disability

Racially Insensitive Casting: Peter Dinklage as Hervé Villechiaze (HBO’s “My Dinner with Hervé”)

Hollywood continues to mystify the masses asking for proper (keyword: proper) representation with HBO’s upcoming project, My Dinner with Hervé, detailing a moment in time with Fantasy Island star Hervé VillechaizeAccording to The A.V. Club, HBO’s project supposedly recounts “‘a life-changing’ encounter Villechaize…and a struggling journalist in 1993, the year the Fantasy Island star killed himself at the age of 50.” HBO has released the first image the TV movie starring Jamie Dornan as the journalist in question, Danny Tate, and Peter Dinklage as Villechaize.

If the image looks weird, it’s because Dinklage, unfortunately, pulling a brownface moment. In real life, Villechaize was half-Filipino and half-English. Dinklage, on the other hand, isn’t.

What was the thought process behind this casting decision? More importantly, what was the thought process behind Dinklage, who understands the annoyance of playing stereotypical roles, taking it?

Dinklage, who has achondroplasia (one of the common causes of dwarfism), has been very outspoken about the types of roles he feels are stereotypical for actors with dwarfism. As he told The New York Times in a 2012 interview, he acted onstage and would refuse to book commercial jobs that would have him playing leprechauns or elves. As the article quotes Dinklage as saying in past interview to a theater website, “What I really want is to play the romantic lead and get the girl.”

Even though Dinklage’s defining role as Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones turned out to be the best of all possible worlds as far as a role goes, Dinklage was initially hesitant about it because of his hesitancy about playing dwarves in fantasy in general, particularly after just playing dwarf character Trumpkin in Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, in which he acted under a huge beard. He wanted to make sure the character in Game of Thrones wouldn’t have a beard or pointy shoes.

“Dwarves in these genres always have this look,” he said. “My guard was up. Not even my guard—my metal fence, my barbed wire was up. Even The Lord of the Rings had dwarf-tossing jokes in it. It’s like, Really?

Of course, as we know now, Tyrion Lannister is nothing like a stereotypical fantasy character, which led to Dinklage signing on.

With Dinklage’s clear awareness at the issues facing actors with a disability such as his own, why choose this role, which is essentially taking an opportunity from someone else who needs a big break and could crush it? It seems like the answer lies in one main issue: the lack of roles that are available to actors with dwarfism–in other words, the pervading practice of ableism as the code of business for Hollywood casting.

At the risk of sounding like I’m giving Dinklage an out (I’m certainly not), a role like Hervé Villechiaze doesn’t come around everyday—a role that specifically highlights an actor with dwarfism in an attempt to show the human behind the limiting role he played on television. The casting process, being what it is, was probably HBO making a beeline to Dinklage’s agent, since Dinklage is practically the only hot actor who can fill the role and bring an authenticity to it. With the role being what it is, it’s not a surprise that Dinklage would take it. In all of these films with whitewashing, it’s never a surprise as to why the actors take it—with roles in “swords and sandals” movies like Exodus: Gods and Kings or sci-fi films like Ghost in the Shell, the draw is money, higher star wattage, and more big roles down the road.

However, while Dinklage will most certainly bring authenticity to the role from his experience as a person with dwarfism, he clearly can’t bring authenticity to it as far as racial experiences go, and biracial experiences to be specific. If you have to darken your skin because the person you’re playing is a person of color, it’s clear you probably shouldn’t be playing the part.

As a whole, Hollywood isn’t a place that utilizes lateral thinking often; it might seem like Dinklage is the only game in town, but there are, in fact, tons of actors with dwarfism who have been playing fantasy dwarves and dehumanizing roles for years who could also be just as good as Dinklage in this role, if not better. Take for instance, Ronald Lee Clark, an actor who appeared alongside other veteran character actors with dwarfism like Martin Klebba, Danny Woodburn, Mark Povinelli, Joe Gnoffo, and Jordan Prentice in Mirror, Mirror. While Clark might not be Filipino, he is actually Asian, which for Hollywood standards would be a step in the right direction. If Clark was given the chance to audition, who’s to say he wouldn’t have aced it? At the very least, the makeup team wouldn’t need to commit the movie-making sin of brownface.

Also, if I could find Clark by utilizing my memory and an IMDB search, couldn’t the casting office have done the same? Specifically, couldn’t they have scoured Hollywood for an actor who had dwarfism and was also Filipino? Of course, if they actually wanted to. Sure, they wouldn’t get a “big name,” as it were, but arguably, Dinklage himself wasn’t a super big name, even with the Chronicles of Narnia credit, before he was given a chance with Game of Thrones. His role could have easily gone to another actor of typical size who’d be willing to play smaller with the help of movie magic. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before, with Gary Oldman playing a dwarf in the film Tiptoes, a film where Dinklage himself played a family friend (as referenced in the New York Times interview).

For this article, I reached out to Vilissa Thompson, disability advocate and owner of Ramp Your Voice!. Her take expresses much of the same confusion and irritation about Dinklage being cast as a disabled person of color.

“Authentic representation of disabled people, whether fictional characters or real-life persons, is hard to come by due to many factors, such as cripping up, stereotypical portrayals, and a resistance to show diverse disabled perspectives,” she said. “What occurred with the Peter Dinklage situation is upsetting because we finally have a role that a disabled person should be casted in, and even that was done incorrectly by the whitewashing.”

“This is classic Hollywood, but it’s perplexing to me how you get one aspect of the casting correct (hiring an actually disabled actor) and not the whole thing (hiring a white man instead of an actor of color),” sie said. “It’s disappointing that Hollywood continues to not support disabled actors of color. What a missed opportunity for little people of color to be represented fully. Hollywood has a #DisabilityTooWhite issue when it comes to disabled people of color and media representation – this adds to it. Not only do we not see our stories on the big and small screens; now we have to be concerned about being whitewashed, too?”

It would seem that fear of whitewashing is yet another hurdle disabled actors of color and audience members of color alike have to face when it comes to proper representation. Time will tell if My Dinner with Hervé will get the same social media treatment Ghost in the Shell, Doctor Strange, and Iron Fist received when it tried to pass off a white actor as an Asian character.

“Power Rangers” shows the superhero genre how representation is done

Photos: Kimberley French/Lionsgate

If you told anyone that the movie that was going to shake up the superhero genre in the best way would be the film adaptation of Power Rangers, they would be shocked and probably, in some strange, elitist, I’m-too-old-for-Power Rangers way, appalled. But Power Rangers has come out of the blue as the film when it comes to portraying a diverse group of people in a way that is both organic and makes sense for today’s world and today’s multicultural and diverse audience.

The two characters that have set Power Rangers apart from other films are Trini (the Yellow Ranger), played by Empire star and pop singer Becky G., and Billy (the Blue Ranger), played by Me and Earl and the Dying Girl‘s RJ Cyler. Trini is the first LGBT character in the Power Rangers universe and her story includes her coming to terms with her sexuality and her “girlfriend problems.”

