This is an image of a dozen Oscar statuettes.

Oscars 2018: The Shape of Disability Representation

Oscar season: evening gowns, betting pools and accolades for non-disabled actors.

When The Shape of Water won Best Picture, it sparked a conversation in the disability community about authentic representation. This year’s nominees, like so many previous slates, included a non-disabled actor playing a disabled character. Sally Hawkins received a nomination for her performance as Elisa, a mute woman. Although Hawkins herself did not win, her performance is part of a longstanding trend that deserves examination.

Over the past 30 years, 13 actors have won the Best Actor award by portraying a character with a disability, while another 14 have won Best Actress. All actors portrayed characters with disabilities that they do not personally have. The only example of a disabled actor winning an Oscar is Deaf actor Marlee Matlin, who won Best Actress in 1986 for her performance in Children of a Lesser God.

To break it down further, here’s a comprehensive list of Best Actor winners since 1987 who won by portraying a character with a disability:

Year: Actor: Film: Disability portrayed:


1988 Dustin Hoffman Rain Man Autism/developmental disability
1989 Daniel Day-Lewis My Left Foot Cerebral palsy
1992 Al Pacino Scent of a Woman Blindness and alcoholism
1993 Tom Hanks Philadelphia HIV/AIDS
1994 Tom Hanks Forrest Gump Intellectual disability
1995 Nicolas Cage Leaving Las Vegas Alcoholism and depression
1996 Geoffrey Rush Shine Schizoaffective disorder/mental illness
1997 Jack Nicholson As Good As It Gets Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
2004 Jamie Foxx Ray Blindness
2009 Jeff Bridges Crazy Heart Alcoholism
2010 Colin Firth The King’s Speech Stammer
2013 Matthew McConaughey Dallas Buyers Club HIV/AIDS
2014 Eddie Redmayne The Theory of Everything ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease)

That’s 13 winners in a 30-year period, representing more than 40% of total awards given. For a period there in the ‘90s you couldn’t win an Oscar without portraying a disabled person. Special shoutout to Tom Hanks, who won twice using this tactic.

It’s worth noting that almost all of these winners are white—not exactly a diverse range of representation. Still, there are quite a few disabilities represented here, from physical disability to developmental disability to mental illness to chronic illness. In part this may be because many of the individuals portrayed here are based off of real luminaries with disabilities, like musician Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx) and physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne).

Now how about the women? Here are all of the women who won with disability roles in the same period:



Actor: Film: Disability portrayed:
1989 Jessica Tandy Driving Miss Daisy Dementia
1990 Kathy Bates Misery Possible unspecified mental illness
1993 Holly Hunter The Piano Mutism
1994 Jessica Lange Blue Sky Unspecified mental illness
2001 Halle Berry Monster’s Ball Unspecified mental illness
2002 Nicole Kidman The Hours Depression and bipolar disorder
2003 Charlize Theron Monster Possible unspecified mental illness
2004 Hilary Swank Million Dollar Baby Quadriplegia and unspecified mental illness
2007 Marion Cotillard La Vie en Rose Arthritis and morphine addiction
2010 Natalie Portman Black Swan Hallucinations and mental illness
2012 Jennifer Lawrence Silver Linings Playbook Depression
2013 Cate Blanchett Blue Jasmine Unspecified mental illness
2014 Julianne Moore Still Alice Alzheimer’s Disease
2015 Brie Larson Room Depression

There are 14 total Best Actress winners who portrayed disability—one more than the men, and nearly half of the total winners. Like the men, this list is almost exclusively white. Many of these roles are based on real individuals, such as writer Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman).

But there is a noticeable difference. While the list of Best Actors included a fairly broad range of disabilities, the Best Actress list is heavily skewed towards mental illness—oftentimes a mental illness that isn’t fully specified at all. There are relatively few examples of female characters with physical disabilities. There are no examples of characters with an intellectual or developmental disability, or a sensory disability. (Had Hawkins won, this category would have least been filled out a little more.)

Women with mental illnesses deserve to be represented in film—although I’d really prefer it if women’s mental illness wasn’t connected to evilness, as it is for several of these examples. It would also be nice if Hollywood could start adding some realism and specificity to its portrayal of women’s mental illness instead of showing generically “crazy” women.

But movies also need to do better at showing a diverse range of disabled women. Where are the female characters who are blind, autistic, or HIV-positive (to name just a few examples)?

Hollywood clearly needs to do better when it comes to creating a diverse range of women with disabilities. And while I don’t believe that only disabled actors should play disabled parts, women with disabilities should at least get a chance. Right now, that’s not happening.

Both of these lists point to a bigger question: Why do so many actors receive Oscars for playing disabled people, anyway?

To untangle this, it’s helpful to look at the rest of the Best Actor winners. In going through this list, you can’t help but notice that a lot of the other winners portrayed characters who were gay, transgender, or evil. As far as I know, most of the actors portraying these roles are not themselves gay, trans, or serial killers.

What this suggests to me is that the Academy gives actors props for portraying experiences that are perceived as being very far outside the norm of humanity. Hence Tom Hanks playing Forrest Gump is seen as a great feat of acting ability, like Hilary Swank playing a trans man in Boys Don’t Cry. And both performances are also seen as comparable to Forest Whitaker playing the genocidal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. They’re all “abnormal,” so portraying such a character successfully is rewarded.

One can only imagine that playing a gay, evil, trans, disabled character is a sure ticket to Oscars success.

These trends are obviously rooted in social prejudices. Being disabled and LGBTQIA are natural parts of the human experience, not something that should be perceived as freakish. Maybe once we start appreciating everyone’s humanity, we can start awarding Oscars based on merit. It’s high time to stop handing out awards merely based on an actor’s supposed ability to portray someone who is outside of the social norms of heterosexuality, cisgenderedness, able-bodiedness, and neurotypicality.

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