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  • In Focus:Cripping Cinema and Media Studies: Introduction
  • Robert McRuer (bio)


In 1985, the historian Paul Longmore identified the convergence of disability and media as one long process of "screening stereotypes."1 Attentive to the ways disabled people were consistently represented in film, in particular, as either angry and evil villains or inspirational figures for able-bodied characters and viewers, Longmore initiated what might be understood as a "crip" tradition of critiquing, from within disability culture, the impoverished representations that dominant filmic and media forms have bequeathed us. Disabled villains like Captain Hook or Magneto are generally defeated and eliminated at film's end, whereas inspirational figures tend either to "overcome" their disability or to end up dead after dutifully changing for the better the lives of everyone around them. Neither filmic tendency, of course, could offer more than a two-dimensional engagement with disability, although Longmore did note the promise for a more textured engagement with disability that attended other visual forms, including television and even advertising.

Crip theory has emerged over the past few decades as a critical project, closely allied with queer theory, that centers atypical bodies, minds, and behaviors while interrogating that which can never be contained or described neatly by an entirely historical and limited abled-disabled binary. As a noun or adjective, "crip" is of course a flamboyant reclamation, one that disabled activists, artists, and theorists have long used to signify solidarity and resistance far in excess of the mobility impairment seemingly invoked by stigmatizing and pitying uses of "cripple."2 As a verb, as I have suggested [End Page 134] elsewhere: "'To crip,' like 'to queer,' gets at processes that unsettle, or processes that make strange or twisted. "Gripping' also exposes the ways in which able-bodiedness and able-mindedness get naturalized and the ways that bodies, minds, and impairments that should be at the absolute center of a space or issue or discussion get purged from that space or issue or discussion."3 Dominant forms of cinema and media, as Longmore's analysis showed, have long been tools for the naturalization of able-bodiedness and able-mindedness and have contributed greatly to purging critical reflections on disability from scholarship in cinema and media studies. By "cripping cinema and media studies" in this special edition of In Focus, the scholars gathered here work to counter those tendencies. They do so, additionally, by attending to some of the most exciting, cutting-edge work in disability studies, such as the field's engagement with globalization, ecotheory and animal studies, debility studies, critical race theory, and what might be understood—following the 2010 publication of Margaret Price's Mad at School—as a "mad turn" in disability studies, a turn that is attentive in new ways to disabilities that are not necessarily physical. Price provides an extended consideration of various terms that are in circulation in multivalent ways in disability communities, including "neurodiversity" and "mental illness," and ultimately uses "mental disability" throughout her own study as a term that "can include not only madness, but also cognitive and intellectual disabilities of various kinds." She also makes clear that the term can function for "'physical' illnesses [that are] accompanied by mental effects."4 The work of Price and others, including some of those included in this In Focus, has shifted the field to a point where mental disability is a necessary, central component of our analyses of disability and culture.

In his study The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies, communications scholar Martin F. Norden codified Longmore's approach to cinema and disability by cataloging representations of physical disability in film from the origins of cinema to the late twentieth century.5 Although Norden's broad overview did not allow for an "in focus" approach to the films he surveyed, he did provide the growing interdisciplinary field of disability studies with a central thesis, namely that disability in dominant media forms invariably materializes for viewers an experience of extreme isolation. Like a movie theater that generates "accessible" space by removing one or two seats, thereby materializing literally the idea that perhaps one wheelchair user might show up, what Norden termed a...


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