Peter Dinklage Is a Baller

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.

Comments

Funny, when I look at Mr Dinklage I do not see a "disabled" person. I see a handsome, talented actor with some physical disadvantages. OK, he's shorter than average, (not very much shorter than I) He has some malformations of his limbs and while those may cause pain many people have maladies that cause pain. Most work through it and carry on, like the fine actor in this story.

Disability is a disease of the mind. We may not all be able bodied, but we are almost every one of us able.

Now, that said, I do believe that the character (which was masterfully written in the first place) and his portrayal by an actor of such caliber are certainly the direction that we would hope for our entertainment industry. But please excuse those of us who know better for not holding our breaths.

OK...
First of all, let me say that I understand the intention behind this piece and that it's obvious your heart is in the right place. You are correct in that Hollywood, or even the world in general, lacks in the opportunities department for people with disabilities. That said, I do have to admit that I have a couple of bones to pick on here. I have a couple of disabilities myself, being hard-of-hearing and having a balance disorder, so I know a thing or two about disabilities and how they are perceived.

The first, and regretfully most common, glaring mistake is your use of "disabled actor" and "disabled character." It may seem like nitpicking, but I assure you that calling anybody with a disability a "disabled person" induces an awkward cringe. It's a very uncomfortable and inaccurate label because the implication is that there's something wrong with the person as opposed to a person living with something that's not quite right by nature's design (hey, I know ears are meant for hearing, and I fully admit that mine are malfunctioning). Some may argue it's semantics, but the more a label is used, the more the perception is perpetuated, especially subconsciously.

Secondly, to make a person's disability the focus of a story (be it sports or entertainment), is actually doing a disservice to people with disabilities. To take it further, it's even insulting. People with disabilities aren't asking for admiration despite their challenges (at least those with congenital or early-acquired disabilities). No, if we want to be acknowledged, we'd like to earn it based on merit, just like anybody else, not because we "overcame" a disability of ours. (By the way, the word "overcome" is a wholly different subject for another time, and for all the wrong reasons).

Finally, it speaks volumes how our society still perceives people with disabilities by articles such as this one. Again, don't get me wrong, I know what you were trying to do here, and the sentiment is appreciated, but as the old saying goes: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

As a fan of the books, let me say that the credit for the character of Tyrion belongs to George R. R. Martin. The complex character, who struggles with others' skewed perceptions of him but who is nevertheless a full and interesting human being, is in the books. There are lots of other great characters in the books as well, especially powerful women (Daenerys, Arya, Brienne, etc.) as well as Sam, who is shunned because of his size, but who has a deep and compassionate heart. Martin is a master at showing how arbitrary social prejudices pervert relationships and prevent society from recognizing and appreciating the best talent, whatever gender, class, or body type it might be.

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