Bryan Cranston is facing a backlash for playing a quadriplegic in "The Upside." What's the problem?
Despite being able-bodied, Bryan Cranston was cast as a paralyzed man in The Upside, opposite Kevin Hart.
In the painstakingly cliche film, the 62-year-old portrays a quadriplegic billionaire who hires a comically unqualified ex-con as his caretaker (Hart). It's the Weinstein Company's adaptation of the 2011 French comedy-drama gold mine The Intouchables, which banked on the disparities between two men's race, class, and physical ability to inject humor and moralize with the trite message, "Despite everything, aren't we all the same?"
In fact, we're not. Backlash against Cranston's casting has ranged from decrying Hollywood's ableism to accusing the film of exploiting disabilities as a lazy plot point. While The Upside as a whole has been widely panned by critics as a "cliche-ridden, exploitative mess," Cranston has defended his right to portray a quadriplegic.
"As actors we're asked to play other people," Cranston told the British Press Association. "If I, as a straight, older person, and I'm wealthy, I'm very fortunate, does that mean I can't play a person who is not wealthy? Does that mean I can't play a homosexual?" He added that he's "very aware of the need to expand the opportunities for people with disabilities." But when it comes down to meeting those needs in the entertainment industry versus good business decisions, he said, "I don't know, where does the restriction apply, where is the line for that? I think it is worthy for debate to discuss those issues."
Kevin Hart, who's faced an ongoing backlash against homophobic Tweets from 2011, said that the film's producers were looking for "box office success" when casting the lead roles. Similarly, Cranston simplified his right to play the part as good publicity, saying, "I think being cast in this role as a quadriplegic really came down to a business decision."
That infuriated some members of the disabled community on Twitter. Dominick Evans, a filmmaker and activist, posted, "So, as a wealthy person he could take economic opportunities away from disabled actors who work an average five days a year?" He also criticized, "[A]s a wheelchair user I could never play Bryan Cranston, so why the hell can he play someone like me?!"
Further, as a wheelchair user I could never play Bryan Cranston, so why the hell can he play someone like me?! Tha… https://t.co/9RxFvzJRTD— BDG | Dominick Evans (@BDG | Dominick Evans)1546967285.0
Of course, the problem lies in that exact dearth of differently-abled actors. Among Hollywood's general paucity of inclusive representation, casting can't come down to who's actually shared the character's experience as opposed to who's the most talented actor. As one Twitter user responded, "I'd support this if you could find a disabled person with the acting chops of Bryan Cranston." Filmmaker and writer Ryan O'Connell responded, "That's part of the issue. There are disabled actors but no disabled stars and studios don't want to bet on an unknown…"
But the greater problem underlying the poor quality of The Upside and movies like it is the one-note narrative that Hollywood perpetuates for all disabled people. While the film and its French original are "based on a true story," they both employ the identical formula that major studios use in every movie featuring a disabled character. For instance, 2014's You're Not You stars Academy Award Winner Hilary Swank as a sophisticated pianist in advanced stages of ALS who hires an irresponsible and unqualified college student as her caretaker, played by Emmy Rossum (Shameless). Like Cranston and Hart's characters, the two form an unlikely bond; in both films, the rebellious, young caretakers learn how to take responsibility and appreciate their lives while they work to show their disabled employers that life can still be worth living. If you want a version of that same story but with a romantic twist, there's 2016's Me Before You, with Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) filling in the role of unqualified caretaker learning to love a disabled millionaire (Sam Claflin of The Hunger Games), who prefers to die rather than live a paralyzed life (yes, disabled communities were enraged at this one, as well).
Indie Does It
Before taking issue with Bryan Cranston not being paralyzed and yet portraying a paralyzed man, the first order of concern should be with the flat, victimizing stories told about those with disabilities. The Theory of Everything gave a laudable depiction, albeit with a cultural icon to give it story. So did Still Alice, with Julianne Moore portraying a "shockingly accurate" battle with a neurological disease. With The Upside, America shouldn't be mad about Bryan Cranston not being disabled; they should want a better reason for formulaic, one-dimensional plots than "business decisions."
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Plus celebrities react to Nigerian protests.
