Representation in Media: Why it’s Important

I am a lover of all things Film and Television. I got a degree in it. I am going back to school to master it. I love storytelling.

What I didn’t love was the lack of representation for characters with disabilities. I felt like I was starving to see a character on screen that looked like me. Film and Television have done quite a huge disservice to the disabled community. Creators, for a long time, couldn’t help but make handicapped characters that followed one of the 4 standard tropes:

The Innocent
The villain
The victim
The monster

Furthermore, handicapped characters have hardly ever been the central character in media (unless they fall under the “innocent” trope). They are often cast aside to the peripherals of the narrative and only ever utilized as a tool to uplift and progress the storyline for the main character.

19 percent of the US population has a disability. Media has about 2 percent representation. A majority of those roles went to able-bodied actors. What showrunners and producers don’t understand is that the disabled community is a lot more like the abled community than they are different. By glossing over stories of 1/5th of the population not only are they limiting themselves, but they disenfranchise an already marginalized community.

For me, I didn’t feel truly seen until I watched Breaking Bad. Walter White Jr. is played by a disabled actor named RJ Mitte. He has Cerebral Palsy and while his character is disabled, his disability is not his entire character arc. He was just a regular teen with typical teenage growing pains, who also had CP.

My mind was blown to see that not only had they featured a character with CP in the main cast, but he was played by a person with the actual disability AND they didn’t choose to make his character wheelchair bound.

I don’t know what it is about Hollywood and their need to link disability to a wheelchair but watching RJ on screen was so refreshing. While the actor didn’t need forearm canes in real life he understood that the visual choice to have them widened the spectrum of how a disability might present. When Walt Jr. learns to drive, and he uses both feet, that was something I did. When Walt Jr. goes to the mall and struggles to try on jeans in the tiny dressing room it was like I was watching the story of my life. Because RJ rooted his performance to his personal journey with CP, he felt real. He wasn’t an able-bodied person’s idealized guess of what a person with a disability is like.
I later found out the creator and writer for the show was very good friends with a guy in college who had cerebral palsy and used forearm canes. Walt Jr. is heavily influenced off of this friend and IT SHOWS.

He’s a well- rounded character because he was a complex kid who understood his place in the world, understood his disability, and lived his life without worrying too much about it. Now, I was 17 or 18 when I watched Breaking Bad. I had to wait 18 years to feel like I saw a reflection of me on TV and I find that so sad. While the space for disabled characters has gotten larger, it hasn’t grown at the same rate as the other marginalized groups in film or television.

I am going back to school to see if I can make my mark in the entertainment world. Film and TV, for the most part, are supposed to be mirrors to our society. I only hope that I help balance that reflection. Representation is important because it validates the piece of us that went seeking refuge in movies and TV in the first place. You want to know you’re not alone.

Until next time readers…

-Bianca A.

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