April 26, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Critics Question the Representation of Disability in ‘Wonder’

Mike Moody first picked up R.J. Palacio’s novel Wonder at the age of 21 and immediately connected with Auggie, the young protagonist.

Moody was born with Crouzon syndrome, a craniofacial disorder similar to Auggie’s. A UK-based writer, Moody was impressed with Palacio’s ability to create a character with Auggie’s condition “so truthfully,” she said by email.

The movie is another matter. Released by Lionsgate on November 17, Wonder stars 11-year-old Jacob Tremblay as Auggie and Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson as his parents. Not all are excited about the on-screen adaptation of the best-selling book. Moody isn’t happy that the producers made Tremblay appear disfigured, instead of hiring an actor who is.

“The film just seems to hop on the bandwagon of disability. It’s ‘inspiration porn’, the same driven by films like The Theory of Everything—films that treat disability as a costume,” she said. “That kind of attitude permeates through the films to the audience. Actors who portray disabled people are revered, and disabled people (especially actors) are ignored.”

Writing Wonder, Palacio left the specifics of Auggie’s face vague. His condition, thought by some to be Treacher Collins syndrome but never explicitly described, is characterized by facial differences that can be expressed around the eyes, ears, nose, and jawbone. Children born with the syndrome often undergo multiple painful reconstructive surgeries to improve breathing and other health issues.

Educator Laura Jiménez thinks that Tremblay may have been made up to soften the visual impact of what someone with a craniofacial condition can look like—and to make viewers without the disability feel more comfortable.

Disability made “more palatable”

“That comfort is not for people who have cranial facial deformities,” says Jiménez, a lecturer on literacy at Boston University who specializes in reading comprehension and motivation in children. “The comfort is to make that disability more palatable.”

Kayla Whaley, senior editor of website Disability in Kidlit, believes that decisions about disabled characters’ appearance often reflect an ableist point of view, a social prejudice where people with disabilities are seen as less-than, which permeates books and movies.

“When that media collectively portrays disabled characters in a handful of ableist ways, that ableism is bound to crop up again and again,” Whaley says.

Jiménez says that casting an actor with a craniofacial condition could have brought a level of authenticity to the role. She points to precedents including the character JJ in ABC’s comedy Speechless, played by actor Micah Fowler, who has cerebral palsy, as does JJ in the series.

“He is not non-verbal, but he can reflect and bring that authenticity to the character,” Jiménez says. “It probably is difficult for the cast and crew to make the set accessible to him, and yet they do it.”

“Disfigurement is not a mask,” adds Moody. “We can’t take our faces off at the end of the day. There are many young disfigured actors who would jump at the chance to portray [Auggie].”

Wonder producers David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman considered hiring an actor with a craniofacial condition, they said in a statement to SLJ from Lionsgate.

“We looked at children in and out of the craniofacial community and non-actors across the country to play Auggie,” they said. “Jacob Tremblay is a once-in-a-generation talent, and we all felt that he was the best creative choice for the film. We’re thrilled to have met so many beautiful and supportive people within the craniofacial community throughout this process and are humbled by their incredible support of the movie.”

Palacio did not have input in the casting, but the filmmakers’ choices mirror the essence of her story, she said in a separate statement to SLJ.

“While I wasn’t involved in that creative decision, I believe the movie captures the spirit of the book with great poignancy and tenderness,” Palacio said. “It is a compassionate, beautiful movie about the power of kindness.”

That sentiment relates a campaign connected to the book and film, Choose Kind, to combat bullying and foster empathy. Choose Kind resources and activities are available for teachers and librarians, with downloadable stickers and posters and suggestions for hosting a community event. A teacher toolkit is also available.

Moody says that such initiatives “[force] marginalised (sic) people to be ever gracious and polite in the face of people who ignore, mock, or vilify us.

Meanwhile, students in Illinois, New Jersey, and across the country have been embracing Choose Kind and its antibullying message.

Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at www.laurenbarack.com.

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Comments

  1. Nancy J Boone says:

    Thank you for sharing this perspective. Representation matters. We need to see more characters with disabilities in books and movies, and actors with disabilities playing them. #nothingaboutuswithoutus

    • Vincent Solfronk says:

      While it would have been great to have an actor with the actual disability, they might not have been available, or have been what the casting director/crew would desire or budgeted.

