With everyone discussing Hollywood’s antipathy towards casting people of color or women, it’s easy to forget how rare mainstream films about disability are. Hollywood predominately enjoys trotting out the wheelchairs during Oscar season with their “inspirational” tales of disability or, in the case of next month’s Me Before You, illustrating how disabled people can inspire the able-bodied to live their lives to the fullest (don’t get me started on that movie). But why relegate disability to the dramatic genre?
In 1967 actress Audrey Hepburn portrayed a blind woman terrorized by a menacing Alan Arkin in Wait Until Dark. For its time, and considering Hepburn’s role as America’s sweetheart, Wait Until Dark was a game-changer for portraying a disabled person living their life, going about their business, having a steady boyfriend, and being valiantly able to fight off someone doing them harm. Sure, Hepburn herself wasn’t really blind, but for a major Hollywood production starring the biggest A-list star of the day, it gave audiences something new to see (no pun intended).
As a disabled critic, I’ve become very passionate when disability in cinema is portrayed. There’s been no perfect depiction of the subject in mainstream cinema, yet, but it’s rare for me to watch a film with a disabled storyline and be wowed by it. I was recently left breathless and stunned by Mike Flanagan’s Hush, a story similar to Wait Until Dark in many ways, and that does its damnedest to insert the disabled into the horror vein without pandering to stereotypes.
Hush, in a nutshell, follows Maddie (Kate Siegel), a deaf-mute author living in a remote cabin in the woods. One night a masked madman (John Gallagher, Jr.) arrives at her house intent on killing her. Maddie, already limited due to her deafness, will have to rely on her wits to make it out alive.
Let’s get it out of the way: Hush is far from perfect. As seen in several films portraying disabled people Kate Siegel isn’t actually deaf, and the film follows the trend of deafening her after an illness late in life. This latter part is important as it perpetuates the concept that able-bodied people won’t relate to a disabled person unless the character has experienced being “normal” only to have it taken away from them.
However, Hush creates an aura of normality around Maddie from the very beginning. She may be unable to cook – I know I can’t – but she’s created a life for herself. Her family loves her, she has friends and past relationships and has found success without trading on her disability. (The book jacket of her novel mentions her deafness, but there’s no indication her book is autobiographical or her characters represent her.) Also refreshing is her lack of a “woe is me” attitude. She argues with her sister that “isolation happened to her,” but she doesn’t bemoan the fact in the moments before she’s fighting for her life.
The removal of a key sense anchors an able-bodied audience to her plight – again, it’s why mentioning she was once able to hear is crucially included – but, unlike stereotypical portrayals, there’s nothing superhuman about Maddie’s senses. She isn’t a superhero gifted with supervision. In fact, other than a necessity to see, senses aren’t really played on. The masked man cuts the power, limiting vision for both characters, and they experience pain repeatedly. Outside of the man’s crossbow, the two are, for all intents and purposes, placed on equal footing – then again, Maddie, in a rare fit of divergence from convention Maddie actually utilizes the knives in her house.
Maddie’s disability is a disadvantage, but not one exploited. The Man incorrectly assumes Maddie is weaker or deficient, tapping on the glass and standing behind her as a means of testing her disability. But by the end Maddie’s disability ends up being an advantage, while skirting the “superhuman” element above, she gains the upper hand against her attacker by feeling his breath on her neck. And those who are disability-free – Maddie’s friends Sarah and John (Samantha Sloyan and Michael Trucco) are quickly dispatched, proof positive able-bodiedness doesn’t equal invincibility.
Too often, in the horror genre, being a terrorized woman is a disadvantage in itself. Maddie’s fear and terror is universal, probably the most universal element within Hush. There’s little distinction between Maddie, or Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark, or any other woman within the captive woman genre of horror. Maddie must rely on her intelligence to get out alive and the film gives great moments highlighting Maddie’s intelligence – stopping the narrative to have Maddie work out a series of scenarios for her escape. We’re given an entrance into Maddie’s mind and, despite it requiring speech, it praises active femininity. One could say Maddie’s inability to speak represents the strangled voice of stifled women throughout the world.
As someone who lives life in a wheelchair, Hush gives me hope for more disabled characters in the horror genre. Would I have loved someone truly disabled in the starring role? Of course. But in its place, Hush gives us a heroine capable of taking care of herself; who, in the end, doesn’t have a magical cure or a new-found desire to live her life differently. She’s allowed to be a person and that, in and of itself, is unique.