People have always wondered what to do with the disabled, a question that usually came down to four options—ostracize them, persecute them, provide welfare for them, or kill them. Not until the last century did we start to shift the question from what to do with them to how to identify and perceive them. Of course, we then approached disability in the same way we approached anything we did not understand—with scientific classification. Nowhere is this more obvious than in our own legal system. In 2008, Congress set out to define exactly what constituted a disability, and what it came up with in the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 was surprisingly concise: “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities” (“S.” Section 4). Congress’s intentions here appear to be innocent—it wanted to clarify the meaning of “disability” so disabled people could receive the assistance they needed (“S.” Section 2). Yet as Tristram Engelhardt asserts: “To see a phenomenon as a disease, deformity, or disability is to see something wrong with it” (qtd. in Wasserman 223). From Engelhardt’s perspective, and the perspective of most with disabilities, Congress’s approach takes on an air of prejudice.
David Wasserman, an ethics and disability scholar from Yeshiva University, agrees. Wasserman asks how one can “classify a physical or mental condition as an impairment” (Wasserman 222)—what about a condition makes it inherently bad, and does it prevent a person from achieving happiness (Wasserman 229)? These questions can all be examined through the lens of Tom Hooper’s 2010 film The King’s Speech, which is based on the life of George VI, King of England and severe stutterer. George’s complicated, flawed, yet ultimately triumphant character defies the pattern of disabled people exclusively being portrayed as either comical or tragic, both of which deny them their full humanity. The King’s Speech is a success story about a prince who overcomes his greatest limitation to fulfill his kingly destiny. However, it is the film’s depiction of a man who is forced to hide his stutter that forms its ultimate critique of our misguided notion of disability.
Engelhardt asserts that the act of classifying someone as disabled is inherently oppressive, and we can see this in the life of King George VI. King George, whose real name was Albert but was referred to by his family as Bertie, suffered from a stutter since he was a boy. Interestingly, Bertie, a royal, was cursed with the painful reality that he found the k sound particularly problematic, as in ‘king’ and ‘queen’ (Logue 51). Young Bertie’s stern father, George V, noticed the stutter immediately, and he encouraged his other children to mock Bertie because of it. In the film, Lionel Logue, Bertie’s speech therapist, asks him if his older brother ever teased him about his stutter. Bertie responds, “They all did. ‘Buh-buh-buh-Bertie.’ Father encouraged it. ‘Get it out, boy!’ Said it would make me stop” (The King’s Speech). This line was drawn from reports that young Prince Bertie’s family members often ridiculed his speech patterns, which only led him to be increasingly self-conscious about them. This form of mild abuse was by no means uncommon. It was often rooted in the unfounded assumption that stutterers were simply not trying hard enough to speak clearly or that they were somehow stuttering on purpose (Shell 17). The misconceptions surrounding stuttering, as well as “disability” in general, have often led to a mistreatment of people with any sort of condition at all. Once there, it is a short leap from mistreatment to marginalization, and people with conditions quickly become ignored and dehumanized.
As a royal, Bertie is far more privileged than the common man, and one could argue that he is never in serious danger of being discriminated against. This argument is true to an extent—his royal name keeps him safe from the severest forms of abuse, and his wealth enables him to seek out assistance that others cannot afford. However, a scene between Bertie and Lionel demonstrates that not even princes are safe from marginalization. During a therapy session, Lionel asks Bertie if he was close with his youngest brother during childhood. Suddenly melancholy, Bertie replies, between long pauses, “Johnnie. Sweet boy. Epilepsy. And…he was ‘different.’ Died at 13, hidden from view. Too embarrassing for the family” (The King’s Speech). The real Johnnie, or Prince John of the United Kingdom, suffered from epilepsy and autism for all of his short life. Since he was kept in seclusion, his afflictions unknown to the public until after he died, he was one of the more tragic figures of the British monarchy. During this scene, the pain on Colin Firth’s face suggests the empathy that the real Bertie probably felt for Johnnie. Like Johnnie, Bertie was considered different. Bertie was far luckier, of course—his stutter was less severe than Johnnie’s disabilities, and he did not suffer from the same seclusion. Nevertheless, his stutter was embarrassing for his family, just as Johnnie was considered an embarrassment and was consequently hidden from public life. Despite his royal privileges, Bertie was neglected and somewhat mistreated as a child, too, especially by a childhood nanny who secretly refused him regular meals for three years (Logue 49). However, by the time he reached adulthood, Bertie’s real concern was not of being mistreated, but that he would be unable to garner the respect of the British people—hence Bertie pursued therapy to subdue and hide his disability.
