I didn’t go to see Red Dragon because it was a thriller. I went because a friend told me an “interesting” disabled character was in it. Having studied how our culture teaches us to think about disability, I went not knowing what to expect.

In films, our culture makes disabled people in its own image. Our unconscious beliefs about disability determine how we respond to it, regardless of how many of those beliefs aren’t true. I was surprised to find that Red Dragon actually explored how disability is socially constructed, and then presented two very different perspectives.

Hannibal has a mental illness. Additionally, he’s a violent psychopath. He certainly fits the standard script about mental illness in films–that all people with psychiatric disabilities are a danger to society if not controlled by drugs and keepers. It’s an infuriating lie.

But two other characters follow: The title character, Frank, a man born with a cleft palate, and his temporary girlfriend Reba, a woman who lost her sight in her childhood.

Here’s what we learn: how each child’s world responded to their disability played a huge role in the adults they came to be.

Judging by the rambling family home, Frank was born into old money, and equally old beliefs that disability represented moral deviance in the universe, the disabled person–and in the movies.

Red Dragon obviously still indulges in this, using a disabled character to literally embody villany. In a way, this places the film’s creators on about the same level as Frank’s sadistic, abusive grandmother.

Since she “knows” a disabled person is a freak, she feels entirely justified in abusing Frank until she’s made of him the monster she already thought he was.

It’s a neat tautology. The same impulse lay behind the infamous “ugly laws,” which were intended to keep disabled monsters off the streets of cities like Chicago until 1973. Or The News & Observer’s former policy of not publishing photographs of disabled people.

Frank seeks the shadows. Devoid of loving human contact, he recoils from it. As abused children do, he distances himself from the abuse by becoming someone else: the Red Dragon, ugliness transformed by twisted power. That twistedness, though, was not inherent in his childhood disability. It was inflicted on him by a warped culture’s view of it.

Enter Reba: intelligent, assertive, attractive, sexual and totally comfortable with her blindness. It’s not the usual cultural script we see: not the self-destructive Colonel in Scent of a Woman, nor Jane Wyman’s dependent martyr in Magnificent Obsession.

Since Reba’s world responded to her disability differently than Frank’s, she responded differently. Self-sufficient, she rejects pity. She comfortably puts her blindness on the conversation table, and her descriptive language calls it a “difference,” not a “defect.” She’s not awaiting rescue: She puts the moves on a man who seems open, yet hesitant. Her lack of negativity about their differences fans a lingering spark of his humanity.

In short, Red Dragon‘s a mixed bag of social constructions. It reinforces some cultural stereotypes, while showing us a truer alternative.

For me, the final act of alternative script-writing comes in Reba’s final scene with FBI agent Will Graham. Like any woman who’s been abused, she agonizes over missing the darker side of a man she was attracted to. Even this turns another cultural script on its head: Reba’s not an “all-knowing” blind person who can mystically take the measure of a person in a few words. Instead, she’s fallible, complex and fully human. Better still, Will knows it. That’s how he can joke with her about her hair–a moment rich enough to set a disabled friend and I howling with laughter.

We laughed for joy, because he was treating her like a real person. And on film, no less. EndBlock

Board chair of the Ron Mays Center for Disability Community Development, activist Joy Weeber works to change how society views disability and how disabled people view themselves. Contact her at jweeber@ncsu.edu.