesn’t center only on Merrick’s body. There are many scenes in which Merrick’s personhood is noted so that his body is not the focal point. A few examples would be when he cried at how Madge Kendal, a visitor, was the first woman to shake his hand (35), when he explained his purpose in building a model of St. Phillip’s church (38), and when he questions the standards Treves has regarding the display of women’s bodies in Scene 16 (55-58). Readers can learn in The Elephant Man that Merrick is more than his stage name. From being in a freak show to living in Treves’ care, Merrick goes from “freak” to “normal” in the reader’s mind. He is presented in writing as a human being, displaying qualities and actions of any human, as every person with a disability does.

In performance, the play takes this focus on his humanity further. Pomerance made it clear to focus on Merrick as a person in the play’s introduction: “Any attempt to reproduce his [Merrick’s] appearance and his speech naturalistically – if it were possible – would seem to me not only counterproductive, but, the more remarkably successful, the more distracting from the play” (V-VI). If an actor took the appearance of Merrick, the audience would only be drawn to the character’s abnormality, not to the humanity. Thus, it wouldn’t be different from a live freak show with Merrick on display. Pomerance doesn’t focus only on Merrick’s body in the script, so he doesn’t advise actors to take on the role literally in the production. But he does not ignore Merrick’s body either. He suggested using “projected slides” (VI) to give people an understanding of how Merrick appeared. Thus, once they’d gotten past their initial prejudices, the reader and viewer can come to an understanding of Merrick as a person with a disability, rather than a person in spite of his disability.

It’s not entirely possible to write about people without indirectly displaying them. The thing is, if what’s written about disabled people is meant to teach people about the feelings and experiences of those put up on display, then it’s not meant to be negative. They can be displayed in writing in ways that do not other them but instead educate readers.


Works Cited

“Display.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2015. Web.

Pomerance, Bernard. The Elephant Man. New York: Grove, 1979. V-VI, 5-6, 35, 38, 55-58. Print.

Twigg, Julia. “Social Policy and the Body.” Rethinking Social Policy. Ed. Gail Lewis, Sharon Gewirtz, and John Clarke. London: Open U in Association with SAGE Publications, 2000. 135. Print.