Misrepresentation and ignorance: the failure of the film industry

Rachel Hines, Feature Editor

Imagine the very first time a young child with a mental or developmental disability looks up at the television screen and sees a film with an actor that is like them. Through this simple act of representation, they are finally able to imagine a future where their disabilities don’t mark them as “other” but rather a part of the crowd. Unfortunately, situations like this are few and far between. While the film industry has taken steps to diversify films, its steps towards “progress” often bring little change at all. With such a complex issue, how do we encourage progress while still enjoying watching movies?

There are several very popular films that I feel conflicted about, and that number is steadily increasing as I become more informed on issues of misrepresentation. Movies such as Music, directed by well-known singer and artist Sia, directly contribute to the problem. One of the biggest flaws with the movie was the musician’s choice to cast Maddie Ziegler as an autistic girl instead of an actor on the spectrum.

Instead of taking a step forward by creating films that represent people with mental disorders, the film diminishes them through using non-disabled actors. Through “acting” like someone with autism, the film recalls exaggerated mannerisms that have often been used to bully autistic people in the past. The filmmakers’ choice to not involve autistic people from the beginning and provide real representation for their community was irresponsible, and reflects the film’s nature. 

Furthermore, every film I have watched portraying a neurodivergent character—Rain Man, Please Stand By, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, and now Music, are all played by non-disabled actors.  This directly misrepresents large communities of people as it leads to problematic mimicking of their behavior. While Rain Man and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? were produced in the late 80s to early 90s, Please Stand By and Music were made in the past 5 years, demonstrating that the issue has not improved over time.

In today’s film industry, the vast majority of movies with autistic characters follow individuals with the autistic savant disorder, where the individual has exceptional brilliance in a specific field. Yet, this only represents 10% of the autistic community.

Clearly, the film industry needs to change their questionable behavior. While it’s unrealistic and difficult to directly stop producers and directors from creating such films, watching the movies supports the writers and actors who made the film. By consuming these artists’  works, we magnify their platform and provide an opportunity to say whatever they want. As long as we continue to ignore the misrepresentation in film, ignorance will remain present in mass media.