Disability RightsFilm

The Disablist Nature of Desiring Perfection in Gattaca

A photo of Ethan Hawke as Vincent pretending to be Jerome. He is wearing a suit, and is standing in a tunnel that appears to be bluish white in color. The tunnel is circular, and has black lines running around the circle in between from space to space behind him.

Society has always looked down on those who are different. It is not hard to imagine a world where we have tried to eradicate every type of difference. History actually shows that we have, and continue to do so. While the United States fights over allowing those with differences to have basic rights, one difference has rarely been celebrated. That difference is disability. Since the beginning of recorded time, we know that people have been trying to eliminate disability and illness. Unfortunately, this ignores the detrimental effects such efforts can have on those actually living with disabilities.

We can try to imagine a world without disability and sickness, where everyone is in peak physical and mental condition. That is exactly what the film Gattaca attempts to do. Over the years, my thoughts on this film have changed, as I continue to evolve, both as a disability rights activist and a filmmaker. There are parts of this film that are uncomfortably discriminatory, but that’s the entire point. Gattaca provides a stark reminder of why diversity matters, as well as prophetizes how a lack of disability, or rather both physical and mental perfection, can never truly be attained by the whole of society.

We can never truly get rid of disability and/or illness. Even if we attempt to “cure” every single disability, illness, and disorder, new disabilities will adapt and emerge. It is fruitless to go on a quest to expunge disability from our genetic makeup. Society really should just accept people with disabilities, because disability will always exist. I have spoken on this website before about the dangers of attempting to cure disabilities, and Gattaca perfectly highlights the problems with cure mentality. This does not mean I do not support treatments, therapies, and medications to help disabled people live their lives more fully. It’s just that, in most cases you can never truly eliminate disability. For some disabilities, there is and never can be a cure. Besides, for many of us, our disabilities affect everything from how we are treated to how we interact in and view the world. As such, most of us would still need some kind of accommodation, on our quest to ‘becoming perfect’.

Before we explore what the film is saying about disability, the quest to attain perfection, and improving our genetics, there are a few things that are problematic about this film. Just a word of advice, if you have not seen Gattaca, there are SPOILERS below. Stop reading if you do not want the ending spoiled for you.

I know that many people will have problems with the way Jerome’s story ends. However, in retrospect, it perfectly fits in the world of Gattaca. It provides a stark reminder of what we do to disabled people in our society. We make them feel like they do not fit into this world, and are an outsider who does not belong. This influences every aspect of Jerome’s existence throughout the movie, including the ending, where he ends up killing himself because he doesn’t truly fit in anymore. Some people may be upset by this ending because we have seen disabled people die in so many movies it has become a stereotype. It took me a long time to see and understand that there is no other way to end Jerome’s story in this world. He is an outsider. He is no longer perfect. So, he no longer deserves to be alive. Nothing emphasizes that more than seeing him get into the furnace/incinerator with his silver medals around his neck, to end his life. His story could not have ended any other way in this harsh, cruel, exclusionary world, because Jerome was expendable simply by being disabled.

An image of Uma Thurman who plays Irene Cassini in the film, Gattaca. She is at debacle Corporation, wearing her uniform with her hair pulled back tightly. She has a serious expression on her face. People are standing behind her in a sort of line, and there are lights along the sides of the ceiling behind her.

The real concern I have is actually with the casting of Jerome. This film was made in the 1990s, so little can be done to correct this. He is played by a non-physically disabled actor, so I must point out the fact that cripping up is NEVER okay. The role of Jerome could easily have been played by an actual disabled person. We never actually see his life before he acquires his disability. There is no reason someone who is not physically disabled should have had to play the role. Even the more physical scenes could be played by a disabled actor with upper arm strength. We know that cripping up remains a problem almost 20 years after this film was released, so while we can look past this, given the age of the film, it is still important to mention nothing has changed for disabled actors. They are still as excluded as ever.

