|Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2004, Volume 24, No. 4
Copyright 2004 by the Society
for Disability Studies
There's Something About Disabled People:
The Contradictions of Freakery in the Films of the Farrelly Brothers
Kathleen LeBesco, Ph.D.
Leslie Fiedler has noted that, in the electronic age, movies have assumed the role of carnival sideshows. According to Fiedler, "human curiosities [have], for most Americans, passed inevitably from the platform and the pit to the screen, flesh becoming shadow" (quoted in Norden 1994: 6). Indeed, for decades, Hollywood film has incorporated disabled characters alongside its most shining and glamorous stars, though the semiotics of celluloid disability have left much to be desired. Martin Norden suggests that people with physical disabilities are positioned as Others through the exploitation of their physical appearances (1994: 5), echoing Fiedler's contention that people with genetic disorders fascinate mainstream society inasmuch as they both Other and mirror the self, and serve as "mythic icons that reflect the [mainstream's] dreams and fears" (Norden 1994: 5).
As much as all seven of the Farrelly brothers' films rack up laughs at the expense of people with disabilities, many of them contrarily function to normalize disability. Most of their main characters have some form of disability or another; in addition, another subset of disabled characters whose portrayals are more complicated and nuanced exists within the filmic universe of the Farrelly brothers. Peripheral characters with disabilities—from spina bifida to stuttering, among others—are typically not subjected to the same problematic framing as many of the lead characters, and in fact often reflect a view of disability itself as normal. This commentary proposes, through close textual analysis of their films, to explore the contradictions of Otherness inherent in the way disabled folks, both as leads and minor characters, function in the films of the Farrelly brothers. In addition, it charts the discrepancies in political motive between their early films, in which disability functioned as little more than a punch line, and their most recent, in which disabled people are the heroic embodiment of all things good.
Peter and Bobby Farrelly are men obsessed with the body and its attendant leaks, noises, odors, and malfunctions. Each of their seven films is short on plot and long on attentiveness to bodies at war with themselves. Their first, Dumb and Dumber, featured a pair of dim-witted friends whose lack of intelligence often compromised the existence of their bodies. Dumb and Dumber is also notable in that its treatment of minor disabled characters demonstrates none of the humanity that infuses their characterizations in later films. Instead of laughing with a disabled character, for instance, we are encouraged to laugh at them, as in this scene. Bad guys have broken into Harry's (Jeff Daniels) apartment and beheaded his pet bird, Petey. Soon, Harry and Lloyd (Jim Carrey) decide to head cross-country. In one scene, as we learn that Lloyd has sold the dead bird to his former neighbor, "Billy the blind kid." The Farrellys quickly cut to a shot of Billy gently stroking the bird, cooing "pretty birdy, pretty birdy," apparently oblivious to the duct tape used to reattach Petey's head. The joke compels big laughs in the theater audience, but the audience laughs at the expense of Billy.
Fiona Whittington-Walsh applauds films "that do not blame the individual's disability for the cause of their disempowerment" and that "use actors with physical and mental disabilities, and allow the characters with disabilities emancipation" (2002: 706). The Farrelly brothers do some of these things in some of their films, but surely not all. In Dumb and Dumber, Harry and Lloyd are in many ways undone by their own dopiness. At the movie's end, they are too dumb to realize that a busload of swimsuit models has invited them to serve as lotion boys, and they go about their hapless way. Though self-sufficient, they have missed a great opportunity because of their own incomprehension. Furthermore, the Farrellys did not employ actually disabled actors in their first film, a move that garnered much criticism from disability activists.
