Why I Will Always Have a Problem With Disability in Film: My Case Against ‘Me Before You’, by Mathy Selvakumaran

Here at the SLC Blog, we’re big fans of Mathy’s blog on Medium. We asked if we could re-post one of her latest pieces on an upcoming film titled Me Before You, in which she voices her criticisms of its treatment of disability.

I’ve seen quite a few people in the past couple of days talking about this upcoming film adaptation of a book called Me Before You.

Poster for Me Before You. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49305990

Poster for Me Before You. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49305990

I hadn’t heard of it before yesterday (in either its book or film format), so I looked it up. IMDB gave me this brief synopsis:

“A girl in a small town forms an unlikely bond with a recently-paralyzed man she’s taking care of.”

(Oh joys.) A further cursory glance at the Internet informs me that it’s a heartbreaking tale, with two fairly famous and attractive actors, that will leave you in a puddle of tears and emotions. (So, basically The Fault In Our Stars, minus John Green and the teenagers and the cancer, right?)

Now, I haven’t seen the film (just the trailer on YouTube), and I really don’t want to be the killjoy spoilsport. But from what I’ve seen/read, and as a person with a disability and a filmmaker/screenwriter AND someone who watches and analyses films about disabilities for a living, I have to say: I already have really big problems with it.

I don’t like the way it seems like the disabled character is being used as a major plot device, one that objectifies disability as a tragedy for the able-bodied people to react to. I really don’t like the way it’s being marketed as this feelgood story that will tug at your heartstrings and make the (largely able-bodied) audience feel “inspired”, because oh look the able-bodied girl will convince the disabled man who is very attractive but has nothing to live for anymore and wants to die that yes, life is worth living! I doubt that many able-bodied people, having watched this film, will walk away from it thinking about the barriers in society that make life difficult for disabled people in real life, and determined to actually do something about it.

I also have a problem with Sam Clafin, an able-bodied actor, being cast in the role. This happens far too often in Hollywood, where actors with disabilities who are more than qualified for the roles are skipped over in favour of attractive able-bodied actors with “star power” that can pull in bigger box office profits (and, perhaps selfishly, an industry statuette or two, because we all know disability roles are basically a shortcut to Oscar glory). Disability drag is a real thing that we should speak out more against. The most obvious and most recent example of this is Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, but there’s also Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road (Imperator Furiosa could have been played by an actual amputee, just sayin’…), Bradley Cooper in the Broadway adaptation of The Elephant Man, Kevin McHale in Glee (a show that clearly didn’t do its wheelchair research), Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot…I could go on. So many times these able-bodied actors (who I’m not denying are talented people in themselves) are hired under the guise of being able (excuse the pun) to portray a before-and-after of their character, and are then highly praised and celebrated with awards for their “authentic” transformations. With able-bodied actors being cast in these roles, where are the opportunities for disabled actors? We as a society are outraged when we see race exploited on the big screen — so why is it not the same with disability?

So, long story short – if you were considering seeing this movie, I’m asking that you maybe reconsider and think about seeing something — anything — else. Something more complex, something that engages with disability but isn’t limited to one-dimensional disability issues — perhaps even something that actually hired actors with disabilities?? (I can recommend the TV show “Switched At Birth” which has deaf actors and heavily features conversations in American Sign Language.) Support disabled people working hard to be visible and to be positively portrayed in the industry — because we do exist, and we want equality.

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