Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Blind Actors, Please

Friends on Facebook keep asking me, "Have you seen Growing Up Fisher? It's about a blind guy, you know."

Well, I hadn't, so I decided to go on YouTube this afternoon and check it out. As I expected, there were several clips, so I got ample opportunity to get a taste of what the show is about. 

screen shot from Growing Up Fisher

I was willing to give it leeway in the area of realism. It is a sitcom after all. And to be fair, JK Simmons, who plays the blind dad, does get a lot of the details right. I like that he has a complex character: a career, a family, a love-life. He is more than the flat, one-dimensional "blind guy" you so often see on the screen. 

I also watched an interview with JK Simmons, detailing the things he had to learn in order to play a blind character. Like most people, he had very little exposure to blind people, and what he did know was from movies, and from the writer of the show, whose dad is blind. He's a sighted actor playing a blind character, imitating other sighted actors playing blind characters. 

To me, there is a fundamental problem with this. 

To put it in historical perspective, let's look for a minute at the practice of blackface

A white actor dresses up as a black person and plays a very stereotypical "darkie" which almost always ended up being offensive to the African-Americans who also watched the shows. 

Thankfully, the practice died out during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. One of the first black actors to be applauded during this time was Sydney Poitier, who did A Patch of Blue, in which he kissed a white woman, a blind character played, of course, by a sighted actor. 

screen shot from A Patch of Blue

The movie, while representing a triumph for race relations (and even not much of that), still didn't do much for the blind community. 

Screen shot showing Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman

Actors have won Academy Awards for playing blind characters, like Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. I've heard justification for the practice of "blindface" by saying things like, "if they hadn't used that [sighted] actor, that amazing performance would never have happened." While that may be true, who knows if an alternate actor might have given an equally amazing performance, and possibly not have used the clichéd zombie stare. 

While the practice of blindface may not overtly intend to be stereotypical, it ends up doing that very thing. Blind characters stare off into space. They humrously drive cars, and sentimentally feel others' faces. Blindness is often the central meme, whether creating angst or conflict or even a superhuman "overcoming" of great magnitude. Blind people can't just bee normal; they have to be a seer or an inspiration or angry and bitter. I get it. They need drama in order to have a story. The trouble is that these stereotypes are all most people ever know about blind people.

Some other examples of blindface:

Chris Pine in Blind Dating

Chris Pine in Blind Dating. (The script for this one absolutely cracked me up; they poked fun at some of the experiences that blind people have daily. I still smile at the overdramatic young woman wearing a blindfold and gushing, "I just want to feel what you feel!") This one felt like an example of selling a movie with a big-name actor. Forget that he's not Italian. Forget that he's not blind. He's CHRIS PINE!

Correction: I'm told he wasn't famous when he made this. I knew who he was when it came out, if I remember right, but he wasn't yet a superstar. So maybe it was merely awkward casting, not big name casting. ;)

Audrey Hepburn in Wait until Dark

Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark. Another name-casting choice, obviously. Don't get me wrong; I love me some Audrey. But she's not a very convincing blind person. 

Chris Gorham wearing a tshirt that says I won't stand for ableism

In what is maybe the most ironic casting choice yet, Chris Gorham in Covert Affairs, who uses his blind character to do PSAs about ableism. Yep, a blindface actor raising awareness about how it's a bad idea to discriminate against people with disabilities. 

Since I enjoy the show, and even enjoy his character, I've read several interviews in which he states that he's gotten no criticism for being a sighted actor in a blind role. Interesting, since friends of mine specifically tweeted and emailed him about it. In another twist of irony, he also acted in a YouTube movie called Yellowface, about the shameful practice of using white actors in Asian roles. 

I guess talk is cheap. 

Melissa Sue Anderson in Little House on the Prairie

Now, I understand roles where a character is sighted for the majority of the show, like Melissa Sue Anderson in Little House on the Prairie. In fact, the actor needing to play a flashback or a dream sequence in which he or she is sighted is often used as justification for hiring a sighted actor. Another is concern for the actor's safety on a busy, complicated set. I'll address these in a minute, but first, a few more examples. 

