My Left Foot: The Cripping Up Debate by Judith Drake
There has been heated discussion in recent years around the rights and wrongs of ‘cripping up’ but this hasn’t always been the case. Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for his portrayal of Christy Brown in the 1989 film My Left Foot. This critical acclaim for actors who ‘crip up’ continues to the present day, with Eddie Redmayne winning an Oscar in 2015 for his performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (2014). With award winning films about disability still being made, the debate around who plays disabled characters has intensified and is under discussion in the mainstream media.
This is not to say there aren’t examples of film and theatre productions that are breaking the mould and including disabled actors in the cast. These portrayals have been lauded as impressive, but they are still not the norm. So, what are the arguments around ‘cripping up’ and what does it mean for film and theatre audiences?
‘Cripping up,’ traditionally is when a non-disabled actor takes on the role of a disabled character and their portrayal often involves mimicking the physical characteristics of a specific impairment or medical condition. The term can also be expanded to mean that the story doesn’t engage with the lived experience of disability. The debates around ‘cripping up’ tend to focus around the following key arguments.
IT’S THE STORY THAT MATTERS
This argument suggests that as long as the disabled character’s story is told it doesn’t matter if the actor is disabled or not. Usually lead roles are played by box office stars who can draw large audiences and therefore make money but who are most likely non-disabled. Disabled people have been accused of being too sensitive; they should be happy to have stories about disabled people represented on screen, irrespective of who plays them.
Some people view this argument as reductive: the focus is on one aspect of the character, disability and how this affects their lives and those around them. The story usually becomes bogged down in disability as metaphor instead of one aspect of the character. Physical blindness, can mean the character has not been able to see the issues of their behaviour until they become blind. King Lear’s hubris is only revealed to him when he can no longer see.
This is displayed on screen in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (2018). Even though it is an autobiography, much is made of Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of John Callahan, who only realises he needs to go into AA after a car crash that leaves him paralysed. This trope can also be used in reverse as in the case of Blake Lively in All I See Is You (2017), in which she only understands her husband’s abusive behaviour once her sight is restored. This style of characterisation with disability as the main focus makes the character one dimensional, the main appeal being how the non-disabled actor manages to perform the specific impairment or medical condition.
Lennard J. Davis, who is a disability activist and scholar, says disabled characters are unrealistic because of casting, storylines and stereotypical characterisation.
‘The standard stories about people with disability follow routines patterns. In the past, many villains were seen to have a disability—whether being one-eyed, one-armed, disfigured, walking with a limp, and the like… Sometimes disabled people are given super powers, like the autistic person who can remember dates or has other superhuman abilities. What you don’t often see is just a disabled character who isn’t living some extraordinary life. Most people with disabilities aren’t tied up in plots involving disabilities—they are just folks living their lives.
The plot problem is tied up with a casting problem. Most disabled characters on TV and film are played by non-disabled actors. Most screenplays about them are written by non-disabled writers, and most films are directed by non-disabled directors. Because of that, most viewers are getting very skewed and biased view of what disabled people are like.’ (Lennard J. Davis)
One argument made against ‘cripping up’ is, if as an industry, we won’t black up an actor to play a person of colour, why is it permissible for non-disabled actors to ‘crip up?’ Many activists, disabled actors and disabled industry professionals argue that ‘cripping up’ is cultural appropriation. Disability is not a skillset but part of a lived experience and something that is formative to identity. To try and mimic this is to belittle this part of an affirmative disabled identity. It’s understood as a pastiche not a character.
However, this view that ‘cripping up’ equates with blacking up is not universally held within disability arts. To make this comparison risks further denigrating the identity of people within the disabled community who are part of different marginalised communities that intersect, in this case disabled people of colour.
Dominck Evans argues that the comparison of ‘cripface’ and ‘cripping up’ with blackface and blacking up is wrong.
‘Blackface comes from a long tradition of outright mocking black people. Disabled mimicry is mocking, but rarely have I seen it done specifically as a form of mocking. Instead, it is done by people who think they know what disability is about or they think it is a great way to get to the Oscars, and they probably aren’t that far off. Often, the actors think they are do-gooders taking on a “challenge” while writers and directors seek praise for inclusion.’ (Dominick Evans)
The intention, with blackface, according to Evans is different to ‘cripping up’ because mockery of the black community is the main purpose. ‘Cripping up’, on the other hand, is failing to show an authentic disabled experience, with no intention of offense. This is due to a lack of engagement with disabled people in the writing, casting and making of the film and a wish to tick the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion box.
Though there are arguments that open mockery of disabled people does occur in films usually in the comedy genre, as can be seen with The Ringer (2006), where Johnny Knoxville pretends to have a learning disability to be part of the special Olympics team. This story is being done for laughs and does feature many actors with learning disabilities, but it is viewed as intentional mockery in certain communities.
