How progressive was the representation of physical disability within mainstream film in the 1990s, given the increased awareness about disability during the decade?
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This dissertation will explore the representation of physical disability in mainstream films in the 1990s, determining that this onscreen representation was only slightly progressive in nature. It is based on a qualitative analysis of sixteen characters with disabilities in fifteen mainstream films released between 1987 and 1999. The observations from this analysis were compiled into a database examining: the type of impairment a character had, the character’s screen time, the disability terminology used within the film and common tropes used to tell the character’s narrative within the film. Using the database and supportive sources, like interviews with the films’ casts and film reviews, this thesis will address three areas where disability representation saw change, although the new methods proved to be problematic. The first area of study focuses on the disability terminology used to describe characters with disabilities within the film, particularly as the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act highlighted acceptable and inclusive disability terminology that should be used to describe people with disabilities. The second area of study focuses on the popular use of the rehabilitation narrative within film in the 1990s. Whilst rehabilitation narratives positioned people with disabilities in protagonist roles, they ultimately present them as ‘others’ that need to be ‘cured’. Finally, this thesis will discuss the popularity of ‘disability drag’ within the film industry in the 1990s, explaining how able-bodied actors performing ‘disability drag’ were praised for their performances, preventing actors with disabilities from receiving major roles within the mainstream film industry.
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