Now. Before I tear this movie a new one, let me start by saying that Emilia Clarke is a delightful actress and I’d watch her in anything. She should really be cast in a long running show that loses its shit in episode nine every goddamn time.
Me Before You isn’t necessarily a bad film, you know what you’re getting yourself into the second you buy the ticket, but it’s an exhausting take on disability in a world that has a very narrow view on how disabled people actually live.
Will Traynor is a handsome, wealthy man living in London town. He has it all. The great hair, the blonde sex-kitten girlfriend, the motorbike and he has to make very important calls to the New York office at 6am English time. He has it all until he gets hit by a bike and becomes quadriplegic. Luckily for him, his parents can take him in and turn their modest horse stables into an all-wheelchair accessible annex in their faux-castle residence. This isn’t just Killiney Hill wealth that we are seeing, this is probably 67th in line to the throne, possibly married to your second cousin once removed wealth.
His care, his adapted car and home, his parents who will spend anything necessary to prove that life is worth living when you have a disability might be a realistic view of the 0.001% of people who live with a disability but it’s a view that I can’t take anymore. It’s not fair of me to comment on disability from an accident or, indeed, paralysis from an accident, as I was born with a disability and do not know life without one so I won’t. The euthanasia element in Me Before You is interesting and having watched Terry Pratchett’s BBC documentary Choosing to Die and read Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, I’ve come to learn that people should have the right to choose and they handled that nicely. Well done. But while there are elements of Me Before You that could very well resonate with a lot of people either living with a disability or caring for somebody with a disability, I did not connect to anything in this movie. Other than Emilia Clarke’s charm.
And therein lies the problem. That big old spectrum of disability is narrowed down to two things on the big screen. In TV and film, disability is used as a way to make other people feel better or to inspire. To be a disabled character in TV or film, you must be looked after or be completely extraordinary to be written into a script. For some viewers, it might be the only time in their lives that they have thought about disability in any real way. But these movies do not educate and they do not enlighten. They are just there to give warm fuzzy feelings or teary eyes on a Tuesday evening.
Films About Disability rarely get it right. Well, the ones that I’ve seen anyway. Disabled people only really exist in Films About Disability and they play the disgruntled war veteran or the disabled local girl with sad eyes. I can name two movies with disabled characters whose disabilities aren’t there for sympathy or inspiration. Those movies are She’s All That and Saved! and, funnily enough, those two characters are played by Culkin brothers. In She’s All That, Lainey Boggs’ little brother Simon (Kieran Culkin) wears a hearing implant. He just wears it. No comments are made about, no whoop-di-doo. He exists. He functions. He’s a nerd. He’s a teenager. It’s perfect. In Saved!, Macaulay Culkin plays the sarcastic Roland Stockard, one of the very few non-devout Christians in a school full of frenzied religious nuts. He’s the normal one in an extraordinary high school situation and if you haven’t seen it, get on it. It’s a damn hoot.
Did you know that since the Oscars started in 1927, 16% of the best actor and best actress won by playing somebody with a disability? These are all big movies that depict disabled people in extraordinary situations. The Theory of Everything, Still Alice, My Left Foot, A Beautiful Mind. But what about us average disabled people? The average disabled people who aren’t multimillionaires. How are we represented? We’re not. Why can’t we replace Zooey Deschanel as the quirky best friend in a romcom who spits out the odd joke or two? What about the good-hearted but altogether too naive high school teacher? Or the wise-cracking science guy in an end of days movie?
We can learn a certain amount from those big Films About Disability but we could learn so much more if we are just included in the cast. Actually functioning and socialising without being made an example of. A lot of us aren’t trying to “overcome something” and we’re not here to change your minds or inspire you, we have other shit to do and it’s about time Hollywood realised that.