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Naming the Trope: A Deep Dive into the Harmful Uses of Disability Stereotypes in the American Theatre

It’s 2019, and I am walking into a prominent American theatre to see a well-reviewed production. This production is intended to examine a specific disability in an honest and exciting light to change our cultural understanding of disability. As a disabled theatremaker and activist, I anticipated an honest portrayal of both the hardships and celebrations of being disabled in America. Except this doesn’t do that. Instead, it follows a familiar pattern of sacrificing disabled truth for an unsettling, two-dimensional depiction of disability filled with clichés and stereotypes. The playwright wrote the disabled character as a shell of a human, an able-bodied writer’s judgement on how a disabled individual interacts with the world around them. That night, I leave at intermission, discouraged but unsurprised at yet another portrayal of disability as “lesser than.”

This experience is not new to the disability community, or frankly to any marginalized community in America. We are inundated with stories written solely through tropes. I define the term “tropes” as significant and recurring character motifs present in popular culture that homogenize a group’s experience. Every sociopolitical minority has their own collection of emotionally exhausting tropes, which generally exploit marginalized identities to engage privileged audiences rather than those who are in the marginalized group. Stories use these tropes to create catharsis, or emotional release, in those who are part of the majority.

What Are the Tropes?

The “Gentleman Freak” refers to any story where a physically disabled character, often referred to as deformed, terrifies society with their very presence. Eventually, a brave, nondisabled character sees that they are not scary at all and befriends them, realizing that they are, in fact, more “civilized” than any of the other characters in the play. While this trope is present in virtually any story about the freak shows of old, there is no better example than Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man. Merrick was born with a physical disability, and his appearance scares society and is considered monstrous. After a nondisabled character realizes that Merrick’s demeanor does not match his exterior, he considers Merrick the perfect gentleman. This characterization looks at disability on a binary: in these stories, the disabled person is either evil or a saint. There is no middle ground from which an actual human could emerge. In addition, the whole idea of “gentleman” is based on a neurotypical idea of status quo. Merrick’s behavior mimics a nondisabled expectation of what it means to be a human. As with many of the tropes, the Gentleman Freak focuses on cathartic release for the nondisabled audience rather than an honest portrayal of disability. Because of this, many of these stories end with the disabled character dying to create a tearjerker.

This characterization looks at disability on a binary: in these stories, the disabled person is either evil or a saint. There is no middle ground from which an actual human could emerge.

Tiresias, the recurring blind prophet of Greek theatre, is the prototype for the “Magical Freak” trope. This trope, akin to the “Magical Negro,” presents a disabled person who possesses special insight or mystical powers that are in direct opposition to their disability. In many Greek plays, Tiresias enters and predicts tragedy. The nondisabled main character often disregards him, calling him an ancient or foolish old man and teasing him about his blindness. Tiresias’s character is grounded in the idea that while Tiresias cannot see in the traditional sense, his prophetic powers allow him to see into the future. By assigning the only disabled character a nonhuman trait, this trope positions disability as “other” or “inhuman,” rather than as a part of the human condition. This distinction separates the disabled characters from all other characters in the story, ensuring that the Magical Freak is rarely the focus, but rather a prop in a plot that centers nondisabled characters. Because of this, the character rarely shows any sort of personality trait that is unrelated to their disability. They aren’t a human; they are an entity.

As the Magical Freak often assigns ethereal powers to those with disabilities the “Super-Crip” trope assigns inhuman physical skills to a disabled character. This trope refers to a heroic and inspirational disabled character succeeding at a task despite the horrible odds the world has stacked against them. In this trope, disability is a curse that must be heroically overcome by a particular skill. Tommy, in the eponymously named musical, is a “deaf, dumb, and blind kid” who “sure plays a mean pinball.” In the musical, Tommy has overcome the curse of his disability to become a world champion at a skill that no one believed he could succeed at. This trope centers disability as a limitation rather than a difference. In disability studies, many subscribe to the social model of disability, which states that there are no inherent disabilities, but rather a collection of differences turned into disabilities by the policies and structures endorsed by the general public. In other words, a person in a wheelchair wouldn’t be disabled, except for the fact that our society has built an infrastructure which values stairs over ramps. For the Super-Crip character, the disability is an obstacle to overcome rather than a set of valid differences. This view of the disabled community as inspirational or heroic propagates an idea of otherness within our society. Disabled people should not be viewed as better or worse than the nondisabled, but as a group of people who move through the world in a different, yet totally acceptable, way.

This creates a strange dichotomy in which the audience is expected to laugh at the disabled person until the end, when they must shift gears and start weeping at the tragedy of disability.

The “Misunderstood Weirdo” favors characters with cognitive impairments. In these stories, a person with an intellectual disability is viewed as rude or weird by the world. The individual doesn’t know how to fit in but desperately wants to make friends. By the end of the story, the character realizes that it’s okay that they are different, and they don’t need traditional friends because they have their disability. Once they come to this realization, nondisabled individuals shower them with love, admiration, and sometimes even forgiveness. In the Tony award-winning musical Dear Evan Hanson, Evan (a young teenager with anxiety and depression) laments that he is constantly “waving through a window,” unable to connect with those around him. He finds himself in a never-ending spiral of horrific events because his only way to find human connection is through a fantasy that he is spreading. The overarching idea of the story is that all of this could have been avoided had society accepted him. Many individuals with cognitive disabilities (myself included) feel unwelcome in traditional American society, but this stereotype uses that feeling to create catharsis for the nondisabled community. Characters within this trope often have no defining personality traits other than a general sense of weirdness. In the musical, Evan’s weirdness is never fully fleshed out, and like other characters in this trope, his quirks are often used as the punchline of a joke that only he is unaware of. This creates a strange dichotomy in which the audience is expected to laugh at the disabled person until the end, when they must shift gears and start weeping at the tragedy of disability.

