Inspired by the whole issue surrounding Ramin Setoodeh's controversial article on gay actors playing straight, the numerous rebuttals (both denouncing and denouncing the denouncers for missing the true problem), and a major argument I've been having with a good friend about Artie on Glee, I've been thinking a lot about what we as audience members are willing to accept from actors, and what we absolutely will not accept.
The start of all this was a Facebook post where my friend, a disabled actor herself, was furious that Glee was justifying casting an able-bodied actor as wheelchair-bound Artie by having him dance in a fantasy. The source of her frustration was that by having an able-bodied actor take that role, a wheelchair-bound actor with far fewer opportunities is robbed of a major one. There was some back and forth on this, with me spewing the whole "best actor gets the role" philosophy and line and her telling me that this was akin to casting a white actor in a black role, and the more we argued, the more I wondered: what do and don't we accept from actors?
Nobody bats an eye when an actor plays a cop, a lawyer, a doctor, a scientist, you name it. People generally don't complain when Italians play Jews or when Indian Naveen Andrews plays Iraqi Sayid on Lost (hell, he was fantastic, but dude looks REALLY Indian). Fervant theatregoers, actors and advocates jump to defend the idea that a gay actor can play straight, and vice versa, citing the universality of falling in love, that chemistry is chemistry from actor to actor, and so forth. We all KNOW that white can't play black. So we come to the disability issue.
Now, characters get shot and stabbed on TV all the time, so it's commonly accepted for actors to be believed in selling pain. Women who've never had babies play pregnant on TV. Numerous emotional traumas and issues pervade primetime. Yet, a character suffers a spinal injury and loses the use of their legs and it's a whole new ballgame. My friend says she just does not believe an actor who can use his legs talking about not being able to and actually finds it offensive. Everybody has different beliefs and thresholds, so of course her opinion is highly valid (probably moreso than mine in this particular case), but it makes me wonder, where's the line?
Earlier I mentioned she drew comparison to the white/black casting issue, so if we're regarding the disabled as a race in America, would the situation not be more like the Italian/Jew one, since the visual comparison is closer? Does this also apply to characters with mental disabilities/differences, like characters ranging from Rain Man to Forrest Gump to Abed on Community? Does it make it more/less ok for the character to actually experience the injury in the story, a la Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump or Locke on Lost, and if so/not, does the blame/credit go instead to the writer of that story and THEIR ability to relate to the issue? See how complicated this is?
I would personally have no trouble believing a wheelchair-bound actor playing an able-bodied man who happens to just be sitting, for example (in fact, I have seen this, though I forget where). I've seen a blind actress magnificently play a seeing character. Is this also considered unacceptable by certain standards? These examples may be rendered moot because those folks may have once been able to walk/see. The gay/straight issue is defended as experiential, comparable believable experiences. Then why do we buy acted pregnancy? The isolation, pain, and ultimate self-acceptance of Artie on Glee can be compared to, well, a lot of things in high school (disclosure: Artie is actually the character I relate to most closely on that show), but able-bodied Kevin McHale does not know that specific experience. So is the attempt to understand it or play it pandering in some way? Or do we shift over to the writers, who, even if the character was played by a disabled actor, would be putting insincere words and thoughts in that character's mouth and mind if they too couldn't relate?
Ultimately, there's a racial/experiential divide somewhere in performance, where the relatable segues into the unrelatable, and that line is almost impossible to define and will shift from person-to-person regarding actor-to-actor. In auditions it is largely possible that Kevin McHale tapped into his idea of the character's geekiness, charm, talent, and "fount of pain", whatever it was, more convincingly than the many wheelchair-bound actors that auditioned for the role, but that hard-to-define line will make that remain unacceptable for a community of people of a certain experience. Admittedly, as an able-bodied person, I can't say for certain whether my own experiences with rejection, isolation, strength, non-chalance, etc. translate to something relatable in the eyes of those folks that aren't so lucky.
I don't have anything even close to an answer on this. All I know is that my brain has been spinning the last day or so with thoughts about this, for no reason greater than my own able-bodied male whiteness, preventing me from understanding these points of view and perhaps making me more apt to accept certain things. But I want thoughts on this. Please, leave comments below, chew me out, educate me, simply tell me a story, whatever you want, but I would love to hear any and all other thoughts on this very complicated subject.