A Happy Ending Before You

Where have all the disabled people gone?

20% of the UK population have a disability, but you would have no idea that was true from watching television.

Representation of disabled people on and off screen has risen in recent years, but it is still woefully short of reflecting the reality of Britain today.

A lively panel of disabled talent will debate why this is, how good or not portrayal is and what more can be done.

Controversy around the film Me Before You can still have a happy ending, if producers offer a mea culpa.

What does a blockbuster Hollywood movie and a Brazilian emerging rapper scandal have in common?

People involved in it got things wrong and won’t admit to it, apologize and promise next time they will get it right.

MC Biel is a 19 year old rising music star, considered Brazil’s next Justin Bieber. The other day, while being interviewed, he sexually harassed the reporter, saying things like “if I get you, I break you in two”. The journalist filed a police report and the recorded audio went public, but instead of apologizing, the rapper, who had boasted kissing 300 women in one week said he was just joking. Only, in the past weeks Brazilians have been campaigning against a rape culture installed in the country, after the terrible gang rape of a 16-year-old girl in Rio de Janeiro. Protests took off on social media and in a few days Biel had TV appearances and advertising campaigns canceled, his song was cut from a soap opera and he was banned from carrying the Olympic Torch. The organizing committee declared “we prefer that our Olympic values are not associated with this incident”.

Me Before you is a movie based on a bestseller with the same title, by Jojo Moyes, directed by Thea Sharrock and acted by the stars Emilia Clarke, from Game of Thrones, and Sam Caflin, from The Hunger Games. It is one of those films made to make people cry: a young woman falls in love with a young man with a disability who wants to kill himself because he thinks his life is useless. Like Biel’s sexual harassment, the film raised fierce criticism and protests by activists with disabilities.

Both cases contribute to perpetuate rooted cultures that modern society and human rights movements strive to eradicate – rape culture, in the Brazilian case, and ableist culture, in the movie. You probably never heard of ableism, but it is easy to understand if you resource to the meaning of more common “isms” like racism and sexism. Ableism is privileging of able-bodiedness, considering people with disabilities as inferior to non-disabled people, objects of pity, burdens on their families and society, second class citizens, not worth living. Like sexist and racist, ableist culture results in marginalization and discrimination, which is actually a crime under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, that celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, has been ratified in 164 countries, but not yet in the United States.

Dozens of articles were written by people with disabilities who were outraged by the film and criticized the fact that no one with a disability was involved in the movie. If the producers of the movie had done a tiny little research, they would have found out that the slogan of the movement of persons with disabilities is “nothing about us, without us”. Protesters took to movie theaters’ doors and handed out leaflets created by the organization against euthanasia and assisted suicide, “Not Dead Yet”,  saying: “Me Before You is not a romance. It’s an insult to disabled people. “Our lives are not tragic, pathetic, or pitiful. This film is.”

Approached by activists in the red carpet during the premier of the movie, the actress Emilia Clarke said it was never their intention for the film to devalue people with disabilities. The message of the film is that disability is tragedy and disabled people are better off dead,” said disabled activist, Ellen Clifford. “It comes from a dominant narrative carried by society and the mainstream media that says it is a terrible thing to be disabled.”

If you think a little, you will realize that the damage this story can cause can go even further. Imagine you are a person who became disabled recently. After seeing a film with a wealthy, handsome guy with a beautiful woman who loves him, but who still wants to die, you would at least feel miserable. Or you might consider killing yourself, too. Why is that when people with disabilities are depressed, instead of antidepressants and psychoanalysis, assisted suicide is the suggested treatment?

Rather than apologizing for this big mistake, director Thea Sharrock said people got the film wrong, that its message was to live boldly, push yourself, don’t settle. Activists immediately responded: #LiveBoldly? We already do! #MeBeforeEuthanasia.

After one week of seeing his career sinking (and probably advised by a new publicist hired by the record company that has invested big money on him), Biel recorded a video telling the reporter he was sorry, that he learned his lesson and he won’t do it again.

When will the writer, director and producers of Me Before You do the same? This story can still have a happy ending. Nobody wants to be associated with the “isms” cultures. Not only because they harm already oppressed people. But also because it is not good for business.


PS – 1.  In the next production, you may contact us, for assistance.

PS - 2. People with disabilities and sympathizers, keep on protesting against Me Before you in your own country, in a theater near you. Here is what you should do:

Global Alliance for Disability in Media and Entertainment – GADIM