One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest: The Theme Of Disability

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I decided to write about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest because I had never seen the movie before and had always had the intent of picking it up at some point. I am really happy that I did because this movie was different from what I thought it was going to be like and ended up being more than ‘just a movie about a disability’ but a message about society, in my interpretation of the film.

The movie focuses on the character of Jack Nicholson who plays Randall Patrick McMurphy. It is found out early in the movie that McMurphy is not ‘crazy’ or mentally ill. Because he was in jail and did not want to participate in his work detail any longer, he faked being mentally ill in order to get out of it. He ended up at a mental institution where he admitted to Dr. Spivey, the institution’s head doctor, that he was in fact sane. The doctor still had to go through with the evaluation to prove to the penitentiary he came from whether or not McMurphy was mentally ill and thus, McMurphy joins the ward. As the movie progresses, McMurphy befriends a number of the patients and actually becomes a hero-like figure for them because he does as he pleases and does not let Nurse Ratched order him around. Although they look at McMurphy adoringly, they do not participate in the same courage that he has in escaping the institution. The only one that does is Chief, who actually is not mentally ill at all. McMurphy is the only one that knows this and they plan an escape to together.

The movie ends up showing how this rigid is whatcaused McMurphy to eventually go crazy with Bibbit’s suicide being the last straw. Instead of dealing with the internal problem with the system, everyone dealt with the ‘problem’ by making McMurphy follow their system. This was done by giving him a lobotomy.

McMurphy was not a disabled person in the movie. It was almost as if he was the guy on the inside seeing how everyone was actually treated in a mental institution. He saw firsthand how all the staff, nurses, and doctors treated everybody as if they were mentally ill, crazy, or abnormal instead of a person who happened to have a disorder or disability. Although McMurphy does not have a disability, he has an emotional response towards the patients in the ward. He treats them like human beings and organizes basketball and card games, jokes around with them, and gets them interested in the World Series. I felt that McMurphy’s role showed the viewer that people with a disability do not have to be shunned. It is not taboo and is an issue that can dealt with.

I felt the other people in the ward who did have a disability or difficulty felt safe in their own world surrounded by people like them. I think that McMurphy’s character reminded them that this is not all there is to life and that you can change things up a bit and still have a good time and be safe. The vibe from the institution created a dependency in the men, when in fact, most of the patients were fully capable of taking care of themselves and making their own decisions. It seemed as though their emotions were controlled by the nurse and doctor of the institution. This is where the negative energy stemmed off from. This is exemplified through one of the last scenes in the movie where Billy is scolded by Nurse Ratched for having sex. She asks him, ‘Aren’t you ashamed?’ And without stammering, he states, ‘No, I’m not.’ Because he did not stammer (which was a very prominent part of his ‘disability’), the viewer sees that because he was able to enjoy something on his own, already there was a positive improvement. However, because the nurse felt that this was inappropriate, needless to say, out of her control, she reminded Billy that she could tell his mother and that his mother would not be very approving of this situation. Immediately, Billy’s stuttering comes back and he begs the nurse not tell his mom. He his dragged away by the institution’s staff and ends up committing suicide in the doctor’s office.

I think McMurphy’s role was a very positive one in the movie. Even though he was not the one with the disability, he aided those that did. His positive attitude towards the men in the ward and treating them like men made them feel like humans and that their disability held no bearing on what they can do and what they can enjoy. When the men were with McMurphy, they felt strong, happy, and confident. On the other hand, when the nurse and hospital staff was around or controlling the situation, the men were the opposite. Their attitudes on themselves changed depending on who was dictating it to them. Nurse Ratched’s controlling and belittling demeanor led the men to believe that they belong in that institution with no hope of getting better – in all reality, they didn’t care to either. McMurphy would reverse this situation when he was around the men and made them feel like they were invincible.

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I feel the barriers set up for people with disability in reference to this film are that society has a HUGE role in determining the acceptance of people with a disability. The outlook of people that do not have a disability shapes the characters of those that do. This movie showed what can happen when society makes you believe that you are crazy, stupid, or ignorant. You are made to feel like you are a nobody that needs to be monitored in every single thing you do and no decision you ever make is your own. When you are in a society that makes the rules for you and controls how you should act, think, and feel, it can lead to how McMurphy ended up, with a lobotomy.

I feel that if society were more accepting of those with a disability, most of the people that are diagnosed with a disability may have a better chance of beating it because they, themselves, may feel like they have an opportunity to do so. My reaction to this film was initial awe, more so because of the ending of the movie. I was very disgusted with the way the institution’s staff handled each patient on that ward and I saw that it was mainly to feed their own ego. They considered themselves better than all those men and used them to create a very controlling atmosphere where no one benefited except for the staff.

It made me think whether or not something like that can happen outside from this movie. Are people with a mental disability treated like this in real life? Is there a possibility that they can be nurtured to the point that their mental illness can be cured? It left a few unanswered questions like the aforementioned and it is a bit disturbing to think that people who are educated in knowing better still do not act that way.

We talked about this issue many times in class especially about teachers being educated in disability and people who have them and how they should act. However, there is no requirement for teachers to take a class or be knowledgeable in that respect. It made me wonder whether or not these nurses and doctors in the movie knew either. Perhaps the movie echoes society in that regard and wants people in power roles to know that they hold a lot more power in their position than they may think and is possible for it to affect people in a negative way.

I have to say that my view on institutions is a little bit different. I never realized what kind of reinforcement they could be to the patients and also what power they hold in the ultimate outcome for their lives. I think this was demonstrated in the movie by McMurphy eventually being made to be mentally ill and so had to be in the institution. He, of course, did not have a disability but because of the power that the staff held and in order to better control him, that is what they made him become.

All in all, I would have to say this is a powerful movie. Many may watch it for the acting – which was very good – however because I had to specifically watch it keeping our class in mind, it made me think about how true it is that society can shape the outcome of an individual who has a disability. It made me feel that I have a huge part when I come across somebody with a disability and how I would react to them.

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