Marta Badia Corbella1, Fernando Sánchez-Guijo Acevedo2
1Instituto Universitario de Integración en la Comunidad (INICO). Universidad de Salamanca (Spain). 2D.A. ONCE de Salamanca (Spain).
Correspondencia: Marta Badia Corbella. Instituto Universitario de Integración en la Comunidad (INICO). Avda. de la Merced 109-131. 37005 Salamanca (Spain).
Received 3 March 2010; accepted 12 April 2010
This article intends to be an approach to how cinema has dealt with the reality of people suffering from visual impairment. More specifically, it is an attempt to analyze the common descriptions that have been made of blind people in films and the stereotypes that have been identified as representing them. For this purpose 12 films, produced between 1962 and 2009, with people with visual impairment among their characters, are analysed. Although advances have been made in cinema towards the eradication of stereotypes linked to the image of blind people, in films there are still representations that have little to do with the reality of people suffering from visual impairment.
Keywords: Cinema, Visual impairment, Blindness, Stereotype.
Film producers have acknowledged the dramatic potential of blindness and visual impairment from the very first years of silent films to the present. Characters with visual impairment have brought about reactions of fear, desperation, pity, hope and even laughter in audiences. Although blindness is often associated with melodrama, the genres in which it is present include mystery and thrillers, westerns and musicals, comedy, science fiction, and horror.
The social image of blind people along history has passed through different stages and, in a way, has overcome the usual negative and stereotyped attitudes. Currently, the media is an important source of information and leisure for citizens. In this sense, cinema –like the rest of the media– is to a large extent responsible for the public image of disability that is conveyed. Thus, the representation of blind people in films contributes to the general perception that society has of this group. As Norden1 points out, the film industry has perpetuated, or given rise to, certain stereotypes over the years; stereotypes so long-lasting and all-pervading that they have become the very perceptions that most of society shares as regards people with a disability; in short, not always accurate descriptions of this group may trigger different ways of perceiving disabilities, which could result in their persistence and in the creation of models of public opinion about disabilities. If, for instance, a film shows a blind person as being dependent on someone else, it makes the community more likely to perceive this person from that point of view.
Regarding the social influence of people suffering from visual impairment, there has been a certain evolution and change along the history of film making. In general, it may be said that film makers tend to apply a combination of specific stereotypes in characters suffering from visual impairment or complete blindness. Following Norden1, three historical periods can be distinguished regarding the cinematographic representations of disability: (1) from cinema’s first days to the late thirties; (2) from World War II to the decade of the seventies, and (3) from the seventies to the present.
The films of the first period portray blind characters as comical figures, monstrous brutes or objects deserving pity. Thus, visual disability used to inspire pity, compassion and alienation, since it was linked to a tragic event. The comic potential of people with poor eyesight was also exploited in silent films. Thus, people with a disability became the main characters, playing the roles of victims or executioners, and people suffering from blindness were likewise represented. For example, in Pride of the Marines (1945) by Delmer Daves, a WWII hero, waking up in hospital and finding out that he has lost his sight as a consequence of his wounds, refuses all manner of help and manifests an attitude of pride and repudiation of life (Figure 1). Another example is Walter R. Booth’s film from 1907, His Daughter’s Voice, where the blind character is portrayed as the victim of a tragic event; a character whose suffering can only be relieved through death.
In the films of the second period, the characters are engaged in a battle to overcome their limitations. A change regarding the concept of disability is developed and the aspect of rehabilitation begins to appear. The aim of this new, more promising point of view was to provide an image of people who suffer from visual impairment other than that which had been offered in films up to that moment, portraying people who could be rehabilitated and lead a life as normal as his/her circumstances could allow. An example of the films of this stage is Bright Victory (1951), by Mark Robson, starring a sergeant serving in North Africa in 1943 who was hit and blinded by a Nazi bullet; a film where we see a more accurate interpretation of the process of adaptation that blind veterans must undergo (Figure 2).