LeVar Burton as Geordie in Star Trek: The Next Generation

There are roles in which a blind character is actually a sighted character, like LeVar Burton's character in Star Trek: The Next Generation

Ben Affleck as Matt Murdock in Daredevil

Or Ben Affleck in Daredevil. I'd say a sighted actor is perfect. The character has some sort of magical sight, so why not?

Neil Patrick Harris with black contacts

I know sighted actors go to great lengths to prepare for a role as a blind character. Neil Patrick Harris even wore opaque contacts. The problem with this approach is that the actor ends up moving like a very recently blinded person, not someone who has been blind for years. 

Plus, if you're going to blind yourself with contacts, why not just cast a blind actor to begin with? He or she could probably navigate around the set more safely!

Another argument I've heard is that there are no blind actors, or that blind actors are ugly. 

Jay Worthington, a handsome man with blonde hair and blue eyes

Secondly, there are not many blind actors because there are not many jobs for blind actors. See the catch-22 here? It's the same argument that the blackface promoters used before the Civil Rights movement. There were not many black actors when black people were not allowed an education to pursue the arts. And if they did, jobs were scarce and discrimination in the industry rampant. 

Similar problems haunt blind actors now. Education is sub-par (a topic for another day), and jobs are scarce. Blind teens are not encouraged to pursue acting careers. 

Another argument against blind actors is that sometimes a role requires playing a character as sighted sometimes. 

Well, amazingly enough (sarcasm again), blind actors DO play sighted characters sometimes. Ok, this could be tossed into the "reverse discrimination" can, but I'm not going to worry about that until blind actors are so numerous, they're cutting sighted actors out of a job. 

Naseer Khan

I've read of others. Here are just a few: Dana Elcar, Andrea Bocelli, Esmond Knight

Screen shot of James Franciscus as Longstreet, kneeling next to his white german shepherd guide dog

In conclusion, as much as I love James Franciscus as Longstreet, I wish they had cast a blind actor in the role. Do you know why? Because sighted people watch him being all competent, and training with Bruce Lee, and they think to themselves, "maybe blind people can live 'normal' lives." Then they remember it's all fiction, and that the actor isn't really blind, and so of course he can do the things he is doing. He can actually see. 

Wouldn't it be great to imitate the Civil Rights Movement, and quit the practice of blindface? To provide jobs for competent blind actors is one immediate benefit. Public education is another. (Now don't get me wrong, I'm not going all Affirmative Action here, and saying we should cast a terrible actor simply because he is blind.) How about we give blind actors a chance to fight for some roles too? At least we can stop the discrimination and the "obviously they can't" attitude that pervades Hollywood. 

The next time you see a blind character, take note of the actor. And ask yourself, is it okay to use opaque contacts? Is it okay to use shoe polish for black skin? Or hidden tapes to slant eyes? Do we care? Should we care?


  1. Great discussion, Erin. Although I (now, after much reflection) disagree that Yellow Face can be used to criticise Chris Gorham. In fact it is rather a nuanced examination of the immense complexity surrounding this issues raised here and others broader issues - Yellow Face being very much metaphorical. Very thoughtful and very much worth the watch. The PSA's etc, though? Definitely. Although I note that he has not been 'campaigning' on the anti-ableist platform recently. I sincerely hope this is an indicator that he has become more aware of his position as 'privileged' as he's explored disability in this role. I guess some accept these roles naively and only realise the uncomfortable paradoxes later if they bother to explore their roles properly. I think it must be an extraordinarily tricky position to be in. Which is why pragmatism is required. I think we need to acknowledgment that well-written and well-played characters (even if not played by blind actors yet - because of the current dearth of experienced blind actors) is a necessary step towards getting to where we want to be. As you've said there need to be more parts written. And public acceptance is a slow process. So yeah, my position has become more pragmatic. Not that this means that I don't have the same ideals, but my thinking focus now is so much more on the pragmatic 'how do we get there? How do we get public acceptance of characters with disabilities? Because realistically that's what drives film/TV. Box-office and ratings. Talking ideals, though, I'd love to go further than just moving beyond #cripface. I want us also to move towards ability-blind casting.
    A space where actors with disabilities feel the freedom audition for roles that are not necessarily written as disabled - ie where disability is 'incidental'. THAT would be an indicator of true integration for me.