Beyond the casting issue, I actually really like the film Gattac. It makes an incredibly powerful statement about how we view disabled bodies, what we see as imperfection, and the danger with pursuing genetic purity in our quest for perfection. The film follows Vincent (Ethan Hawke), a man whose parents have chosen to have a child the natural way. Because Vincent has a predisposition to genetic health conditions and disabilities, he is deemed an invalid. The valid born person in this Earth-based world is one who has had their genetic traits tweaked to make the ultimately perfect human. This world uses biometric markers to determine how healthy and how long a person will live.

When Vincent is born, and his father learns all of the “negative genetic traits” Vincent has, he refuses to allow him to be his namesake. His mother, however loves him anyway. Still, his parents decide to have another child, this time, one that is valid, so Vincent can have a little brother. Mostly though, it is so his father can have a namesake. Vincent’s brother, Anton, is everything Vincent is not. He is perfect at nearly everything, and Vincent struggles to keep up with him. While Vincent’s father dotes on the physically superior, Anton, Vincent is a sickly and small child he ignores. The brothers compete at everything, and Anton always wins, until one day, as teenagers, he gets fatigued while swimming, and Vincent actually has to save his life.

A lover of science, Vincent has always dreamed of going to space. Of course, invalids are not allowed to have jobs like that. Genetic discrimination is rampant, although it is supposed to be illegal. Vincent is only allowed to have the bottom of the barrel jobs, such as cleaning up trash. Vincent leaves home right after he beats Anton for the first time, at the race. Over the years, he has a series of jobs, and after working as a janitor at Gattaca Aerospace Corporation, he finds a way to pose as a valid named Jerome (Jude Law), who is perfect, except for the fact that he is paralyzed, and therefore considered disposable by society.

With Jerome’s genetic profile, and a change in appearance, Vincent is able to move up the ranks at Gattaca Aerospace, where he is a navigator. He is about to get a chance to go explore space, and visit Saturn’s moon, Titan, when an administrator is murdered. Despite taking meticulous care to avoid leaving hair anywhere, one of Vincent’s eyelashes is found not far from the crime scene. As an invalid, Vincent is automatically considered a suspect by the inspector, even though he does not seem to work there anymore (as Jerome, Vincent is virtually unrecognizable), and he has no clear motive. Of course, in this society invalids are believed to have a predisposition for violence, whether true or not, which is enough for the inspector to pursue him as the lead suspect. With the hunt for Vincent putting him at risk of exposure, he must ensure that every test for blood, urine, etc. is Jerome’s DNA, and not his own.

Eugenics is a strong theme throughout the film. Eugenics has also been a huge part of disability history. It was not long ago when disabled people, both physically disabled and those with invisible disabilities, especially mental health disabilities, were sterilized against their will. The idea was to make sure we did not create more disabled people. As science develops, we are beginning to see parents who are able to choose traits for their babies. We also see babies with disabilities like spina bifida and Down syndrome being aborted, simply to eradicate their disability. Gattaca takes things to the next level. The film presents the idea of genetic superiority as dangerous and oppressive. Perfection can never be attained, and just because a person is genetically considered to be perfect, does not mean someone with genetic diversity is not just as capable as they are.

It is also important to discuss race, considering that eugenics has played an important part in the discussion on racism. Many women of color have also been sterilized against their will, especially if they are also disabled. In the world of Gattaca the main characters are all white. While black people are not completely absent from the film, I wonder if it was an intentional decision to have the most important characters be white? In our world, we have long seen the effects of believing in racial superiority. It is extremely telling that the film also seems to emphasize the idea that whiteness is also a desired trait. While this could simply be the fact that films of the 1990s largely discriminated by not including enough people of color (something that is still happening today), it is worth pointing out that it fits with the themes of desiring perfection and genetic impurity based on how we view race and nonwhite people in our society.

An image of Jude Law, as Jerome. He is smoking a cigarette and sitting in his wheelchair which you can see the handles for. There is a spiral staircase in the background to his left.

Of all the characters, Jerome has the most compelling story, and the one that is clearly emphasizing how badly society looks upon disability. Before his accident, Jerome was considered nearly perfect. He was created to be perfection. When Vincent’s coworker, Irene (Uma Thurman), has one of Jerome’s hairs analyzed because she is interested in him (she believes that Vincent is Jerome) the report on him says he is a 9.3 out of 10. Jerome was a talented swimmer before his accident. Throughout the film, Jerome reveals that even as perfect as he was supposed to be, he actually is nothing more than a failure. Jerome makes it clear that failure is unacceptable when he tells Vincent a story about how he was supposed to be the best, most talented swimmer.