During the third period, films dealt with disability in a more unintentional way, where rehabilitation was relegated to the background and the emphasis was on aspects such as social justice, sexual expression, or simple daily life. Thus, it may be stated that currently a more positive tone prevails and that the image of people with a disability projected onto the big screen would be more oriented towards social integration. Nevertheless, to a large extent it could also be surmised that in current filmography it is very rare to see people with a disability in the same light as other people. This could be because films portray visual disability as a medical matter rather than focusing on it from a social point of view. It is true that cinema has not been oblivious to the way society has looked on such disability. The changes that have taken place regarding the way of representing visual disability in films also reflect the way in which society has gradually evolved in its understanding of disability overall. Through the field of studies addressing disability, and thanks to the efforts made by the movement in defence of the rights of disabled people, a positive, normalized view of these individuals is being promoted, supported by a biopsychosocial study model and strengthened by declarations and regulatory frameworks developed by national and international agencies.
The number of films including characters with visual impairment in their cast is relevant. Thus, a compilation made by Erickson and Wolfe2 of the images of blindness in films during the period between 1913 and 1985, gathers a total of 230 films with visually impaired characters as main or secondary characters. The present article will attempt to answer the following basic questions: to what degree do films portray these characters from a positive viewpoint? To what degree do films represent, and therefore promote, the progressive inclusion of people with visual impairment in society? In this sense, this study was designed, on the one hand, to examine the explore the representations according to the issues suggested by Byrd3, and, on the other to detect the presence or absence of seven stereotypes previously identified in the literature addressing the matter.
The aim of this study is thus to analyze how people with visual impairment are depicted in films, since the way they are presented contributes to the general perception society has of disability4.
Analysis of the films
Twelve films, produced between 1962 and 2009 and including characters with visual impairments, are analyzed. The analysis includes specific issues as well as the stereotypes identified in the literature devoted to research into this matter. The topics dealt with are: (a) personality in general, (b) integration in the community, and (c) interpersonal relations. The stereotypes analyzed are those described by Nelson: (1) people suffering from a disability as pitiful and pathetic; (2) people suffering from a disability as “heroes”; (3) people suffering from a disability as sinister, evil, and criminals; (4) people suffering from a disability as “better dead”; (5) people suffering from a disability as misfits – his/her own worst enemy –; (6) people suffering from a disability as burdens for both family and society; and (7) people suffering from a disability as those unable to lead a successful life4.
The films were tracked through two databases: Internet Movie Database (link) and the Catálogo de Cine Español which belongs to the Ministry of Culture (link). Several combinations of search terms were entered such as “disability”, “visual impairment”, “blindness”, or “characters”. The criteria used to select the films to be analyzed were as follows: (1) films produced between 1962 and 2009; (2) films made after the première of The Miracle Worker (1962) by Arthur Penn, owing to this film being considered a landmark in the list of films about the topic (Figure 3); (3) films whose main or secondary characters suffer from visual impairment, and (4) films marketed through video stores, through the AUDESC Service (Audio description Service) of the Spanish National Organization for the Blind (ONCE), and through the Media Library Service of the University of Salamanca.
|Title (year of production), director, cast||Synopsis|
The Miracle Worker (1962) by Arthur Penn.
Anne Bancroft, Patty Duke, Victor Jory, Inga Swenson, Andrew Prine, Kathleen Comegys.
|A teacher who has had a traumatic childhood attempts to educate a deaf, blind and mute girl. When she arrives at the girl’s house she finds a family who has left the child to herself because of the parents’ inability to educate her. Hellen is believed to be a tragedy of nature that has no solution and with whom it is impossible to communicate. The mother is the only one who still holds a little hope. The teenager, on the other hand, lives in a world of her own. She does not know how to escape from that bubble until the arrival of Anne Sullivan, who, with a great deal of patience and rigour, will take charge of her education|
Wait Until Dark (1967) by Terence Young.
Audrey Hepburn, Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Jack Weston, Samantha Jones, Julie Herrod.
|A model and a photographer meet on a plane. She is carrying a doll stuffed with drugs that she must deliver in New York. The young woman gives the photographer the doll and disappears. Two delinquents, who are attempting to recover the drugs, meet at the photographer’s apartment with a merciless criminal, whom they do not know, but who says he has murdered the model for trying to betray him. Their shady dealings are interrupted by the arrival of Susy, the photographer’s wife.|
Blind Terror (See No Evil) (1971) by Richard Fleischer.
