Last week, Anna Lopez ’19 and Sarika Rao ’19 published the article “Don’t Be an Audience to Ableism.” Their article argued the frequent discrimination of people with mental and physical disabilities in film, specifically the inaccurate portrayal of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split. While I agree that people with disabilities should be respected, and that they deserve accurate representation in the media, I do not think horror movies of this kind are an act of ableism or discrimination.
In their article, Lopez and Rao claim that “Split received much backlash due to its ableist implications and inaccurate portrayal of DID” because while “most mentally ill people are no more likely to be perpetrators of violence than anyone else,” movies often portray them as violent antagonists. While I agree that Split did over-exaggerate the volatility and violence of the main character (James McAvoy’s “Kevin”), we need to remember that Split is a horror movie. The character’s DID was heightened to almost a supernatural extent — Shyamalan’s signature genre — allowing him to commit superhuman acts of violence and strength. Split, as well as many other horror films depicting mental or physical disabilities, was not meant to portray disabled characters accurately, it was instead intended to horrify and thrill audiences. To do so, it elevates everyday incidents to extremes, inciting horror by perverting something normal into something abnormal. This method of horror screenwriting was definitely not an attack towards people with disabilities, but a way to scare an audience by any means possible.
Lopez and Rao also criticised the the attribution of Kevin’s homicidal actions to DID, accusing the film of negatively distorting society’s perception of mental illness. However, while Kevin committed acts of violence, the film ultimately asserts that Kevin was not at fault and was trying to live morally.
Regardless of the effect of Split on public perception of mental illness, it is far from the only depiction of disability in the media. There are an abundance of accurate, sympathetic portrayals of disabled people on the big screen. In Rao and Lopez’s article, they listed a couple horror movies that they thought portray mental illness in a negative light. However, they failed to mention the many movies in which the protagonist is a mentally or physically disabled person and their disability is done justice. Films like, Theory of Everything, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Forrest Gump, Silver Linings Playbook, United States of Tara (which centers around a suburban mother living with DID), and even Pixar’s Inside Out, each have a protagonist with a disability. Whether it be the story of Stephen Hawking and his battle with ALS, Arnie Grape’s autism, Pat Solitano’s love story as a man with bipolar disorder in Silver Linings Playbook, or even 11-year-old Riley’s childhood story of battling depression in Inside Out, there are many instances where movies include kind, brilliant, and funny protagonists that have disabilities.
Despite our disagreement, I do agree with Lopez and Rao that discussions about disability on campus are necessary and long overdue. Ableism is a pervasive and often trivialised issue that deserves to be discussed more often. As someone with two family friends with ALS and a family member with autism, I’ve been made aware of the value of discussing ableism. More than anything, victims of mental illness deserve to be seen, to be celebrated, and to be treated as equals, and there is no better way for them to gain visibility than representation in movies. So, I would think that it would be “discrimination” or “abxleism” if the media cut them from being the antagonist in a horror film just because the character happens to be disabled. As long as people with disabilities are represented in every genre, it is not a bad thing that they are sometimes the antagonist in horror. As for the people who want to watch Split, don’t hesitate to. But do realize that what you see in a movie, is not always reality.
Ria Vieira is a two-year Lower from Winchester, Mass.