‘CRIPPING UP’ IS REQUIRED FOR THE NARRATIVE
The film needs the character to become disabled as part of the story. The storyline needs a non-disabled actor to portray the ‘before’ scenes or if an impairment is ‘cured’ they need the actor to return to a non-disabled and ‘able bodied’ ideal. For example, in The Theory of Everything in which Eddie Redmayne portrays Stephen Hawking before his diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease or in All I See is You (2016), in which Gina, played by Blake Lively, has her sight restored after an operation. This non-disabled casting allows for continuity in the story and makes filming scenes where the character is not disabled possible.
The counter argument to this is if CGI, prosthetics and filming techniques, along with the actor’s physicality are used to create the ‘disabled’ characterisation, could the same techniques be used to show the disabled actor without the impairment? An alternative would be to cast multiple actors in the same role, which is done as an industry standard when showing a character ageing, usually from childhood. In its new series, the award-winning Netflix drama The Crown has recast older actors in many main roles including replacing Claire Foy with Olivia Coleman in the leading role of Queen Elizabeth II.
Disability scholars and disabled professionals within the industry suggest that the audience is part of the issue with disability signifying something intrinsically deeper. Disability scholar, Tobin Siebers, suggests that modern society’s art and aesthetics ideology is one of ability and perfection; superheroes are idealised models rather than fantastical beings. Disability is a sharp reminder that this is not the reality for most human life.
‘We easily believe what cannot be true: men fly, women have superhuman strength, and people are immortal. We are terrified by the truth: we are fragile, we become sick, and we all grow old and die.’ (Tobin Siebers)
Siebers is arguing the pleasurable aspect of make believe is easier to deal with than the reality that all people face if they live long enough. Even the limited stories about disability on offer follow a stereotyped narrative that finds pleasure in the displeasure of disability, with an individual overcoming adversity or living well with the perceived stigma of disability. The lives of disabled people on stage or screen are not just mundane or ordinary. Due to their body, they are imbued with deeper meaning and seen as something to fear and to be kept at a distance.
The issue of what a disabled body represents on stage, for the audience, is discussed by Siebers as being too visible. The presumed starting point is the non-disabled or standardised body, a neutral, that if deviated from is to be questioned. The audience, when confronted with the disabled body therefore question the reasons for it being this way – there must be a narrative reason.
‘The audience does not see non-disabled bodies as non-disabled. It never questions why non-disabled bodies are being used on the stage. But the disabled body is another matter. When it appears on the stage, it is visible, perhaps hypervisible. The audience usually notices disabled bodies, and it wants to understand why they are on the stage. The disabled body has meaning—and necessarily so—because, when something as visible as a disabled body appears on the stage, without attendant meaning or explanations, the audience finds fault with the drama. The drama that fails to explain the appearance of a disabled body on the stage is a failed drama. The disabled body threatens to disable the theatre as a place for seeing.’ (Tobin Siebers)
Siebers is suggesting that the audience become so fixated on why the disabled body is like that they forget about the story or drama that surrounds it. The hypervisibility of the disabled body disables the audience’s viewing.
Disabled playwright Christopher Shinn paraphrases the late disabled playwright John Belluso’s comments around why actors win Oscars for disabled roles.
‘It is reassuring for the audience to see an actor like Daniel Day-Lewis, after so convincingly portraying disability in My Left Foot, get up from his seat in the auditorium and walk to the stage to accept his award. There is a collective “Phew” as people see it was all an illusion. Society’s fear and loathing around disability, it seems, can be magically transcended.’ (Shinn & Belluso)
Belluso is arguing that the illusion is easier to live with than the reality of disability. To confront disability would be to acknowledge that certain groups of people are stigmatised based on their body’s ability, to change this would mean overhauling societal structures that benefit a non-disabled majority.
One of the biggest arguments in favour of ‘cripping up’ is ‘it’s only acting’. Actors are supposed to play different characters with physicality that is different from their own, it’s part of their job. If we follow this line of argument and reduced acting to, X person can only play X part because they have the same characteristics, we are compromising the skill and basis of acting.
Casting directors and directors complain that it’s not that they don’t want to employ disabled actors but there is a lack of qualified and experienced actors out there that are able to take on disabled parts.
However, disabled industry professionals argue that this misses the point. Casting non-disabled actors takes parts away from disabled actors from which they can gain vital experience and recognition and therefore create more parts.
They also highlight that the audience doesn’t usually see the process around ‘cripping up’ when non-disabled actors try to manipulate their bodies to accurately mimic medical conditions and impairments. Hiding this conceals the very essence of ‘cripping up’ and the mockery of the disabled body.
The idea that it is a failure of acting if only a disabled person can play a disabled person is also disputed. There is still a journey and process that takes place, the benefit of using a disabled actor is they are not mimicking bodily aspects of a condition but rather using personal experience of what it’s like to live in a nondisabled world. This brings added depth to the performance which a non-disabled actor would not be able to provide. It also doesn’t alienate disabled audiences.
Many disabled actors and performers want the chance to get into the audition room, they are not asking for special treatment but want parity with their non-disabled peers. It is not about positive discrimination for equality reasons that would make acting ability irrelevant but rather about giving training and experience opportunities to disabled actors. The desire is to have disabled actors being cast in any suitable part, not just the disabled roles.
