#ReadBeforeYou: Thoughts on Disability and Representation in Cinema

By Rosie Accola 

 Credit to Warner Brothers

Credit to Warner Brothers

~Spoiler Alert~

The film adaptation of Jojo Moyes’ novel, “Me Before You,” is already being hailed as a summer box office Blockbuster, with a star-studded cast including Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) and Sam Caflin (The Hunger Games). Based on trailers, soundtracked by the quintessential indie woes of The X Ambassadors and Ed Sheeran, the film seems like an opportunity for air-conditioned cinematic escapism at its’ best … and a purveyor of bullshit stereotypes surrounding disabled people’s quality of life at its worst.

The film follows Lou (Emilia Clarke) as she starts her job as a caregiver for a quadriplegic billionaire, Will Traynor, (Sam Caflin). Will and Lou fall in love as she attempts to help him see the good in life. She is infectiously bright and quirky, like any good manic pixie dream girl, she rocks snail buns, brings him flowers— yet to no avail. Eventually Will decides to kill himself via assisted suicide in Switzerland so he won’t hold his friends and family back.

The idea that disabled people are burdens, that there is no possibility of a quality life if that life happens to include a disability, is incredibly toxic and disappointing. One would think that having a disabled person as a main character in a film, especially as a character that is desired rather than desexualized, something that mainstream cinema rarely does, would be a positive thing. Even the saccharine nature of Will falling for his caregiver and vice versa seems almost forgivable, because for once a disabled character exists in the spotlight as someone with romantic interests. Yet, the fact that Will actively decides to end his life for fear of “holding [his partner] back” makes the film's execution a disservice to any sort of mainstream disability representation.

The notion that this experience, of caring for and loving will, somehow makes Lou a better person also perpetuates the narrative of inspiration porn— i.e that the existence of disabled people is noble just because they managed to exist and get out of bed despite being disabled. It’s best exemplified by experience rather than critical terminology, it’s when people tell you they “can’t even imagine” living with chronic pain/having to think through walking down stairs/being they shouldn’t drive etc.  Also by saying Will changed Lou, the film furthers the idea that in narrative art, disability is best used as a plot device or a prop rather than a real, nuanced experience.

This film serves as yet another opportunity for able-bodied actors to profit off of disability narratives. Rather than seek out an actor who was actually quadriplegic, Warner Bros decided to cast Sam Clafin— perhaps this decision was made due to the chemistry between Clafin and Clarke, or Clafin’s Hunger Games allure. Yet it speaks to Hollywood’s overwhelming tendency to utilize experiences of disability without consulting disabled writers, actors, or directors themselves.

Take for example, 2014’s Margarita with a Straw, the Bollywood film follows a young Indian girl named Laila with cerebral palsy as she attends college to study writing in New York. Laila deals with various bullshit aspects of existing while disabled in a university setting, she gets assigned a writing assistant even though she never requested one, but demurs because her writing assistant happens to be hot.  She wins the Battle of the Bands competition at her high school because “a disabled musician wrote the lyrics.” Laila responds to the announcers request for a few words by flipping her off, and it’s triumphant, the middle finger that inspiration porn always needed.

The film is also one of, maybe the only, film that honestly depicts sexuality and disability as coexisting entities. Laila masturbates. She makes out feverishly with another boy in a wheelchair, wheeling up close so she can better loop her arms around him. Once she’s in America, she falls in love with a feminist activist named Khanum, who happens to be a blind woman.  Their relationship gets all the trappings of a hetero box office smash, complete with a loved-up montage featuring two disabled women of color and it’s wonderful

Yet, the woman who plays Laila, Kalki Koechlin, is able bodied. Her movements, her attempts to move her arms in a stiff, titled manner, her head tilt, read as a parody there’s a hollowness. Koechlin has never actually dealt with the immense amounts of frustration that can be felt towards ones own body and knowing this almost feels like a betrayal. On one hand, I know it’s called acting for a reason, but I also know that disabled actors exist. At least, with Margarita,the disability rights group ADAPT was listed as a coproducer in the credits, which insinuates that the film got some input from people who are actually disabled. According to The Guardian, “The film, she says, took its cues from her cousin, Malini Chib, who was born with cerebral palsy and wrote about it in her autobiography, “One Little Finger”. The cousins are just a year apart in age, so they grew up together.” Throughout the film Leila’s mom also makes a point to explain to her college caregiver that, “Cerebral palsy only affects her fine motor skills, it has nothing to do with her intelligence” this is a display of empathy that Me Before You clearly lacks. It implies that disability is a facet of identity, a piece of a complicated whole rather than the defining factor. At the end of the film, Leila takes herself out for a drink, in a classic “treat yourself” fashion. She grabs a margarita, complete with a bendy straw she brought for herself. She asks the waitstaff to pour it into the cup she brought as well, one with a handle and a top, thus making it easier for her to hold. They oblige, and she sips her margarita contentedly, admiring herself in the mirror. Oftentimes in mainstream narratives, we rarely get to see disabled characters content by themselves— any modicum of personhood is always held in relationship to a caregiver or a partner. So to see Laila, out drinking by herself…reveling in her independence and her new haircut is downright affirming.

The tagline of Me Before You is #LiveBoldly, and Margarita with a Straw serves as a necessary reminder that disabled people can do just that, while ironically, Me Before You does not. Margarita With a Straw is the sort of representation that we need; we don’t need to see any more smarmy Forrest Gump bullshit, or any disabled people that exist merely as plot devices or life lessons. We need to remind people that disabled people can and do live boldly, margaritas in hand.