Mia Farrow, Dorothy Alison, Robin Bailey, Diane Grayson, Brian Rawlinson, Norman Eshley, Paul Nicholas, Christopher Matthews.
|Sara is left blind after falling from a horse. After this tragic accident she goes to live at her uncle’s farm. One day, while outdoors with her ex-boyfriend, her whole family is murdered by a psychopath. Her calm and pleasant life becomes a nightmare when she returns to discover, while wandering about the house, the bodies of her murdered family. Her eyes cannot see the murderer, but she senses that he is not far away.|
See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) by Arthur Hiller.
Richard Pryor, Gene Wilder, Joan Severance, Kevin Spacey, Alan North, Anthony Zerbe, Louis Giambalvo, Kirsten Childs.
|Wally is blind and Dave is deaf. The murder of a man at their workplace in a newsagent’s leads them to become suspects in the eyes of the police. To prove their innocence they will have to work together: Wally becoming Dave’s ears and Dave becoming Wally’s eyes.|
Scent of a Woman (1992) by Martin Brest.
Al Pacino, Chris O'Donnell, James Rebhorn, Gabrielle Anwar, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Richard Venture, Bradley Whitford, Rochelle Oliver.
|A blind retired authoritarian lieutenant colonel hires a young student to assist him. The film describes the attraction of opposites when the protagonists set out on a wild weekend trip to New York which will change their lives forever.|
|At First Sight (1999) by Irwin Winkler.
Val Kilmer, Mira Sorvino, Kelly McGillis, Steven Weber, Bruce Davison, Natan Lane, Ken Howard, Laura Kirk.
|Amy is a stressed-out woman who works as an architect in New York. One day she decides to go to a health resort in a small village to the north. There she meets Virgil, a blind masseur, with whom she falls in love. Amy suggests that Virgil should see an ophthalmologist who performs experimental surgery on blind people so that he can attempt to recover his sight.|
The Colour of Paradise / Rang-e khoda (1999) by Majid Majidi.
Hossein Mahjoub, Mohsen Ramezani, Salameh Feyzi, Farahnaz Safari, Elham Sharifi, Behzad Rafi, Mohamad Rahmani, Morteza Fatemi.
|Mohammad is a blind child and his widowed father does not want him; he rejects him because of his disability and attempts to hide him so that his new girlfriend, whom he expects to marry, will remain unaware of his existence. This is why the film begins when the young boy finishes studies at the school for children with special needs he attends in the city his father does not want to take him home. His father is ashamed of his son and decides to send him as an apprentice to a carpenter’s workshop, the carpenter being blind too, to keep him out of his way.|
Dancer in the Dark (2000) by Lars von Trier.
Björk, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare, Joel Grey, Cara Seymour, Vladica Kostic, Jean-Marc Barr.
|Selma is a Czech immigrant and a single mother who lives with her son in a caravan. Her neighbours have taken care of both of them since they arrived in the States. Selma works at a factory punching out stainless steel sinks. A hereditary illness is gradually leaving her blind and she is determined to save up all the money she might need to guarantee an operation for her son.|
Daredevil (2003) by Mark Steven Johnson.
Frankie J. Allison, Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Colin Farrell, Michael Clarke Duncan, Jon Favreau, Scott Terra, Ellen Pompeo, Joe Pantoliano, Lennie Loftin, Erick Avari, David Keith.
Lawyer Matt Murdock is blind, but his other four senses are extraordinarily well developed. During the daytime he defends the weak. At night he becomes a masked guardian who watches the city’s streets: a faultless avenger at the service of justice.
The Village (2004) by M. Night Shyamalan.
Bryce Dallas Howard, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson, Cherry Jones, Celia Weston.
|The people of a small village live in fear of terrifying creatures that live in the forest at the edges of their community. However, a brave young man decides to challenge the unknown and confront a surprising reality.|
Blindness (2008) by Fernando Meirelles.
Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Alice Braga, Gael García Bernal, Yusuke Inseya, Yoshino Kimura, Don McKellar, Sandra Oh, Maury Chaykin, Eduardo Semerjian, Mitchell Nye, Danny Glover.
|A man suddenly becomes blind while driving back home from work; his whole world becomes a milky and eerie mist. One after another, all the people he meets will suffer the same fate sooner or later. As the infection spreads, panic and paranoia take over the city and the victims of the “white disease” are put in quarantine in an abandoned mental hospital.|
Broken Embraces (2009) by Pedro Almodóvar.
Penélope Cruz, Lluís Homar, Blanca Portillo, José Luis Gómez, Rubén Ochandiano, Tamar Novas, ángela Molina, Chus Lampreave.
|A man writes, lives, and loves in darkness. Fourteen years before he had a traffic accident that left him blind. At the time the film develops he lives from the scripts he writes and the help of his former and faithful production director and that of Diego, her son, who acts as secretary, typist and seeing-eye guide.|
After revising the literature devoted to the representation of disability in cinema and to the processes used for analysing these representations, two methods, proposed by Black and Pretes5, were developed for the analysis of each film. The first tool for acquiring information was a record based on three categories: personality, inclusion in the community, and interpersonal relationships, based on the literature under study3 (Table 2). The first category reflects the degree to which the character of a person with a disability has a fully developed personality, or whether that character is mainly defined by his/her disability. The second category is inclusion in the community, which comprises areas such as inclusive education, the work environment, the home environment, involvement in the community, leisure, and social activities. The aim of the third category –interpersonal relationships– is to assess the type of relationships in the character’s life. The films were analysed by two sighted critics and by a blind one in the case of films for which a copy using the AUDESC (Audio Description) system was available.
|Personality of the character with a disability||Inclusion in the community||Interpersonal relationships|
|1||The personality of the character with a disability is not developed. It is focused on visual impairment and not on the person.||The character with visual impairment is not integrated in any of the areas of community life (examples: education, work or leisure activities). The character rarely leaves home.||The character with visual impairment only has contact with hired carers or with his/her family.|
|2||The character’s personality is slightly developed. It is more focused on the disability than on the character’s personality traits.||The character sometimes leaves home to attend leisure activities but is not integrated in the community.||The character has acquaintances and/or hired carers, but no close friends.|
|3||The character has clear personality traits. The character is a person with a disability but is not only defined by his/her disability.||The character is partly integrated in the community, or in his/her workplace, education and/or other leisure activities.||The character has friends and acquaintances, and natural means of support.|
|4||The character’s personality is well developed. The viewer can “step into the character’s shoes” and see his/her reasons, hopes, dreams, likes and dislikes.||The character is completely integrated in his/her community. There are several ways of representing participation in the community.||The character has friends and acquaintances and at least one close personal relationship together with several natural means of support and a group of friends.|
Likewise, the following categories were established, based on the presence or absence of the seven stereotypes identified by Nelson4: (1) pitiful and pathetic; (2) heroic; (3) sinister, evil, and criminal; (4) “better dead”; (5) misfit; (6) a burden for the family and (7) unable to lead a successful life (Table 3).
|Pitiful and pathetic||The person with a disability is portrayed as childish and incompetent; the viewer is made to pity the character.||+ The character is portrayed as having many or all of these qualities. The stereotype is present in the film.|
|Heroic||The person with a disability heroically triumphs over the disability thanks to his/her great courage.||– The character is portrayed as having few or none of these qualities. The stereotype is not present in the film.|
|Sinister, evil and criminal||The person with a disability is represented as evil, a dangerous monster that is “not even human”.|
|Better dead||The life of the person with a disability is worthless; disability is seen as something unbearable.|
|Misfit||Bitter and full of self-pity because he/she cannot bear his/her disability; the character needs understanding and guidance from people who do not suffer from disability.|
|Burden||The person with a disability is a burden for relatives, friends, and the community as a whole.|
|Unable to lead a successful lifeo||Unable to lead a wholesome and happy life; the character is rarely seen at work, socializing, or having fun.|
Following this, the films were viewed using the above categories as assessment standards. The topics were assessed by means of a numerical scoring system ranging between one and four for each of the three categories, and the stereotypes were marked as positive or negative (presence or absence of the stereotype). The criteria used for assigning the scores are described in Tables 2 and 3.