There were high expectations placed upon Jerome, which turned into disappointment, when he reveals that he came in second place at one of his biggest competitions. Feeling like a failure, and having disappointed everyone, Jerome attempted to kill himself shortly thereafter. He did so by stepping out in front of a moving vehicle, which led to his paralysis. In Jerome’s mind, he has failed at everything including attempting to kill himself. As a valid, with almost perfect biometrics, if he is a failure, what does that say about the rest of the people in his world?

Despite being told his parents had created the perfect specimen in a child, Jerome was not actually the best. The pressure to live up to a standard of perfection was too much for him to handle. It is telling that even with his genetic makeup, once Jerome becomes disabled, not even his DNA can help him. He is automatically considered worse than an invalid, and there is no place in society for people like that. As a ‘cripple’, he is seen as having absolutely no value. Ultimately, he is worthless to this world, and he will never be accepted by anyone, which is why he chooses to end his life. There are echoes of our treatment of disability in our own world in Gattaca, because we are still fighting to be treated like we have value in a society that looks down on imperfection.

Irene also struggles with her lack of perfection. Despite being a valid, she is susceptible to a heart condition, and will never to be a navigator like Vincent, because of this. She is initially overwhelmed by Jerome’s perfection, and believes she is not good enough for him, but Vincent makes it clear he will like her no matter what her genetic makeup is. It is this acceptance that gives Irene a new confidence in herself. As Vincent continues to play a dangerous game by continuing to go back to Gattaca to prepare for his mission, while his true identity is being hunted for a murder he did not commit, the true value of human existence is explored through Vincent’s successes and failures.

Vincent’s storyline is the most powerful statement supporting the need for diversity in our genetic makeup. Vincent, as Jerome, is allowed to prove he is just as capable on his own merit, just because he has Jerome’s genetics to get him into the door. In fact, Vincent works harder than any of the other navigators, (all of whom are valids), and his work is always perfect. Showing that Vincent is able to beat Anton is essential to proving that it takes more than just genetics to be good at something, and even those who are supposed to be perfect fail from time to time. At its core, Gattaca sends the message that humans deserve to be human. That means it is okay to be imperfect, being disabled should not be a death sentence, and genetic diversity is essential.

I can’t help but feel like this is the perfect time to discuss bioethics in our society, and how the desire for perfection may impact our world today. We used to let insurance companies do exactly what the world in Gattaca does. Insurance companies were able to screen potential recipients for illness and disability. Who received insurance depended on who was the highest risk for being too expensive because of a pre-existing condition/disability. This all ended thanks to Pres. Obama, and healthcare reform. With the Trump administration and the GOP–led Congress threatening to repeal the ACA, insurance companies may be able to do this again. With the discussion about designer babies cropping up every now and then, and parents being able to choose gender and eye color, as well as other traits for their potential children, we need to remember how the quest for perfection can actually be more harmful to society, on the whole.

Eradicating disability removes a vibrant part of our culture and society. Disabled people will never go away because new genetic anomalies will lead to new disabilities. It is fruitless to attempt to rid the world of disabled people, because it is never going to happen. Even if people who have accidents can restore their spinal function so they can walk and move again independently, some types of disabilities will always exist. As such, instead of trying to get rid of an entire group of people, we should be working to find ways to accommodate our existence in a society that often says we do not deserve to be here! We are perfectly imperfect though, and this world is not the world of Gattaca. In the end, that should be enough.

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2 comments

  1. Thank you for this post Dominick. As a nondisabled person with a disabled family member, I saw the movie Gattaca before I’d read any disability studies texts or heard about the disability rights movement. It deeply affected me, and I can’t help but think it planted a seed that helped lead to my current work. I think this is it’s strength – a trojan horse approach to a very important radical message that critiques normalcy and the quest for perfection, as you beautifully lay out. 20 years, and it resonates more now than ever.

  2. Hi Dominick! I like the movie Gattaca.

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