Young people across Nigeria have been pouring into the streets for the last two weeks to protest police brutality, specifically the controversial special police force known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).
Tension came to a head on Tuesday when armed forces fired on protestors in Lagos, the biggest city in Nigeria, who were out past the state-mandated curfew. According to AP News, "Police also fired tear gas at one point, and smoke could be seen billowing from several areas in the city's center. Two private TV stations were forced off the air at least temporarily as their offices were burned."
Not all non-binary people prefer gender-neutral pronouns.
October 21, 2020 marks the third annual International Pronouns Day.
Created by an independent board and first observed in 2018, it's one of those small commemorative holidays that trends on Twitter in hopes of drawing attention to a pressing social issue, like International Women's Day (March 8th) or the ever so serious National Taco Day (October 4).
But Pronouns Day in particular "seeks to make respecting, sharing, and educating about personal pronouns commonplace." The organization's website further describes, "Referring to people by the pronouns they determine for themselves is basic to human dignity. Being referred to by the wrong pronouns particularly affects transgender and gender nonconforming people. Together, we can transform society to celebrate people's multiple, intersecting identities."
But in the words of nonbinary activist and Trevor Project's Head of Advocacy and Government Afairs, Sam Brenton, "Pronouns are hard." Never before have pronouns been scrutinized as closely as they are in 2019 for their power to (in)validate or accurately describe something as fluid as gender identity. In fact, it was only this year that the Merriam-Webster Dictionary expanded the definition of "they" "to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary" (thus codifying a long history in English language of using "they" to refer to a singular non-gendered entity).
‘Everyone has the responsibility to be respectful.’ — The @TrevorProject’s Sam Brinton is explaining why pronouns a… https://t.co/pMMO8KRvBR— NowThis (@NowThis)1571253180.0
But throwing an additional wrench in the works is the fact that not all non-binary people prefer gender-neutral pronouns.
Take me, for instance: Despite having female biology, I couldn't pass a lie detector test saying I'm a "woman." But my pragmatic, Puritan family is still endearingly confused by the idea of "liberal arts," let alone the notion of gender fluidity. And I'd rather share a communal language with them than do the emotional and mental labor of re-orienting their worldview for them. Plus, I have the privilege of passing as female without feeling too, too, terribly dysphoric (which non-binary people can definitely suffer from, despite not identifying as trans).
But enough about me, look at Queer Eye's beloved Jonathan Van Ness. While he's been outspoken about being genderqueer, gay, and HIV positive, he prefers he/him pronouns. "The older I get, the more I think that I'm nonbinary," Van Ness said. "I'm gender nonconforming. Like, some days I feel like a man, but then other days I feel like a woman." As he told Out magazine, he doesn't identify as a man, but he does prefer "he/him/his" pronouns. In his view, those pronouns don't detract from or contradict his non-binary identity, because gender is not about simple binaries between masculine and feminine identifiers. "Any opportunity I have to break down stereotypes of the binary, I am down for it, I'm here for it," he said. "I think that a lot of times gender is used to separate and divide. It's this social construct that I don't really feel like I fit into the way I used to."
On the other hand, last month non-binary singer Sam Smith announced that their preferred pronouns are "they/them." Smith posted to Instagram, "I've decided I am changing my pronouns to THEY/THEM ❤ after a lifetime of being at war with my gender I've decided to embrace myself for who I am, inside and out." People like Smith and Trevor Project's Sam Brenton simply feel more validated, seen, heard, and true to themselves with gender-neutral pronouns. Smith wrote, "I'm so excited and privileged to be surrounded by people that support me in this decision but I've been very nervous about announcing this because I care too much about what people think but f*ck it!"
Most importantly, as pretty much every non-binary person and activist is aware, changing cultural norms is hard. While LGBTQ+ activism is inspired and passionate and dedicated to expanding human rights to all gender identities, we all know that changing society's entire understanding of gender and pronoun usage is about slowly opening minds. As Smith wrote, "I understand there will be many mistakes and mis gendering but all I ask is you please please try. I hope you can see me like I see myself now. Thank you." Happy Pronouns Day to you/him/her/they/(f)aer/zim.