Films about disability have historically foregrounded characters’ impairments as the sum of their identity. From Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932) to The Theory of Everything (James Marsh, 2015), Hollywood continues to create films where the defining trait of a character is their disability.
It is therefore reassuring to see demonstrable progress in the representation of disabled people by an independent film produced by Netflix. The Peanut Butter Falcon (Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, 2019) is a coming-of-age story that is notable for starring Zack Gottsagen, an actor with Down Syndrome, as its protagonist (also named Zak). The film demonstrates a move towards a positive representation of disabled people through a promotion of the “social model of disability”. The social model explores societal attitudes towards disability and suggests that "it is society which disables people […] and therefore any meaningful solution must be directed at societal change rather than individual adjustment and rehabilitation" (Barnes, Mercer, and Shakespeare, 1999, p.27). By contrast, the “medical model” positions a person’s impairment as the cause of their marginalisation.
One of the film’s most significant scenes directly condemns the medical model. Tyler’s (Shia LaBouef) criticism of Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) offers an allegorical assault on the way that society has positioned disabled people as less capable than those without impairments. He says “you may not be calling him a retard, but you’re damn sure making him feel retarded, and that ain’t gonna help his life”.
Tyler’s assertion that Eleanor unintentionally infantilises Zak directly correlates to the way in which films have marginalised disabled people and defined them as objects of pity and belittlement. That the film is predicated on Tyler, an uneducated vagrant, teaching Eleanor, an educated social worker, is no accident. The implementation of a character who represents an everyman to inform someone who has developed problematic tendencies due to the mass misinformation surrounding disability demonstrates a direct challenge to the widespread acceptance of the medical model. Indeed, it is clear that Eleanor is intended to be an audience surrogate, as her character arc revolves around accepting Zak as a human being rather than an object to institutionalise. The film’s use of this device suggests a subtext that urges the audience to consider its approach to disabled people and question the ways in which it may contribute to their day to day marginalisation.
Under the guidance of Tyler, Zak is given the agency to swear, drink alcohol, and fire guns. The widespread acceptance of the medical model initially instils a natural sense of apprehension in the audience, as films have conditioned viewers to respond to a disabled person taking part in such activities with trepidation. Decades of reliance on the medical model has seen people with disabilities presented as being in constant need of protection. However, The Peanut Butter Falcon makes no attempt to position these scenes as cause for concern, either through its script or its mise-en-scène. Zak is instead allowed to indulge in the same vices as any non-disabled adult, reinforcing the film’s underlying message that the social model is the most sensible and compassionate way to understand disability.
Barnes, C, Mercer, G, and Shakespeare, T. Exploring Disability: A Sociological Introduction. (1999) Malden: Blackwell Publishers
Freaks (1932) [film] Directed by Tod Browning. USA: MGM Studios
The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019) [film] Directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. USA: Roadside Attractions
The Theory of Everything (2015) Directed by James Marsh. UK, Japan, and USA: Universal Pictures