“For Trini, really she’s questioning a lot about who she is. She hasn’t fully figured it out yet,” said director Dean Israelite to The Hollywood Reporter. “I think what’s great bout that scene and what that scene propels for the rest of the movie is, ‘That’s OK.’ The movie is saying, ‘That’s OK,’ and all of the kids have to own who they are and find their tribe.”

Cyler talked to ScreenRant about how he got into character as Billy and what he learned about respectfully playing a person on the autism spectrum.

“I wanted to show a different…viewpoint of people that are seen as bieng on the spectrum…Or people dignosed with autism, ’cause it’s like I feel like us being outsiders looking in and I take that, I cast my own stone when I say that, ’cause there’s a lot that I didn’t know before,” he said.

“I actually sat down and shut my mouth and actually just listened and you know, accepted every bit of information with no judgement,” he said. “I know that it was my job to show, you know, that people that are on the spectrum are just regular people, literally just how we talk, how me and [Becky G] talk, they feel the same way, they have the same emotions, they wanna be loved…they want relationships; they want, you know, connections, and it’s just like I was really excited to be able to play tthat ’cause I know it means so much to so many people, ’cause all of us are affected by it…and it’s something I feel like we needed to have in this movie to be honest.”

If you’re an O.G. Power Rangers fan, then you know that the show has always included a diverse cast, which, in retrospect, might have been kinda daring for the time (despite the fact that the black and Asian cast members were the Black and Yellow Rangers…) I know for sure that, despite for the subject color naming, I was positively affected by Power Rangers, since I saw myself in both Zack Taylor (Walter Jones) and Trini Kwan (Thuy Trang, RIP), who was the only woman of color on the original season, I should add. It seems like we’re seeing another generation of action fans being positively influenced by Power Rangers again, if Twitter is anything to go by.

In short Power Rangers has shown all of these other blockbuster films how it’s done when it comes to representation. There’s no time to worry about box office returns or any other political machinations when it comes to showing people as they exist in the world. I’ll definitely have to check out Power Rangers for myself, because it might just help me with my own increasing knowledge about where I sit on the autism spectrum (since, from research I’ve done and from personal anecdotes I’ve heard about myself, I believe I’m a prime candidate to be diagnosed with ASD). Growing up during a time when your own vision of autism was Rain Man, it’ll be refreshing to see a different portrayal of a condition that affects all of those affected in many different ways.

What do you think about Power Rangers? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses Blerd Chat with Monique and Ramp Your Voice’s Vilissa Thompson

BBC

A couple of weeks ago, PBS aired The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, and while there were great moments in the miniseries, there were some not so great moments, chief of which being Benedict Cumberbatch’s Richard III.

I recently held a Google Hangout chat with Ramp Your Voice! founder Vilissa Thompson about the miniseries. As you’ll read below, we discuss the problematic portrayal of Richard, including how his outward appearance (due to a kpyhosis) became linked to villainy, and how King Henry’s (Tom Sturridge) exhibition of Highly Sensitive traits go unrecognized or looked down upon by other characters. We also talk about how Sophie Okonedo stole the show.

Vilissa Thompson (VT):  Richard III is truly something else. I finished the rewatch of Part 3 today, and I wrote down some of the ableist things he said about himself, & what others said/referred to him as.

Monique Jones (MJ): Where do you want to start? I suppose we could start with his big speech at the end of Part 2. His first monologue was the beginning of the end for me.

VT: It was. To hear him call himself cursed, and describe the occurrences of his birth was troubling for me.

MJ: I found it fascinating in a macabre way how the same ableist sentiments he said about himself—about how no one loved him because of his appearance is why he’s evil, for instance—are the same tropes repeated today. I don’t know why I thought things would have been different back in the day, but I was shocked at how 21st century Richard’s speech still sounded, esp. when you compare it to movies like Split and Don’t Breathe.

VT: The ableism didn’t surprise me, but the fact that he became the evil he was seen as was like a self-fulfilling prophesy. And his fascination to acquire the crown was his means of obtaining “heaven,” which meant that people had to respect him, and he goes beyond the disdain reputation he has and internalized. The ableism of viewing oneself and disabled body as curses/inconveniences are real. That kind of internalization is so common in our community, and even harder to unlearn. It makes you wonder how many times Richard heard about the circumstances of his birth, and how that transformed him into the “monster” he was, in both body and brutality of violence.

MJ: Yeah. I did feel sympathy for him because his internal dialogue seemed like something that was internalized from what he’s heard from everyone else. He was actually a sad, broken soul who just decided to become what he felt everyone else viewed him as. His ambition is understandable—he wants the respect he’s never gotten from people, including his family–but I just wish there was 1) a character who actually wanted to get to know him 2) if Shakespeare had delved more into Richard’s character with more sympathy. What I hated was that there was no serious investigation into Richard as a person. He was just a plot device.

VT:  I agree with you. I think the myths/superstitions surrounding the disabled prevented that closeness to occur. I think having a genuine and meaningful human relationship, even if platonic, would’ve changed things tremendously for him. He was. He was the misshapen being who was blood and power thirsty. There was no depth to his character besides what he desired.

MJ: I don’t know how you feel about Tyler Perry, but to me, Shakespeare is the Tyler Perry of the 1600s. He’s almost always comically broad with his characterizations. Benedict Cumberbatch’s broad acting didn’t help matters.

VT: I can see that comparison. The depiction does nothing to expand understanding of how complicated people are, or dispel stereotypes about people who are underrepresented on the stage (or big or small screen, in Perry’s art).
And the cripping up of the role by allowing Benedict to play Richard definitely doesn’t help at all.

MJ: Yeah. That reminds me: I really didn’t like how in an early part in Part 3 portrayed Richard as body horror. Like, how the camera was revolving around his naked torso in near darkness. Didn’t like that at all.

VT: That was a gross display of his body. That scene was solely to shock at his form; to pair with how you feel about his schemes for power. That scene was hard to look at – it made the disabled body look grotesque, when it’s not.
There is nothing sensational or horrifying about the disabled body.

MJ: Right. I was really turned off by the whole thing; I wish the director hadn’t gone that route. But the whole thing made me feel more sympathy for Richard; that’s the gaze the world has probably had on him his whole life.

VT: It does make you sympathize with him. I did feel for him; you can tell he hated himself and how that kind of hate manifested to hating people who had what he wanted – power, respect, love, a family – things that seemed unattainable to him.

MJ: Yep. What was the nail in the coffin for me was when everyone started calling him “The Dog.” It was much more about his appearance than his actual evil deeds as to why they were calling him that, and at that point, I was just like, “OKAY, SHOW, I GET IT.”

VT: They also called him a bunchbacked toad, a beast – all of these names stripped him of his mere humanness. The dehumanization of Richard with the name-calling was more disturbing than his actual plots.
All of the names we didn’t need to see how they saw him as a “thing” and not as a person.

