Disabled Character: Able-Bodied (Emaciated) Actresses Only, Please

Laurie and Debbie say:
Cross Blogged on Body Impolitic

We had our attention brought to this casting call for Stargate: Universe, a Stargate franchise TV show due to debut in October of this year as a movie, and then a regular TV show on the Syfy channel.

[ELEANOR PERRY] (35-40) and quite attractive. A brilliant scientist who happens to be a quadriplegic. Affected since childhood, her disability has rendered her body physically useless. However, after being brought on board the Destiny as the only person who may be able to save the ship and her crew from certain annihilation, she is given temporary powers that enable her to walk again and to finally experience intimacy.sptv050769..Strong guest lead. NAMES PREFERRED. ACTRESS MUST BE PHYSICALLY THIN. (THINK CALISTA FLOCKHART).

How do we hate this? Let us count the ways:

1) Do you have any idea how much most disabled people hate the oh-so-familiar story where a disabled character (always in a wheelchair) gets to *drum roll* WALK AGAIN? To take that one apart a little bit, at least two things are wrong with this story.

It plays into the endlessly repeated cultural conviction that walking and being vertical are somehow essentially more fully human than sitting. This is why disabled children are often kept in painful and awkward braces much longer than they should be, and why it’s been necessary to create wheelchairs that bring people up to “eye level,” (whose eye level was that?). It’s so hard to be taken seriously if you’re not vertical.

It also plays into the able-bodied person’s myth that the only interesting story about disability is the one in which it is cured or magically redeemed in some way. This is a thing of our time and place–150 years ago, the only story about disability was about romantic wasting away. Our culture desperately tries to believe that if you take care of yourself, you will live a really long time and never get sick. Seeing disabled people makes us afraid that we might not live fit and forever. Wheelchairs and the people in them become the bogeyman, the goblin who will be you if you don’t watch your health. To fight the cultural fears, we build myths about people who “walk again.”

The “finally experience intimacy” line from the casting call is the clincher for this myth. Apparently, whoever wrote this believes that disabled people can’t “experience intimacy,” which wouldn’t be true even if the phrase was about love, friendship, deep connection, or true confessions. We all know that those three words aren’t about any of those things: they’re about sex. Of course, disabled people can’t/don’t have sex. Because we’re so afraid of what it’s like to be them, we don’t look at or imagine their bodies. When we have to talk to them, we look relentlessly above the neck, which is one reason we’re more comfortable when they’re at eye level.

News flash! People in wheelchairs have sex. People on respirators have sex. Sometimes they have great sex. And what’s more, they can have sex without being fetishized for their disability.

2) If you’re a disabled actor, the “walk again” story has an even nastier angle. It means that the studios “have to” cast able-bodied actors and actresses to play disabled people. They can’t be expected to cast someone who is quadriplegic, or has spina bifida, if the role requires that the character eventually get up and walk. This saves the director and the actors having to deal with all those scary, messy real disabled people. It saves the writers from having to learn anything about real disability. It is yet another factor in keeping disabled people unemployed. (In the last fifteen years or so, the disability activist community has done a great deal of work to get disabled actors into disabled roles, and we’ve seen somewhat fewer “God saved him! He can walk!” plots as a result. It’s not enough. Google Images has only five images for “disabled actresses.”)

3) Wonder why she has to be so thin? Callista Flockhart thin? We can tell you. It’s because if she has any weight on her at all, viewers can say her disability is her fault. People believe that unhealthy behavior, weight, and disability are inextricably linked. People look at a fat person in a wheelchair and think, “That person must not have taken care of herself.” But a thin person in a wheelchair is exempt from blame. She’s a victim, not a bum.

Here’s the casting call we’d like to see:

[ELEANOR PERRY] (35-40) and quite sexy. A brilliant quadriplegic scientist, who has used a wheelchair since childhood. She needs help with basic cleanliness and dressing tasks. Her scientific ability makes her the only person who may be able to save the ship and her crew from certain annihilation. She’s an excellent flirt, and will have an affair with at least one crew member during her tenure on the show. sptv050769..Strong guest lead. NAMES PREFERRED. ACTRESS MUST BE A WHEELCHAIR USER.

