As I said before, one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen when it comes to disability portrayals is 1993’s The Secret Garden. Colin, the disabled character is typecast as a sour young man, who is even rumored to be a hunchback. He is described as crippled, (Yes, I know it’s Victorian times, but this set up the pathetic portrayal.) and his father doesn’t want anything to do with him or children. That being said, his father Lord Craven takes her cousin named Mary after she loses her family in India. She takes him to the Secret Garden in this castle.
Everything about this character’s image rubbed me the wrong way. His own caretakers lock him away and Maggie Smith’s character scolds Mary for even being with him. When he becomes hysterical, they tie him down to the bed. Re-watching this movie even for the purposes of analysis was extremely hard, though I did. It is a clear case of “curing” a disabled character for “love” by magic. After Colin starts having fun in the garden, he discovers that in fact he can walk. Then, they contact his father via “magic spell”. Yes, I know. It’s meant to symbolize the beauty of “natural” life vs. the isolation of modern times. Why prove it supernaturally? Why can’t Colin just be disabled? And it’s just so darn sappy in its message. For example, after Colin walks, his father decides he loves him, AND the kicker, MARY LOVES HIM TOO. The message is clear: if you are disabled, no one will love you.
If you’re cured though, and have the right attitude and the right body…then you can be loved! Surely, Colin’s disability was all in his mind, and had nothing to do with his intense mistreatment by those around him. No, all he needed was a little girl to show him how to have fun. It’s not like he’d never tried walking before. I apologize for my tone, but it is really difficult to watch if you have a disability. The clear implication is that a disabled life is not worth living or somehow the cause of Colin’s hysteria. Besides the fact, (and I know it’s an old book, but that doesn’t excuse it!) that the movie maintains the “You can do it…” attitude towards physiology, it also has one of those scenes where Colin hobbles over and hugs his able-bodied buddies. Such scenes were dated by 1993, one would hope, but there is a strong presumption of able-bodiedness, as Dickon and Mary watch Colin hobble; wide-eyed and smiling like goons.
Suffice it to say, I hated this movie and its able-bodied presumptions even as a kid.Worst disability portrayal ever. But, come to find out, the movie even engages in casual racism against Indian natives, and passes off British imperial aristocracy as just part of the charm of the movie. Of course the Yorkshire girl is happy to be a maid! Of course, Mary launches into a tirade when she dare presume she’d be an Indian native. I know it’s done for sentimental purposes, ostensibly…but re-watching was a real eye-opener into how offensive this film really was (and is.) to me.
Magic is something I have nothing against. But, only when it inspires me! This film is selling magic that isn’t really there. In fact, it’s quite nasty. And yet, it hopes to cover up its inhumanity with a pretty garden. I said I’d watch this movie because of the deep impact it had on me as a child. Now, as an adult it still has…perhaps even deeper impact. This was 1993...and attitudes like this exist. And they persist! Having seen such attitudes up close, still makes me think of Colin. But, you know? In a sense, this film is refreshing. It shows me exactly what kind of negativity I’ve been up against: The presumption that the aristocracy knows best, and a disabled life is not worth living. I’m proud to work with organizations like VSA to prove that wholly wrong. Thanks VSA Ohio! Keep up the fight for disability rights!