Regarding the personality study, we took into account the degree to which the film reflects the character of a person with a unique and distinctive personality or whether the character’s visual impairment is the main axis around which the plot is developed. Four films were assigned a score of four for representing people with visual impairment who had unique personalities, since they played roles that showed a longing for independence and for not wanting to be pitied, such as Dancer in the Dark (2000) by Lars von Trier (Figure 4). Most of the films (six) scored three, this meaning that the character is a person with a disability who is not defined only by his/her visual impairment. In The Miracle Worker, although Hellen’s disability is the main topic of the film’s plot, it should also be noted that her personality, capacities and persistence are also emphasized. There are few films (two) that are more focused on disability than on personality traits. An example of this category can be seen in the character played by Al Pacino in the film Scent of a Woman (1992) by Martin Brest (Figure 5).
Regarding the topic of integration in the community, an analysis of educational inclusion, work, social involvement, leisure activities and an independent lifestyle was carried out. Except for three films, the score awarded was four. This means that the characters in these films are completely integrated in their community. Involvement in the community is shown by the fact that the person with visual impairment has an ordinary job, lives with his/her family or on his/her own, and takes part in social activities such as attending social events or going out with friends. In two of the films, the characters are only partly integrated in the community. This is the case of The Colour of Paradise/ Rang-e khoda, where the main character is separated from his family to be educated in a specific centre for blind children and during his summer holidays at home he does not play with his sisters or the other children.
Whether the character has friends, acquaintances, interpersonal relationships, and a network of natural means of support is dealt with within the category of interpersonal relationships. Seven of the films achieved the highest score and from this it may be inferred that all those elements appear in the character, while in three of the films the characters have friends and natural means of support, but no interpersonal relationships. The two remaining films are performed by children, who have their family or a hired childminder as a support network.
A stereotype is an image or idea that is commonly accepted by a group or society and whose nature is unchanging (Dictionary of the Spanish Language). For the analysis of the films we used the seven stereotypes identified by Nelson4 and referred to above.
The person with visual impairment, represented as pitiful and pathetic, is shown as incompetent and in need of attention from other people. This stereotype is only seen in three of the twelve films reviewed, which shows that the perception of the person with visual impairment as tragic and worth pitying is gradually growing weaker. In the film The Colour of Paradise/ Rang-e khoda (1999) by Majid Majidi, little Mohammad’s blindness is experienced as a real tragedy, since it is a reflection of the role children play in a specific cultural context, in this case Iranian society (Figure 6).
Second, the stereotype of the person with visual impairment as a “hero” can be seen in five of the twelve films analyzed, where the characters are presented as showing great courage and determination in their attempts to overcome their disability. Although at first the meaning of this stereotype might be praiseworthy, it certainly does not reflect the daily life of most people with visual impairment. Thus, for instance, in the film Dancer in the Dark (2000), by Lars von Trier, the main character even sacrifices her own life so that her son can be operated to treat the same blindness that she suffers from; or in the film Daredevil (2003) by mark Steven Johnson, where the character calls himself the “fearless child”.
Another of the stereotypes represented in films is that of believing the person with visual impairment to be sinister, evil, and criminal, although this can only be inferred from two of the films reviewed. This commonly accepted idea of perceiving such people as bitter because of their disability seems to be fading away. An example of the representation of this stereotype in films can be seen in Scent of a Woman (1992) by Martin Brest, where the main character, a retired high-ranking army official, is represented as arrogant, bitter and unhappy.
The “misfit” stereotype above all judges disability as a problem of personal confrontation and acceptance. Five of the films show the people with visual impairment as misfits, portraying them as negative and having self-destructive tendencies. Only two films portray visual impairment using the “better dead” stereotype.
Six of the films reproduce the stereotype of the person with disability as a burden for both family and society. This image is clear in the fact that the person with visual impairment cannot manage on his/her own, needing either carers or the supervision of a sighted person. Finally, the stereotype of the person with visual impairment as being unable to lead a successful life appears in four of the films analyzed. Nevertheless, although the characters in most of the films are seen as capable of leading a successful life in working and social environments, it is more difficult to find characters with visual impairment that are successful in their love lives.
