The INSIDER Summary:
• Some people think Gerald the sea lion in “Finding Dory” is an offensive representation of people with cognitive disabilities.
• Co-director Andrew Stanton wanted to portray him as a “nerd” who’s ultimately victorious.
• Stanton describes Gerald as “a cathartic autobiography for all of us animation nerds.”
One of the funniest characters in “Finding Dory” is Gerald, the hapless sea lion. Throughout the movie, he tries to scheme his way onto a rock with fellow sea lions Fluke and Rudder.
Gerald looks different than the other sea lions. He has a vacant expression, a fixed smile, and a prominent brow. To some viewers, he appeared to be a tactless representation of people with cognitive disabilities.
“The most glaring and frankly offensive character, though, is Gerald the sea lion,” Elizabeth Picciuto, who watched the film with her disabled son, wrote in The Daily Beast. “He has synophrys (a ‘unibrow’), an overbite, and somewhat misaligned eyes. He carries everywhere with him a child’s pail, and clearly reads as having an intellectual disability.”
Picciuto wasn’t alone in interpreting Gerald as an inelegant — if not downright offensive — representation of the differently abled.
Lindsay Macdonald at Screener TV wrote the other sea lions were “depicted as almost bullies as they pretty shamefully trick and mock Gerald for his disability,” and rounded up some responses on Twitter about how Gerald’s character came across.
Alice Wong, the founder of the Disability Visibility Project, described Gerald, Dory, Becky (a bird in the movie), and Bailey (a beluga whale) as all being disabled characters. However, Wong said the movie offers a nuanced and moral treatment of life with a disabilities.
“I relate to Gerald intensely, his wanting to be accepted and being taken advantage of by faux friends/allies,” Wong wrote. “I was angry for Gerald but was delighted to see him in a scene after the credits where he manages to nestle himself on the rock behind Rudder and Fluke and gives a bit of a snicker. He does have agency and is tenacious in getting his place in the sun.”
Andrew Stanton, the co-director of “Finding Dory,” told INSIDER that portraying Gerald as autistic wasn’t his intention at all.
“We just wanted him to be the nerd,” Stanton said. “Because all of us were nerds.”
Gerald, as a character who’s bullied — and eventually victorious — is the one Stanton identifies with most in the movie.
“He sort of gets ranked unfairly for not getting to be on the rock, and all the sort of playground rules that all of us nerds had to deal with growing up,” Stanton said. “So it’s a bit of a cathartic autobiography for all of us animation nerds that we allowed Gerald to finally win the rock.”
In the early days of drafting “Finding Dory,” Stanton said some people brought up Gerald’s potential to be interpreted as a stand-in for someone with a disability. Stanton and his animators redesigned him to look a little different.
“Honestly, somebody did bring that up when we were in the early days, when we were designing Gerald,” Stanton said. “He used to have like a stupid hat that was a bucket. And I said, ‘Oh, you’re making him look like he’s dumb and he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Like he’s not intelligent.’ And then we were like, ‘Oh, we never meant that.’ So we got rid of it. So that subject did come up.”
The creators of “Finding Dory” tried hard not to make it look like Gerald’s character was autistic.
“You can’t make anything foolproof from people’s interpretation,” Stanton said. “So all we can do is trust that we were very respectful, especially when it came up with Pixar, because people have kids. And definitely parents with autistic kids are working on our films.”
“Finding Dory” is now out on Blu-Ray and DVD.
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