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.
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.
The movie, while representing a triumph for race relations (and even not much of that), still didn't do much for the blind community.
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. (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. Another name-casting choice, obviously. Don't get me wrong; I love me some Audrey. But she's not a very convincing blind person.
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.
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.
There are roles in which a blind character is actually a sighted character, like LeVar Burton's character in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Or Ben Affleck in Daredevil. I'd say a sighted actor is perfect. The character has some sort of magical sight, so why not?
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.
First of all, an example to the contrary:
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.
Here's a Bollywood actor taking on the sighted roles. Action, even.
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?