On the eve of the opening in Australia of the movie Me Before You, Melbourne based disability activist, Jax Jacki Brown has written on Junkee.com to express her concerns about the negative disability tropes exploited by the movie.
She joins disability advocates across the globe criticising Me Before You through articles and demonstrations that have followed the film's opening across the English-speaking world.
"On the eve of the Australian release of Me Before You, the final touches are being applied to t-shirts, banners and coffin-shaped tissue boxes by many people with disabilities across Australia. The film, which has been courting controversy in the US and the UK, is set to be subject to protests here too. I am preparing to wear my t-shirt proudly to the Melbourne protest with its slogan "Disabled lives are worth living!", as I hand out flyers proclaiming "our lives are not a tragedy!""
Jax identifies as part of the #CripArmy which are coordinating the protests against the film in Australia.
Of the movie, Jax observes:
"Let's be clear here: Will ends his life solely on the basis of having disability. He cannot accept that he is now a wheelchair user and, although she protests otherwise, he believes Lou is better off without him. Will's death is depicted as understandable and altruistic as he leaves all his money to Lou so she can pursue her dreams 'unburdened' as he sees it, by him and his disability.
"As a wheelchair user, I am deeply concerned that this film perpetuates these messages: that the lives of people with disabilities are not worth living, and that people with disabilities cannot be worthy partners. It places people who have newly acquired disabilities, or young people with congenital disabilities who may be experiencing depression and grief as a result of this at further at risk of self-harm or suicide."
Jax quotes Western Australian disability advocate Samantha Connor:
"People don't understand why the movie is a problem but we are constantly told that death is preferable to being disabled, and they imagine that our lives are so narrow that we can't possibly live well, live boldly. This movie reinforces those narratives stereotypes. Why, at a time when suicide prevention messages are stronger than ever, are we being told that it's romantic and noble to die?"
Samantha is organising the Perth protests for the #criparmy.
In Jax's home state of Victoria, the film's opening has a particularly poignant context because of the recent recommendation of a Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry that the state should pursue assisted suicide legislation.
"This film also comes at a time when an assisted dying bill is expected to be tabled in Victorian parliament giving the issue raised in this film particular relevance to Australians, and in particular those living with disabilities. Currently, the bill would only apply to those with a terminal illness. Nonetheless, many are wary of the regulations around this term and feel that, if passed, the bill would disproportionally affect people with disabilities. Many disabilities effectively shorten the lifespan.
"Those within the disability community campaigning directly against euthanasia are doing so because they believe we first need the right supports to be able to live our lives fully and equally before the right to die. The argument is that, until society has the capacity to provide all the services which would enable people with disabilities to participate fully and equally in society, then a choice for assisted dying is never truly voluntary. They warn of the dangers of legal assisted dying existing in a society which devalues the lives of disabled people and tells us that we are better off dead, that our partners would be better off if we didn't exist, that our parents would be better off if we had never been born, that we are a burden on resources and society."
This is not the first time that Hollywood has misrepresented and maligned people living with disability:
"The trope of 'better off dead than disabled' is far from new or inventive and it's raised similar discussions in the past. The 2004 film Million Dollar Baby, based on a novel by FX Toole, depicts a similar plotline: the main character played by Hilary Swank becomes a quadriplegic and chooses to end her life. Despite widespread protests of the film, it grossed over $216 million internationally."
Jax gives the last word to writer, theatre performer, singer and disability activist, Jess Kapuscinski-Evans (who has the same level of spinal cord injury as Will - the film's central character):
"The tragic figure of Will in Me Before You is divisive and harmful," she says. "People like me are not better off dead. We are not 'burdens' whose best option is to commit suicide. People with disabilities need more supports and opportunities and to feel that our lives are worth living. We need to see films that show a diversity of stories by and about people with disabilities. This film does not do that. Our lives are worth living and I want the world to know this!"
The film stands as an indictment against Hollywood for its continued negative betrayal of disability. Whether or not the Victorian Parliament betrays the same kind of ignorance of the serious concerns expressed by many thousands of people like Jax remains to be seen.
You are encouraged to show your support to the #criparmy:
There are protests scheduled this week against Me Before You in Melbourne and Perth. You can create your own in your town or city by printing out this flyer or banner. We are calling for a boycott of the film with the hope that if enough people join us and don't go see it, that cinemas will stop showing it. Let's lead the way on this and show the film industry that we are over seeing disability stereotypes. Save your money and support disability-led art.
If you feel the need to talk to someone after reading this piece you can contact Lifeline 24 hours a day on 13 11 14.
Jax Jacki Brown is a disability and queer rights activist, public speaker, writer, spoken-word performer, and co-producer of Quippings Disability Unleashed, a disability performance troupe in Melbourne. She tweets at @jaxjackibrown.