A disability narrative we can learn from

“Finding Dory” speaks agency amid Disney’s shortcomings

This past June, animated movie lovers were able to predict at least a couple things about Disney’s long-awaited sequel, “Finding Dory”: its heart-warming and melodramatic story development; and, (to the discontent of many environmentalists) a second-time sharp increase in home aquarium owners. When the movie got to the critics, those at Vanity Fair and The Atlantic focused primarily on the emotionality and “capital-L Lessons” that the motion picture brought to movie theatres, and were unable – or unwilling – to spot a deeper value than Dory’s lingering sentimentality.

For those of you who didn’t actually see “Finding Dory,” the film follows a blue regal tang fish as she searches for her family and confronts short-term memory issues in a harsh ocean reality. This time, Marlin and Nemo accompany her on the adventure from their home-sweet-home – the Great Barrier Reef – to the entirely different world of the Marine Life Institute.

While “Finding Dory” may look like an attempt to simply evoke similar emotions to the highly popular 2003 “Finding Nemo,” it accomplished a much bigger task of building a better narrative around disability. This time, Dory’s story speaks for itself: her experiences of severe short-term memory loss are this movie’s focus, rather than a coincidental addition to a major parable. Dory’s daily struggle of dealing with disability is centered, with its portrayal reflecting the lives of 15 per cent of the world’s population.

Television, and particularly animated movies, constitute a big part of children’s early education, where Disney plays a key part in building a childhood for the viewer through their multimedia influence. The choice of a next cartoon adventure matters, mostly because it will stay in children’s memory for the next few months after many playbacks on a home cinema. With children’s favourite regal blue tang Dory battling disability, her surroundings sensitive and responsive to it, younger viewers are encouraged to develop a deeper understanding and empathetic attitude for disabilities in real life.

“You’re lucky: no memories – no problems” or, Is “Finding Dory” Any Different?

It is not the first time Dory’s memory loss is showcased, but the fact that a whole narrative is built around an active attempt to work through her disability, with her friends beside her, is a step forward from the powerless portrayal that Dory was assigned in “Finding Nemo.” In fact, the first movie also drew a picture of the helpless clownfish Nemo, whose victory over the constant battle with his movement disability due to a smaller right fin was left behind the curtain. Disney applies “the discourse of pity” to conceptualizing their movies, which was first described by philosopher Michel Foucault, and later found to characterize the film scene that features characters with disabilities in Hollywood. “Finding Dory” is moving the viewer to the realm of being empathetic toward and understanding of Dory’s struggle and not solely feeling sorry for her.

Throughout the sequel, Dory has agency, determination and, most importantly, a life story that everybody is eager to discover. Her fearless stubbornness that gets her through the comical journey of the Marine Life Institute is crucial to picturing her personality, making her a role model to other fish in the sea. Martin’s meaningful line “What would Dory do?” in time of crisis might as well be the point when Dory’s role in the movie forever shifts from a secondary character with a disability to defining her by anything but disability.

What effect does this portrayal have on children and teens? The 2016 hit gives its young audiences an idea of an everyday reality that is challenged by circumstances, which a person with a disability is often unable to control. “I remember like it was yesterday. Of course, I don’t remember yesterday that well,” says Dory reminiscently in her search for her family. Her accessible monologues and contemplations are meant to bring the viewers closer to the screen through their relatability, except that Dory’s unstable memory prevents her from experiencing some feelings and situations in the same way as others, exposing children to non-normative ways of experiencing the world.

In the end, “Finding Dory”’s narrative is built upon the belief that one has to be exposed to disability in order to comprehend its crushing force and develop empathy. This shift in attitude is in itself a breakthrough in children’s education that has throughout time taken a more ‘protectionist’ approach to learning.

Representational past, present, and future: did it get better?

Disney’s impact in cinematography has certainly been recorded in research; however, scholars have not always linked animated movies’ influence on young audiences. Michael Bérubé, Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University and expert on disability studies in cinema told The McGill Daily in an email: “I think I can suggest, somewhat optimistically, that [Disney and other major corporation’s] portrayals of disability have begun, over the past 10 to 20 years, to reflect the lived experiences of people with disabilities. The contrast between Dumbo and Dory, for example, is pretty stark, and not every disability gets “cured” by the narrative.”

Bérubé’s analysis offers a somewhat contradictory juxtaposition of ideas. On the one hand, he investigates how disability is portrayed in films and animated movies. On the other, he discards the significance and deep impact of pivotal plot scenes that can be crucial for representation of people with disabilities. In the interview Bérubé claimed that “much interesting work can be done if we allow animated characters to stretch beyond the boundaries of the human,” a statement that could be said to indirectly undermine his own work.

Indeed, it is naïve to assume that Disney’s movie project goals are altruistic. What it has done, however, is introduced young viewers to a larger scope of awareness regarding disability. In one way or another, choosing to portray disability in pop culture becomes “an alternative form of political participation.”

The disability narrative in Disney’s animated movies is only a fraction of a larger representational issue in entertainment media. Dory’s character may have gained agency and produced an effect on viewers, but large commercial channels such as Zodiak Kids, Nickelodeon, and Disney have not been very good at representing disability. In 2015, The Guardian found that these media giants had no lead characters with disabilities in their shows.

It is fair to say that step-by-step, Disney has been moving away from the white-male-saviour of the world––or a princess––perspective, by focusing on the empowerment of women, multi-ethnicity, and inclusivity. But to achieve an animated movie reality that wouldn’t tacitly endorse societal gender norms still has a long way to go. Linguists discovered in 2015 that men in most of Disney’s animated cartoons have on average three times as many lines compared to women. The road to representation on TV is still paved with toil.

One reassuring development in our current movie production scheme is that consumers can have a say in a conversation about disability, gender equality, and representation in general. Corporations often ignore academics, researchers, and experts’ advice on how to do their jobs, but thousands of people’s voices are difficult to ignore. One such example is a petition that was started on October 1, 2014, asking Disney to portray characters with Down Syndrome, carrying a message that “children with Down syndrome are princes and princesses, too!” It is mid-November 2016 now, and the petition was signed by almost 99,000 supporters, short of only a thousand people to reach the 100,000 goal.

The amount of support that the campaign received demonstrates that the movie corporation crafts its products for a narrow audience, ignoring those that don’t fit the story definitions. The result is: children with disabilities, who deviate from the norms prescribed by the movies, cannot dream of the same fairytale world inhabited by princesses and princes, unlike their peers. What is a better indication of Disney’s influence on children?

From ‘super-powered’ to just human

The reality that children’s animated movies depict has historically had a tendency to be ‘super-powered’ and illusionary. And yet, research on disability has shown that this has not been the case recently. Not only have characters with physical or mental disorders experienced less stereotyping from their surroundings, they are often shown as regular people who experience issues due to their disabilities. This, in turn, makes it easier for children to relate to children just like them, but with a physical or mental impairment.

“Finding Dory” hardly offers any solutions to a more inclusive society, but it makes an attempt to have a conversation that can potentially change the disability narrative, and not only on the screen. To young audiences, it means a better awareness of diversity around them and a lesson on perseverance, reminding them to “just keep swimming.”