The movie Wonder, based on the beloved bestselling middle-grade children’s novel of the same name, opens November 17. The first trailer was just released and was met with a divided response. Amid breathless gasps of “heart-warming,” “heart-tugging,” and “warms your heart,” there was a strain of fury and sorrow from those who fight for the rights of people with disabilities.
Like the book, the movie is the story of a fifth grader named Auggie Pullman who is attending school for the first time. He’s been home-schooled because he has severe facial deformities (the book doesn’t specify what they are, but the author, R.J. Palacio, has said that one of her inspirations was Treacher-Collins syndrome). The book makes clear that people recoil or stare in shock and horror when they see Auggie. And the narrative, with chapters told from different characters’ perspectives, follows Auggie’s and other kids’ experiences with bullying and acceptance.
My first response to the trailer was wariness. “I haz concerns,” as I said on Facebook. There is swelling music and loving parental glances and people telling Auggie he is noble and beautiful and awesome. It looked terribly sappy and I hated the increased emphasis on the grownups in the story. (Particularly Julia Roberts, who is known primarily for her ability to look luminous.) And I was worried about Auggie, played by the adorable Jacob Tremblay of Room, being excessively adorable. The actor is wearing fairly subtle facial prosthetics—he looks “different” but not, y’know, distressingly so. (Several reviews of the trailer daintily mention the character’s “facial differences.” Um, no, the character should have facial disfigurements.) However, because I didn’t look at my own privilege, I didn’t think about the message to real-life human beings with facial disfigurements conveyed by the casting of a non-disabled kid as this particular character.
Until a friend directed me to the Twitter feed of Mike Moody, a 26-year-old writer and composer in Warwickshire, UK, who tweets under the name @guysmiley22. She has facial disfigurement, and she was utterly infuriated by the trailer. In a series of tweets I’ve condensed (but you should read in full), she wrote: “It really, really, really makes me upset to see Jacob Tremblay in that mask. Like our disfigurements are a costume. This is trauma, when 99 percent of the disfigurements Disfigured people see on screen are makeup.” She also called out The Independent, which praised the movie as “grade-A weepie material.” Moody noted dryly, “Because that’s all we are, really, ‘grade-A weepie material.’”
In short, the movie acts, in her all-caps words, “AS IF DISFIGURED PEOPLE DO NOT EXIST. AS IF WE ARE A COSTUME, A MAKEUP PROJECT.”
It’s an act of erasure. Moody also noted that in the trailer, Auggie calls a kid’s wish “lame,” an ableist slur and an indication that perhaps no one clueful about disability rights consulted on this movie. (Yes, we know actual kids say “lame.” They also say “retarded” and “that’s so gay.” Doesn’t make it OK. There are many other words in the English language that children also say that the screenwriter could have chosen that do not disparage others, which would be especially nifty in a movie purportedly about ending bullying.)
For a specifically Jewish perspective, I reached out to a bunch of folks in the Jewish disability rights community for their take. “Research shows us that it’s critical for all children to be able to recognize themselves in movies, television shows and books,” said Meredith Polsky of Matan, a non-profit that educates the Jewish community about creating learning environments supportive of kids with special needs. “There have been movements to make sure that African-American kids, for example, see African-Americans as characters in the stories they read, or shows that they watch, or that girls are not just cast as someone who is ‘saved’ by a boy. The same certainly holds true for children with disabilities; they too need to be able to see themselves in the characters and actors they love and admire. They need to understand that they are capable of being looked up to, of taking their rightful place in the world, of making a difference and contributing to society. By seeing actors with real disabilities, they see for themselves what is possible. When an actor ‘takes on’ a disability just for a role, there is a feeling that a disabled actor could not have done as well; could not have been admired in the same way.”
Our tradition is pretty explicit on the need for inclusion. Al tifrosh min hatzibur, “do not separate yourself from the community,” is one of our central tenets, from Pirkei Avot. So is “All of the people of Israel are responsible for one another” (Mishnah Sanhedrin), and “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus). We even have a prayer to say when we see someone with a disfigurement: “Blessed are You, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who makes people different.”
Jay Ruderman of the Ruderman Family Foundation, a philanthropic organization that uses Jewish values to advocate for the inclusion of people with disabilities in the U.S. and Israel, pointed me toward the foundation’s recent white paper on casting people with disabilities on TV. The paper notes that “inclusion of people with disabilities is not a matter of charity, but of civil rights.” The foundation noted that people with disabilities make up 20 percent of the U.S. population, but fewer than 1 percent of TV characters. And of that tiny number, only 5 percent are actually played by actors with disabilities. “Imagine if only 5 percent of female characters were played by women,” the paper notes. “It is a matter of social justice to have a large segment of our population authentically represented in the mass entertainment… It is necessary to create an environment where actors with disabilities have access to play characters with disabilities.”
And it seems that representation of disability is lessening when other kinds of representation is growing. GLAAD, which advocates for LGBT rights, also looked at TV in 2015-16. It found that the number of LGBT characters and characters of color has steadily gone up, but the number of characters with disabilities went down for the first time, from the not-impressive 1.4 percent of all characters in 2014-15 to 0.9 percent in 2015-16. “This decrease is significant for two reasons,” GLAAD noted. “It is happening as other minorities are gaining more representation”… and “this is a grossly disproportionate under-representation of the largest minority in the country.” (Emphasis is mine.)
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility, a nonprofit that advances opportunities for people with disabilities (and has a disability herself), isn’t quite so down on Wonder. “The fact that Lionsgate made this movie is very important—they chose A-list actors, and you can expect that a lot of people will see it and learn a lot about respecting people with differences and how bad it is to bully people,” she said in an interview. “I would have preferred for them to cast an actor with disability. But [Auggie has] an unusual disability—there aren’t a lot of people who have it and who are children and who know how to act.” She added, “I’ll be interested to see the whole movie. Are there other people with disabilities in it? If there’s a scene in a mall, in a crowd shot, will we see wheelchair users and people with service animals? There’s no excuse for not showing diversity that way. In that first big dance scene in traffic in La La Land, with all the people getting out of their cars, there were 300 people of all ages and races and not a single one had a visibility disability. Not a single one, when 20 percent of Americans live with a disability? You have to represent the world we live in!”
However, there are reasons for hope. “When it comes to acting programs for kids with disabilities, the best of the best are actually run by the Jewish community,” she told me. The Miracle Project teaches acting to kids on the autism spectrum and with developmental disabilities; Performing Arts Studio West works with people with intellectual disabilities. There are a few casting agents who specialize in people with disabilities. And RespectAbility works with studios to make sure their lexicons are sensitive and welcoming to all people. (Hey, if the Wonder folk had consulted RespectAbility, the word “lame” would not have been in that trailer.)
Maybe the dismay about the trailer from disability advocates will mean a better film later. Maybe Mizrahi is right, and simply getting out the message of non-bullying is enough. I’m no expert. My own concern—as someone who has written a lot about bullying and ineffective good intentions—is that when you make Auggie cute, you demonize the kids who bully him. You make them Other. And we lose the ability to see that we’re all capable of being bullies — that we have to choose, consciously, every day, to be mensches.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.