Head to Head: It is okay for able-bodied actors to play disabled roles

Ethan Vassar

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

The film industry has recently received a lot of flack for casting characters belonging to or identifying with some minority group. Facing backlash from transgender actors, Scarlett Johansson withdrew from a role as a transgender man in a film that is now cancelled. When it was announced that Emily Blunt would star as blind and deaf author Rebecca Alexander in a biopic, she was met with similar backlash.

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This movement to only cast actors that are members of a group or culture shared by the character they are auditioning for needs to end. Acting will always involve pretending and there should not be a limit nor an extent to the make believe.

Limiting casting solely to actors who identify with a group congruent with the role is foolish and misunderstands acting as a profession. Acting is an occupation, and just like any other job, the role should go to the person that’s most qualified.

Usually, the most experienced and skilled candidate that aligns with a company’s vision or mission statement gets the job. This should extend to the acting profession and Hollywood as a whole.

Limiting casting solely to actors who identify with a group congruent with the role is foolish and misunderstands acting as a profession.

To suggest that disabled roles should be exclusively played by disabled actors also implies a glass ceiling that isn’t there. Actors with disabilities are not struggling to find work, and there are plenty of beloved actors with disabilities. Both Anthony Hopkins and Dan Aykroyd have Asperger’s syndrome. Daniel Radcliffe suffers from dyspraxia, a disability that makes motor tasks more challenging.

If these disabled actors can act in able-bodied roles, then able-bodied actors can take on disabled roles. 

Blunt’s career provides an interesting case study into the hypocrisy of the disabled community. Blunt’s roles as an actress range from a divorced alcoholic in “The Girl on the Train” to a badass soldier in “Edge of Tomorrow.” If society is fine with Blunt never having attended an AA meeting nor having served in the military, taking on these roles then the same license should extent to her portrayal of Rebecca Alexander.

My colleague Rory Plunkett argues that able-bodied actors taking on disabled roles is akin to blackface and should be considered just as offensive. However, being disabled is not a race, merely a characteristic or an aspect of a person, so it shouldn’t be considered nearly as offensive. Blackface was primarily used to represent a caricature of an entire culture and is exceedingly racist. Able-bodied actors who take on disabled roles do not have such intentions. Blackface was used to mock and degrade Black Americans, something the casting of able-bodied actors does not come anywhere close to doing for the disabled.

The disabled community uses the term “cripping up” to refer to an able-bodied person who puts on the role of a disabled individual. The rest of society would refer to this as “acting,” and it is time that the disabled community joins the rest of the world in this definition.

At the end of the day, most of this fuss is over a make-believe stories with make-believe characters that exist in a make-believe world. There is a certain suspension of disbelief that one must have when watching a movie, and that extends to the actors and their performance. 

Ethan Vassar can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on twitter @ethan_vassar.

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