One of the biggest lacks in media today is a lack of diversity on-screen. Most people automatically assume that diversity refers to racial diversity. While this too is an issue, it is one that is being slowly rectified and changed. However, the push for more differently abled and special needs people to be represented in media has fallen far short of its ideal.
The earliest representations of difference were often cruel and exploitative. Circuses and ‘freak’ shows enlisted those with various disabilities and challenge in order to make money off of them by parading them around to onlookers. While exploitative and discriminatory, this was the mainstream representation: stereotyped as evil, cunning, defective etc. In a society where a disabled bathroom equipment is a common feature in most developed countries, this can seem a harsh and strange reality for us; nonetheless, it was a reality.
Dissemination of Stereotypes
Social and even physical reliable mobility was out of the question for many of these individuals. Over time, many different media such as television and radio stopped the outright cruel exploitation of special needs groups, but moved onto a more pervasive and subtle representation: stereotyping. There were caricatures that were peddled in drama such as the lame beggar, the blind wise old woman, the pretty girl who couldn’t speak, thus arousing sympathy among the audience etc. These stereotypes were as damaging to an already disadvantaged group as the historical circuses. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that things started to change.
Today, the internet has been a wonderful platform for diversity of representation. There are still many issues with the portrayal of special needs and the differently abled on screen today, but more and more producers and creators of content are paying attention to nuanced and complex characterization. The character of Artie Abrams was initially criticized for being cast by a full-bodies actor while Artie was wheelchair-bound, but over the seasons he became one of the most complex, nuanced and interesting characters on screen. Recently, the film The Greatest Showman showcased a revisionist view of P.T. Barnum’s circus, celebrating the diversity of humankind. Thus, the representation of diversity in media has come a long way. While it may not be exploitative today, there is still a long way to go. More people with special needs and differently abled individuals need to be handling the reins in order for more equitable representation in popular media. With characters like Carrie Mathison in the TV series Homeland who is bipolar and still tops her job as a CIA agent, who knows what the future of representation will bring?