As a disabled person, I’m used to being ignored, especially when it comes to movies and TV. Over the last 20 years, what have been our options for representation? That Guy in the Wheelchair on Glee? Juliette Lewis in The Other Sister? The fact that I’m even mentioning a Juliette Lewis movie from the 1990s just goes to show how much Hollywood’s been missing in action when it comes to depicting disability. When you don’t tell people’s stories, you’re telling them, by omission, that they don’t matter. Growing up with cerebral palsy, I had such low self-worth that I know it would have helped if I had seen people who looked like me in entertainment.
So when I heard about Me Before You, a major studio movie finally starring a quadriplegic character, I was like, OMG, YASSSSSS! Disability is finally in vogue! Let’s get that shit trending on Twitter! There were some rumblings of controversy over the ending, but I figured I needed to see it for myself before I got all Judge Judy about things. So I went to a showing at my safe place — the ArcLight in Hollywood — spent approximately 50 bucks on candy and popcorn, and got cozy for the Hot Disabled Blockbuster of the summer.
And you know what? For a while, I actually kind of liked it! Admittedly, the first scene is kind of cringeworthy: Will (Sam Claflin) is introduced having the time of his able-bodied life as he rolls around in the sheets with his hot girlfriend, rides a chic motorcycle, and enjoys having a hot body. All of that changes, however, when he’s struck by a car and left paralyzed from the neck down. Uh-oh! No more hot girlfriend, no more motorcycle, and no more six-pack. (Just kidding: He still maintains his impeccable physique even as a quadriplegic.)
But soon the film settles into more comforting rom-com territory and even produces some genuinely moving moments between Claflin’s character and his quirky caretaker, Louisa, played by Games of Thrones star Emilia Clarke. I found myself thinking, Hey, this isn’t so bad! What are people getting so up in arms about?
And then the ending came. And oof, was it hard to watch. The driving conflict of the movie is that Will is determined to end his life now that he’s a quadriplegic, and he wants to go to Switzerland, where it’s legal to have an assisted suicide. Louisa tries to change Will’s mind by showing him that life can still be worth living if you’re disabled, and along the way the two of them fall in love. But unfortunately, even romance can’t stop Will, and he ends up going through with the planned suicide, leaving Louisa a bunch of his money to “live boldly” while he rots.
I had a hunch this terrible ending was coming, but, for some reason, I still hoped there would be a magical switcheroo and Will would somehow find the desire to live. When he finally killed himself, I felt an entire buffet of shitty emotions: I was embarrassed, hurt, and disappointed. I imagined Betty Sue Moviegoer walking away thinking, “Wow, if you’re a disabled person, life really isn’t worth sticking around for. I totally understand why he killed himself! Who’s up for the Cheesecake Factory?” Even more importantly, I feared that a disabled person would go see this and have their feelings of worthlessness substantiated: “This movie is right. My life is nothing. There is no hope.”
Me Before You reminded me that so often, when able-bodied people do acknowledge the disabled, it’s tinged with pity for their condition — and that’s just as problematic. About once a week, a stranger will see me limping and ask if I’m okay; a few days ago, I stood outside a movie studio preparing for a big meeting when a car literally pulled over to the side of the road and asked if I needed to go to the hospital. (When I told the woman I was totally fine, she didn’t believe me and kept barraging me with concerned questions.) The worst of it came a few months ago, when I was walking around downtown Los Angeles and a woman ran up and asked if she could pray for me, “Because you’re limping!” I thought to myself, We’re near Skid Row. There is a homeless man literally shooting up heroin next to us and you’re worried about me?
These may sound like examples of thoughtful strangers showing concern, but to me their attitude speaks to a larger lack of awareness about disabled people. Since people don’t really know how to treat us like human beings, they put on their kid gloves, make a lot of sympathetic sad faces, and call it a day. Me Before You is the movie version of exactly that.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with telling a story about a disabled man who goes through with an assisted suicide, it becomes a problem when that’s the only high-profile story being told featuring a character with a disability, and it’s an even bigger issue when no one involved in the making of the movie is actually disabled. Why was no effort made to hire a disabled actor to play Sam Claflin’s part? He spends five minutes of the movie as an able-bodied person, a small cluster of scenes that could’ve easily been cut or modified. There are so few opportunities for quadriplegic actors in the first place; with this there was finally a prime opportunity to showcase one, but the producers were like, “Nah, just get some able-bodied British guy and tell him not to move anything from the neck down, K?”
This may all read as overdramatic, but it’s worth reminding people — especially those who have the power to get entertainment projects off the ground — that TV and film are powerful mediums that have the ability to change lives. I remember being a young kid watching openly gay character Rickie Vasquez on My So-Called Life and thinking, Whoa. There are gay people out living their lives?! Maybe I’m not such a freak for having a crush on the boy in my voice-lessons class! Disabled people deserve to have that same kind of breakthrough onscreen, because I want society to see us as more than just sorry figures in need of constant pity parties. In order to do that, Hollywood needs to hand us the goddamn mic. This Me Before You shit just isn’t going to cut it.