Acknowledging the impact of the media, and more specifically cinema, on the perception that society has of disability, it is important to check whether the topics and stereotypes identified in the research continue to appear. Norden1 points out the existence of a gradual development towards a more positive conception of disability. The analysis carried out here supports such a notion and highlights the fact that progress has been made towards normalization and social involvement as regards the representation of people with visual impairment in films. Although it is true that certain images related to visual impairment in the cinema, such as comical interpretations, have gradually disappeared, it is also true that -as mentioned above- certain stereotypes persist. It is not uncommon to find characters with visual impairment represented as angry, bad-tempered and rude in films made not so very long ago. Characters who reflect self-improvement in the face of the adversity involved in suffering from a disability are also found playing relevant roles. Heroism and superhuman courage are also features of one of the constant stereotypes found in these films.
A stereotype that has survived from the early days of cinema and that is not included among the seven proposed by Nelson4 is that of the blind person with overdeveloped sensory perception. Since then, films have become replete with characters with extraordinary auditory and olfactory senses. In several of the films reviewed in the present contribution there are roles in which this image is played, such as in Scent of a Woman, where the character played by Al Pacino displays these extraordinary capacities; in Daredevil, where the main character’s hearing is extraordinarily developed, and also in Wait Until Dark.
In spite of perceiving positive changes in the representation of people with visual impairment in the cinema, there are still films that portray them as individuals who are unable to lead a life comparable to that of sighted people. In addition, people with disabilities are still perceived as a burden to their families, always in need of the care or supervision of a sighted person. The films analyzed show a partial view of the integration into the community of people with visual impairment. This means that such characters do not live in institutionalized environments, but that they have access to education and to the job market. Nevertheless, it can be stated that in the films the emphasis is generally placed on the disability itself, rather than on the whole personality of the visually challenged person. Likewise, it is infrequent to find characters with visual impairment represented as people who do housework, go shopping, or travel; that is, coping with the everyday tasks that are common to all people. In addition, in general famous actors were captured in the films reviewed to play the role of characters with visual impairment, except for the character of the child in the film The Colour of Paradise / Rang-e khoda. In sum, it may be concluded that the people with visual impairment represented in films have been characterized infrequently as a manifestation of the diversity of humankind and that sometimes the reality of their lives is only sparingly reflected. In this sense, for example, there are few films in which the character with visual impairment shares his/her life with a family and children.
There are several limitations to the present study. Firstly, only films that were easily accessible for the general public were chosen. These films were commercially available at renting stores, some available at university libraries and others through the AUDESC Service of the Spanish National Organization for the Blind (ONCE). Also, documentaries that might, and usually do, provide a very different view on visual impairment were not included. The films analyzed were produced for profit and, in general, with very well-known actors in their casts, probably more emphasis on “selling” than on providing a normalized image of visual disability. Second, only twelve films are analyzed, meaning a very small sample, although they were considered sufficiently representative for the study to be carried out. Finally, the prejudices of sighted people themselves could undoubtedly affect the scores awarded to the films. Nevertheless, we believe that the analyses of the films available in the AUDESC system made by a person with visual impairment, have allowed us to reach some degree of consensus concerning the perceptions regarding the accuracy and faithfulness to reality in current representations of people with visual impairment in films.
Translation by the team of the Languages Service of the University of Salamanca.
Figure 1: The blind protagonist of Pride of the Marines (1945) by Delmer Daves.
Figure 2: Dark glasses are common in many films with blind characters. Bright Victory (1951) by Mark Robson.
Figure 3: Her performance in the role of Anne Sullivan led Anne Bancroft to win the Oscar award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. The Miracle Worker (1962) by Arthur Penn.
Figure 4: The main character in Dancer in the Dark (2000), by Lars von Trier, shows her desire for independence.
Figure 5: An empty look, a cane and a seeing-eye guide. Scent of a Woman (1992) by Martin Brest.
Figure 6: Blindness in childhood. The Colour of Paradise/Rang-e khoda (1999) by Majid Majidi.