Confession: I only recently started watching Game of Thrones. Despite all the hype from people whose taste I trust, the swords-and-dragons thing just doesn’t appeal to me, even as much as horror or sci-fi. I must now admit I was wrong in my prejudice. The show’s deft characterization and careful plotting have overcome my native hostility to anything with a Ren Faire vibe. Of particular interest is the character of Tyrion Lannister, brother of the deceitful queen and a Renaissance man stuck in a medieval world. He’s also one of those rare characters in Hollywood: someone who has a disability but is not defined by it. Thus is the way of our new Golden Age of television, that a seemingly old-fashioned fantasy series would take a progressive approach to portraying disability that activists have been demanding for decades.
Disabled actors struggle to find work in an environment that prizes the able-bodied, the young, the beautiful, and the impossibly thin. There are disabled characters to play, but—adding insult to injury—directors usually cast able-bodied actors in those roles. Take, for instance, the character Artie on “Glee,” a character who has used a wheelchair since he was very young. The able-bodied Kevin McHale got this role, and while he does a fine job, it’s hard not to wonder why the producers didn’t go with an actor who already uses a wheelchair, and wouldn’t have struggled so much when it comes to looking natural in it, particularly during difficult dance scenes.
Even if Hollywood could somehow overcome its prejudice against disabled actors, that wouldn’t do much to fix the problem of stereotyping. More often than not, when a character has a disability, that becomes the sum of their entire being onscreen. Take, for instance, the main character in “Avatar,” Jake Sully, a paraplegic former Marine. (Played, naturally, by able-bodied Sam Worthington.) Jake’s character arc is about his distaste for his real, disabled body, and his desire to escape into his role as a Na’vi, where he doesn’t have to be in a wheelchair. Disability defines him so completely that he’s literally a different person when he’s not disabled. It’s not just that he’s tall and blue, but that in his not-disabled form, he’s brave and noble and, of course, sexually potent, all these things he doesn’t get to be in his human, disabled form.
These tendencies in Hollywood scripting and casting are why Peter Dinklage in the role of Tyrion is such a revelation. Tyrion is a dwarf, but that’s just one of many important traits that drive his character. The writers strike a balance between understanding that his condition matters but making it just one of many relevant aspects of his character. Tyrion steps onscreen as a fully realized human being, a man who handles the unenviable position of being stuck with a family he loathes with humor and a self-protectiveness earned through years of suffering under them. Like the best of characters, he’s so relatable that you can imagine him in other settings, such as being the only sober-minded character as wedding-planning drives everyone else up the wall in a romantic comedy, or the member of a criminal gang that has occasional flashes of conscience.
Part of the reason for this is Dinklage, who won a Golden Globe for the role this year. Dinklage delivers a nuanced, commanding performance of the sort that makes you a bit sad every time he’s not on screen. In addition, the writers remember that they’re writing Tyrion, a discrete individual with unique concerns. It shouldn’t be such a leap of imagination, but as this interview in the New York Times Magazine with Dinklage makes clear, short actors still face a job market where there are nearly no roles for them outside of playing leprechauns and elves. Simply getting a role as a human being is a rare thing, and one where you get to play a complex human being, a miracle.
It’s tempting to be optimistic that this might hail a new understanding of how to write disabled characters, but a wise person wouldn’t feather her hopes too much. Consider the case of “Bridesmaids,” a movie that still sees pounds of ink poured out nearly a year after release simply because the screenwriters had the audacity to believe one could write a light comedy about women in which the characters are full human beings instead of friendless robots wholly focused on marriage. Unfortunately, the lesson Hollywood learned was not “write well-rounded female characters” but “put more dirty jokes in the same tired rom-coms.” Even with Game of Thrones demonstrating how easy it is to write a disabled character who reads like a real person onscreen, the lesson is unlikely to stick. Unfortunately, the industry continues to be geared towards pounding out meaningless crap to the point where the mere presence of a deftly written character with visible difference only makes sense in aspirational television, put behind the paywall at HBO.