Disability & Sexuality: Nothing About Us Without Us

The recent release of a trailer for Richard Wong’s comedy Come As You Are went viral on Twitter after the film’s casting sparked criticism. This comedy-drama tells the tale of three disabled men, two wheelchair users and a visually impaired person, who embark on a road trip towards a brothel in a bid to lose their virginities. The starring characters are all played by non-disabled actors: Grant Rosenmeyer, Hayden Szeto, and Ravi Patel. 

When asked about the decision not to hire disabled actors, actor and producer Rosenmeyer stated during a Forbes interview that “it takes time, it’s a very long casting search. You can absolutely do it; it just takes time and resources, neither of which we had. So it was like, we have six months to either not make the movie or make the movie with the best actors we have some kind of personal connection with, or not at all.”

Come As You Are is a remake of the Belgian film Hasta la Vista, which is based on the stories of Delaney Feener, Jorge Alfaro, and Asta Philpot, who all play small roles in the Come As You Are remake. Many individuals within the disability community have objected to the casting of abled actors in starring roles, quoting the film’s use of ‘cripping up’. This term traditionally refers to when a non-disabled actor takes on the part of a disabled character, mimicking the physical characteristics of a specific disability or health condition. The term has been known to encompass inauthentic portrayals of the lived experiences of disability. This phenomenon stretches from Daniel Day-Lewis’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Christy Brown in My Left Foot (1989), Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar-winning performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (2014), to Bryan Cranston’s characterisation of a quadriplegic billionaire for The Upside (2017). 

These are just a few examples of non-disabled actors playing disabled characters. This pattern within cinema poses the question as to whether filmmakers genuinely want to tell the stories of disabled people, or if they are appropriating these experiences and using disabled people’s stories for their own benefit. This disconnect is often visible to disabled viewers, as most disabled people see themselves differently from the way non-disabled society perceives them. The success of The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019) is partly owed to the presence of Zack Gottsagen, an actor who has Down Syndrome. Gottsagen stars as Zak, a young person with Down Syndrome who escapes from an assisted living centre to follow his dreams of becoming a wrestler. Gottsagen’s performance embodies the lived experiences of a disabled person’s reality, projecting layered authenticity throughout the film’s development.  

This is a still from the film Peanut Butter Falcons. Actor Shia LaBeouf is sitting down on the ground with actor Zack Gottsagen. There is a background of tree.

Image Credit: Armory Films, Lucky Treehouse, Bona Fide Productions, Endeavor Content

On the other side of the scale, Come As You Are is most likely a canvas for able-bodied people to paint their discomforts surrounding disability and sexuality. The film’s use of ‘cripping up’ could be perceived as a way for non-disabled people to address societal fears of disability without considering the perspectives of the disabled characters themselves.

Rosenmeyer’s acknowledgement that it is indeed possible to hire disabled actors, but that the producers of this film didn’t do this themselves, is deeply troubling. This recognition but conscious decision to exclude disabled people from the creative process is an overarching issue within the film industry, one that is rooted within production and casting. While the film industry is widely inaccessible, there are plenty of talented, disabled actors and designated agencies for disabled actors. If filmmakers don’t care enough about disability representation to use these available resources, then they also don’t care enough about disabled people to tell their stories. The presence of ‘cripping up’ isn’t inherently negative, and it doesn’t automatically mean that every movie with a non-disabled actor playing a disabled person is a bad movie that shouldn’t be enjoyed. However, abled actors should not be the only option for filmmakers, and the playing field has to be levelled to afford disabled actors the same opportunities. Most importantly, filmmakers shouldn’t be making films about us without us – that means hiring disabled people in the initial consultancy stages, the writing room, or as part of cast and crew.  

This is a still from the film Come As You Are. A man with a white cane and sunglasses, and two men in wheelchairs are sitting outside a building.
Image Credit: Chicago Media Angels, Florida Hill Entertainment, The Black List

37 Seconds (2019) and Special are distinctly different but equally excellent stories about sexual disabled people. 37 Seconds is a Japanese drama directed by Hikari, about a talent manga artist who explores her sexual freedom and personal liberation. The leading actress is played by Mei Kayama, who has cerebral palsy and uses a powerchair. This delicate film is a gentle but honest examination of society’s desexualisation of disabled people. Special is a comedy show written by and starring Ryan O’Connell, who also has cerebral palsy. He plays a gay man who decides to rewrite his life. The series has been praised for its depiction of sex scenes and its three-dimensional characterisation of the main character. Both are available to watch on Netflix.

A handful of films and television series with good disability representation pale in comparison to the vast timeline of films and filmmakers who have perpetuated sanitised storytelling and the rejection of disabled people from the screen. Despite constant outcry from the disability community, their voices continue to be ignored. Come As You Are has become another link in the chain of the systematic exclusion of disabled talent from the film industry.

Come As You Are – unless you’re disabled.