The King’s Speech is groundbreaking in one very important way: it successfully humanizes a man who was both royal and disabled, portraying him as both dignified and flawed. One could argue that being a royal is by its nature a form of dehumanization, because it forces a person to become a figurehead. A figurehead is constantly wearing a mask of perfection; all flaws must be suppressed and hidden from the public eye. In one scene, King George V, played by Michael Gambon, urges his son Bertie to practice speaking into the radio, to which Bertie replies that he cannot. His father replies, “This devilish device will change everything if you don’t. In the past, all a King had to do was look respectable in uniform and not fall off his horse. Now we must invade people’s homes and ingratiate ourselves with them” (The King’s Speech). The emerging importance of the radio in maintaining a political leader’s public image meant that the royal family had to hone their public speaking skills even more than before. Since elocution is a rather theatrical affair, it seems quite fitting that King George V remarks, “This family is reduced to those lowest, basest of all creatures…we’ve become…actors!” Photographs had the same effect. Twice in the film, the King—first George V, then George VI—poses at his desk for a photograph, pretending to read a paper (The King’s Speech). Since radio addresses were carefully scripted and rehearsed, and since photographs were staged, they both required the royals to put on a show rather than act candidly and naturally. They thereby distanced the public’s image of royalty even further from reality, dehumanizing the royals in the process.
The film acknowledges the dehumanization of figureheads in order to make two points. First, it portrays the dehumanization of figureheads to critique society’s insistence on hiding one’s flaws. Second, the royals’ process of becoming actors mirrors the process of hiding one’s disabilities to appear more able. Unfortunately, Bertie has to undergo both processes in the film, both of which are dehumanizing because they require him to stifle a part of himself. Does the film suggest that Bertie becomes more human once he learns to control his speech patterns? Absolutely not—Hooper treats Bertie as fully human throughout the entire film. In fact, Bertie’s humanity is most obvious not during his triumphant final speech but rather in his moments of struggle. Bertie appears most vulnerable shortly after he learns he must become king, a role he never wanted. In the scene, Bertie’s wife Elizabeth finds Bertie sifting through all the speeches he will have to give. As she embraces him, he begins to sob, saying, “I’m not a king. I’m a naval officer, that’s all I know. I’m not a king. I’m not a king” (The King’s Speech).
To the film’s credit, the audience is not left to feel sorry for Bertie for long. As she comforts him, Elizabeth admits that she had accepted Bertie’s marriage proposal because she had thought, “He stammers so beautifully…they’ll leave us alone” (The King’s Speech). The humor and affection that Elizabeth shows in this scene demonstrates that Bertie, despite his flaws, still deserves authentic love exactly as he is, not pity and sorrow for who he might have been without his stutter. Ultimately, this scene shows that, although the audience is supposed to feel sympathy for Bertie, he is not a tragic character. Instead, he is a fully human and vulnerable one, which is quite rare in the context of how disability has traditionally been portrayed.
To understand the significance of this avoidance of the tragic, one must understand a little more of the history of disabled characters. In much of popular culture, disabled characters are depicted as unintelligent and even comical, often played by comedians for laughs. However, not all depictions of disabled people are cruel; some even appear highly sympathetic. Many tragic characters from literature have disabilities—Hamlet’s repetitive speech patterns have led many to interpret him as a stutterer (Shell 2), and Quasimodo in Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame suffers from deafness and a severe hunchback. Although great sympathy is shown to these people, this stereotype is nevertheless detrimental because it suggests that people with disabilities must necessarily lead tragic lives. These characters reflect the way real people with disabilities are viewed—when a more sympathetic view is adopted, people with conditions are viewed as pitiable and tragic. When they are seen only as tragic figures, it prevents them from being seen as real people who can triumph despite their disabilities.
To an extent, The King’s Speech fits in more with the context of recent depictions of disability in film. But while many modern filmmakers have tried to show disabled characters in more humanizing ways, the success of their undertakings has been inconsistent and, at times troubling. In Gary Sinise’s 1992 film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, for example, John Malkovich plays Lennie Small, a huge and physically powerful ranch worker with a mental disability (Of Mice). Sinise portrays Lennie as genuinely lovable in spite of his unintentionally violent misdoings and uncontrollable strength. Lennie’s seemingly contradictory array of characteristics—gentle yet physically rough, kindhearted yet accidentally violent—moves beyond the ordinarily one-dimensional depiction of characters with disabilities.
