Friday, July 1, 2016

Me Before This Blog, Part 2

(Note: This blog entry contains spoilers from the film Me Before You.)

This is the second part of a two-part blog about the film Me Before You, which ignited a critical global response from the disability community around issues of disability representation in film, assisted suicide, and other ableist trends in our society. (Read Part 1 here.) As so much has already been written about the film by people with and without disabilities, I would like to use this blog as an opportunity to respond to comments made by the film's writer, director, actors, and other supporters of the film, as I believe this is the best way to create a true dialogue between the different perspectives and establish a brighter path toward improved representation of people with disabilities in film and television.

Me Before You featured scenes of Will before his accident, so it had to cast a nondisabled actor. This argument has been used to defend casting nondisabled actors to portray characters with disabilities in Me Before You, The Theory of Everything, and many others, but under closer scrutiny, this argument does not hold up. In Me Before You, for example, the scenes of Will before his accident can be reduced to about 3-4 minutes of screen time out of 110 minutes, and they exist primarily to provide stark contrast to the immovable, post-accident Will – a worthy endeavor considering the filmmakers must make Will’s ultimate decision believable. However, considering the brevity of these pre-accident scenes, they could have been enacted using a stunt double, portrayed by a different actor, filmed exclusively from Will’s point of view, or possibly even created using computer-generated imagery (CGI). And if these options seem unrealistic, the same effect of these few scenes could have similarly been achieved through dialogue. But on the whole, this is a weak excuse, especially when you consider how much the film would have benefited from an actual actor with a spinal cord injury who could bring nuance rooted in real experience to the role. Of course, it is acting, which by nature requires actors to imagine themselves in situations they have not experienced; still, basic parameters do exist within the casting process (e.g., a 12-year-old would not be cast to play a 90-year-old man, men are not regularly cast as women, and white people are not cast to portray people of color, etc.), and to not extend those same parameters to people with disabilities is wrong – especially to the capable actors and actresses with disabilities who remain unemployed while nondisabled actors secure the few disabled roles available.
An image of Me Before You's Will Traynor prior to his spinal cord injury
It’s just a movie. Indeed it is a movie, but a movie is never just a movie. As suggested in Part 1, this movie does not exist in a vacuum. Rather it exists in a social context where ideas about underrepresented minorities are formed in movie theaters or in front of TV sets, where assumptions about another person's quality-of-life can have deadly consequences, where people with disabilities must constantly struggle to even be acknowledged as a minority group. Just less than two months ago I observed an Austin Community College "Ethics in Government" event in which 25 college students discussed the issue of physician-assisted suicide. I listened as one student after another used phrases like "burden to your family" and explained why they too would want to die if they became disabled. No one could answer the question "Why is disability more frightening than death?" and no one was interested in uncovering why there is such a stigma around an inevitable human condition. My own experience of growing up in a small town and being one of only two people with a physical disability in an entire school district taught me that when you don't know anyone else with a disability, you really can't help but form your ideas based on what you see in the media. And naturally, my view of my own disability was extremely negative until I actually had the opportunity to meet other people with disabilities. Fast forward to January of this year, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences neglected to include people with disabilities in its mandate for inclusion in all its facets. The bottom line is that films like Me Before You have far-reaching social implications that we should not ignore.
An infographic shows a block of text beside a signed black and white photo
of disabled actor Harold Russell holding a telephone to his ear.
Aren’t there more important issues for the disability community to protest than this film? This is, actually, the point. A film like Me Before You gives the audience the impression that Will’s disability is purely a medical problem and not a social one. While the film does draw attention to social issues like accessibility (Will gets stuck in a muddy parking lot where there is presumably no accessible parking and later remarks how difficult a trip to Paris would be as a wheelchair user due to the lack of accessible cabs and businesses), the moments are too few to counter the overwhelming opinion that the bulk of Will's problems arise from his disability and not the society he lives in. Why does this matter? Consider the infographic above, taken from Farnall and Smith's 1999 article which reads, "A national study of over 1200 adults found that those who watched positive portrayals of characters with disabilities were 'more likely to recognize discrimination against people with disabilities and less likely to say they had negative emotions when encountering people with disabilities.'" So advocating for improved representation of people with disabilities in film and television is, in fact, fighting discrimination and working towards greater inclusion and acceptance of people with all abilities. And without the disability community's protests and critiques of Me Before You, we would not be having these important discussions at all.

In protesting films that paint disability as a miserable experience and pushing for more positive portrayals of disability in film, we hope to communicate to the world that we are a proud social group, that we experience discrimination, that we have civil rights, and that films have the tremendous power to alter perceptions and create change.

Have you seen Me Before You and other films or TV shows about disability or with disabled characters? What did you think? Have you seen films with positive portrayals of characters with disabilities? What are they? Tell us in the comments!

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