Thanks to Lynn Kendall for the pointer.

Similar Posts (automatically generated):

42 comments for “Disabled Character: Able-Bodied (Emaciated) Actresses Only, Please

  1. Nicole
    August 15, 2009 at 12:27 am

    I believe the walking again is being done by her and Ming-Na’s lesbian character switching bodies. This leads to the lesbian character on the show making out and having sex with men. Though Ming-Na’s character gets to see her wife or something. Still made of fail but might not really need the actress to walk.

  2. August 15, 2009 at 2:03 am

    I also love the characterization of a disabled body as “useless”– ’cause if it doesn’t work like yours, what’s the fucking point?

  3. nuri
    August 15, 2009 at 6:04 am

    Yeah, the whole deal with the walking is because she’s on Earth and body switching with Ming-Na’s character, who is a lesbian apparently in a relationship.

    Consent issues AHOY! Eleanor’s character has sex with a male crew member. In a body belonging to a lesbian. And this is not a franchise that is well-known for exploring ethical issues.

  4. August 15, 2009 at 6:43 am

    As Nicole mentioned, there’s another exceptionally disgusting part to this scenario – the “walking again” occurs because she bodyswitches with another character, who is a lesbian, and uses her body to have sex with men. The writers apparently did not realise how this could be a) incredibly offensive regarding GLBT issues (we have a lesbian character! what’s the first thing we’ll do with her? Obviously, we need to have her seen having sex with men!) and b) oh, right, RAPE.

    This is utter fail on so many levels I can’t even begin to describe it.

    Also, so much bloody agreement to what you’ve said about how offensive the part about her walking is. The Magically Vanishing Disability!! trope is actually common across the board and can have some seriously negative consequences. I’m pretty sure a large part of the shit I get as a stutterer comes from the fact that I have not seen a single portrayal of a stuttering character which I did not find offensive in some way, very often because he somehow lost the stutter. (Developmental stuttering is incurable after the age of, oh, *ten*. And possibly even before that.) Very often, the people watching these things know next to nothing about the disability in question and form their opinions about it based on what they see – which means that they think the Magically Vanishing Disability is actually how it works in real life, and that if you disabled person haven’t got around to having it cured yet you must be too lazy/stupid/bizarrely uninterested in fixing your terrible, broken self and being *normal*/etc. Which puts the disabled person back into the position of being at fault for their own disability again!

  5. Cactus Wren
    August 15, 2009 at 7:56 am

    I saw a documentary some years ago, about people who’d been affected by thalidomide (at that time, although they were in their twenties, the media were just beginning to move past calling them “thalidomide babies”). Uniformly, in childhood they’d been forced to use prosthetic limbs which were always uncomfortable, sometimes painful, and never as useful as the legs or hands they had. The only “advantage” the prostheses presented was that they were nominally more “normal”-looking than their own limbs. A pair of prosthetic legs that enabled the user to move, laboriously, fifteen feet in a minute were — for no other reason than that they made him of “normal” height — “better” than a wheelchair, or his own short legs. Artificial arms (early-1970s technology) that barely grasped, sometimes stopped working altogether, and didn’t even look real were “better” than the person’s perfectly functional hands — for no other reason than that they were as long as “normal” people’s arms.

  6. August 15, 2009 at 8:19 am

    Every time I see this casting call discussed, I get some lines from the musical Wicked in my head:

    See that tragically beautiful girl / the one in the chair

    I’m so tired of the tragically beautiful girl. Any bets on her bitterness? Cuz she’ll be bitter, and need an able-bodied person to tell her to not be so bitter. There just seem to be no other stories.

  7. Wednesday
    August 15, 2009 at 9:15 am


    There’s a children’s book where a character had been a wheelchair user since childhood, but the fantasy medieval-technology-level doctors couldn’t see any physical reason why she couldn’t walk – which I took to mean there was a neurological problem. Then during Dramatic Stuff Happening she had to do something that would require walking so she just got up and did it. Apparently it was All In Her Head, and she Needed To Get Over It.

