We long to watch disabled characters like us. Instead we get Me Before You
The new film is another wearying example of cliched representation. We have real stories, and long to tell them
• Warning: spoiler alert
‘What perhaps is a clever device for writer Jojo Moyes, to me underlines the increasing view that you are better off dead than a living, disabled burden on your loved ones.’ Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin in a scene from Me Before You.
Daenerys, the Mother of Dragons from Game of Thrones, would dislike Me Before You. There’s no bite, no blood and guts. Lots of medications in shiny cupboards in a very posh flat. Definitely no sex. Which of course there should be in such a film, even if a bit fluffy, with no front bottoms. We get a bit of snogging, but Lou – played by Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke – doesn’t even undress Will, the “hero”. Not even to help him in to his PJs, poor thing. But there is death. Will’s end, of his own choosing, supposedly at Dignitas – or at least in a huge luxury Swiss chalet nearby, not in the actual grey industrial building.
I’m no fan of a romcom but even I get that killing off the hero is not standard fare. But that is the key reason I can’t get on board with this film. Many of us can’t. A piece of fairytale romance is what it purports to be, but what perhaps is a clever device for writer Jojo Moyes, to me underlines the view that you are better off dead than a living, disabled burden on your loved ones.
The last week has been quite a rush. Involved with the Not Dead Yet UK protest at the premiere of Me Before You, I glued myself to the internet while my tougher comrades braved the chill in person, including actor-activist Liz Carr and Jane Campbell. Live tweeting plainly showed the cast and Moyes caught by surprise. It quickly went viral, with our tweets and hashtags trending high on the Me Before You page. #MeBeforeYou became #MeBeforeEuthanasia and great sarcastic outpourings
We felt a sense of something big stirring. I got snippets from Liz: Moyes saying she’s never heard our views in the four years since the book was published. Jane Campbell explained to the general invitees why disabled people were angry. When we took stock the next day we realised our social media reach was significant and overwhelmingly positive. My own Twitter shares alone reached 24,000.
Fast forward to Tuesday in the preview theatre at Warner Brothers, where I saw the film in its entirety. Another world of money and movies, and me, a real disabled person, feeling like an alien among mostly white middle-aged men. As I left, the woman behind the bar asked me if I enjoyed the film. My emphatic “no” seemed to surprise her.
Why their puzzled faces? After all – no offence was meant. Why don’t you get our anger? You kill off the hero because he’s disabled and churn out repetitive cliches about disabled lives that has me reaching for my specially adapted axe. This is just weeks after the Invictus Games and a few months before the Paralympics. Wait – aren’t some of those participants “horribly paralysed”? The messages are horribly mixed.
‘Tyrion Lannister (played by Peter Dinklage) has his fair share of sex, booze and outbursts of violence.’ Photograph: 2015 Home Box Office, Inc. All
Disabled people have seen it all before in terms of film portrayal and sadly I don’t have room to go into secondary questions around non-disabled actors taking these roles. The plotlines of these narratives are cliches of bravery, pity, triumph over tragedy and often death.
Television is not much better. We have a handful of disabled female actors leading the field – Liz Carr as Clarissa Mullery in Silent Witness, Lisa Hammond as Donna Yates in EastEnders, Cherylee Houston as Izzy Armstrong in Coronation Street. Yet work written by disabled writers presenting new stories is rare. Overwhelmingly, we remain the subject of programmes using a wildlife study technique such as The Undateables. We are mostly the studied, the talking head, the object of fascination – the freak.
I’ve been writing disabled characters into my work since my teens. Yet the more I wrote about disabled people who loved and fucked and birthed and died, and all the mess and joy in between, the less my work succeeded.
My disability erotica collection, Desires, made it all the way to the researchers on the Richard and Judy book club. This wasn’t what disabled people should be doing; it’s not how the non-disabled like them to be, even now.
Still, there is hope: last year I was delighted by an invite to launch the Literary Consultancy’s initiative, Quality Writing For All with my one woman play Lost in Spaces. This campaign aims to increase diversity within literature, to give space to those writers left outside the mainstream.
Back to Game of Thrones. There we have Peter Dinklage, a real disabled person, as Tyrion Lannister, “the Imp”. He has his fair share of sex, booze and outbursts of violence, and he is there as part of GoT’s great storytelling. For disabled people, strangely enough, are human beings who find their lives going a certain way, and this gives us a unique understanding of the greater human condition. Overwhelmingly, we want to live as part of you. So open an accessible door, and let our stories through.
From the guardian