MJ: Yep. What’s so aggravating is that everyone in the entire story are awful people (save for the kids), but he’s the only one put on a sub-human level. If he didn’t have his condition, he’d be accepted just like everyone else, despite the fact that he’s a killer. Case in point is how Margaret becomes allies with the new queen and the Queen Mother, even though Margaret killed the Queen Mother’s son and husband. But the past gripes go out the window just to get rid of “The Dog.”

VT: I agree. Focusing on Richard’s disability allowed them to separate their evil actions & doings from his – he’s evil because his body is deformed, & I’m better than him… though I’m not. The hypocrisy of all the characters was stark.
Honestly, that mentality about thinking you’re better than a disabled person, regardless of whether they’re a good person or not, is real. The “I may be this, but at least I’m not crippled/disfigured” thinking is common.
I think that Shakespeare perfectly illustrated ableism before the term existed.

MJ: Yep. I know we talked a little bit about Cumberbatch’s acting, but what did you think of his performance overall? I was a little let down, honestly. He’s much better in “Sherlock.”

VT: I wasn’t impressed at all. I think he was as evil in the role as he needed to be, but the cripping up factor made it more offensive and underwhelming for me. The fact that there is no true substance for Richard, & all you feel is pity/sympathy for him instead, makes the character very bad for disability representation. I’m not against disabled characters being evil or vicious, but I am against characters not having depth and relying solely on stereotypes/misconceptions about what having a disability is.

MJ: Yeah. The whole “putting on a disability as a costume” was bad, and Cumberbatch’s acting as a whole was Snidely Whiplash. I had expected him to at least add another layer of depth to the character, which is what a lot of actors do when they get 1D characters. But no, not him. He was just evil. The glimmers of another aspect to Richard weren’t explored nearly enough. And again, the “Creature Feature” aspect of the direction was gross.

VT: It was profoundly gross. To see that driven home by almost every character was hard to watch. Shakespeare’s embodied exactly why non-disabled writers/playwrights shouldn’t write disabled actors – their inability to add depth, humanness, and realism are deep. These depictions end up doing more harm to better seeing disabled people as equal and not curses or sub-human.

MJ: Indeed. The fact that this is supposed to be one of Shakespeare’s “greatest plays” makes me even more suspect of Shakespeare’s supposed mastery of the art of writing than I was before. I already side-eyed Shakespeare just because we are always taught literature from a Eurocentric point of view, but now I’m even more secure in my belief that Shakespeare isn’t all he’s cracked up to be. I do like Othello and Hamlet, but that’s about it.

VT: I feel the same. I think if we were to analyze his plays, we’d see a lot of problematic depictions, themes, and lack of masterful writing. Those are the two plays I like as well.

MJ: Is there anything we haven’t covered? I guess I do want to touch on King Henry a little bit; Henry’s arc was a lot more subtle than Richard’s, but it seemed like Henry was Richard’s foil in many ways–in temperament, but also in disability or perceived disability. Henry’s delicate mental state was often showcased as a detriment to his ability to rule, which could be some kind of commentary on mental disability or just a difference in thinking. Like, I read Henry as being Highly Sensitive (like me), which some people might perceive as a type of disability. I don’t think so, but a study is trying to place it on the autism spectrum [a 2011 theory on introversion also links it to the autism spectrum]. In any case, a big deal was made about the fact that he took things to heart more deeply than other people.

VT: Henry’s mental state and the criticism of how sensitive he was stood out to me too. I think his sensitivity made him more human than the rest of the characters – he held up a moral mirror of sorts to the evils they wanted to enact and justify. I think depicting him as weak because of his sensitive nature allowed for ableism to exist regarding his capabilities to lead. I think his attachment to religion compounded the ableism with his sensitive nature. Henry wasn’t perfect, but he did have a heart, moreso than the others.

MJ: Right. And also, women like Joan of Arc, who are in the same mental ballpark as Henry (Joan’s a little extreme, though) were seen as villains because of ableism and just because they were women.

VT: Exactly. Joan represented resistance to male power, & her religiosity was used against her to declare her mental state unstable. Sexism in Shakespeare’s plays are prevalent, and the status of women and those who are considered too strong or weak are well seen.

MJ: Yep. In a way, France comes out looking good because they actually allowed themselves to be led by Joan. But I wonder if that’s also some sly propagandized statement about what England thought about France—as weak-willed, frilly people.

VT: I think that’s an accurate guess. France, like women, got in their way of things, & needed to know their place.

MJ: To go back to Henry a bit, it’s unfortunate that Henry’s mindset is viewed as a detriment, esp. since that Henry’s way of thinking is still ridiculed today—Highly Sensitive People (HSP) are often told by Western societies specifically that they’re too weak, when our way of being is actually hardwired into us–our nervous systems that take in information a completely different way than non-HSPs. To write HSPs off in that way is completely erasing an entire population of people just because they feel things more intently. And often, folks who are sensitive make great leaders, so Henry had all the tools to be a terrific king.

VT: As someone who is sensitive, I think I had more sympathy for Henry than I did for Richard. I know for me, I try to hide how sensitive I can be to matters because of the fear of being misperceived incorrectly. To have the ability to see beyond yourself and to empathize with the world you live in is a powerful ability. My sensitivity makes me more conscious of suffering, pain, and how to support people who need it. I think Henry’s sensitivity was a gift that he wasn’t given the safe space to nurture in his role as King, and was chastised severely.

MJ: Yep. In many ways, he was a man ahead of his time. He existed in the wrong time period, to me. I mean, 2017 isn’t that equal for sensitive folks, either, but at least there’s more knowledge about sensitivity out there and more of a community and scientific study.

VT: I agree. Our society still isn’t safe to care for sensitive people, but is way better than the times Henry lived in, for sure. I think the hesitation to value sensitivity rests on the idea that if we’re in touch with our feelings, that relinquishes power and makes us vulnerable. I find that a lot of people who are anti-sensitivity are the main ones not comfortable with expressing themselves and allowing vulnerability to be seen by others.

MJ: Yeah. And in turn, that can make sensitive people internalize anti-vulnerability attitudes since (at least with some of my experiences) you feel like you’re going to get shunned anyway. I guess it goes back to Richard, too–if the world sees you in a certain way, then you’re going to start believing it’s true until someone else tells you otherwise or you yourself start realizing the world is full of BS.

VT: Preach it. I know that the fear of being shunned if I display my sensitivity is something I’m working on (esp when it comes opposite sex interactions). The internalization, whether due to disability, sensitivity, or both, can be detrimental to us in so many ways. Richard represented what that looked like regarding disability, & Henry represented what external forces look like for sensitive individuals.

MJ: Yeah, definitely. I can identify with Henry’s wish to just be left alone and study the Bible; I’ve actually thought “Maybe I should just become a nun” several times. At least my solitude would be seen as a noble thing and not a weird/hermit thing.The world gets too overwhelming sometimes, especially if you’re a sensitive person. But the world doesn’t respect the sensitive person’s boundaries or the fact that they’re just as capable of the loud extrovert.
Not that all extroverts are loud, but you get what I’m saying—it’s those qualities that are lauded more than contemplation.