    This was part of a fairly popular series of children’s books (the Redwall books by Brian Jacques), so I can only imagine how hurt some wheelchair-user kids might be, finally getting a character who’s also a wheelchair user, only for it to be presented as a friggin personality flaw.

  8. raija
    August 15, 2009 at 9:29 am

    another constellation, I agree — that “physically useless” body is fucking keeping her ALIVE and able to be a “brilliant scientist”. but, i mean, useless, right? argh.

  9. Roxie
    August 15, 2009 at 9:53 am

    Wow. Just woooooooow. Did no one think that this a tired & offensive “story line”? That’d there would be so much richness in making her a “real” character and not a trope?

    John Scazli, a author & writer on the show made a post about this. Understandably, however, he can’t say much

  10. Kate
    August 15, 2009 at 10:42 am

    Right on.

    Would just make one clarification. Kids with disabilities wear braces, and sometimes times loves their braces (which are now made of very light weight plastic not the metal some people envision) to prevent contractures (permanently bent joints which are painful). Yes, sometimes parents and therapists put too much of a focus on walking, but not like they used to 20-30 years ago. These days you are much more likely to see a three or four year old fitted for a power wheelchair and a gait trainer (fancy walker with all sorts of supports) with the idea being to keep options open and allow the child self-determination as he or she grows.

  11. valkyrie
    August 15, 2009 at 10:46 am

    I think the thinness requirement also adds to the sense of female weakness in this character. You put a teeny tiny Calista Flockhart in a wheel chair, hunch her over a little bit, she looks small and fragile. She’s smart and pretty, but not in any way (supposed to appear) physically powerful or commanding.

  12. August 15, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    YES! Beautiful, thank you thank you.

  13. Karalora
    August 15, 2009 at 12:38 pm

    How sad is it that children’s entertainment frequently does a better job of portraying disabled characters as full people than entertainment for adults? I’m suddenly thinking of the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender (not that this is all that unusual–it’s a fantastic show and I think about it a lot), which had two characters with disabilities over the course of its run: a boy whose legs were badly injured when he was a baby and so he was never able to walk and used a wheelchair, and a blind girl who joined the main cast in the second season. The writers did an excellent job of making each disability a definite factor in the character’s lifestyle without being their sole defining trait. And the other characters didn’t treat the disabled characters like they were in any way lesser or incomplete. And it was seamless–instead of throwing it in the audience’s collective face that The Disabled Are People Too, the writers just let the characters teach by example. Why can’t the writers for Stargate : Universe be that minimally competent?

  14. Andrea
    August 15, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    Re: Nicole’s point

    Unfortunately, Stargate frequently films bodyswap stories (yes, they’ve already done a number) by using the actress/actor who plays the “inner” character rather than the one who plays the body that character is inhabiting. I believe it’s supposed to represent an internal point of view, although I have to say it’s never really worked for me.

    So I would be surprised if they’ve set it up so that they could hire an actress who uses a wheelchair. More likely the actress playing Perry will also be playing Perry-in-Wray’s body.

    The Stargate producers are claiming that what was leaked is based on a preliminary draft, and does not represent the final script. All I can say is I have a very hard time thinking of ANY way this story could be told without massive fail.

  15. August 15, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    PSA: Explaining how/why it’s being done in this particular case, be very very careful not to use this as a way to dismiss the pervasiveness of this trope. Yeah, ok, you know the mechanism they’re using in this show, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a case of the Magically Walking Crip. Because it still is.

    I mean, ok, knowing “how” it’s done doesn’t change that it’s being done, and it’s still a confined and inaccurate and harmful view of life with a disability.

  16. Bitter Scribe
    August 15, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    That body-switching stuff seems like a frosting of foolishness on top of a big hunk of stupid cake. If you have to “revive” a paralyzed character (a predictable and vaguely insulting premise as explained upthread), why not just make her able-bodied via some sort of new technology? It’s at least as plausible, and could pose some interesting questions about what it means to be disabled and how disabled people cope with a sudden return to able-bodied status (something we’ve seen in less sweeping and isolated cases, such as blind people gaining sight for the first time as adults).

