Breaking Bad bucks Hollywood’s cripface trend

A 2011 study found that less than one percent of regular characters on scripted shows were disabled, and that number was falling. That’s pretty remarkable when you consider that approximately 20% of the population is disabled; talk about some disproportionate representation in pop culture. And it gets worse: Most disabled characters are not even played by people with disabilities. The practice of using nondisabled actors in disabled roles is known as “cripface,” and it’s a serious problem in Hollywood. That’s why actors like RJ Mitte, who plays Walter Jr. on Breaking Bad — premiering this Sunday — are especially important.

Disability is so tremendously underrepresented that it tends to attract close scrutiny when it appears. When almost no roles go to people with disabilities — despite stellar actors like Marlee Matlin –- it’s a reminder that people would rather play us than pay us. When those roles also reinforce harmful stereotypes (like on Sherlock, where autistics are depicted as emotionless, cold automatons), it carries extra sting.

Two of the most high-profile disabled characters onscreen right now are both played by nondisabled actors: Kevin McHale as Artie on Glee and Max Burkholder as Max Braverman on Parenthood. Both actors are winning accolades and a lot of buzz for increasing visibility. But the disability community isn’t so hot on their depictions, arguing that just including disabled characters isn’t quite enough when those characters are stereotyped and sometimes actively damaging.

There seems to be a general impression that playing disabled can be an easy route to an Emmy or Oscar, whether or not it’s backed with research to present a role authentically. Some shows dodge accountability by not officially labeling a character with a disability and only implying it; the titular character on Sherlock, for example, is only assumed to have autism or Asperger’s.

Viewers are repeatedly reminded that Artie “can never dance again” despite ample evidence that wheelchair dance exists. The show has invented multiple story lines to get him out of his chair, because the creators can’t imagine what it might be like to be a wheelchair user who’s happy and confident, let alone one a fantastic dancer. Some felt that the show’s heavily stereotyped Down syndrome character, Becky (played by Lauren Potter), was an attempt to mollify critics. Characters with Down syndrome are almost always played by people with Down syndrome because it is a disability that is extremely hard to put on for a role, and yet Glee expected praise for the casting decision.

Which is why Walter Jr. is so important. Mitte and his character share a disability, mild cerebral palsy, in one of the few instances where an actual disabled actor portrays a disabled character. He’s been widely hailed by the disability community for his handling of the role, and the creators of Breaking Bad have also received notice for working with RJ and other knowledgeable sources to represent disability accurately and honestly. The creators have done their homework, and it shows.

Or take Jericho: The show may have been short-lived, but Shoshannah Stern’s depiction of a deaf woman in a postapocalyptic landscape still lingers; Bonnie proved that deafness doesn’t mean the end of the world. What made her role so radically different from Artie? Well, for one thing, Shoshannah’s deaf, and for another, her deafness looked, and felt, right.

What stands out about these roles is not just that they’re played by real people with disabilities and backed by research; it’s that they are all characters who happen to be disabled. Instead of placing disability front and center as the whole of a character’s personality, the creators are treating disability as a facet of someone’s life, and not necessarily the most important facet at any given time. There’s a world of difference between cripface and the real thing; it’s up to Hollywood to take notice.