A most striking contrast is noted when one compares Dumb and Dumber, the first film directed by the Farrellys, to Stuck on You, their most recent theatrical release. Walt and Bob, the main characters of the latter, are conjoined twins played by Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear. It is made clear to viewers that the cause of most problems for the brothers is social stigma and discrimination, rather than an impairment of their bodies. In fact, a montage demonstrates that conjoined, the brothers are able to function more effectively in a number of arenas (sports, food preparation, trick or treating) than any of us singletons do, and that their main difficulty comes in encountering cruel and close-minded people. Whittington-Walsh claims that a politically useful film about disability should "manage to display the 'normalcy' of the characters, while attempting to project the real oppression they experience—socially created attitudes and stigmas" (2002: 696). Against this standard, Stuck on You succeeds. One telling clip from the film showcases the social stigma imposed on disabled people by their detractors, at the same time that it stands on its head our notions of "freak" and "normal." Here, developmentally disabled actor Ray "Rocket" Valliere plays a waiter in the restaurant owned by Walt and Bob, and when a rude customer admonishes Rocket for spilling a soda and complains to Walt and Bob about hiring "Jerry's Kids," Walt and Bob display their own freak status and kick out the rude, normate customer.
Using Whittington-Walsh's criteria for a disability-themed film, Stuck on You contains other successes, as well, notably in the casting of a relatively large number of disabled people. Actors using wheelchairs, actors with intellectual or developmental disabilities, actors with congenital variations—all seem to find a place here, whether as extras in a crowd scene, as featured extras, or as important minor characters. Norden contends that actors with disabilities are rarely considered for roles that don't specify disabilities, and are often overlooked for roles that do (1994: 311). It can be taken as a sign of progress not only that disabled people are cast to play disabled characters, but also that disabled people are cast to play characters whose level of ability or disability is not an issue.
In between the extremes of freak-phobic Dumb and Dumber and freak-centric Stuck on You, exist the five other films of the Farrelly brothers. Michael Davidson writes that "the disabled body may be used as a site for social panic about unruly bodies in general, diverting the public gaze from one stigmatized identity to another" (2003: 58). These in-between films certainly demonstrate a sense of confusion and discomfort about the place of the unruly body, and thus display a series of contradictory impulses.
One recurrent theme is that described by Davidson wherein "a person with a disability plays a supporting role, serving as a marker for larger narratives about normalcy and legitimacy" (2003: 57). Colin Donovan argues that "as long as popular cultural perception of disabled folks revolves around the idea that disabled people exist to be transformed into able-bodied people, or, if that isn't possible, to transform able-bodied people into better human beings via Inspiration, the real life of almost any physically, mentally or emotionally disabled person will remain obscured" (Donovan, 2003: 56). For Donovan, the unfortunate result is this: "Sap sells, actual suffering and everyday resistance to political and social inequity do not" (2003: 56).
While most of the main characters in Farrelly brothers' films themselves have a disability (and of course the actors playing them do not), it is often the positioning of the disabled supporting cast that reveals the most about normalcy and legitimacy. The brothers have a tendency, described by Michael Berube in a recent talk at Columbia University, to use "normals" treatment of disabled people as the barometers by which they can be morally evaluated. In Me, Myself and Irene, viewers are led to believe that Hank, despite his schizophrenia, is a morally good character because he becomes outraged when he thinks he sees a handicapped parking space being occupied by a perfectly able-bodied man. In Shallow Hal, Hal becomes fully likeable when he is able to love a "morbidly obese" woman. And in There's Something About Mary, viewers are clued in to Healy's (Matt Dillon's) sleazy ways in this scene in which he lies about his experience with the developmentally disabled in order to impress Mary (Cameron Diaz), whose brother has an intellectual disability. Here, Healy meets Mary for the first time and lies about his interests, knowing they'll mesh with hers because he has been spying on her for some time. Healy, trying to impress Mary, says "My passion is my hobby—I work with retards." When Mary asks if that isn't a little politically incorrect, Healy replies "To hell with that—no one's gonna tell me who I can and can't work with." He describes one kid, Mongo, with "a forehead like a drive-in movie theater" and describes how they keep him in a cage, and how Healy freed him by getting him a leash. Mary appears horrified and protests, but Healy quiets her by explaining his dedication to "those goofy bastards."
