Disability in the “Family Survival” Movie Genre

This is my “No Nuance November” hot take: I have noticed a disturbing trend in the family survival horror movie genre around disability and we need to talk about it. You know A Quiet Place, its rip offs, The Silence and Bird Box: they have a lot in common, other than just being family survival movies. Yes, they all center around families trying to get away from unseen creatures. They all feature a journey and kids having to grow up fast; it’s a genre after all, and these genres tend to have a mold. Yet, after looking at these movies closely, I noticed one other thing they had in common, and that was a connection to disability.


Now here me out. I know we are starving for representation, especially with Sia’s Music coming out, which casted a neurotypical actress in the role of a autistic character. This should not have happened and Sia has been handling it quite poorly. An autistic woman wrote on Twitter: “Several autistic actors, myself included, responded to these tweets. We all said we could have acted in it on short notice. These excuses are just that- excuses. The fact of the matter is zero effort was made to include anyone who is actually autistic. #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs.” And Sia responded with: “Maybe you’re just a bad actor.” So, there is no better time to talk about this than now. We don’t just want representation. We want good representation. We want representation that enhances us, that tells a story, is not just there because “we asked for representation,” and certainly not just there for a plot device.


I love horror movies and I have put A Quiet Place and Bird Box together in my head, except one had to do with hearing and one to do with sight. Creeping around on Netflix led me to The Silence, which is a lot like A Quiet Place. A Quiet Place and Bird Box are both good movies, The Silence not so much, but they all use disability strangely. A Quiet Place and The Silence do this more explicitly and Bird Box is more nuanced, but all of them show certain disabled individuals as being superior in this “new world.” They are “lesser” in the old world, but in this new one, their disability makes them not only valuable, but needed. Disabled people deserve to exist in movies as more than a plot device, and I don’t care if their disability is “essential” to the plot—their humanity is being disregarded in exchange. Warning: spoilers for all three of these movies ahead.


Let’s start with A Quiet Place. I think everyone knows the story, but it basically follows the Abott family in the year 2020, where most of Earth's population has been annihilated by sightless aliens, who attack anything that makes noise. The family’s daughter, Regan, is deaf, and uses a cochlear implant, and they communicate using ASL, which makes sense, since it is a language that makes no noise. So far, we have a deaf character who is a semi-plot device, but nothing too crazy yet. Later in the movie, Regan's cochlear implant reacts to the proximity of the creature by emitting a high-frequency sound that drives it away. My hearing aids freak out when something gets too close as well and they whine and buzz, so I get that. When the creature returns, Regan realizes that the sound made by her cochlear harms the creature and she turns it back on and places it by a microphone, making the feedback louder. The creature is weakened and the mother is able to shoot it. At the end of the day, the message is that the daughter’s disability saved them, and showed them the creatures’ weakness. 


To me, this also says that Regan’s disability is in this movie solely because it is essential to the plot. She is deaf not because they wanted a deaf character or because the actress is deaf, which she is, but because they thought that would be a good contrast to the creatures and that her disability would finally not be a “disability” in this scenario. People who are not disabled love to put disabled people in places where their disability makes them “stronger” or “more needed,” when in reality, this is a child, and all she needed was to be a character in the movie. 


Let’s move on to The Silence, which more or less follows the same narrative. I call this movie “A Quiet Place rip off” for a reason. The movie starts with a cave research team unearthing an unknown species of bird-like creatures referred to as “vesps” from a mine, who kill the researchers, and are attracted to noise. Ally, a deaf teenage girl living with her family, suggests heading to the countryside to get away from possible noise. Are you seeing similarities yet? They drive off and at one point, Ally says they all have the skill to survive in a new “silent world,” like she did when she lost her hearing in a car accident. They run into religious cults, who seek out Ally because she is deaf and they abduct her. She eventually escapes and wonders if humans will be able to “adapt to a soundless lifestyle.” What in the inspiration porn is this???


Of course, there is the same thing as A Quiet Place, a deaf character as a plot device, and played by a hearing actress. Where it gets odd is the cult and her being seen once again as a superior being. Just because disabled people have the prefix “dis” in it does not mean that we need to be redeemed in media that show a world with a “level playing field.”


Lastly, there is Bird Box, definitely my favorite movie on this list (unpopular opinion, I know).  A woman named Malorie and her two children make a journey to a forest community, having to dodge entities that make people who look at them go insane and kill themselves. They blindfold themselves and are essentially blind during the trip. So far so good. They reach the community safely, which is a former school for the blind. The reason why the people are safe in the community is because they cannot see the creatures to begin with. Literally, the last scene, and it happens. Disabled people are once again shown as being more “fit” for this new world.


No. We deserve to be in every world.


Disabled people deserve to be in your scripts when they are not essential to the plot. They deserve to be treated with dignity in script, because guess what, they exist in real life. You do not need to invent a new world for them to be put in. Do better.


In the end, this is not as bad as Music or other things—it just stood out to me. A lot of ableism comes from good intentions, many missteps do. I just encourage everyone to think twice about “representation” and what it means for the community we want to represent. If the representation is not good, or clearly there just to be “representation,” then it can do more harm than good.