Sound of Metal is shining a light on deafness – but Hollywood is still failing disabled women like me

Myra Ali
·4-min read
<p>‘“It’s only a film”, many will say; but these images are etched into our minds’</p> (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

‘“It’s only a film”, many will say; but these images are etched into our minds’

(Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Riz Ahmed received a Gotham award for best actor in his role in the Sound of Metal, alongside a plethora of glowing reviews from critics and the disabled community.

Ahmed plays Ruben, a heavy metal drummer who gradually becomes deaf. Disability is handled in a sensitive but empowering light, where viewers never pity Ruben – but admire his stoicism and connect with his journey.

It is great to shine a much-needed light on deafness – but as a celebrity journalist with a disability (a rare, burns-like skin condition called Epidermolysis Bullosa) in my opinion Hollywood is still clearly failing disabled women – because disabled women are not being shown in the same way as men on the big screen.

I can’t even name a single Hollywood film where a woman with a disability was shown positively. Is it right that a Turkish film like Sadece Sen (Only You in English), which is currently on Netflix, does a superior job of representing disability, compared to film giants in Hollywood? In Sadece Sen, a boxer falls in love with a beautiful blind woman – who is shown as being talented and desired by the male actor. Her disability is secondary.

I want more female disabled characters to be shown as the love interest, rather than some supporting or forgettable role – this would be refreshing and empowering.

I don’t want disabled women to be objectified, but I’m sick of disabled women being portrayed as sexless beings – as if we were ethereal creatures, or nuns.

In Hollywood, these kinds of romantic stories involving female disabled actors are pretty much unheard of – whereas Hollywood does love films which show villains with disabilities and disfigurements. As a result, this makes the disabled female character something a viewer should be scared of, rather than someone to admire or learn from.

The best example of this is The Witches film directed by Robert Zemeckis. This sparked a global controversy, which led to actress Anne Hathaway apologising for the distress the film caused to the disabled community. The film gave a damaging message to the world, because there are hardly any female characters with disabilities – so to make the lead female characters evil, with disfigured hands, reinforced the notion that women with disabilities can’t ever be desirable or beautiful.

“It’s only a film”, many will say; but these images are etched into our minds. People are conditioned into thinking a person with burns or scars is someone they should fear. Even in the next Bond film, No Time to Die, Rami Malek plays the pock-marked villain Safin – but a man with a scar is still seen as powerful. A woman is only ever seen as disfigured.

The lack of visibility of disabled women in positive roles in Hollywood also affects people who work in the media industry – like me.

I was recently trolled on my interview video with the actor Michele Morrone of the Netflix film, 365 Days. Despite my interview being at the number one spot – and one of my most popular interviews on YouTube – a troll said “what’s happened to her hands, her eyes?” I replied saying I have some eyelid scarring and due to the pandemic, my operations have been delayed. He then added: “Why is she even allowed to interview him?” It made me think that no matter what I achieve, at 33 people can still insult me over a skin condition I never asked to have.

In this instance I was supported – I messaged the owner of the YouTube channel and she blocked the troll, but not everyone gets that support. If you are young and new to the media industry, insults to your appearance can affect your mental health – and even lead to losing confidence in your ability to work.

Hollywood must be more responsible for the imagery they show regarding disabled women. I want an equivalent of a disabled actress to be a lead alongside a mainstream actor like Leonardo DiCaprio – but change the narrative, so that his character thinks he’s the lucky one to have her. This is what we need to see in 2021: real diversity – not lip service.

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