Rain Man (1988) and Hollywood’s treatment of disability

Posted by – February 5, 2011

Hollywood Images of Disability (CHF EDIT) from salome chasnoff on Vimeo.

Everyone interested in disability rights should watch this 18min short “Hollywood Images of Disability,” about Hollywood’s terrible treatment of disability, which is normally depicted as something so deformed, so unspeakably terrifying that disabled characters have to be cured (Heidi, Monkey Shines, Avatar, and zillions of movies) put away forever (Rain Man) or euthanized (Of Mice and Men, Million Dollar Baby and countless other examples). Note: this short comments on clips from many different movies with R and PG-13 ratings, many of which contain sensationalist depictions of people with disabilities, exaggerated vulnerability of disabled women–Uma Thurmond playing a naked blind woman being vulnerable and threatened, extreme violence and murders of people with disabilities, male and female, and will be disturbing for anyone with a conscience.

I saw Rain Man (1988) on the big screen when it came out (I was 6 years old and I didn’t understand much beyond the beautiful imagery). When I saw it again as a young teenager it impacted me a lot. I really remember it vividly.

Rain Man is the autistic brother that was just discovered by cool dude Charlie (Tom Cruise, who back in the 80s, we all worshiped as the coolest guy ever and wanted to emulate, along with Michael J. Fox & Matthew Broderick–in 1990 I once made mom’s hairdresser make my hair like Michael J. Fox’s). Charlie removes Rain Man/Raymond from the nursing home and they go on an amazing adventure that as a teen I could only dream of. Ray is loosed from his cage! While most men in the audience are undoubtedly identifying with Charlie, the cool as ice, young business shark of the ’80s (see Gordon Gekko) and his struggles and interests, I’m identifying with Ray, and strongly. For the first time, Ray can move around and develop out in the real world: he’s experiencing life with all its thrills, very real dangers, wonderful strangeness, opportunities, fulfillment and sexual excitement. He gets to fail at driving the old Buick convertible, win fat stacks of cash at a beautiful Las Vegas casino. He’s able to really live, warts and all, unlike the nursing home where there is nothing but soulless routine and the dictatorial control of the facility’s staff who don’t really know or care for Ray.

The scene that caught my attention the most was when Ray ends up alone in the casino elevator with a beautiful woman, Charlie’s girlfriend Susanna (Valeria Golino) who brakes the elevator and slow dances with him and kisses him. It is brief but an electrifyingly sexy moment. I’ll go into a great amount of detail so ya’ll can understand how a young disabled man saw these images. They used every camera and make-up trick to make the actress look like the perfect hot date of the 80s style. In this elevator Ray is confronted with a very powerful woman, empowered, living life; she dances with and kisses Ray maybe out of curiosity, maybe because it feels enormously powerful to initiate a man into the world of women. She is open to being inclusive. Possible T-Shirt: NOT A SLUT. INCLUSIVE. When you’re a young disabled man, you see her in the elevator and look at her like a vision of feminine power and inclusivity, a chance at entering the adult world. Not long into the scene, she restarts the elevator, looking a little sad and disappointed that Ray didn’t really kiss her back and touch her, and the moment was over. I was transfixed (nearly every male probably was–it immerses the audience in the ultimate fantasy of a woman actually wanting them).

This was the first time in my life that I had seen a woman interested in giving that kind of attention and affection to a disabled man. It was like a fairy tale come true, Ray doesn’t have to be locked up in the gilded cage at the nursing home, he had a real CHANCE at life, opportunities to see and do amazing things and feel and love. To me, the opportunities to succeed were as important and thrilling, if not moreso, than actually success. At the time, 1994, I was entering puberty and very focused on all these issues, while living in an environment with the myriad barriers so common to the disability experience, plus being guarding by nurses 24/7 had already cut me off from girls, from kids my age entirely in middle school. This movie made me think I could one day escape the cage and talk to women in elevators.

But the movie closed with Tom Cruise putting Ray back in the cage, portrayed as the right thing, the courageous and hard thing to put him back in the nursing home, the more “appropriate” setting. How well Ray did in the real world evidently didn’t matter; he had 1 autistic meltdown (ONE) and accidentally broke the precious coffee maker, and that was the end of that. Charlie is depicted as a hero for doing this and ending Ray’s opportunities for a life, forever. It’s all about Charlie’s journey, the familiar Quest o’ Redemption trope that is as old as literature itself, and in the United States typically involve a journey by car across the American continent. Ultimately, as the short film “Hollywood Images of Disability” illustrates quite well, disabled characters in Rain Man and other Hollywood movies aren’t people as much as Oscar bait for a “difficult” portrayal (for the Raymond role, Dustin Hoffman won the Oscar for Best Actor; “The diseased/addicted/mentally impaired always get the Oscar.” — Hollywood Rule Book, Vanity Fair) and disabled characters are mainly used as plot devices to facilitate the hero’s development. In Rain Man, Ray, his struggles, his interests, aren’t considered at all; the point of the story is that Charlie starts off as a soulless corporate raider, grows to love Raymond, and at the end has evolved into a sensitive, mature adult able to make the “right” “mature” choices in life and love, and, grotesquely, the “mature” choice is to have the lawyer transfer custody of Raymond permanently to the nursing home. I thought it was particularly cruel to show Ray the world only to yank it away. To be expected, in a society where we aren’t wanted and barely accommodated enough to survive, but still a harsh introduction to reality for young teenaged Nick.

Read about the all-too-common “Bury Your Disabled” trope in popular culture, and try to raise awareness that it, along with other disability tropes that are harmful (and/or just ABSURD), are actually really wrong and awful, and should go away….

Nick

  • Ricky Buchanan

    I don’t think I’ve seen Rain Man since fairly close to when it originally came out – when I was also teenaged but was busy being temporarily able-bodied. I didn’t know about storytelling tropes then and pretty much didn’t even have much awareness of “-ism”s beyond the broadest strokes and most obvious areas. I don’t remember being aware of any of the negatives at that point, and I stay away from “disability movies” with a fierce passion now unless friends whose opinions I trust (like you) have seen them and say they aren’t offensive. Unfortunately this gives me very few options!

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