When I was around ten years old, the first X-Men movie was released. My family was having dinner, and it must have been a special occasion because my uncle was invited and was sitting near my right elbow. There was a lull in the conversation, and one of my relatives brought up the excitement surrounding the movie, hoping to get the energy going again. But instead of embracing the discussion, my uncle heavily sighed (so that everyone could hear it) and said something about the movie being offensive to people with disabilities.
My uncle was and continues to be a homecare attendant for clients with disabilities. He has also been an outspoken activist for feminist and disability rights as far back as I remember. He was the first one who told me what ERA stood for; it was engraved on a small metal bracelet he still wears. He always had a story about hounding another local politician, or a client who was a professional dancer even though she was in a wheelchair, or one of his mentally ill friends whom he had charitably taken into his home.
Most of these stories went straight over my young, curly head. In fact, by the time I was ten, I had already learned to tune them out. I got the impression that my parents and older siblings never took my uncle’s political rants or depressing stories seriously — that there was some part of this lifestyle that wasn’t quite attuned to our household’s reality and our perception of the world. This was probably never explicitly said to me, but it was what I had picked up from the way my relatives jokingly provoked him, and shooting “here we go again” glances across the dining room table.
So when my uncle told us that the reason why the X-Men movie was offensive was because Professor Xavier, a character in a wheelchair, was played by an able-bodied actor, I was already prepared to politely throw this conversation under the rug. But I was also a bit curious about this logic, so I asked him why it mattered. He replied with a question, “Well your mom is Mexican. Wouldn’t you want to see a Mexican character in a movie played by an actual Mexican person?”
He overestimated my understanding of representation in the arts. Besides, even though I am half-Mexican, I look white, and there are plenty of white characters for me to identify with. “No. I don’t really care as long as it’s a good actor.”
I think about this conversation often, especially since culture and representation have become professional interests of mine. Hollywood’s white-washing of minority characters, as well as the industry’s racially biased hiring (and awarding) practices has gained extraordinary attention in the past few years, particularly with social media movements exploding around #oscarssowhite and the recent casting of white actors in Asian roles in Ghost in the Shell and Doctor Strange. Finally, popular opinion has caught up with my uncle’s… 15 years later.
Me Before You has received a lot of media attention around claims that the film’s storyline degrades the experiences of men and women with disabilities. The film, adapted from the novel by JoJo Moyes, centers on the romance between Will (Sam Caflin), a paralyzed young banker with nothing to live for, and Lou (Emilia Clarke), his cheerful caregiver who injects Will’s miserable life with a newfound sense of awe and love.
Will — who was paralyzed in an accident — assumes that his new life is inherently less valuable than his old able-bodied life. He is cynical, worthless, sexless, and believes that he is a burden on his friends and family. The character is reduced to his circumstances, which in turn are translated into a tragic, futile existence. Even if this was not the intent of the author or the creative team, it is certainly the impact of this narrative: sad, disabled man needs young, able-bodied woman to provide him with meaning.
(Skip to next paragraph to avoid spoilers) Will’s meaning only manifests itself in relationship to Lou. In the end, Will decides that his continued existence will only be a burden to himself and to those around him, and commits suicide. He leaves Lou with a sizable inheritance so that she is able to live a fuller life. This ending again perpetuates the idea that Will’s worth is only measurable by his relationship to able-bodied loved ones and that, in fact, others benefit from his death.
Given the lack of stories about people with disabilities in popular culture, this film should cherish the opportunity to present an empowering, or at least a complex, portrait of Will. Instead, it sends the message that if a person with a disability has any meaning at all, it is dependent on the able-bodied people who care for them. This shouldn’t be the way able-bodied audiences perceive disability, nor how audiences with disabilities should see themselves.
Youtuber The Daily summarizes the horror of this idea with a bold comparison: “Can you imagine if Hollywood regularly churned out a film in which the lead actor, perhaps because he was black or Latino, living in a white man’s world, and he couldn’t get a job, and couldn’t really find meaning…he decided that his life was meaningless and the best thing to do would be to kill himself and the movie portrayed this as some sort of good and dignified thing or solution?”
In a TedTalk lecture, psychologist, model, and disability rights advocate Danielle Sheypuk discusses sex and dating as a person with disabilities. She criticizes how people with disabilities are portrayed by media as asexual or not able to have sex, and spreads the myth that they cannot be satisfying lovers or strong parents. Sadly, this perception is not only absorbed by able-bodied people, but also by the disabled community. “If you hear it enough, if you’re rejected enough, you believe it.”
Outcry over the film has been led by Not Dead Yet, a disability rights organization which also campaigns against assisted suicide. The group led protests at film premieres in the UK and in America, and launched the hashtag #MeBeforeEuthanasia to counter the film’s marketing campaign. They claim that mainstream media tends to depict disabled characters as people to be pitied, and whose circumstances lead them to suicidal acts, as in the controversial ending to Best Picture-winner Million Dollar Baby.
Emilia Clarke, director Thea Sharrocke, and Jojo Moyes have responded to the backlash by focusing on the character-specific choices and personality of Will Traynor, as opposed to the larger implications of his choices. Clarke says “What we are particularly showing is one point of view…there’s no comment there. There’s no opinion being formed.” Sharrocke similarly declares that the character is “one man who has a choice to make, and it’s an individual choice.”
It is true that the film is presenting only one fictional story, and that Will is a fictional man with his own fictional motivations. But the fact that the film is fictional means that it wields the power to present alternative, empowering stories that may not be commonly seen in mainstream culture. It means that it can still move us emotionally while showing us complex, multi-layered, and honest characters. All art exists inside of a larger society that learns and changes from it, whether we’d like it to or not. In an industry where disabled characters get little representation, Me Before You has the opportunity to mean so much more to the disabled community.
There are many ways a film like Me Before You could respect and empower the disabled community, and many of them have already been discussed surrounding other issues of representation in Hollywood. The first way is to cast an actually disabled actor in the role. Yes, we’ve circled back to my uncle’s X-Men peeve. We have already been so vocal this year about the white-washing of minority roles, yet the only criticisms of the able-bodied Sam Claflin being cast as a disabled man I’ve seen have been small mentions in larger articles tackling the movie’s themes. Able-bodied actors “cripping up” for a performance — particularly when there is no shortage of disabled actors who could speak into the movie with their own lived experience — is mystifying. If a film is about someone with a disability, people with disabilities should be represented on the screen, as well as in the creative team.
The emotional or spiritual journey of a disabled character should not rest solely on the shoulders of the able-bodied people they meet. Their circumstances should not be viewed as a tragedy, to which their whole personality is reduced. They are not Jesus Christ-esque victims whose suffering exists only to inspires others. They themselves can be men and women in power. They can be sexual partners, lovers, or parents. They have the same opportunities, aspirations, desires, flaws, etc. as their able-bodied counterparts. Why not have a character in the film, even if it’s not the protagonist, who portrays these possibilities?
My uncle’s wish for disabled individuals to finally see themselves in a Hollywood blockbuster, playing a superhero who is never reduced to his wheelchair, was a wish of empathy and solidarity with the community. People with disabilities want to see dignified representations of themselves. It’s our job to include them in the process.