To return to Siebers, he disputes that non-disabled actors are successful in their performance of disability.
‘When non-disabled actors play disabled characters, the performance is always a failure—and is meant to be. The actors are not meant to pass as disabled. Non-disabled actors preserve a distance from their disabled character by keeping ever-present in the audience’s mind the fact that they are not really disabled, only playing disabled. In this distance lies the greatness of the actor’s performance. The audience, then, must keep in mind a double image of the performance, at once taking comfort in the fact that the actor will resume a non-disabled state when the performance ends, while marvelling at the fact that the actor dares to represent disability. Non-disabled actors do not disappear into their roles when portraying disabled characters, and we celebrate the performances for this reason.’ (Tobin Siebers)
In My Left Right Foot, the character Chris points out that people only focus on Daniel Day-Lewis’s acting in My Left Foot, and not the story of his character, the disabled artist and writer Christy Brown. The focus on the acting is easier for the audience than understanding the lived experience of disabled people.
Disabled artists do not all believe that ‘cripping up’ is wrong in all instances or obstructs drama. Some even use it as part of their own work to make the audience question their beliefs and prejudices around disability. Ann M. Fox and Carrie Sandhal suggest that only replacing non-disabled actors with disabled actors is missing the wider point of how we should be engaging with disability drama.
‘…the answer to the question “what do we mean when we talk about disability in drama?” is not as simple as reversing old patterns and casting disabled actors. If we discuss the implications of casting only as an absence or presence of disabled people, we risk re-inscribing disabled/non-disabled binaries, and acting as if our engagement with drama only exists in relationship to non-disabled people and the extent to which they wish to assume disabled identities for fun, profit or as an example of their supposed actorly virtuosity.’ (Fox & Sandahl)
Fox and Sandahl are suggesting that there should be a wider approach to disability in drama and its purposes. To replace all non-disabled actors with disabled actors in disabled parts would increase representation. However, it would still only reinforce the disabled/non-disabled relationship and not engage with the debate around disability as an affirmative identity or depict the different ways of living and experiencing the world.
‘CRIPPING UP’: THE ANSWER?
It is fair to conclude that ‘cripping up’ is a complicated area of debate. This debate goes to the heart of one of the reasons disabled people face discrimination in society, that of misjudged representation. Better representation of disabled people on stage and screen is one obvious step in the right direction towards better understanding, but it also needs to occur behind the scenes in all aspects of the industry if we are to portray rounded characters and stories. If this is to occur disabled people need access to training and experience in the industry.
However, we should be careful in presuming that ‘cripping up’ can’t be used for the benefit of disability arts to tell rounded stories about disabled people. Hopefully, there will come a time where all actors irrespective, of disability, race, gender, etc. can be cast in whatever role they are best suited for but until that happens the ‘cripping up’ debate will continue.
Cripping up – Where a non-disabled actor portrays a disabled character. It also can mean that the story does not accurately represent an authentic portrayal of disabled people.
Non-disabled – This word is used to highlight a binary system that privileges people without an impairment or medical condition who do not face discrimination or oppression because they are not disabled.
Lived Experience – This term describes how everyone experiences the world differently depending on how they can access society and its structures based on who they are e.g. gender, race, disability, sexuality etc. If you’re a wheelchair user that can’t get into buildings in your community how you access education, healthcare, employment will be different from someone who has a visual impairment or who is non-disabled.
Social model of disability VS Medical model Impairment/medical condition – The social model of disability understands disability being caused by society not the individual’s impairment or medical condition. The structures of society like architectural barriers (poor access to buildings) and negative attitudes towards disabled people prevent disabled people having full inclusion in society. The medical model finds disability being in the body of the individual with the medical condition or impairment being something they need to overcome or fix to access society.
Affirmative model of disability – This model of disability takes the social model further to include the body. The affirmation model understands societal oppression but also realises that having an impairment or medical condition is a positive not stigmatising part of a person’s identity.
Davis, Lennard J. “Introduction.” Beginning with Disability: A Primer. Routledge, 2018.
Fox, Ann M., and Carrie Sandahl. “Beyond ‘Cripping Up’: An Introduction.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, vol. 12, no. 2, 2018, pp. 121–127.
Siebers, Tobin. “In/Visible: Disability on the Stage.” Body Aesthetics, Oxford University Press, 2016.
About the Author
Judith is a European Theatre PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. Her thesis The Case of Disability Theatre in Contemporary Scotland encompasses Freakery in nineteenth century Scotland through to twenty-first century Scottish disability theatre. She is using productions by Birds of Paradise Theatre Company and Lung Ha Theatre Company as part of her research.
Judith is currently Academic Theatre Consultant on Birds of Paradise and National Theatre of Scotland’s production of My Left / Right Foot – The Musical.
If you saw this production, Judith and Birds of Paradise would appreciate your participation in academic research by the completing this survey. The survey has 10 questions mostly multiple choice and should take around 5 minutes to complete. http://www.boptheatre.co.uk/feedback