  17. JessSnark
    August 15, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    In general I think you have a great point here, but I didn’t like how you used the word “emaciated” in the post heading. To me, that seems to be body-shaming women who are naturally thin, accusing us all of being anorexics and unhealthy (similar to the line “Real women have curves” which makes it sound like flat-chested, skinny-hipped women aren’t “real” women). I agree that it’s problematic that casting calls specifically exclude heavier women, but I don’t think that the answer is to say derogatory things about thin women. Maybe I’m misinterpreting your meaning and you had some other reason for using the word “emaciated” – if so, I’m sorry I didn’t understand.

  18. Bitter Scribe
    August 15, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    I once saw someone on a talk show who claimed to have worked on “The Men,” a 1950 movie starring Marlon Brando as a paraplegic military veteran. In his scenes in a group home, most of the extras were actual paralyzed vets, and Brando would stay in his wheelchair the whole time he was on the set, to stay in character and build a rapport with them.

    Well, one day, this religious nut lady somehow got onto the set and proceeded to harangue the guys in wheelchairs about how nothing was impossible with faith in Jesus, and if they believed in Him, they should pray right now to be allowed to walk. Brando, of course, couldn’t resist. He gripped the sides of the chair, gritted his teeth, strained, and rose. The lady fell backwards in a dead faint, and the extras laughed their asses off.

    Sorry for the OT. Just felt like sharing.

  19. Fuchsia
    August 15, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    What Jess Snark said.

    I have great sympathy for women that are made to feel that their bodies are inadequate because of their size – mainly because I know how bad it makes me feel when I am told (quite often by these same women) how unhealthy, depressed, weak and unfeminine my body is. The automatic assumption that my natural thinness must be the result of an eating disorder doesn’t help either.

    I agree that there are many things wrong with the casting call under discussion. But there is nothing wrong with the way Calista Flockhart looks. And she is certainly not emaciated.

  20. Sake
    August 15, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    As someone who spent their childhood in a wheelchair, I got to say nothing pissed me off more than the token wheelchair kid in a action or adventure show/comic/book.

    Even as ten year old, I was more than aware of what a damn liability such a person would be in harsh physical situations. They didn’t cause me to feel empowered, they just reminded me how much of a burden I’d actually be in those situations and broke me out of the immersion even more.

  21. justinl
    August 15, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    @Bitter Scribe

    I don’t think you understand the context of this story. As far as the plausibility of this body swapping, the technology first appeared in the Stargate franchise over five years ago and has been used three times in the previous two series. It’s just becoming a major part of this new series because within this fictional universe, it is the only technology humans understand how to operate that can communicate in real-time across billions of light years.

    In terms of the context of this series and this episode, a group of people end up getting stranded on a spaceship billions of light years from Earth and have no hope of ever returning home. All this advanced technology was built by an alien race we call the Ancients who aren’t around anymore. The ship’s hyperdrive is damaged which is a problem since the ship has limited resources so if they can’t get the ship flying again they’ll eventually run out of air, water, food etc. This scientist, is presumably an expert on Ancient hyperdrive technology, so she gets called in to investigate and fix the problem and since the only communications Earth has with the ship is through the body swapping technology, she has to use it to get on the ship.

    As Andrea said, in previous episodes using this technology, the actor/actress whose consciousness is in control of the body is the one who is actually filmed for the most part. So while Eleanor, is in control of Camile’s body onboard the ship, you’re actually going to be seeing the actress portraying Eleanor rather than the actress portraying Camile except in scenes where you’re specifically seeing another person’s view of the character (or a reflection or digitial image, etc.) in which case you’ll see the actress who portray’s the original body. So in the opposite case, you will actually end up seeing the actress who normally plays Camile, portraying a quadriplegic when she is in Eleanor’s body on Earth.

