“If I told you I’m trying to save the world, would you believe me?”
On 10 January 2019, showrunner Eric Heisserer shook fans of the Grishaverse by announcing a Netflix show coming up the next fall. Now, a year later, with only a few days left until the show is released for the North American audience, admirers of this hybrid between the original Shadow and Bone series and Six of Crows are excited more than ever for their favourite franchise to be fully serialized, but that’s not to say there weren’t major bumps along the road.
A few weeks ago, Freddy Carter—an actor on the S&B cast—described how he practiced limping in his flat in preparation for his role, the character Kaz Brekker, a Barrel boss with a limp due to injury.
Much to the show’s production team’s (and my) surprise, this simple, offhanded statement was faced with much backlash, mostly congregating in the echo chambers of Twitter, where people interpreted his training for his role as ableism (discrimination in favour of able-bodied people). This dissent followed up with requests for cancelling the actor, the author, and even the show itself.
It can be easy, natural even, to get whipped up in this myriad of thoughts, going with the flow and not bothering to think or express one’s own opinions. Especially when it has the advantage of being the popular opinion online, this false sense of majority leaves way for broad generalizations and guilt trips to occur, such as the infamous, “If you support S&B, you are overlooking a societal issue.” If you happen to not share the same belief as the ‘status-quo’, it can seem like your opinions are the minority or a complete anomaly—that everyone around you is morally superior, or virtuous, giving rise to thoughts such as “Am I the problem?” or “Am I a bad person?”
Of course, these thoughts do not take into consideration the fact that the internet is a vast place, meaning that if you end up in a corner that is strongly biased for a topic, there is most certainly another with the polar opposite opinion. Majorities created online are almost always metastasized, partially due to our own perceptions—or lack thereof, seeing that our world is much wider than the Reddit forum we’re scrolling through—but also because technology reduces everything to simple inkblots on a blue-lite screen, and that enormity can seem terribly daunting.
One valid piece of criticism that cannot be denied from the ordeal is the fact that disabled characters aren’t common on TV. Hence, giving actors with actual disabilities the rare opportunity to act with characters that share their struggles, is one that should’ve been seized. Representation is so important, and this could’ve been a perfect opportunity to give opportunities to disabled actors and also ring true to Brekker’s condition.
But what about the ableism claims that Freddy Carter had to face? It raises an important question: What is the line between holding your favourite actors accountable and using them as a scapegoat for your own urge to virtue signal?
There are two other ways that this could’ve played out. The first being if Carter decided to not practice for his role after all. Now, actors are cherished and praised for their accurate portrayal of their TV personas, even when abled people represent abled characters—because even then, there are certain mannerisms that a character has that must be perfected in order to be authentic. Enter an abled person playing someone with a disability as an integral part of their character—there are even more factors to consider while on set. People who possess limps have certain subtleties that go unnoticed for the average person, but these subtleties add to the realism of a character when portrayed accurately. Things like your hips going off balance and causing you to favour a shoulder, or shaking your shoulders in a certain way, are little things that are a part of a disabled person’s daily life. They often go unnoticed unless someone takes the time out of their day to see how it feels to be limping and to be using a cane as walking support.
What would happen if Carter didn’t practice? Well, most likely, the change in the walking patterns one adapts using mobility aids would be even less precise. It would then truly seem like the disability to Kaz’s character was simply an accessory, and the poor performance would probably get him cancelled regardless, as now he’s portrayed a beloved character’s disability as a stereotype.
The other route this could’ve taken was if Carter practiced, but hadn’t told any of the fans that information. This in and of itself is an irksome detail, as there would never have been this much of an uproar if he hadn’t said that comment. The fans would reap an earnest performance without hearing what goes into it, thus not giving them material to “call out.”
Of course, in Brekker’s daily life he combats his limp, and has a hard time walking up hills, grappling with his PTSD. But as deeply ingrained as they are to himself and his history, they influence, but are not definitive of his character. Bardugo and the team had to cast someone based off of resemblance regardless of disability. His dark vibe, quick wit, and thin patience: all of these resemblances are necessary regardless of disability status in order to avoid portraying a character with their disability as the defining feature of their personality. What they’re doing at the end of the day is trying to integrate visibly disabled characters in the media in efforts to normalize them, and give disabled viewers around the world the representation they deserve. This cannot be done without practice, exposure, and authenticity.
Leigh Bardugo as a disabled person herself had a completely new viewpoint on the matter that most others would not be able to think of. In an interview with the Daily Express, she went on to explain the intrusivity of asking someone to put their disability and trauma on display for the sake of a role, or in her experience, writing. This opens up the fact that a lot of fans who are cancelling the show over the matter are able-bodied people. In efforts of “standing up” for the disabled community, they may be once again silencing the actual marginalized group at the heart of the discussion.
Taking this into consideration, cancelling people and projecting hostile behavior on social media does little to nothing about actual problems relating to disabled people. Sharing information slides, calling anyone who supports a franchise ableist, and anything else of that sort is like metal straws in the sense that they both contribute equally little in the grand scheme of things.
This call out culture in general acts as a guise for cruel behavior. Comments such as “he’s ugly” or sending death threats are most commonly propagated under the defense that the subject of this dissent is a bad person, and therefore it is justified to harass them. This has become so widespread through “cancel culture” that it seems people may be banished and ostracized over the most innocuous missteps, limiting growth that we as online platforms could be having if we addressed issues properly, instead. If we teach individuals that they can be cancelled by whatever they say or do, the question stands: are we truly enabling an environment whose main purpose is to educate its members? Or are we manifesting a place where people reign with performatism, shutting people out instead of having greater conversations where change can actually be made?