VT: I agree. I go back and forth with being introverted and extroverted, but I do crave my alone time, especially when I’m feeling down. I need the space to vent feelings/emotions, but working it out in my head alone is how I cope with things. For me, because I’m a social person, it’s sometimes hard to tell people to back off & let me be. Being an only child, I’m used to being alone and it doesn’t bother me. There are times when I need a lot of noise & people, but when I need quiet & solitude, I have to have it or I can’t function.

MJ: I’ve always been introverted, some of it by my environment, but most of it is my personality. I’d rather be alone, writing or drawing, only choosing to be around people when I feel like it. People really drain me a lot. Henry looked pretty weary through most of the show, and I understand why—dealing with the demands of society is tough.

VT: It is. I could relate to that draining feeling he displayed. Though I love people, the older I’ve gotten, the more I can see myself drained. For someone who is a social worker, that’s part of the reason I’m not a traditional one – having to deal with people with such intensity would be too much emotionally (this is why I could never work with kids or the elderly, their needs are so great and I’d fear not saving them all). With Henry, he didn’t have the support he needed to be King effectively to his liking, or to his country. That added extra strain to an already stressful predicament.

MJ: And the one person who was there to help him, who seemed to realize he needed an extra arm, so to speak, to deal with the world was his uncle, who those scheming factions had killed. That left Henry even more defenseless.

VT: Exactly. Who knew that the Hollow Crown would have so many problematic layers?

MJ: Yep. It was even more problematic than I realized at first!

VT: I know!

MJ: I think we’ve about covered everything. Is there anything you think we left out of the conversation?

VT: I think we covered it all.

MJ: The reason it caught my interest was for the actress playing Queen Margaret, a Black woman in that role intrigued me greatly. She played her role well.

VT: I know it may sound scandalous, but I’m sure Somerset was the father of her son.

MJ: I totally think Somerset is the father, too!

VT: I don’t see her willingly engaging with Henry to give him a heir

MJ: Yeah, me neither!

VT: I wished something about the paternity of the son would’ve came up… Henry couldn’t have been that naive.

MJ: Right. There should have been a non-canonical thing thrown in there just to let us know that Henry knew. He had to have known.

VT: I think we got that inkling when Somerset was beheaded that he knew she wouldn’t have grieved for him as she did for Somerset… but that could’ve been easily missed if you weren’t paying attention. But I think not allowing that knowledge to be made public goes back to Henry being perceived as weak and not catching on to things. But Henry had to know, as we both indicated.

MJ: Yeah. I wish that line or Margaret’s reaction to that line were amplified in some way. Something just wasn’t explored like it needed to be. But I do have to say that Sophie Okonedo was the GOAT in that role. She really put her foot in it.

VT: She really did. You loved her, you hated her… perfect portrayal. But I agree—that scene should’ve been explored further, that could’ve given us that hint.

MJ: It seemed like she was the only one who got the right tone for Shakespearean play. She was broad/campy enough without going overboard, and she was just serious enough to make Margaret believable.

VT: And near the end, the haunting of Margaret as the prophetess was perfect.

MJ: Yeah, that was so good. Such a good role. I’d say Hugh Bonneville was great too. He’s always kinda Shakespearean in his acting. He really knows how to chew scenery.

VT: I agree. If it wasn’t for Queen Margaret/Sophie O playing that role, I don’t think the series would’ve held my attention as well as it did.

MJ: Yep. That was the only reason I kept tuning in, to see what she was going to do.

VT: Lol… me too girl. Glad it wasn’t just me!

MJ: Nope, definitely not! I could have just tuned out after the first episode once Hugh Bonneville died. But I remembered Sophie was going to be in all three parts, so I stuck with it.

VT: Thank god for Margaret, the real MVP of the Hollow Crown

MJ: When she killed Plantagenet, she was so amazingly cruel. Loved it.

VT: The villainess we needed. So unapologetic about it, too

MJ: The villainess who would have had all of England on lock if she had a chance to rule.

VT: Oh yes, Queen Margaret would’ve been legendary. Imagine her rule… goodness.

MJ: There needs to be a show like this! Someone needs to make a Queen Margaret show. I’d watch that every day.

VT: YAS!!!

MJ: I’ll have to put a pin in that–another idea I need to utilize my screenwriting abilities for.

VT: DO IT!!!! I need this in my life.

MJ: Maybe that’ll be my claim to fame! I’m totally getting some ideas now. WGA, here I come!

VT: Girl, go get that fame, & write!

MJ: YES! Well, with that, I think we’ve covered every inch of The Hollow Crown. Thanks so much for agreeing to do this! It was a lot of fun!

VT: It was! I had a true blast!

Luke Cage: The Black Disabled Superhero We Need

 

 

 

Courtesy of Mike Mort
Courtesy of Mike Mort

Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Originally posted on Ramp Your Voice!

Luke Cage was one of Netflix’s original series I had waited all summer to watch.  Being a blerd and someone who enjoys comics, I was proudly a part of the #Cagetember fandom seen on Twitter.  What excited me was not just Luke’s amazing abilities, but the fact that he was a Black disabled character, an existence that does not receive enough attention or respect within comic spaces.  Luke represents so much to disabled blerds like myself, and I felt that it would only be justly to share why Luke’s existence matters, and the need for more Black disabled characters.

Luke’s Disabled Body:  A Man-Made Creation

Luke Cage’s body is invincible against bullets, and he has supernatural strength.  This is a man who can bend guns like they are made of Play-Doh, throw vehicles across the street without breaking a sweat, and can take a full clip of bullets without blinking.  Luke Cage, in a time where Black bodies are brutally victimized at the hands of the police, is the superhero Black America needs.  He wears a hoodie in homage to Trayvon Martin and those targeted in our community, and has taken on the “Harlem protector” role that he fought internally against.  Luke does not see himself as a hero, but to Harlem, and fans of the series, he IS our hero against crime and police brutality.  It has been quite humorous to see discomfort displayed towards a character who is unapologetically Black.  Luke Cage embodies the kind of Blackness that many of the majority fear – a Black man who cannot be harmed and a Black man who uses his superhuman powers for good.

Luke’s body, as amazing as it is with its seemingly endless capabilities, was man-made – he was a part of a scientific experiment that was unethically conducted while he served time at Seagate prison.  It was due to an accident when he was under experimentation that caused him to become powerful; he is the only known person with his abilities.  Due to this, Luke has remained low-key about his strengths, and was reluctant to be casted into the spotlight when his abilities gained attention in the community.  Luke knew that his powers, if he was not careful, could attract the attention of those who would want to use him for their own personal interests and possibly do harm.  One of the many things I love about this character is how humble and self-reflective Luke is.  He understands fully how his strength can be used for good and evil, and when it comes time to do the right thing, he does not hesitate to do so.

