[Editor’s Note: This is a guest blog by Carol Cleigh Sutton, an original Board member of NDY when we formed in 1996, and a long time disability activist.]
I’ve spent some time thinking about why movies like Me Before You get made. After all, it’s not a bit original. From Whose Life is it, Anyway? (1981) to The Sea Inside and Million$Baby (2004), these plot lines are neither new nor particularly interesting. By eliminating other possibilities, though, I may have found an answer.
First, and most obviously, it is not a vehicle for disabled actors since they never employ disabled actors. In some ways, this is what it must have been like watching Shakespeare in his own time when male actors portrayed women. They expect us to willingly suspend disbelief, but I, for one, never get there. The portrayals are so fake that I, a wheelchair user, simply can’t take them seriously.
Secondly, they’re also not telling anything true or real about the lives of disabled people. Though some of those associated with such movies sometimes claim to have ‘researched’ disability, I find such claims as sadly comic as the non-disabled actors trying to portray us. They don’t want input from such groups as Not Dead Yet, Direct Action Network or ADAPT and get defensive when we provide unsolicited input. Those associated with Me Before You are saying we just don’t understand. Not exactly respectful to our community.
One article in The Guardian claimed that makers of Me Before You had gone to hospitals to research the lives of disabled people (Me Before You director defends film against disability campaigners). Isn’t that a bit like going to a gynecologist to research women’s lives? It might be funny if it weren’t so sad. Um, do I actually have to explain that disabled people *don’t live in hospitals*?
We also, by and large, don’t live in castles, either. The ‘hero’ of this movie has way too much money to be in any way ‘typical’ of disabled people. According to the US Census bureau, people with severe disabilities are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as their non-disabled peers. While there is, of course, vast variation in the economic status of individual disabled people, it seems that movies in this category often represent their protagonist as well off. Why? Could it be that they want us to ignore the other factors in disabled lives that may lead to suicide?
The third possible reason for telling such a story would to make a classic star-crossed lovers story in the tradition of Tristan and Isolde or Romeo and Juliet. Oh, but those don’t use disability as reason for the lover’s separation, so obviously even if the author was trying to write a love story in the tradition of the masters, she failed miserably. Since she’s adequately demonstrated a lack of care about real disabled people, and complete lack of knowledge about our lives, this can only indicate a sad use of disability as an unsupported plot device. Hackneyed at best.
The only possible explanation for the function of such movies is to oppose the disability rights movement. This is very like the Backlash described by Susan Faludi regarding the women’s movement.
The function of such movies is to remind us how tragic and terrible life with disability must be against evidence of real disabled people.
In Me Before You, film makers have carefully made sure that the primary, disabled character, Will, has *no* reason to commit suicide other than disability. They’ve made him young, extremely wealthy, good looking, with plenty of family support, in love with the love of his life who also loves him. So, the only possible function of this movie is a *very* direct attack, targeting the disability rights movement and making money off our oppression as a minority group. Yet they seem surprised that we don’t like it.
Wheelchairs seen in public, gasp! Time to put those uppity gimps in their place – again. Time to reinforce the non-disabled horror of disability.
The disability rights movement is wise to how such movies function. Those who make such claptrap can expect vocal opposition, each and every time.