M. Night Shyamalan has had a rocky directorial career, to say the least. He stunned movie-goers with early flicks like Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. However, his stories seemed to slip into some sort of twist-obsessed cesspool that became less and less charming for fans. Those twists that initially made him famous were quickly making him infamous. Most film lovers had chalked his career up to an odd descent into ludicrousy.
Then came The Visit.
While not groundbreaking, fans suddenly were coming out of a Shyamalan film excited and interested in his artistry. It was a smaller, self-contained story not about saving the world. Instead, it was just about saving two little kids from elderly maniacs. This was much more similar to his smaller scale stories that made him famous in the first place.
And after The Visit? Then came the big hit, the coup de grace of his comeback tale. Split. Split followed a disturbed young man kidnapping and psychologically torturing several young women in his hideout. Even more fascinating, Shyamalan teased that this was happening in the same world as Unbreakable. People came out of the theaters championing the return of good Shyamalan films. Despite this, though, not everyone was singing his praises after Split.
The disconnected feelings about Split quieted down, but recently he announced a new film on its way: Glass. It’s the third film connecting all of the heroes and villains of the Unbreakable universe. And with Glass, it’s a lot harder for the troubled voices to stay silent.
Now, what’s wrong with a director turning around his career? Everyone loves a comeback story, right?
That is, unless it comes at the expense of others.
The problem with Shyamalan’s resurgence isn’t the fact he’s becoming popular again. It’s the way he’s reclaiming that popularity. And, unfortunately, he’s doing it by perpetuating terrible, horrendous stereotypes about disabled people. Particularly, mentally disabled people.
This problem in Shyamalan films isn’t new, but Split and Glass have been the most offensive cases of it. Many of his films use mental illness as a scapegoat for evil deeds, or imply having one is inherently bad. While no one with a disability will tell you its a walk in the park, they don’t appreciate their existence portrayed as evil or wrong.
This crutch appears in many of his most famous films:
During Sixth Sense, the young boy is troubled by being called mad. As if being mad is worse than seeing dead people. Quite honestly, hallucinations are likely much easier to combat than malevolent spirits. But being crazy is seen as the worst possible outcome.
In Unbreakable, the main villain, Glass, is a man in a wheelchair. His disability is insidiously intertwined with his felonious deeds. While that doesn’t mean a villian can’t be in a wheel-chair, it hurts to see a disabled man a more likely villain than a hero.
Within The Village, the main human antagonist is a mentally disabled man. Viewers are expected to feel bad for him because of his disability, yet also its why he does bad things to the main character. Its somehow his excuse but also his damning trait.
Then in The Visit, the faux-grandparents aren’t evil masterminds. They are psychotic old people who broke out of a mental hospital. Again, Shyamalan uses that stereotyping coding to make them more sympathetic, yet also use their disability as their evil motive.
And then Split. While the villain does have Dissociative Identity Disorder, he also has a “beast” inside him. While in cases of the disorder this is known as the aggressive, protective personality, in Split its a literal embodiment of a voracious beast. And the beast isn’t protecting his body and other personalities, like it is in most known cases of DID. Instead, he is actively hurting others. The movie uses his disorder to make him more pitiful, yet also be the reason he’s a monster.
And, as you can see, the pattern of villainous motive is established.
No matter how effective this dichotomy is, its wildly unfair and problematic to use mental illness and other disabilities to create sympathetic, yet erratic villains with little effort. Take away the disorders, and some of these villains become paper thin. Shamylan literally uses the stereotyping and cultural coding of disabilities to write more effective scripts. As a writer, that may sound clever. But as a person with a disability, it’s appalling.
People with disabilities already have enough stereotypes, pitying, suffering, and frustrations to deal with. They hardly need a hit-hungry director to use their reality to make good money-making fiction
The disabled community started to get particularly concerned and upset about this when Split came out, but it’s even harder to stay silent when clearly his use of it will only get worse. After all, Glass will technically have two disabled villains in it, won’t it? What absolutely heartbreaking and egregiously offensive representation that is for the disabled community.
Shyamalan, good for you, writing better stories. This thing is that people with disabilities don’t want you to fail. Many might not care at all what happens with your career. They just want you to stop using them to garner acclaim. Its cruel, problematic, and a generally messed up thing to do. It doesn’t matter how good Split and Glass are as film if you exploit minorities to make it better.
Be better, Shyamalan. Set an example for Hollywood representation, not set it back.