Australian television's disability tension
Who's saying what
A few weeks back, Kristian Schmid appeared on Packed To The Rafters (pictured above) in the episode Ready To Catch You, playing "hot tradie" Jake's "cheeky" brother Alex. So far so run-of-the-mill for Seven's flagship dramedy, except for one notable difference: Alex has cerebral palsy.
Kristian Schmid, it needn't be added, does not.
The Packed To The Rafters messageboard (straight to the source, I know) lit up with debate about whether Schmid - and the show's writers - had done a good job or not; was it an accurate representation; should they have done it at all; what is cerebral palsy?
While watching the episode (which has either been disappeared from or never existed within the boundaries of the internet), I was plagued by one thought: why isn't an actor with cerebral palsy playing Alex?
I wasn't the only one with this on my mind - a week later a letter to The Age's Green Guide expressed the same sentiment, and the issue continued to tug at my mind.
It's a recurring theme throughout Australian television: keen to inject drama or diversity into shows, producers and writers will include characters of differing abilities, but seem rarely - if ever - able to employ actors who share the characters' physical or mental makeup.
Look at ABC's The Librarians:
While the show is, obviously, a satire that pokes fun at its raft of cliches and stereotypes (blousy lush, tragic dag, pig-headed management types, sassy Muslim woman), whenever I watched it I was struck by what for argument here I will call "the Schmid problem" once more: why is Dawn, the food-loving, wheelchair-bound staffer, played by Heidi Arena?
Arena, as you will have noticed during her tenure on Thank God You're Here, is "able-bodied".
I'm sure many of you are thinking "so what, that's why they call it acting", but doesn't the very nature of inclusiveness - at least in the context of including storylines that relate to people with disabilities - suggest that it might be proper to, you know, actually include actors with disabilities?
The American and UK film and television industries are a few steps ahead of Australia in this regard (though it must be said, not many); in particular the Law & Order franchise and Nip/Tuck have more than occasionally featured actors with disabilities, and the LA Times reported in 2008 that opportunities (and in turn, agents!) for actors with disabilities were on the rise.
In this enlightened era, we look back at Mickey Rooney playing Japanese or heavily fake-tanned "jungle types" and wince; so why don't we bat an eyelid when actors pretend to have cerebral palsy, or pretend to be in wheelchairs, and so on?
Taking our television and film canon as a user's guide, you could be forgiven for thinking that Steady Eddy (as much as I love him) was the only Australian actor with a disability to have ever existed.
The fault is not the ("able bodied") actors'; most do a sterling job of representing the characters' - and thus by default, disabled people's - lives (which in the case of Packed To The Rafters and The Librarians, are - but for the fact of their disabilities - as mundane as the other characters').
Instead, we need to look to producers to have the guts to cast actors appropriately.
Much was said - largely in an unofficial capacity, though The Guardian in particular shone a spotlight on it - of the character Toby in Summer Heights High; was it purely for shock or comedic value? The latter, sure, but I'm inclined to think that it was also because Lilley is aware that - believe it or not! - children with Down's syndrome also attend Australian high schools!
If Toby is - as the Guardian put it - a "catalyst" for jokes, does that necessarily make the joke discriminatory? Or does it, instead, mean that Toby is effectively equal to everyone else at Summer Heights High, given that the entire school is a potential punchline? Is he, in other words, just like everyone else at the fictional (but very familiar) state school?
And, just like millions of other state school students, Toby enjoys drama class. So how come the buck stops in Year 12 for so many aspiring actors who also happen to have disabilities?
It seems it may be purely a televisual or filmic problem. Australia is home to a number of theatre companies dedicated to working with actors with physical and/or mental disabilities; Back To Back Theatre has received countless raves for its affecting and thought-provoking pieces.
I imagine that there are any number of excuses - many of them probably compelling - as to why TV producers are more likely to hire actors without disabilities; perhaps they feel they need a "face" to ensure viewers tune in; maybe they are concerned that shooting may progress more slowly if a disabled actor is hired.
But surely that is discrimination and crass assumption in effect. A letter to the LA Times - following the aforementioned report - from a former co-worker commended actor Nick Daley (who has Prader-Willi Syndrome), recalling that he "not only knew his lines from the script, he knew everyone's lines. It was incredible to see Nick go through someone else's monologue to jog their memory. You should have seen their jaws drop."
And a 2007 review of Back To Back's Small Metal Objects (which played at the Melbourne International Arts Festival a couple of years back) noted that in watching the work "we are asked to revisit what we think a so-called impaired human being is capable of".
Perhaps it is time for the Australian television industry to revisit what they think so-called impaired human beings are capable of: acting.
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