The “Rage-Filled Recluse” refers to a character isolated by society and mad at the world because of the unfairness of their disability. By the end of the story, a nondisabled character shows them that their life has value despite their disability. This trope is foundational to I and You by Lauren Gunderson, a common play in high schools and colleges. Caroline, a chronically ill teenager, is confined to her home and copes with her situation by being cold and sarcastic. When the star of the basketball team comes over, he teaches her that her rage simply masks her insecurities and that her life has worth despite her illness. This trope examines disability through a very specific, emotive lens, which once again simplifies the very intricate experience of being disabled in a neurotypical society to a single trait. This trope almost always features a nondisabled character teaching the disabled character how to live their disabled life.

The final trope is one of my favorites: the “Ambiguous Disability.” These characters suffer from a disability which is never explicitly specified in the story. The character’s disability is an amalgamation of symptoms which lead to an interesting narrative storyline. This disability concoction inspires sympathy and catharsis from an audience but doesn’t portray any semblance of truth. In A Small Fire, the playwright Adam Bock creates a disability where a healthy woman loses each one of her senses within a year. By the end of the story, she is nothing more than a lady with no communication or connection to the outside world. Because a specific choice of disability has not been made in the piece, it is an amalgamation of many, leaving it ambiguous. This conglomeration of many disabilities allows the playwright to illicit the maximum number of audience tears without doing much research or presenting disability accurately. Simply put, this form of writing is harmful because it propagates misinformation regarding disability in a time when many in our society refuse to engage with disability in the first place.

Disrupting the Narrative

These tropes are dangerous to society’s collective understanding of disability, which is fraught to begin with. They are popularized by entertainment created by nondisabled artists with little collaboration with those whose disabilities become plot and character choices. Because of this, disability becomes dangerously homogenized. This is a clear example of neurotypical bias, which is the idea that the nondisabled community governs society’s definitions of what is “correct” or “normal.” Through neurotypical bias, our society tends to curate the emotional experience of the disability community. Our media limits representations of what disabled folks can or cannot do. For example, in none of the above tropes do we see a disabled person feeling joy at any circumstance unrelated to their disability. Disabled folks are also rarely allowed to portray any form of sexuality despite this being a common occurrence within the disabled experience. When entertainment creates a two-dimensional portrayal of disability through tropes, it leads to an ableist environment more focused on meeting a disability than meeting a person.

For an example that layers these tropes, look no further than She Kills Monsters by Qui Nguyen, one of the country’s most produced plays at high schools and universities. Towards the end of this play, a central character—who has previously been played by a nondisabled avatar—suddenly walks on with an unspecified disability, provides sage wisdom about how the nondisabled protagonist should approach life, and walks off with no further discussion. She is nothing more than a piece of set dressing. Her portrayal in this story utilizes most of the tropes I’ve described: her disability is never named (Ambiguous Disability); her physical abnormality provides a cathartic release when we realize just how clever she is (Gentleman Freak); she is used as a prop to advance the story of the nondisabled character (Magical Freak); she only appears in her own setting (Rage-Filled Recluse); and she has an adept understanding of the videogame world (Super-Crip). If this is the portrayal of disability available to young adults, how can we ever create a more equitable society for people with disabilities?

If this is the portrayal of disability available to young adults, how can we ever create a more equitable society for people with disabilities?

Solving this problem will require the dismantling of an age-old system of interacting with disability. Disability does not get talked about enough because it can be a very complicated subject; it is easier to adhere to the status quo. If we as a theatrical community are going to uphold the values of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in the stories we program, disability must be part of the conversation. When we recognize disabled tropes, we must call for a more honest portrayal. This is easier than it sounds because we are so conditioned to look for inspiration and focus on our own catharsis when it comes to disability. The only way to defeat ableism in the media is to first name it within ourselves. Once we have named it, our next step must be to demand equitable and honest portrayals within the media. This includes investing our time, our money, and our programming in disabled writers and rejecting nondisabled writers who use a simplistic view of disability as a tool in nondisabled stories.

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Wow! Amazing article and I recognize every one of those tropes as I have seen them in media. This essay should be required reading for all who produce theater/movies/tv. It will be up to those persons to "correct" the tropes before they are perpetuated. They will be the ones who educate the writers of the ignorant/unintentionally offensive material, and they will also educate the public.

As a person who reads new play submissions for a couple of local theaters, I will personally be watchful of the characters and language used in the submissions I read.

Best wishes to you!

Thank you for this lovely essay. It got me thinking about the relationship between tropes and dramaturgy. It has made me mindful that if can be tempting to write a part that fills a dramaturgical need in a work and frequently an "outsider" is enlisted to serve that role. Perhaps every time we ask ourselves what dramaturgical function this or that character serves in the play, we must immediately follow with - and how to we do that in the context of their realized humanity.