While this is commendable, the character of Lennie nevertheless perpetuates the problematic archetype of a disabled character whose disability becomes his undoing (Hayes). Lennie—whose mental disability means he is never in control of his strength—accidentally kills a married woman who is attempting to seduce him. Consequently, George shoots Lennie to save him from the prolonged pain and death that would surely await him if the murdered woman’s husband were to find him. The message here is clear—Lennie’s mental disability destined him for disaster. A message like this could have serious repercussions for an audience’s views of disabled people, because viewers are “being shown that disability…must forever ostracize severely disabled persons from society” (Longmore 135). Lennie’s tragic fate was unavoidable; his disability precluded all possibility of a happy life in mainstream society. This implicitly supports the misguided notion that disabled people must be isolated for their own good. Conversely, Bertie’s stutter does not define him. Although Bertie’s circumstances and social status are far preferable to Lennie’s, Lennie’s mental disability is nevertheless depicted as not only his flaw but his fatal flaw, while Bertie is portrayed as someone who can triumph despite his condition. Because of this, he is treated as a real human being.
The King’s Speech excels beyond other films about disability in another significant way: it sheds the standard lens of pity. Just as George’s pity for Lennie causes George to take care of Lennie, most disabled characters’ livelihoods depend upon the pity of others, which in turn confines them to what their caretaker thinks is best. As Michael T. Hayes and Rhonda S. Black write in an article on disability studies, “Pity is an emotionally conditioned social response which marginalizes those with disabilities and better serves the interests of those who show pity than it does the object of their pity” (Hayes). When filmmakers make their disabled characters objects of pity, they condescend, and their characters are infantilized. Jim Sheridan’s 1989 film My Left Foot has been widely praised for its depiction of Christy Brown, an Irish artist and writer with severe cerebral palsy who struggled for much of his life to be respected (My Left Foot). However, as Hayes and Black point out, even this film cannot shake the lens of oppressive pity and dependence that similar films operate under (Hayes). Granted, the director critiques the fact that Christy’s well being depends upon other people’s pity by showing Christy resorting to drinking out of resentment for his dependent state. Nevertheless, the movie starts and ends with scenes of Brown and his caregiver, emphasizing that Christy could never live an independent life. This undue emphasis undermines the character’s dignity and does a disservice to Christy himself. Hooper’s The King’s Speech, on the other hand, does not present Bertie as an inherently inadequate person worthy of pity, but rather as a man trying to assert himself in a biased and discriminatory society.
Hooper’s film rejects the lens of pity and the presumption that disabilities necessitate isolation in order to make a much subtler claim: our entire notion of “disability” is wrong because it holds everyone to faulty standards of normality, which Bertie painstakingly struggles to meet. When his older brother David abdicates the throne, Bertie is faced with the daunting task of rapidly becoming a modern political leader, one who must appear strong enough to lead his country through World War II—times of great national adversity call for decisive and effective political leaders (Buhite xii). It is useful here to treat Franklin Roosevelt and Bertie as parallel cases. President Roosevelt’s experience with polio left him with limited mobility. Since physical weakness is often misinterpreted as indicating weakness of character, Roosevelt made up for his disability with his powerful speaking skills. His voice became a beacon of hope to people as he entered their lives with his Fireside Chats. As historians Russell D. Buhite and David W. Levy describe, “It always, somehow, came back to that clear and resonant voice” (Buhite xx). FDR’s voice was his most powerful instrument, which makes him a foil to Bertie, his contemporary. While FDR used his voice to overcome his polio-induced disabilities, the disability plaguing Bertie was his voice. Despite this interesting contrast, FDR and Bertie were similar in that they both had to go to great lengths to hide their disabilities from the public. FDR’s famous Oval Office desk concealed his wheelchair, and he trained himself to walk considerable lengths without collapsing. Bertie, on the other hand, allied himself with the speech therapist Lionel Logue. Together, therapist and patient underwent strenuous therapies to help Bertie, to paraphrase the film’s tag line, “find his voice.”
Both FDR and Bertie recognized that they would not be accepted as suitable leaders with their disabilities, so they had to suppress and conceal them. Although it was not the first time a political leader’s personal characteristics were important, the innovations of the twentieth century—particularly the advent of the radio—radically transformed what was expected of political leaders. Suddenly, people expected their leaders to have a much more public presence. As Michael Gambon’s character alludes to, the enormous political power of the radio was of particular significance in the lives of both Bertie and FDR because it caused traits like one’s speaking voice to become increasingly important (Buhite xiv). This brings up intriguing questions about what we value in political leaders and, more generally, how we define human competence. As Wasserman points out, disability “raises fundamental issues about the significance of variations in physical and mental functioning for human performance” (Wasserman 219). As Elizabeth’s quote about Bertie’s beautiful stammer astutely implies, this is all a stutter is: a variation in physical functioning, lacking any serious repercussions for human performance. Bertie’s stutter should have no bearing at all on his ability to lead a nation soundly. However, the misconceptions people have about stuttering would have led them to see him as weak and ineffective, so he feels the need to hide his stutter. This holds true for Roosevelt, as well. His partial paralysis from his battle with polio had nothing to do with his ability to lead a country, but he still had to go to great lengths to appear mobile and able-bodied. Otherwise, he might never have been elected.