  2. Excellent article in The Atlantic about this recently.

  3. I get where you are coming from but disability isn't the same issue as race or sex, especially in the acting industry. Physical ability doesn't change the brain of the person (it does, but not really) whereas men and women, nigerians and russians (for example) have a different genetic makeup so you wouldn't find a russian man playing a nigerian man or visa versa. Physical disability is on a similar wave to gender (not sex). For instance a gay man can play a straight man in the same way a seeing man can play a blind man. The difference with gender is that it can be played reversibly. It would be nigh on impossible for a blind man to play a seeing man (truthfully). It's a nice idea to get disabled actors to play disabled characters but in reality its not about discrimination, it's about practicality.

    1. I disagree. It's practical for sighted people to work with sighted people only because they don't know any better. Unfortunately.

  4. I don't think the author should compare blackness to blindness. Blackness isn't a disability. And Hollywood STILL participates in blackface. I think they use people that can see because Hollywood doesn't want to go out of its way to accommodate blind actors. It would bee cool to have them though.

  5. Actors are actors, they should be encouraged to play ALL types of human beings, with afflictions, diseases, disabilities, no disabilities, that said, the best ACTOR should get the part.

  6. Being offended by casting choices is ridiculous, no matter which way you do it. Actors... ARE ACTORS. They don't need to have any of the same traits as the characters they're playing, whether that's race, sexuality, disability, personality traits, species, hair colour, height, nationality, etc. We can use make up, costume, and in some cases, CGI, to make actors look like their characters, and doing this isn't somehow an attack on the traits that you're emulating. In terms of realism, it would in nearly all situations be more appropriate to cast actors with the traits of the character you need them to play, and I agree that more blind people should be encouraged to act - it's unfair to discriminate against good actors because they're blind - but taking offense when blind characters are played by sighted actors is pathetically petty.

    1. I was doing research for something and came across this. Here's the thing, speaking as an actor who is friends with actors who have disabilities, I've seen the other side of the argument. I watch it happen all the time. And the consumers of entertainment are the only way to get things to change. Actors who don't have disabilities but play characters who do are taking away roles from fully capable disabled actors. And, in all honesty, are likely not playing the characters as truthfully as an actor with that disability. It's not petty, it's representation. Disabled actors aren't represented because they're losing their work to abled actors and when they complain the general public waves it off. They ignore it. And when the rest of the general public finally starts taking a stand and saying they're taking offense, they're called petty? I'll take your specific example: You say more blind people should be encouraged to act. How can they be encouraged unless the rest of us take a stand and say "We won't watch your show if you hire non-blind actors for blind roles"? Your statement becomes contradictory. Blind people who wish to act are turned off from the profession before they even start trying because the non-blind actors are more likely to get the roles than they are. And it really seems like the only way to make the change is for everyone, disabled or not, to take a stand.

  7. "We found that more than 95% of characters with disabilities are played by able-bodied actors on television. While streaming platforms had a better percentage, they also had a lower overall count of characters with disabilities. This lack of self-representation points to a systemic problem of ableism—discrimination against people with disabilities—in the television industry. It also points to a pervasive stigma among audience members against people with disabilities given that there is no widespread outcry against this practice."

  8. Hello,

    I am a writer/director writing a film where the main character is blind. From the day the idea came to me for the film i had decided to cast a blind person for the role. Does anyone here know how to find 15-20 yo bling male actor? Or the best way is to find a suitable blind person for the role and guide him? thanks

    1. Contact the National Federation of the Blind and ask if they know of anyone. :)