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Society’s ideological constructs and attitudes towards minority groups are created and reinforced through media imagery. Although negative associations that maintain inequities with regard to race, gender and homophobia (Conner & Bejoian, 2006) have been somewhat relieved, disability is still immersed in harmful connotations that restrict and inhibit the life of people with disabilities in our society.
Disability has appeared frequently in recent films (Byrd & Elliot, 1988), a reflection of society’s interest in the subject. These films often misrepresent disability using stereotypes. These stereotypes reinforce negative and incorrect social perceptions of, and attitudes towards, disabled people (Safran, 2000). By studying these films we can begin to reshape the wrong and negative accepted ideas of disability in society. Film analysis can show students how the medium manipulates images which continue stereotypes and cause stigma (Livingstone, 2004). “Film can be used to confront students with their prejudices” (Chellew, 2000, p.26), challenging them to accept new ways of thinking realising that disability is a result of the social attitudes and expectations placed on certain people by society (Ellis, 2003; Meekosha, 2003).
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is a film by director Lasse Hallström about a young man looking after his developmentally disabled brother and his dysfunctional family in a small American town. This paper will critically examine this movie using Richard Dyer’s four senses of representation, as cited in Harnett (2000), as a framework. With a focus on the disabled character Arnie, the analysis will identify and discuss the ways the film reinforces limiting stereotypes about disability. Finally, the implications of the analysis for use in an educational setting to raise awareness of the representations identified will be discussed.
Re-presentation, as the first sense of representation, refers to how television or other visual media re-present our society back to us (Dyer cited in Harnett, 2000). Through the use of artistic expression and technical elements neither true reality nor an entirely false account is portrayed. Dyer states that “reality is always more extensive and complicated than any system of representation can comprehend’ (Titchkosky, 2003, p. 134). In society’s media, the world is generally simplified or typically presented in a way that is most beneficial for the medium.
The presence of disability in a film is often used for storytelling (Raynor and Hayward, 2009). In What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Arnie’s disability is constructed as an emphasis of the film. The film relies greatly on the “dramatic power of the disability alone” (p. 23) to move the narrative forward. The selection and focus of particular aspects of Arnie’s life and his disability are used to explain his actions and evoke reactions from the audience. For example, when his fear of jumping in the water is overcome, it creates a ‘feel-good’ factor. Also, the focus on his inability to cope, generates a sense of pity from the audience such as in one particular scene when Gilbert leaves Arnie to get out of the bath by himself, only to discover him still in the bath, cold and shivering, in the morning.
Dyer’s second sense of representation refers to the application of common stereotypes that have been recognised for characters with disabilities in film. These stereotypes create one dimensional characters with limited emotions, where the disability comes first and the person second, justifying differential treatment and segregation (Black, 2004). Some of the negative representations identified by Safran (2000) as stereotypical for disabled characters will now be applied to the character of Arnie.
As mentioned above, the portrayal of Arnie’s character demands a feeling of pity from the audience. This stereotype communicates “disability as a problem of social, physical and emotional confinement” (Hayes & Black, 2003, p.114). In What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Arnie has no friends and is restricted to the confines of the porch of his family home. Whenever he tries to escape (usually to the water tower), he is ultimately returned back to this position of subordination under the care of others, which is typical of this stereotype (Hayes & Black, 2003).
A most common stereotype depicted of disabled characters is that of a ‘super-man’ (Safran, 2000) or ‘supercrip’ (Harnett, 2000), where a disabled character overcomes massive odds to beat or succeed in defeating their disability to become ‘normal’. The character is often seen as a hero to have made such progress. Although Arnie does not reflect a hero status, his character is beating his disability by the very fact that he is still alive. In the opening scenes of the movie, Gilbert’s narration lets the audience know that “doctors said we’d be lucky if Arnie lived to be ten, well ten came and went” (Matalon, Ohlsson, Teper & Hallström, 1993), implying Arnie’s ‘triumph over tragedy’. He defies death that would be otherwise be brought about by his disability.
Although not a thematic stereotype reinforced throughout this whole film, it is typical of a disabled character to be represented as a victim or object of violence (Safran, 2000). At the climax of the film, Gilbert’s overwhelming frustration and anger of his life situation overflows into a violent episode directed at Arnie. On occasions throughout the film, Arnie is portrayed as an innocent a victim or object of violence from his younger sister and, in this rare case mentioned above, from his brother Gilbert.