The King’s Speech calls into question the truth behind the word disability. It suggests that our concept of disability wrongfully implies that these conditions are so debilitating that the people suffering from them are unable to live meaningful lives. The concept is also flawed because the straightforward classification of people as disabled or non-disabled suggests that there is more science and logic behind it than there really is. As the American philosopher Tristram Engelhardt points out, disability classification is not “a strictly scientific matter” (Wasserman 223)—in fact, it is highly arbitrary. Who has the authority to decide whether or not someone is able or disabled? Apparently, Congress. When Congress defines disability in the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (“S.” Section 4), it assumes that there is a clear distinction between ability and disability, but disability scholars argue that ability is more complicated than that. Instead of a two-sided classification, it is more accurate and beneficial to imagine a dynamic spectrum of ability, much like the spectrum we assign to autism (“Autism”). No one remains in a constant state of ability; everyone lies at different points on the spectrum at different times in his or her life. This approach to disability rightfully brings the focus more on people’s abilities than on their disabilities.
Throughout the film, Bertie never manages to shake off his stutter entirely—in fact, it was a condition the real Bertie struggled with his entire life. However, through self-discipline and his work with a speech therapist, he overcomes the limitations that his stutter previously placed on him, thereby overcoming people’s negative conceptions of him. At the beginning of the movie, Bertie attempts to give the closing speech at the Empire Exhibition in London, but he utterly fails to get through it (The King’s Speech). In the scene, which lasts a minute and a half, Bertie only manages to say eight words: “I have received…from his majesty…th-th-th-th-th-the King” (The King’s Speech). His audience is visibly uncomfortable and disappointed, as the camera moves from face to face until settling on Bertie’s wife Elizabeth, who is crying. This is the first speech in the film; the last one is his radio address declaring war on Germany. With Lionel in front of him, Bertie gives his entire speech without any serious stammering (The King’s Speech). Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 swells majestically as Englishmen and soldiers are shown gathered around their radios, listening intently, captivated and silent in reverence for their king. This audience contrasts sharply with the uncomfortable, underwhelmed audience at the Empire Exhibition. Elizabeth is shown crying again, but this time from joy. When Bertie leaves the broadcast room, he walks out to applause and praise. His staff and family display a newfound respect for him. Bertie has finally found his voice, and people are finally listening.
Bertie himself has not changed physically; he has merely learned to subdue his stutter until the limitations it placed on him disappeared. Therefore, it seems inaccurate to classify his stutter as a disability anymore—it is not debilitating, as the word “disability” implies, because he proves that he can overcome it. Bertie loses his disabled status, because he enables himself to speak clearly. Perhaps this makes him formerly disabled, but we can also interpret it to mean that he was never truly disabled at all. To classify someone as disabled is to apply a set of faulty standards to the human condition, which is constantly in flux. As Engelhardt says, “To see a phenomenon as a disease, deformity, or disability is to see something wrong with it…[they] are experienced as failures to achieve an expected state” (qtd. in Wasserman 223). Classifying someone as disabled is inherently judgmental. Even if it is not intentional, classifying human beings in this way degrades and shames the people who are allegedly disabled. This echoes scholar Ron Amundson’s claim that abnormalities are not necessarily bad, but merely variations: “Development yields adults that function, but not adults that function identically” (qtd. in Wasserman 223).
The film The King’s Speech argues that disability is a deeply flawed concept. It achieves this by showing a man with a serious speech impediment—what would ordinarily be considered a disability—who reaches his full potential. He does this without becoming a caricature or a tragic figure, a unique accomplishment in popular culture. Despite Bertie’s severe difficulties when speaking, he never stops trying to speak and he never loses his dignity. How, then, can someone say that Bertie’s life is less meaningful than a non-stutterer’s, or that Bertie is any less human? A lot can be learned about how we view the human condition—how we measure competence and success as a person—by studying how we perceive people with disabilities. This film rejects the superficiality of these standards of competence, portraying one of the most famous stutterers in history as a multifaceted and fully capable human being. The film critiques society’s insistence on hiding imperfections and conforming to standards of normality, but it also heroizes a man who refuses to be silenced, glorifying him not for what he did as a king but for what he achieved as a human. When it comes to its depiction of the humanity and stoic dignity of a man living with “disability,” The King’s Speech, with both grandeur and quiet restraint, becomes revolutionary.
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