Though Luke’s physical capacities causes him to be perceived as either friend or foe to others in the series, we must not overlook Luke’s hidden disabilities – the trauma he endured while in prison that has had lasting effects on his psyche.  While at Seagate, Luke was forced by beatings and manipulation to be a part of a corrupt prison fighting scheme.  To ensure he would participate, the livelihoods of those Luke befriended were put at risk if he did not do what the prison guards wanted of him.  The emotional and mental traumatization Luke endured can be seen early on when he has flashbacks of his imprisonment, and the pacing he does in attempt to calm himself.  The mental anguish of being dehumanized while incarcerated is not uncommon; though Luke is a fictional character, the trauma he lives with is the reality for many in our criminal system.

Luke’s body is disabled due to the encounters he has had at the hands of people – those of authority and those who sought to make him submit for their own gains.  This realization stood out to me profoundly as I watch the series unfold; the causations of Luke’s body to be disabled cannot be ignored by lovers of the series, or comic book enthusiasts.

The Portrayal of Black Masculinity in Luke Cage

What pleasantly surprised me while watching the series was the many facets of Black masculinity depicted that goes against typical media representation.  Every male character – Luke, Pop, and Cottonmouth especially – were deeply complicated and sides of their humanness, no matter how grotesque or gentle, were equally shown in order for us to see the full person.  As I described earlier with Luke, we got to understand why he was so guarded about his abilities, and yet saw his tender spots when it came to those he loved.  Cottonmouth, the villain we love to hate, was not a hard-hearted individual by nature; his environment helped to shape him into who he became as a man.  Seeing Cottonmouth’s “evolution” sadden me because he embodied how nurture (in this case, familial makeup) can drastically influence how a person becomes.  He had so much potential with his musical abilities that were not fully supported, and we learned how that was a regret he had towards his family.  Pop displayed a different type of evolution – he was a “big man/hustler” in his community who turned into the father figure many desperately needed and relied on.  Pop represented the “we can all change and become a better person” character; Pop’s barbershop was considered Switzerland, a safe space against the harshness of Harlem.

The complexities of these three characters specifically showed that Black men are more than the stereotypes the media and society attempts to box them into.  The depth of their humanity and flaws were significant for a series where Black and Brown characters dominated.  Luke Cage is a prime example as to why we need better representation of people of color; this accurate portrayal should not be considered an anomaly to viewers like myself.

Black Disabled Comic Book Characters Matter

As one can easily gauged by this piece, Black disabled characters matter to me, and good representation matters more.  Though Luke is the center focus of this piece, I would be remiss if I did not shine a light on the other Black disabled character in the series, Mercedes “Misty” Knight.  Though Misty is not disabled in this particular series (Misty becomes disabled when she loses her arm in a bomb explosion while on the job for the NYPD; Iron Man makes her a bionic arm), she is one of the few Black disabled female characters in comic books.

Excuse my language, but Misty is one badass woman, and we see that badassery in Luke Cage from her hard-nosed approach in handling the bad guys.  Though Misty is perceived as no-nonsense when it comes to doing her job for the NYPD, her vulnerability, sensuality, and softness as a Black woman were also captured fully in the story.  Seeing the complexity of Black female characters is just as important as it is for Black male characters.  Black people are not incapable of experiencing emotions beyond anger and aggression; Luke Cage does an excellent job of debunking those myths with characters like Misty.  Misty is hands-down my favorite comic book character of all time, and to see her have such a resonating role in Luke Cage made me fangirl hard.

Though there are not many Black disabled characters in comics, their absence is definitely apparent when the publicity and fandom of white disabled characters in comics are the visible faces of disability.  Yes, this is a good example of #DisabilityTooWhite in literature, and must be recognized and corrected.  Disabled people of color need comics with characters that look and live like them; the limited visibility is not lost on us who desire for more Lukes and Mistys in these fantasy universes.  For me, characters like Luke and Misty displays a different type of Blackness that goes unseen; my Black experience matters just as much as anyone else’s, and disabled characters drives that truth deeply home.

Final Thoughts

It has almost been a month since #Cagetember took place, and I still cannot get over the awesomeness of Luke Cage.  My excitement for season two cannot be contained; I want to see Luke and Claire together, #ShadyMariah got my goat (the “so bad it’s good” ship you cannot help to root for), and to see some of the new players we will be introduced to.  Though I am still geeking over the show, the soundtrack deserves equal appreciation because the performances were too fire for words.  (The song that had my head bobbing was “Bulletproof Love” by Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad featuring Method Man.)  It will be interesting to see what transpires next season (and if Netflix will experience another shut down again – be ready, ‘Flix), and I know my heart will feel as if it will jump out of my chest with every battle Luke faces.  He is indeed the superhero I need.

Thank you for existing, Luke Cage, from the bottom of my disabled blerd heart.

Vilissa Thompson, LMSW is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant “tire track mark” on the world.

Online Vigil for Victims of the Tsukui Yamayuri En Mass Killing to Take Place Tonight

On July 26, 2016, 19 disabled residents of the Tsukui Yamayuri En care facility in Sagamihara, Japan were murdered by 26-year-old Satoshi Uematsu, a former facility employee. As reported by the Guardian, Uematsu turned himself him in to police and admitted his crime. “I did it,” he said. “It is better that disabled people disappear.”

Tonight at 8 pm ET (which would be 9 am on Aug. 5 in Japan), Alice Wong of the Disability Visibility Project and disabled filmmaker/activst Dominick Evans will have an online vigil for those killed and the 20 wounded. The vigil and chat will include Dr. Gillan Peckitt who runs disability-related site The Limping Philospher and resides in Nada-Ku, Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan.

Online-vigil-DVP

The conversation and vigil will give those participating a chance to share grief, express solidarity, and highlight the lack of coverage the attack garnered in the media. “There will be discussions of violence, ableism, murder, and death,” wrote Wong in her blog post about the event. “Please practice self-care.” She also wrote that while everyone is welcome to attend and participate, “this online vigil will be centered on the voices and lives of disabled people, especially disabled people of color who have been so impacted.”

You can learn more about the event at The Disability Visibility Project.

Disabled People of Color Highlighted in #GetWokeADA26 Survey

The creators of Ramp Your Voice! and the Disability Visibility Project, Vilissa Thompson, LMSW and Alice Wong respectively, have collaborated to create #GetWokeADA26. The survey, created to celebrate the 26th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, highlighted the voices of disabled people of color to examine how the Americans with Disabilities Act has affected their lives.

“As disabled women of color, we believe the disability community needs to ‘get woke’ on race, racism, and intersectionality,” wrote Thompson. “The work of getting ‘woke’ can be hard, awkward, and uncomfortable, but this is something disabled people of color expect and deserve.”

Many who have participated have said how the Americans with Disabilities Act have helped them finish school, have better work experiences and a better quality of life overall. But other participants cited how the law negatively affects those with “invisible disabilities.”

The survey also highlighted other aspects of being a disabled person of color on the gender and sexual spectrums. Many of the overlapping issues facing disabled people of color are either ignored or not dealt with at the same time. To sum up their opinions, they felt that society wants them to either fit in one group or the other, and usually, the issues they face as people of color or as LGBTQ+ individuals aren’t discussed as much as they should because of an erroneous idea that discussing disability should be done with a naive colorblindness. In many ways, disabled people of color feel like they are being told “All Lives Matter” in their everyday lives.

