Tropes have been harming marginalized people since the beginning of storytelling. Dickens did it with Tiny Tim. Charities did it by developing and exploiting the persona of the poster child. Now, Hollywood is doing it through film portrayals that enforce negative perceptions of disability for audiences. The latest in a long line of horror and thriller films, Split, does nothing to alter such perceptions. Horror has long used disability as a tactic of horrifying people, and this film is no different.
In Split, the newest film from M. Night Shyamalan, James McAvoy plays Kevin, a man with 23 distinct personalities as a result of having Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). After a chance encounter following a birthday party, three teenage girls are drugged and kidnapped by Kevin. While he keeps the girls locked up, his personalities make themselves known, and a new, evil, sinister one begins to emerge. “The Beast” is terrifyingly dangerous, and the young women know they need to convince his other personalities to let them go if they wish to survive.
Depictions of mental health in Hollywood, in particular, are excessively harmful. The entire premise for Split is ableist and is blatantly apparent in the trailer. We do not even have to see the film to know it is going to be a problem for the mental health disability community. The trailer is heavily embedded with harmful and inaccurate ideas about Dissociative Identity Disorder. DID is a mental health disability where those who have it are most likely victims of great trauma and horror. This is as opposed to being the perpetrators of such actions, which Split, and other films like it, seem to imply. Split joins a long list of films that demonize people with mental health disabilities. Some of the tropes these films take on include the idea bad behavior/violence is an acceptable “symptom” of disability, the evil cripple trope, and the idea of having subhuman powers such as increased strength, for no other reason than being disabled.
“The Beast” is hyped up as a superhuman, grotesque persona, and all media about the film describes him as having an almost subhuman aura. The evil cripple trope seems par for the course for nearly any horror or thriller film that features a disabled character. In this case, the evil cripple narrative propels the plot. Disability is used as nothing more than a plot device, so even if this turns out to be a dream by Kevin, where the entire story was invented in his head, the seeds of misunderstanding, dislike, untrustworthiness, and hatred for those with mental health disabilities have already been planted. As for Kevin’s bad behavior, all of that seems to be blamed on his disability. He can get away with doing these things in the film with few rumbles from Hollywood about authenticity and harm, simply because the character is disabled.
Kevin is portrayed as being something that is truly horrifying because he is able to become so many different people. His disability is the reason he is seen as horrifying and is scripted to be a mitigating factor in why he is doing these horrible things in the first place. It makes no sense to an actual diagnosis of DID. The dissociation of the identity is usually split to protect the individual from having to handle certain trauma the individual’s brain cannot currently process. These personalities are not created to do harm to others, but rather to protect extremely fragile, deeply harmed individuals. Those with DID need love, understanding, and empathy, but instead they will receive suspicion, fear, and even downright contempt. Films like Split are the reason for this, of that there is little doubt.
When we consume media, we do it to see ourselves. We do it to understand others. We do it to be entertained by both the familiar and the unknown. If we do not know anyone with mental health disabilities such as DID, the only reference we have is in the media. We have looked to films for over a century to explain to us that with which we have no experience ourselves. Even though we know narrative films are fiction, we still have no other frame of reference for context of things like disability, racial identities not our own, sexual orientation not our own, etc.
When we want to understand these concepts, our frame of reference is the media. We have no other experience, so we believe what the media says. We believe how the media portrays these concepts. As such, we begin to form opinions about the concept, in this case, disability. If all films show those of us with mental health disabilities as dangerous psychopaths, what message does that send? It tells people that we are dangerous. It tells them that they should fear us. They are wrong.
This affects how people treat those with mental health disabilities. It affects job prospects. It affects the ability to form relationships. It affects the ability to live in this world free of stigma and the threat of violence. Combine all of these things with race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity, and those with mental health disabilities are facing the threat of being victimized by unprecedented levels of violence at the hands of the police, if not the public. This is the direct result of centuries of stigmatization which has been maintained and remains within the public consciousness due to harmful media representations of disability.
We will not see a change in the way disability is treated in society until we see a shift in the way it is portrayed in the media. Film must pave the way. To do that, Hollywood must welcome disabled creators to share their own stories and quit stigmatizing those with disabilities. Hollywood must allow those with disabilities to portray themselves. Hollywood must stop allowing nondisabled actors to “crip up,” therefore removing the harmful physical stereotypes they do to “show” disability; even for those disabilities that are not necessarily physical.
On January 20, when Split is debuting in theaters across the U.S., and in various other countries around the world, we as a disability community must rise up and say, “No more!” We cannot let these performances continue. We deserve better, because we do.