A few months ago, a friend and disabled activist posted a blog on his Facebook page lamenting the latest soppy Hollywood film and its stereotypes of disability. I read it and moved on, thinking another cheesy romance wasn’t going to attract much attention.
Then Me Before You came along. As a disabled woman and wheelchair user, my blood boiled.
The film tells the story of a wealthy young man, Will Traynor, played by Sam Claflin, who becomes paralysed after a motorcycle accident. He falls in love with his new caretaker, Lou Clark, portrayed by Game of Thrones actress Emilia Clarke. But – spoiler alert! – despite his love for her, he chooses to leave her: the story concludes with Will choosing assisted suicide and leaving his fortune to Lou.
I’m a member of Muscular Dystrophy UK’s “Trailblazers”, a 600-strong network of young campaigners across Britain. While some of our members enjoyed the book, the vast majority felt deeply unsettled by its premise.
We are of course keen for disabled storylines to enter mainstream culture, but Me Before You is misleading and inaccurate. It spreads jarring messages about life as a disabled person to the public. With its fatal ending, Hollywood is again telling people like me that it’s better to choose death than live as a disabled person. It’s saying my life isn’t worth it.
Such is the anger within the disabled community about this film that activists hijacked a Twitter chat with Claflin, shutting it down early by using the film’s hashtag #LiveBoldly – which, ironically, Claflin’s character shuns when he commits suicide. There were also protests at the film’s premiere.
The representation of life as a disabled person in Me Before You is a blurred reflection of the truth. Director Thea Sharrock said that she wanted to avoid portraying the realities of living with a disability in the film, such as being hoisted into a bath or being helped to clean, because she wanted to make Will’s disability “more normal”. In doing so, she strips the character and film of any real meaning.
Sharrock is right that disability needs to be normalised, but that will only happen when people like her stop leaving my reality on the cutting room floor.
Hollywood has again allowed, even encouraged, a non-disabled actor to “crip up”, playing a disabled character who believes his life is over simply because he cannot move. To see a non-disabled actor play a disabled role, yet again, is a real insult to disabled people, who are still hugely under-represented in mainstream culture.
We had game changers in Cherylee Houston in Coronation Street, deaf actress and Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, and Glee and American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy, who casts disabled actors and actresses. We need to build on these successes and push for further inclusion, fair representation and accurate portrayals.
Advertising disability as a fate worse than death is offensive and damaging. It’s damaging for the young people with disabilities who are watching this film. It’s damaging to the public perception of disability. It’s damaging to us – to how we live and to our aspirations for the future.
Disability is an emotive, complex subject that deserves public attention. In the creation of a film as misleading and superficial as Me Before You, we all miss out.
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