There are also problems within certain demographics that exacerbate issues facing disabled people of color. One person wrote how their OCD, autism, and depression went undiagnosed because of a cultural attitude in black America to hide or ignore symptoms.

One way the angst over underrepresentation or lack of representation could be solved is if those in the media actually create characters and stories that focused on disabled people, especially disabled people of color, who are represented in the media even less than white disabled people. “Another major issue that the respondents frequently highlighted was the lack of diverse images of disability in the media,” wrote Wong. “One thing disability organizations can and should do is support the creation of media by disabled POC that reflects the full range of diversity in our community.”

“When you don’t see yourself in the media or in images produced by the disability community, you think you don’t count.  White privilege is never knowing what that type of racialized erasure feels like, she wrote. “Disabled POC who speak out about this have been criticized and harassed online.  Online communities and activism via social media such as #DisabilityTooWhite are creating spaces where these voices are heard and valued.”

Wong and Thompson provide these tips to readers who want to know how to better serve disabled people of color.

  • Listen and engage with disabled POC.
  • Don’t expect disabled POC to do the majority of the labor of educating you.
  • Acknowledge white privilege and other forms of privilege throughout your organization’s work/activities.
  • Recognize the pain that disabled POC experience as multiple marginalized people.
  • Do not co-opt, appropriate the civil rights movement or compare it with the disability right movement. Just. Don’t.
  • Build safe spaces for everyone to engage openly and honestly.
  • Do not represent our views without us.
  • Hire disabled POC as staff, consultants, and experts; and treat them as equals, not tokens.
  • Realize diversity means more than a few disabled POC in a room!
  • Examine your policies and practices for implicit bias.
  • Build coalitions with communities of color and other social justice movements that are already doing intersectional work.
  • Support the creation of diverse media by disabled POC.

You can read both parts of the report at Ramp Your Voice! and the Disability Visibility Project. You can also read Thompson and Wong‘s interviews with JUST ADD COLOR, as well as Thompson’s #RepresentYourStory article.

CROSS-POST: “Finding Dory,” Disability Culture, and Collective Access

Post provided by Alice Wong of the Disability Visibility Project

On June 25th, I saw Finding Dory after reading many positive reviews and recommendations from my disabled friends. I wasn’t disappointed. There was so much to unpack and process when I got home that I decided to write this review/essay.

Finding Dory is film depicts more than disability, it depicts disability culture.*

I tip my crip hat to the artists, writers and directors of this latest gem from Pixar.

Dory 2

Warning: Spoilers to Finding Dory, Finding Nemo and Toy Story 3

People with disabilities do not see themselves very often reflected in popular culture with authenticity steeped in the lived experience. Not only are many disabled characters played bynon-disabled people; the storytellers are usually non-disabled who craft narratives about disability by using stereotypes and cliched tropes, robbing disabled characters and stories of agency and diversity.

Finding Dory has multiple characters with disabilities that live in the community (the ocean) and in institutions (the aquarium, the quarantine section of the aquarium). The characters are part of ecosystems (the coral reef) integrated with non-disabled aquatic creatures. Best yet, Dory, voiced by Ellen Degeneres, is a disabled character that is front-and-center. She is the hero on a journey.

She saves the day not in spite of but because of her disability.

When was the last time a live-action Hollywood film had this type of disability diversity and this many disabled characters interacting with each other?!?

Dory 3

3 ways Finding Dory kept it real about the disability experience

#1: Parental anxiety and support

We see Dory as a young Pacific Regal Blue tang with her parents, Jenny and Charlie, voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy.

Dory 4

Jenny and Charlie are patient parents who help Dory to be upfront about her disability, encouraging her to practice, “Hi, my name is Dory and I suffer from short-term memory loss.” Not a fan of the term “suffer” but anyhoo…Seeing the group of little tangs swimming nearby, I think Jenny and Charlie were preparing Dory as she planned to venture out to socialize with her peer group.  We also see Jenny and Charlie help Dory with her memory by using songs and accommodations such as seashells that enable her to find her way home.

Jenny and Charlie are like many parents of kids with disabilities:

  • They worry about her future
  • They teach her life skills that she will need
  • They are protective about Dory and her safety (“Watch for the undertow!”)
  • They show joy and love of Dory being Dory

Dory 5

I got very verklempt near the end of the film when Dory was reunited with her parents. Jenny and Charlie re-constructed their environment with rows of shells radiating from their home in the hopes that Dory will find her way back. When I saw the wide shot of their home and the long rows of seashells like streaming sun beams, I thought about Jenny and Charlie’s dedication and labor. They had every confidence that Dory would find them–they did their best at preparing Dory for the outside world and believed in her abilities. I teared up thinking about my parents and the sacrifices they made for me, such as purchasing a van with a lift (no small feat for a middle class family) and various modifications to our home when I started using an electric wheelchair.

#2: Social Exclusion and Ableism

Pixar kept it real, yo! There are the warm fuzzies and SO many feels that are de rigueur for every. Single. Pixar. Film. The filmmakers balanced the feels with moments of cruelty in Finding Dory in the form of Fluke and Rudder, the two sea lions that Marlin and Nemo encounter during their search for Dory.

Dory 6

Fluke and Rudder (voiced by former cast members from The Wire Iris Elba and Dominic West) are oafish bros who occupy a prime piece of rock real estate near the aquarium. Fluke and Rudder love to sleep and guffaw in a Cockney accent. They help Marlin and Nemo get into the aquarium by calling Becky the loon to transport them via pail of water.

Dory 7

Fluke and Rudder get the pail by luring in Gerald, a non-verbal sea lion who is clearly a sea lion that’s on the fringes of his social group. Gerald looks a bit goofy with his bushy eyebrows and wide-eyed expression and it reinforces his lower status within a larger hierarchy where verbal and physical ability is privileged. Fluke and Rudder bullies Gerald, taking his pail and aggressively pushing him off their rock. They pretend to include Gerald, but then they bray in their loutish sea lion voices, “Off, off, off,” chasing him from their territory.

The treatment of Gerald didn’t go unnoticed. My friend Heather Ure, a “neurodivergent femme-writer-mom” according to her Twitter bio, tweeted:

I relate to Gerald intensely, his wanting to be accepted and being taken advantage of by faux friends/allies. I was angry for Gerald but was delighted to see him in a scene after the credits where he manages to nestle himself on the rock behind Rudder and Fluke and gives a bit of a snicker. He does have agency and is tenacious in getting his place in the sun.

Isn’t that what we all want and deserve at the end of the day, a rock of one’s own and the warmth of the sun?

In another example of ableism, Marlin the clownfish, voiced by Albert Brooks, did a lot of male fishsplaining in Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. Some of it was subtle and came in the form of microaggressions to Dory (when he subtly tried to dissuade Dory from attending Nemo’s field trip because the teacher didn’t want to worry about her safety in case she wandered) and more explicit instances when he blamed Dory for their predicament due to her disability.