  2. I thought the same thing about having an actor in makeup play Auggie. Then I started thinking that the book does not name a disability and the casting director might have wanted to keep to that. Many people with craniofacial deformities can identify with the character this way, since it is not someone with TCS or another, specific syndrome.

  3. Kathleen Silhask says:

    I agree with your criticism. They should have hired someone with a disability to represent and portray the part accurately. You wouldn’t see a white actor paint their face black to play a black character or vice versa.

    • I feel like the difference here is that there are a lot of black actors/actresses whereas actors, who are children and have facial deformities are a little bit harder to come by.

    • Cedric Johnsoon says:

      WoW so I guess being black is now considered a disability they are totally different, being black and having a disability that is. I feel that sometimes it may be difficult to cast a person with a disability to play the part accuratly. It is a simple as that.

      • I highly doubt there was NO ONE they could have hired. Studies/surveys have found that there’s significant underemployment of disabled actors in Hollywood.

  4. Russell Crowe is a lot more handsome than John Nash ever was in his life, yet Crowe was cast in A BEAUTIFUL MIND and was spectacular in the role. Are we really saying that an actor’s looks or identifiers should be determinative to their being cast in a part, and an uglier actor should have been cast as Nash? How about, acting talent?

  5. Auggie in the book was “ever gracious and polite in the face of people who ignore, mock, or vilify us.” And I don’t think a “be kind” initiative in any way requires that he or anyone else who’s mistreated should respond in that manner.

    • Typo in my comment. I meant to say he was NOT “ever gracious and polite in the face of people who ignore, mock, or vilify [him].”

  6. Let’s say there are two actors competing for a part in this movie. One of them has a facial deformity and is very good, say 96% of what the director wants. The other is normative looking, and 100% of what the director wants. This is a serious question: should a director diminish the quality of her movie to serve social justice concerns?

    • Consider the context of the book: “When given the choice between being right, or being kind, choose kind.” How can the exclusion of disabled people from a story about a child who is also disabled reflect this message?

      Why do people take the position of assuming that a disabled actor cannot bring the same level of quality and character as a non-disabled actor?

    • …How would you even mentally quantify 4% in acting? How can we be sure the 4% isn’t possibly the result of (unintended but still extant) ableism in casting departments and directors, the overwhelming majority of which both probably aren’t disabled (and so have an outsider view of how disability “should” look onscreen) and regularly pass over disabled actors for usually non-acting-related “reasons” (I put reasons in quotation marks because the things that are usually mentioned in actual words are usually not just ableist reasons but also illegal under US law and can’t be used as reasons not to hire someone).

  7. Erin, we are not talking about the public square of kindness versus rightness. We are talking about a specific work of art where a single director gets to make a specific movie, and has winnowed the pool down to two actor finalists One is giving in an audition 96% of what the director is seeking, and the other is giving 100%. That’s the hypothetical, and it seems like you are arguing that disabled status of the 96% should trump the abled 100% and the director should settle for the 96%, even if she doesn’t get the full performance she is seeking.

    (PS No one assuming that disabled actor cannot ipso facto bring same level of quality as non-disabled, which is a bizarre prejudice, only that in this specific hypothetical, the disabled actor didn’t bring it)

  8. These are excellent questions and insight. My preschool-age daughter is agented by Gail Williamson, head of the “diversity” department of of KMR Talent Associates, a Los Angeles-based talent firm. Gail specializes in representing actors with disabilities. There is no way to know what happened during the auditions for WONDER, or who was more talented than whom. But I can assure you that there are many very talented actors with disabilities working in the industry.

  9. I haven’t seen or read “Wonder” just yet so I can’t give content thoughts but yeah it is a bit disappointing that the actor is not disabled. I have a disability and I hire disabled actors for my films and the disabled actors are extremely talented and deserve more exposure. Link to watch my latest film for free is here http://cripvideoproductions.com/astrokeofendurance.php

  10. Last I checked they have a name for when they cast a real life victim in their real life circumstances. They are called Documentaries if I’m not mistaken.

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