  22. weem
    August 15, 2009 at 8:18 pm

    3) Wonder why she has to be so thin?

    Muscle atrophy?

  23. August 15, 2009 at 10:25 pm

    Yes, weem, every single person who uses a wheelchair experiences muscle atrophy to the point of emaciation. No one ever builds muscle pushing themselves around or exercises in any other way, and no one CERTAINLY ever has a different body type.

  24. August 15, 2009 at 10:26 pm

    FWIW, I thought the word “emaciated” was used to emphasize that they wanted the disabled character to look as though she is wasting away. Which is common in disability tropes.

  25. Laurie Toby Edison
    August 16, 2009 at 1:32 am


    Thanks for the informationon present day light braces. We should have said “This is why disabled children were often kept in painful and awkward braces.” We were actually thinking of experiences a friend had before the newer light weight braces. We do know about them. It was a “tense” failure so to speak. I do think the societal privileging of verticality is still very strong.

    JessSnark and Fuchsia

    We did _not_ intend to body shame thin women. Beauty at any size means exactly that. And we discussed thinness as a trope for health.

    We used emaciated in the title for a particular emphasis about perceptions of disability but I can see how you could be read it as criticism.


    There are so many good comments and stories here. I’m sure I’ll have more to say. But I just got in late from a lovely day off, so that will be tomorrow.

  26. weem
    August 16, 2009 at 7:45 am

    amandaw @ 22

    Yes, I was saying that all disabled people suffer muscle atrophy, that’s what I was doing. Not just suggesting it as a possibility for this individual character.

    Look, this character’s been described as “physically useless”. While this might be a cold description (written by the casting people, btw, not the producers), if this character is completely disabled below the neck, it would be accurate. If this is the case, muscle atrophy would be completely possible.

  27. Bagelsan
    August 16, 2009 at 11:46 am

    weem: I do see some confusion about whether these descriptors apply just to the character or if they’re supposed to represent “disabled people” in general. While it would be fine by me to have a character who really is so physically helpless (like, *no* sensation or voluntary movement from the neck down) I’m not sure it’s currently possible for a show or movie to say something about a specific disabled character without people taking it as true for everyone with a disability, just because there are so few counterexamples presented.

    Similar to the size discussion: can this particular person be “emaciated” and “wasting away” yadda yadda without saying all skinny women are unhealthy? Dunno.

  28. August 16, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    Look, this character’s been described as “physically useless”. While this might be a cold description (written by the casting people, btw, not the producers), if this character is completely disabled below the neck, it would be accurate.

    O…K? Written by casting people, not producers — and this makes a difference, how?

    Yes, it is a cold description. Yes, it is problematic. And yes, it is a problem when someone says “This representation of PWD is a problem” and someone steps in to explain why they’re doing it that way, as though that means there shouldn’t be a problem anymore.

    This is all we ever see of disabled people. The tragic and the inspirational. Those are the only two things you can be as a PWD in this society because that’s all people understand because THAT’S ALL THEY’RE SHOWN. So when YET ANOTHER show decides to do the same old shit on a different day, yeah, we’re going to say “No, that isn’t acceptable.” No matter which faceless person involved in the show is responsible for it (seriously? how the fuck does “but it’s casting, not production!!!” make a damn difference?) no matter how it fits in the theme of the show or whatever.

  29. weem
    August 16, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    Casting calls aren’t necessarily a proper representation of how someone will be portrayed in the final show. These things always sound simplistic and cliched.
    When the casting calls for the regular cast members of the show were leaked (this franchise seems to have some major security issues) there were lots of complaints within the fan community that the characters were shallow/cliche/inferior versions of characters from the previous two shows. But as more details about them have come out, they’ve sounded more like well-rounded, fully developed characters, and I expect the same to be the case here.

  30. August 16, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    Whew! Good thing to know it’s not a problem anymore! I’m sure with this kind of start it’s going to turn out just great!

  31. August 16, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    I know I sound really harsh here. But seriously — there is ALWAYS some way to explain away each individual incident. Somehow, each of the thousand little cuts is supposed to be just fine, for each of the thousand different respective reasons.