Dory 9

When Fluke and Rudder call Becky, Marlin takes one look at her ‘eccentric’ appearance and automatically discounts her abilities. Marlin’s inability to trust the disabled animals in his life and presume competence leads them into more danger. His doubts of Becky and insistence that he knows what to do is called out by Nemo, his son with a disabled fin.

Only after Nemo points out Marlin’s ableism does he flip the script and ‘thinks like Dory’ as a way to find a creative solution. This is a clear celebration of neurodiversity and neurodivergence. Heather Ure tweeted:

Writer David Chen commented on Finding Dory‘s disability hierarchy in an article where he described both Gerald and Becky:

…it separates animals who are able to speak from those who can’t. The animals who can speak have inner lives, go on adventures, have the ability to help others, possess emotional richness, and generally feel and act like full human beings…Both of these characters feel like cheap jokes. For the kids that are in the audience, they send a pretty clear message: It’s okay to laugh at people who are different, or who aren’t as smart as you are.

Dory 10

To me, this is part of the disability experience of many people: ableism, social exclusion, discrimination, and segregation. You can laugh, celebrate, feel distressed and disturbed, and think critically at the same time. This is what great art does.

I’m glad the filmmakers included those scenes of ableist mistreatment of Gerald and Becky. I cringed during those scenes but I could appreciate the spectrum of the social experience of disabled people. It’s not all happy endings and the struggle is totes real.

There will always be playground bullies and people who underestimate you. Many disabled people know these subtle and not-so-subtle signs when we are not welcome or accepted: the long sighs, the eye-rolls, the sudden change of plans, the concerns about safety or accommodations, the ‘accidental’ exclusion to a party or meeting, etc.

Dory 11

Dory may have memory loss, but she can sense frustration by others as if she’s a burden to them. In fact, she blames herself for losing her parents and apologizes constantly to everyone for simply existing and asking for help (i.e., internalized ableism).

The characterization of Gerald and Becky may result in laughs by some in the audience but this could also serve as an opportunity for adults and children to reflect and wonder, “Why did I laugh when Gerald was pushed in the water? Why is it ok to judge Becky’s abilities based on her looks?”

Dory 12

Pixar films have never shied away from the harsh realities of life. Even with animated films geared for children or featuring young characters, it is a misconception that these films must be positive and idealistic in their storylines and characterization. Think Studio Ghibli films like My Neighbor Totoro and the moments of violence in Finding Nemo (the death of Coral, Nemo’s mother) or heartbreak and rejection in Toy Story 3 (Lotso the bear being replaced and forgotten).

#3: Collective Access

Dory 13

The scene that screamed disability culture to me was the one where Destiny (a whale shark with myopia voiced by Kaitlin Olson), Bailey (a beluga whale with a head injury voiced by Ty Burrell) worked together to provide access for Dory who needed someone to guide her through the pipes to find her parents. Dory communicated her needs. Destiny heard her and relayed them Bailey, encouraging him to attempt echolocation.

Dory 14

Bailey is able to echolocate Dory’s location in the pipe system, relays directions to Destiny, and Destiny speaks to Dory in whale (the language of access through pipes) guiding her all the way with a slight detour into Marlin and Dory.

Patty Berne, Co-Founder and Director of Sins Invalid, described collective access in a June 10, 2015 blog post as one of ten principles of disability justice:

…we value exploring and creating new ways of doing things that go beyond able-bodied/minded normativity. Access needs do not need to be held in shame — we all have various capacities which function differently in various environments…We can share responsibility for our access needs without shame, we can ask our needs be met without compromising our integrity, we can balance autonomy while being in community, we can be unafraid of our vulnerabilities knowing our strengths are respected.

Get a bunch of disabled people together and witness the collective access organically takes place. This isn’t the kind of access mandated by law or provided by an entity or the state. Collective access is community-based and relies on each person’s talents and abilities in a web of interdependence and understanding. It feels good to see people use what they have and share it with others.  I love it when I can provide access to a disabled friend in my own small way like typing or reaching for something. And there’s no hesitation or worry about asking my friends for help because they get it, no lengthy explanation or apologies required.

The scenes of collective access in Finding Dory fill me with such pride and solidarity for these disabled animated sea creatures.

Disabled life forms, doing it for themselves. Each in their own way!!

Dory 16

Another two demonstrations of collective access occurs when Hank the septopus (voiced by Ed O’Neill) moves the baby stroller through the aquarium w/ Dory inside a sippy cup.

Dory 17

He’s near the ground navigating while Dory reads the signage and gives him directions.

Dory 18

Dory does the same when they hijack a truck (you have to see it to believe it) and Hank’s tentacles are on the pedals and wheel. Collective access, ya’ll!

Final Random Thoughts

  • As a wheelchair user, I laughed out loud when Hank stole the truck and said, “Suck it, bipeds!” This is something I’ve uttered a million times.
  • Another major theme is about building families–both chosen families and biological ones.
  • Hank reads to me as an someone with trauma in addition to being an amputee since he does not want to be touched.

Dory 19

  • It’s nice to see Marlin embrace and respect Dory not out of gratitude (she played a larger role in saving Nemo) but because of who she is by the end of the movie.
  • The ending is wonderful when Dory accepts credit for everything she’s accomplished. She is content and comfortable in her own scales.
  • Note: I am not exactly sure who voiced the roles of Gerald and Becky. In one wiki, Torbin Xan Bullock is listed the voice of Becky. In imdb.com, the same actor is listed as the voice of Gerald.

Like science fiction and fantasy, animation gives flexibility and space for new ways of telling stories and depicting characters. Perhaps that is one reason why Finding Dory is a massively better movie about disability and disability culture without explicitly being framed as one.

Dory 20

About

Alice Wong is a San Francisco-based disability advocate and Staff Research Associate at the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, UCSF. Currently, she is the Founder and Project Coordinator for the Disability Visibility Project (DVP), a community partnership with StoryCorpsand an online community dedicated to recording, amplifying, and sharing disability stories and culture. She is a co-partner with Andrew Pulrang and Gregg Beratan for #CripTheVote, a non-partisan online campaign encouraging the political participation of people with disabilities. You can find her on Twitter: @SFdirewolf and online: DisabilityVisibilityProject.com

*Footnote: Disability culture is described by scholar Steven E. Brown as:

People with disabilities have forged a group identity.  We share a common history of oppression and a common bond of resilience.  We generate art, music, literature, and other expressions of our lives and our culture, infused from our experience of disability.  Most importantly, we are proud of ourselves as people with disabilities.  We claim our disabilities with pride as part of our identity. We are who we are:  we are people with disabilities.

