My 5 year old daughter has been compelling all her friends to see Finding Dory because it’s a film about her daddy. It’s not. Obviously. It’s a cartoon about a forgetful fish. But there is a little more to it than that…
All month long you will undoubtedly have observed reviews
Ableism is, essentially, discrimination against those living with disabilities (physical, mental or developmental) and the presupposition that being ‘normal’ (neurotypical or physically able) would automatically be better. Marlin (Albert Brooks) was the poster fish for this phenomenon in Finding Nemo. And his ableist attitudes are reprised (though called out and diminished) throughout Finding Dory. His parental concern for Nemo (Hayden Rolence) most often centres on the disadvantages his underdeveloped fin presents and the presumed danger of any moderate risk. Marlin’s frustration with and mistrust of Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) also focus on her difference.
A key component for any aspiring ableist is the ability to other. Othering is identifying someone as different and classifying them as outside of the norm or not like “us”. Ironically Marlin himself is othered by his peers early in Finding Nemo for his paranoia and lack of humour. The societal perception is that Clown Fish are funny. Marlin is not funny. He is thus something other than expectations demand. He could be perceived to be ‘suffering from’ PTSD after the loss of his wife and Nemo’s siblings. His catastrophising and overprotectiveness certainly signpost high levels of stress and anxiety.
Marlin’s doubts extend to the lack of faith he places in Becky the Loon. A wild-eyed and scruffy bird who is non-verbal but endearingly helpful. Though the mistreatment of Becky (and Gerald, the one sea lion who didn’t star in The Wire) has been held up in shock/horror as a ghastly example of galloping prejudice in a film which ought to know better, I suspect she is more of a mirror held to our own prejudices. Why does her eccentricity have to denote disability? Why have Gerald’s facial features and off-rock status led to a diagnosis? Ought Dory to exist in a fish utopia where bullying has ceased to be?
I believe a film can start a meaningful conversation without needing to provide all the answers before it concludes. Or to sugar coat the tough stuff. Hierarchies and ugly behaviour exist across all communities. It is right and proper for a film like Finding Dory to acknowledge this. Children respond to authenticity and most are quite able to draw their own conclusions about right and wrong.
I have not read any criticism of Dory’s clumsy intrusion into the solitary life of Hank the Septopus (Ed O’Neill) despite her triggering his deepest fears in the touch pool. Does Hank’s articulacy make him less deserving of empathy? Are octopuses not cute enough for outrage? Is it ‘cos he is orange??
At the age of 5 our child has yet to internalise prejudice. Her small social circle is a pliable and tolerant one. For now. Two of her friends have autistic spectrum disorders and her daddy is disabled. He cannot use his right arm, has impaired mobility and doesn’t remember large chunks of our lives together. Just like Dory. She doesn’t remember him any other way and she is fiercely proud of her dad. For now. But we have been concerned about what will happen when she does become more aware of the ableist world we live in. And we have wondered what the first cruel words to wound her or her friends will be.
Finding Dory is the first example we have been able to show her of a celebration of neurodivergence. The embracing of people (okay, of anthromorphised fish, birds and marine mammals) who think, discover and learn in an alternative way. The key being alternative. Not less able, normal or successful. It is the first genuinely engaging presentation of members of a disabled community working together – using their singular skills – to help their peers achieve. This, my friends, is collective access and interdependence in action. Verily Andrew Stanton and Victoria Strouse have turned PC jargon into Pixar magic!
Is it magical? Yes, actually it is. You can read Cassam’s review here, for a grown up perspective, but watching the feature through a child’s eyes my scepticism fell away leaving only wonder in its wake. This is an overdue insight into a needlessly hidden world.
Individuals living with disabilities are rather like Dory’s seashells, in that they are each on a unique path and yet no more or less remarkable than any other shell in the sea. My partner is fighting hard for his recovery but he sometimes loses his way. Our daughter needs to be armed with the words and the context to explain how that feels. In Finding Dory we found solidarity, we found comfort and we found echoes of ourselves.
Finding Dory opens across the UK on 29th July