    But you’re still dying.

    This is why I am harsh. Because even if people think it’s not a big deal because it’s only one little thing, they are the very foundation of the oppression that kills us. That oppression depends on the people who jump to defend each individual little incident. Those people are the ones making the oppression work.

    If you don’t like the implication? Stop doing it.

  32. Tori
    August 16, 2009 at 5:24 pm

    Look, this character’s been described as “physically useless”. While this might be a cold description (written by the casting people, btw, not the producers), if this character is completely disabled below the neck, it would be accurate.


    The body that keeps someone (who wants to be) *alive* can be, for that person, very much not physically useless. I find it more than a little troubling that you’ve decided “physically useless” is an accurate descriptor for any body that is not your own.

  33. Laurie Toby Edison
    August 16, 2009 at 10:46 pm


    I’m really appreciating the quality of this conversation.

    Thanks for all the Stargate information. The body and sex identity switch certainly add unpleasant levels to the conversation.

    Good to know about “Avatar:The Last Air Bender”. There’s so little out there for kids.

    I had heard the Brando wheelchair story a long time ago but had forgotten it. It’s great!

    I had obviously thought about how offensive the phrase “physically useless” is, but this conversation got me thinking about it in even stronger and more complex ways.

  34. Nathan
    August 17, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    I had a friend in high school who had stubs for arms and feet but no legs (he’d been born with shrivelled, non-functional arms that were removed when he was little.) Let me tell you, there was nothing physically useless about his body. He was on the wrestling team and the swim team, and several times beat me at pool. He could type faster with his chin than I could with my hands. He could eat just about anything without getting anything on his face. And he dated several very attractive women.
    I want to see a character like that on TV.

  35. weem
    August 18, 2009 at 6:43 am

    Tori: Sorry, I just meant in terms of movement and stuff.

    amandaw: Yes, whoever wrote the casting call screwed up, which the producers have apologised for. I’m just saying, maybe people could wait until the final episode airs (which won’t be for at least five or six months) before judging it, rather than basing their views on this. It’s like saying Michelangelo didn’t know jack about sculpture when the statue of David was still just a slab of marble.

  36. August 18, 2009 at 9:09 am

    But this description is *still problematic.*


  37. Keldrena
    August 18, 2009 at 9:15 am

    weem, you are missing the point so completely. Do you know how hurtful the language you’re using is? If this was an isolated indent in SciFi I might give it the benefit of the doubt, but this isn’t even isolated in media. It’s a dehumanizing trope.

  38. Aque
    August 18, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    Can I please clarify something that seems to be causing confusion – this info was not leaked from the show. The information (the description & script pages) came from a service called Showfax that handles casting calls for shows such as SGU – this info was the publicly SGA authorized major casting call that any actor (or anyone actually) can pay the fees (iirc its $8) to obtain. A TV show tracking site paid for the info (they do so for a lot of shows) which they then published.

    What has happened is that they are being called on their BS – these show runners have a habit of treatng rape as a joke. They previously wrote a character named Lucius who used a “magic elixir” in order have women marry & have sex with him. These were women who had previously refused to have any thing to do with Lucius. To this day the show runners refuse to acknowledge that this was rape.

  39. weem
    August 19, 2009 at 11:43 am

    amandaw: I assume that’s why the producers apologised for it…

  40. Miriam
    August 19, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    … wow, epic fail. Not that I expected much better from them, given the show’s history of Not Dealing With Issues, but still.

    …And all of this is part of why the one of the novels I’m in the middle of writing has a female protagonist in a wheelchair who is useful and intelligent and perfectly competent and does NOT get magically cured despite the existence of alien tech, and the other is a YA one with a disabled (mainly crutches, wheelchair on bad days) female protagonist who is crucial to solving the main storyline problem. And does not get magically cured, etc. In both cases the disability is more or less incidental to their ability to help, rather than some Special Disabled Magic that we all know every disabled person has (yes, that was sarcasm)

Comments are closed.