The Disablist Nature of Desiring Perfection in Gattaca

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 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 disabled people, 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 disabled mimicry 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 disabled mimicry 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 get 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.

9 responses to “The Disablist Nature of Desiring Perfection in Gattaca”

  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 was at the screening and discussion of Gattaca at the SF Library last night and I just read this article. I am a playwright learning about disability and considering incorporating a character with a disability into a play I am writing. I’d love it if you could expand on your statement, “I must point out the fact that cripping up is NEVER okay”. I understand that people with disabilities have been woefully discriminated against in casting and that a person with a real disability may bring elements of experience to a role that saves it from a shallow, stereotypical performance, but I find it hard to reconcile my experience as a writer and director with your absolutely firm statement, “NEVER”. Realistic, compelling, engaging characters need to be specific in a way that means they don’t match any actual people, exactly. This is where the art of acting and make believe come in. It is entirely reasonable to me that, say, in Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, the best actor to capture the character of Bradley, a one-legged person, is an able-bodied person, not an actor who happens to have that specific disability. If by “NEVER” your intention is to compensate for past discrimination against the disabled, that is one thing, but I sense that you are advocating for a type of realistic equivalence between the actual actor and the abilities of the character they are playing and that you believe this equivalence is essential to a deep performance. I am not sure I agree with that and I welcome your thoughts.

    • Good question! I ask you to specifically tell me how one, “acts disabled”…

      We typically see disability played one of two ways by nondisabled people. The first is stereotyping. This often means turning disability into something physical whether the disability is a physical disability or not (i.e. the rocking autistic, the physical manifestation of a manic episode for someone that is bipolar, etc.) This often renders disability as no more than a stereotype. The other way is to completely ignore the disability, and either put someone in a mobility device to “show” disability or they mention the person is disabled without ever addressing the disability either way.

      At least for disabilities that physically manifest, disabled people simply are disabled. I believe neither of the approaches above are correct, because disability often has subtle nuances that cannot be acted. All of the performances by nondisabled people are lacking because they can’t bring that authenticity that comes from simply having a disability. I find the same is true with transgender characters. Cisgender people cannot act transgender because being trans is not something you can act.

      Most people’s idea of what disabled is is what they see on film and television, but these are false narratives. It’s intrinsically harmful in every way to exclude disabled people. If we can’t even play ourselves who can we play?

  3. Hi Dominick. My apologies for restarting this conversation after so long a gap. I did not know that you responded. Is there a way for me to be notified by the website? I did not get an e-mail.
    And thank you for your response.
    You raise the question, “Tell me how one ‘acts disabled’” and provide two unsuccessful scenarios. My response is, one does not act “disabled”. That is not at all how I, as a playwright, director, and sometimes actor, or any of the great actors that I work with, would approach playing the role of a person with a disability. We would approach it as we approach all roles, with deep analysis of the script, working towards an understanding of what the character needs, what the obstacles are in the way of fulfilling that need, what strategies they will use to satisfy that need, and what the high stakes are if that need remains unmet. This is basic character work that, as a director / filmmaker I am sure you are familiar with.
    What interests me most about your argument, “disability often has subtle nuances that cannot be acted” is it presumes an unlimited need for an equivalence between life experience and the character one plays. I think this can’t be true. For example, surely one does not need to be a real life murderer to play MacBeth, or have experience as a sexual predator to play Uncle Peck in How I Learned to Drive, or actually blind horses to play Alan in Equis. I think what is needed is a script that has a deep, specific, truthful understanding of the character and an actor, director, cast, and all the other elements of a play or film that collaboratively communicate that truth. And the skill and experience to do those tasks may very well be in a person with a disability but, I believe, they may just as likely be in an exceptional actor who can balance research into that character with all the other skills then need to bring that character to life.
    I am not saying that research by an able-bodied actor is the same as the life experience of a person with disabilities. I am saying that research plus all the other elements that go into building a character should be enough, in the same way it is enough for an actor who must play a murder, a sexual predator, or a psychopath. Or a lover, a hero, or martyr. Or any compelling character.
    I look forward to your response.

  4. Hi Dominick.
    My apologies for leaving your question unanswered. I did respond, but somehow it did not post to the blog.

    First, let me be clear. I understand the frustration and anger that comes from the historical discrimination against actors with disabilities playing roles for characters with disabilities. If that discrimination did not exist, then our discussion here would probably be moot.

    In answer to, “how does one act disabled” I would say, one does not, ever, any more than one acts, “in love”, or “as a murderer” or “as a superhero who can fly”. To do so would be, as you say, stereotypical.

    As a filmmaker, you know that the path to creating a truthful character begins with analysis, understanding what a character needs, the obstacles preventing them from satisfying that need, the strategies they employ to satisfy that need, the high stakes for them if they don’t get what they need – all the fundamental elements of dramatic conflict and structure. This is completely independent of the type of character being played. So, from that point of view, the challenge of portraying a person with a disability is the same as playing a character without a disability.

    My question for you is, where is the line between what you consider legitimate “make believe” and reality? Surely, one does not need to be a murderer to play MacBeth, or to actually be able to fly to play Superman, or to be stood up by your lover on a rainy day at the train station in 1940 Paris to play a bitter expatriate in Casablanca. To me, a complete prohibition of “cripping up” negates all the make-believe skills that an actor brings to any role of any kind.

    Looking forward to your thoughts.

    • You just compared being disabled to being a murderer. I think when it is an innate part of identity, I don’t think it’s something you can act. For many of us who are disabled, disability is just another part of our identity, just like gender identity. It’s not something people can do without stereotyping, and those stereotypes cause actual harm to actual people. Is portraying a murderer that never existed going to harm anyone? Probably not. Is acting like being disabled is the biggest burden on society going to harm people? You bet.

      Also, experiencing love is a universal concept… Most of us have experienced some kind of love. We also have many amazing examples of what love can look like in Hollywood and beyond. We also have many ways love can be experienced to pull from. I don’t think it is at all comparable to say you don’t have to be in love, to know how to act in love, because there are so many ways to love, and so much history in film, television, and other forms of media to actually study and learn from.

      With disability, you have a limited narrative by no one’s ever been disabled. What you can learn is how disabled people are pitiful, inspirational, a burden on society, a monster, or deserves or wants to be dead. And in movies about disability, the entire movie is about disability. Nondisabled people don’t understand our lives are so much more than disability. If they cannot even get that right, how can they get anything else right about our lives?

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