After this scene, the Farrellys immediately cut to a quick, and classic, scene of kind Ted (Ben Stiller) helping a grouchy disabled guy to move. Ted literally bends over backwards to carry heavy furniture for an ungracious man whose wheelchair bumper sticker reads "How's my driving? Call 1-800-eat-shit." Ted, the good character in There's Something About Mary, in contrast to Healy, treats Mary's brother Warren well, and is kind to disabled people and small animals.
Martin Norden writes that "mainstream society is profoundly uneasy with 'Others' and usually tries to neutralize them in one of two ways: cure them or get rid of them" (2001: 151). Roland Barthes agrees, stating that "any otherness is reduced to sameness, because the Other is a scandal which threatens [mainstream] existence" (quoted in Norden 2001: 151). Norden's lens, so useful in other analyses, fails to provide a clear picture of the goings-on in a Farrelly brothers' film. They surely don't cure their main characters: the object of Shallow Hal's affection remains fat, the bowler in Kingpin doesn't get a surgery to restore his severed hand, and Lloyd and Harry don't undergo any Flowers for Algernon-esque procedure to make them brilliant. And the Farrellys certainly don't get rid of disabled characters; in fact, with every new release, viewers can count on seeing more and more people with a variety of disabilities occupying a wide range of roles.
Barthes' concern about otherness being reduced to sameness pinpoints the larger danger here: It is possible to read their incorporation of disabled actors and disability themes as a correction due to the criticisms they received for the wide-ranging political incorrectness of Dumb and Dumber, an attempt to mollify their critics. I would argue that this is ultimately an unsatisfying read, given Diane Carson's contention that "Hollywood ultimately reassures viewers about the status quo and rewards society's complacency on politically charged issues. Determined always to reach the widest possible audience, mainstream cinema avoids difficult terrain. The maxim holds: offend no one and increase box office receipts" (1995: 15). A comparative examination of the box office receipts of all seven Farrelly brothers films reveals that their most offensive films—those that continue to make jokes at the expense of people with disabilities—were their most profitable ventures, with Dumb and Dumber earning over $127 million in 1994, and There's Something About Mary raking in nearly $177 million in 1998 (www.boxofficeguru.com). In contrast, their attempts to make "message" pictures that sometimes tackle difficult terrain and intervene in politically charged issues—most notably Shallow Hal and Stuck on You—produced significantly less revenue (with Hal performing at only the $71 million level in 2001, and the complete numbers on Stuck not yet calculated, but estimated to be in a similar place). In other words, their move to recognize and respect people with disabilities has not been financially profitable, but it has been politically significant.
Tobin Siebers claims that "the political unconscious upholds a delicious ideal of social perfection by insisting that any public body be flawless. It also displaces manifestations of disability from collective consciousness [...] through concealment, cosmetic action, motivated forgetting, and rituals of sympathy and pity" (2003: 187). It would be easy to dismiss the films of the Farrelly brothers on the grounds of sympathy and pity; in their later films, there seems to be an almost maudlin embrace of corporeal difference, such that the viewer almost longs for the less sentimental crudeness of their earlier work. However, they have, more than any mainstream moviemakers working today, fought hard against the devices of concealment, cosmetic action, and motivated forgetting, and as a result thrown into question the reassurance that public bodies are flawless bodies. In that way, the Farrelly brothers have wrought some fissures in a body politic consumed with social perfection.
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Disability Studies Quarterly (DSQ) is the journal of the Society for Disability Studies (SDS). It is a multidisciplinary and international journal of interest to social scientists, scholars in the humanities and arts, disability rights advocates, and others concerned with the issues of people with disabilities. It represents the full range of methods, epistemologies, perspectives, and content that the field of disability studies embraces. DSQ is committed to developing theoretical and practical knowledge about disability and to promoting the full and equal participation of persons with disabilities in society. (ISSN: 1041-5718; eISSN: 2159-8371)