Other articles/blog posts about Finding Dory

‘Finding Dory,’ Disability, and Me

Elizabeth Picciuto, June 19, 2016, Daily Beast

The One Thing That Bothered Me About ‘Finding Dory’

David Chen, June 19, 2016, SlashFilm.com

‘Finding Dory’ isn’t just about disability — it’s about community and support

Stacia L. Brown, June 24, 2016, The Washington Post

“Me Before You” Sparks Outrage with Disabled Audiences

Me Before You looks, at first glance from the poster, like a typical, probably shlocky romantic movie. But that innocuous poster hides what many have stated is a sinister message.

Like me, you probably didn’t read the book (or ever hear of the book until the movie came out), but Me Before You is the adaptation of the book of the same name by Jojo Moyes. The story revolves around a woman named Louisa who falls in love with a man named Will, a guy who felt like he was on top of the world before his spinal cord injury. Louis has been hired as Will’s caretaker, and instead of still having a zest for life, Will, now needing the use of a wheelchair, wants to kill himself. Louisa asks him to hold off on his plans for a couple of months so she can show him how great life can be. The weirdest part of the plot is that Louisa succeeds at showing how great life can be, yet the man still wants to die. And does.

The story is supposed to be uplifting (which is what its promotional hashtag #LiveBoldly is supposed to represent), but for whom? And to whom is the film and book’s message for? Exactly what is the film’s message? For many disabled people, the message is clear: that life is only worth being lived boldly if you’re able-bodied. Non-able bodied people need not apply for their happy ending, because even if you do get your happiness (which the man does receive throughout the film), you can’t really appreciate it due to your disability. This is what has made so many people so angry. For further proof, check out the Storify collection created by Disability Visibility Project’s Alice Wong:

David Bekhour wrote about the film in his Medium article “People Who Use Wheelchairs Don’t Actually Want to Kill Themselves.” Bekhour writes about his own usage of a wheelchair and how his disability hasn’t ruined his desire to live.

I was born with a rare neuromuscular disease, and I’ve used a wheelchair my entire life. My condition affects the muscles throughout the body, slowly creating greater and greater paralysis. I went from an adolescent boy who double-fisted most meals to a man approaching middle age who has eaten through a feeding tube for the past twenty-two years. Most recently, I had a tracheostomy placed and began using a ventilator to support my respiratory muscles.

And life still goes on.

It actually goes on in quite a busy and fulfilling way. After being mainstreamed into public school in the fourth grade, I went on to earn two degrees from a major California university, rushing a fraternity and participating in the honors program. Then I graduated from law school. And then I became a member of the State Bar of California. Today, I work with people from around the world as a freelance writer. I make some people laugh, I piss others off and I worry about the grey hair in my goatee. I have wonderful friendships and an awesome family. And from personal experience, I can assure you that Helen Hunt does not portray the only woman in the world who has ever made love with a man who uses a wheelchair.

Bekhour states that films like Me Before You are allowed to flourish because not everyone has someone in their life who has a disability, and that such films make people who do have disabilities feel like they are left out of the collective conversation.

Popular films help shape the public psyche, reinforcing perceptions, influencing opinions and contributing to the notion that lives like mine are somehow less valuable, less capable. Though less dramatic, the reality is that people who use wheelchairs contribute to society in meaningful ways–and they don’t actually want to kill themselves.

The film also seems like it could be spreading another harmful message. Despite casting heartthrob Sam Claflin, Will’s suicide suggests that he himself doesn’t see himself as desirable and, by extension, that other people with disabilities shouldn’t see themselves as desirable as well.

Nik Moreno wrote about the intersection between disability and desirability in her Wear Your Voice piece, “If You Think All Disabled People are Undesirable, Check Your Ableism.” She writes about how she internalized harmful views of herself from the outside world.

I learned that I wasn’t lovable. I was always their secret–or their fetish. They only wanted to sleep with me because they were that desperate. They would only give me the time of day out of pity. Even now, folks rarely find me desirable, usually because they see my wheelchair first and think of everything involed in being with someone who has a disability. We aren’t viewed in the same light that able-bodied folks are. We’re either seen as disgusting or unattractive—and people try to pass it off as a “preference” as if it isn’t rooted in ableism.

Will seems to view himself from an ableist perspective (probably because the author viewed him from an ableist perspective) and therefore pities himself and sees himself how a severely ableist person might see him; undesirable and unworthy of life. Moreno also tackles the subject of pity in her essay, stating that pity is just another way of erasing the human experience from a person with disabilities.

Pity is such a prominent experience for people with disabilities. Able-bodied people pity us because they think we’re helpless. Folks see us and think that we lead awful, sad lives. Pitying us definitely plays into desirability and dating. Able-bodied people often date us because they feel sorry for us. Even younger, high-school-aged folks will ask a disabled person to a dance or prom out of pity. But when you pity us and make us into a sad story, you almost don’t even see us as a person; you just see our disability. It’s dehumanized.

It seems like Will has dehumanized himself simply because of his injury. It’s like he doesn’t realize he’s the same person he was before his injury. He now sees himself as someone that’s not worth Louisa’s love.

The creative team behind Me Before You have chided activists and potential audience-goers for disapproving of the film. As reported by Metro UK, the film’s director Thea Sharrocke the outlet that she found the story “life-affirming,” saying:

Within that is one man who has a choice to make, and he makes his own individual choice, and that’s another thing that I think is incredibly important to remember—that we all have earned the right to have our own choice. People are so quick to judge and make judgments about other people and maybe that’s something to be reminded of, and take a breath, and not necessarily know, or think that you have the right to judge somebody else until you’ve been in their shoes.

It’s a little rich that she says this, since this is precisely what those against the movie are saying. Sharrocke wants to advise those who don’t like the movie’s message not to judge the character by his actions, but the people against the film are also advocating that the film’s cast, crew, and those who watch the film not to judge people with disabilities and believe that they all feel so undesirable that they want to kill themselves.

More importantly, maybe the author didn’t do enough due dilligence when writing the book and screenplay. Bekhour writes in his article that Moyes “describes her motivation for writing this novel as being related to family members with disabilities and a news account of a paralyzed rugby player who sought out assisted suicide.”But, as Bekhour states, that explanation rings hollow. “At its core, it’s a story that embraces an idea that people with disabilities (and their families, friends, teachers, colleagues and lovers) have been pushing back against for decades; the idea that our lives are somehow less worth living,” he wrote.

IsaJennie of the site Journey of IsaJennie wrote about the film in the article “#LiveBoldly…Unless You’re Disabled?”, and at the very beginning of the article, she states that the story isn’t Moyes’ to tell.

First and foremost let me say that the author of this book turned screenplay is abled-bodied and healthy by her own admission. She has never met a paralyzed person. My absolute biggest criticism of this book and the movie is that this was not her story to tell. This topic requires in-depth knowledge of the community, it requires some level of lived experience, and it requires a sensitivity to the far-reaching implications of the work and the people harmed. Jojo Moyes lacked all of these attributes.

Overall, it makes sense that people would be up-in-arms over the reckless ramifications presented in this film. Let’s hope Hollywood hears the outcry and understands why it’s happened instead of what it has done in the past, which is ignore it.

Another article to check out: Weekly Reading List: “Me Before You” Edition | Disability Thinking