Another stereotype of disability presented, albeit only slightly, however still present, is that of being laughable (Safran, 2000) or the disability creating an atmosphere of curiosity that is aroused by “differentness”. This stereotype is usually more prevalent in comics, horror movies or science fiction films and related to physical impairments, which often portray disabled characters as ‘freaks’ and exotic ‘creatures’ (Smith, 1999). However, in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, it’s Arnie’s unusual actions within the community that attracts attention. When he is perched high up on the water tower ladder, it becomes a fascination to many onlookers, who crowd below the tower to observe the spectacle with curiosity, as Smith (1999) puts it, his “abnormal behaviour is exploited as it would a carnival sideshow” (p. 42).
The most prevalent stereotype of a disabled character represented in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is the stereotype of a burden. This representation is the major narrative driving force. In the opening scenes, referring to Arnie, Gilbert quotes “some days you want him live, some days you don’t” (Matalon, Ohlsson, Teper & Hallström, 1993), reflecting the huge burden that is placed on the Grape family, particularly Gilbert, to care for his disabled brother. The burden of Arnie is also extended to the community, where the local police have to continuously retrieve Arnie from the ladder of the town’s water tower.
Dyer’s third sense of representation of refers to the representation of who is speaking for whom (Harnett, 2000). What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is written by an able-bodied writer, directed by an able-bodied director and has a disabled character acted by, Leonardo Di Caprio, an able-bodied actor. On a study into disabled actors, Raynor and Hayward (2007) discuss how disabled actors’ work is restricted to disabled character roles and suggest their struggle to find work is partly due to able-bodies actors being cast in those roles. Marks (1999) suggests the “reason for not employing disabled people is that it is reassuring for the viewer to know that ‘it’s only pretend'” (p. 160). In What’s Eating Gilbert Grape the audience knows Leonardo Di Caprio is not really disabled, he presents as non-threatening and comforting, perhaps allowing the audience to relieve fears or ignore the reality of disability.
Dyer’s fourth sense of representation questions how the represented image is interpreted by the audience (Harnett, 2000). It refers to how the intended meaning by those who produce the film can be lost or skewed when observed from a different point of view. When Peter Hedges, the writer of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape comments on his wishes for the film he states “I would hope that people might view their fellow beings with more empathy, more compassion and a desire to understand” (Malony, 2002, p.10). Although an encouraging and optimistic aspiration, the perspective of the film from people with disabilities would certainly be different. The discussion above demonstrates that the representations of disability in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape generates themes of incapability and total dependence on others to survive- Arnie cannot live without Gilbert, and Gilbert is ‘stuck’ caring for Arnie indefinitely.
By analysing the representations of disability presented in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape we can clearly see the negative associations put forward. Livingstone (2004) suggests that as educators we can use such inaccuracies and stereotypical images as “assets rather than liabilities” (p.119). By studying the ways disabilities are represented in films students can “develop awareness of specific disability imagery” (Safran, 2000, p.46) and learn about what the causes the stigma and lack of inclusion that haunt the disabled community. Safran (2000) insists when using films in education, it must be done with “focused, reflective viewing” (p.46) which promotes critical engagement, helping students question the cultural ideals created by the prevailing constructions offered in film (Arndt, 2010).
An appropriate educational setting for the use of analysing What’s Eating Gilbert Grape would be in high school. Feldman states (cited in Arndt, 2010) that high school students are able to “think beyond the concrete, current situation to what might or could be”. Specifically, an effective starting point of a critical analysis with students would involve the deconstruction (Safran, 1998) of Arnie’s character, identifying the stereotypes portrayed and exploring correct representations of developmental disability. The reaction of the community to Arnie and his disability would also be beneficial to examine. Students would explore how the community views Arnie and what attitudes would be more appropriate to promote acceptance and inclusion.
Using films to teach are effective because they are a highly motivational (Brown, 2005; Chellew, 2000) due to their entertainment factor. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is a popular film with popular actors, and would interest high school aged students. Despite its portrayal of recognised negative stereotypes of disability Safran (1998) admits, it can still be useful in the classroom. The acknowledgment of such stereotypes and prejudices against people with disabilities will help students “unlearn” (Connor & Bejoian, 2006, p. 59) the perceptions and attitudes which justify the differential treatment of a minority group. Through looking at our media, particularly film, it is essential for us to “reshape pre-existing views” (Chellew, 2000, p. 28) by breaking down the robust ideological attitudes of disability that continue to restrict, inhibit and exclude.
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