The recent entry into this genre, "Me Before You", initially looks the same. Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, but will their love survive something neither of them can control? And like its contemporaries, it received mixed reviews upon release. But what makes this film different from its boring, tepid ilk is the "tragic" thing that complicates the boring couple's love:
The boy is a recent quadriplegic, and the girl is trying to prevent him from pursuing assisted suicide through the power of love.
This film has come under criticism from disability activists for casting able-bodied actor Sam Claftin as its paralyzed male lead, misrepresenting and fetishizing the disabled, and overall framing disability as an overwhelming tragedy worse than death. The author of the book-turned-film notably didn't consult quadriplegics while writing the book or screenplay of the film, and the director of the film defended it as being "about the right to choose" and that critics simply had no knowledge of the book or film to justify their outrage, calling it a "fundamental misunderstanding".
Putting aside the complicated politics of assisted suicide, the controversy surrounding "Me Before You" has found myself looking at how disability is portrayed in the media. Or rather, how common I've found disability to be portrayed as a tragedy by the media. In "Me Before You" Claftin's character is portrayed as being a young vibrant success before his paralyzing accident, putting him in despair that he supposedly can't enjoy life in the way he was accustomed to. The upcoming Sundance TV mini-series "The A Word" profiles a British family coming to terms with their child's recent autism diagnosis and is advertised as a "drama". The film "Theory of Everything" ends with a dream sequence that sees Stephen Hawking (played to an Oscar win by similarly able-bodied Eddie Redmayne) able to exit his motorized chair and able to talk, hinting at how his life could have possibly been better had he not developed ALS after the film shows all the things that "limited" him. And the popular show "Parenthood" had a substantial subplot about a family's "struggle" with their son's autism.
These stories about disability tend to not be about the disabled person in question but rather how their disability affects others. All the aforementioned shows and films are told through an outsider encountering and engaging with the disabled character. The main character of "Me Before You" is Emilia Clarke's character, who is Claftin's caretaker. "The A Word" and "Parenthood" put the parents and extended family members of the autistic sons at the forefront of the narrative. And "The Theory of Everything" was based on a book written by Hawking's first wife and the film starts with her meeting him and proceeds to frame Hawking's medical state through her eyes. In this narrative, the disabled character doesn't get a substantial chance to share their perspective on their life and condition. More often than not, they are objects to further the non-disabled's characters' story if not serving as outright obstacles.
None of this is to say that portraying disability as difficult isn't a valid narrative. I'll be the first to attest to disability to being hard as hell. Autism has made it hard for me to adjust to the expectations of our highly socialized world and has affected everything from making and keeping friends to meeting school and work expectations (and in the latter retain work). And as I wrote last month, I'm among the many disabled people who suffer from anxiety, depression, and have had suicidal ideations in the past. Disability comes with a huge set of challenges that most people will never and can't ever hope to know about unless they are disabled themselves.
The problem is that the go-to disabled narrative is the one of disability as a tragedy. More often than not, disability is shown as being a lesser form of life than the able-bodied one. The able-bodied main characters are thrown into a situation where everything about the disabled person is hard work and a strain on everyone's lives. The challenges of being and/or working with disabled people are real, but when they are the primary focus of the story it demeans the disabled character to being a burden on others to the point where, as in "Me Before You", death is seen as a noble pursuit to end their misery. No one wants to feel like a burden and no one wants to feel like their life is worthless just because they don't fit the norm.
So how do we fix this problematic pattern? Simple - tell and promote disability stories from the disabled character's perspective. This means consulting the neurodivergent and disabled on the stories centered around them or just giving the disabled and neurodivergent the opportunity to share their own stories. There's as many different ways we disabled and neurodivergent folk live our lives as able-bodied, neurotypical people do and it's not always sob stories or inspirational pieces "overcoming" our conditions. And further, we the public need to promote and hold these stories as important and worth people knowing. This part's considerably more tricky, as the able-bodied and neurotypical establishment has a lot of power over what stories are shared and how. But we as individuals have our own power in calling out troubling portrayals of the disabled and demanding better. After all, the criticism for "Me Before You" by disability groups is covered more by the press rather than the film itself. I'll take that as a small sign of progress.
Like any disability, autism may make my life complicated but it doesn't make it tragic. My life has inherent value and is my own, rather than a pawn in someone else's tale. I deserve to see stories that put people like me in the driver's seat rather than the back of the car or worse set as a roadblock. I want to see me as the hero of my own story, whether it be tragic or comic. In short, I want to see me before "Me Before You".