I was just going to do a post on the upcoming film “Me Before You,” which has been getting a ton of backlash lately for its portrayal of disability. While writing this, I may have rambled about things that have already been mentioned elsewhere (and have posted a couple of links related to the backlash that you may have already read), so forgive me for anything that sounds repetitive. In addition to criticism, I’m also going to provide suggestions for a few shows or movies you can watch instead that offer more realistic/less offensive depictions of disability, along with a description of cripface and its uses.
For those who aren’t familiar with the term, cripface occurs when an able-bodied actor is cast to play a disabled character. This occurs in various television shows and movies, from “Glee” to “Me Before You,” which I will describe in more detail below.
Cripface casting, particularly when there are plenty of capable actors with disabilities, is both offensive and lazy. Actress, producer, and disability activist Teal Sherer (of the YouTube Series “My Gimpy Life”) points out on her website, “Very few characters are written with a disability, and if they are, able-bodied actors usually get to play them.” Maysoon Zayid, an actress with cerebral palsy, recalls during her TED talk an instance during college when she auditioned for a role for her university’s production of “They Dance Real Slow in Jackson.” The play is about a girl with cerebral palsy. You would think that casting Zayid would have been appropriate, but the role was given to an able-bodied student. The head of the theater department said they didn’t think Zayid could “do the stunts,” to which she replied, “Excuse me, if I can’t do the stunts, neither can the character.” (Her entire talk is amazing, by the way, please check it out.)
But I understand that disability in storytelling can be complicated, and some characters are portrayed with or without a disability depending on different points in the story’s plot. In these cases, cripface may seem begrudgingly permissible. Here are some of the more common cripface scenarios, with ramblings on how they were done well or poorly:
A character is disabled for the entirety of the story: Generally, if this were the case, it would be illogical to cast an able-bodied actor. But it happens. Take “Superstore,” a sitcom that includes a character who uses a wheelchair. His name is Garrett, and he’s played by Colton Dunn, an able-bodied actor. I’m a fan of Garrett, mostly because he spends much of one episode (season 1, episode 2, “Magazine Profile”) dodging a photographer from his company’s magazine. He claims that the magazine has a history of putting employees with disabilities on the cover (because aren’t they just so inspiring to look at?), and he has no interest in continuing the trend. But seriously, NBC, if you wanted to portray a character with a disability, then you should’ve hired an actor with a disability.
For instance, FOX cast Daryl Mitchell, an actual wheelchair user, to be on the short-lived sitcom, “Brothers,” where he played Michael Strahan’s brother (I’m sorry, why was this canceled?). Episode nine of the series, “Week in Chair,” shows Michael Strahan using a wheelchair and learning a bit about life with a disability, which you usually don’t see on a primetime sitcom (or on most programming). Mitchell went on to win “Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series” at the 41st NAACP Image Awards (you can see his acceptance speech here). [If you think you’ve seen him before, prior to becoming a wheelchair user, Mitchell was in “Galaxy Quest” and “10 Things I Hate About You.”]
In another plot scenario, a character is able-bodied, becomes disabled, but has to be able-bodied in other parts of the show: I mean, fine, this is mostly the case for “Game of Thrones,” where Bran Stark becomes paralyzed in the first episode (spoiler alert?), but is able-bodied in other parts of the series (it’s a fantasy series with complicated plotlines, so I am not going into detail about this). You could argue that he has to be able-bodied for particular scenes, however it’s never been made particularly clear as to why. Perhaps a fan who is better versed in this could explain it, preferably with an explanation better than, “Well, that’s how George R.R. Martin wrote it.”
In some cases, an able-bodied character becomes potentially permanently disabled, but miraculously recovers a few episodes later: If this is the case, then a life-altering disability that is a painful reality for so many individuals has been reduced to a dramatic and unnecessary plot device.
There are ways that the “disability as dramatic plot device” can be acceptable. For instance, the writers can raise some disability awareness while that character is disabled. I could do a whole post on “Arrow”’s handling of Felicity Smoak’s temporary paralysis by spinal cord injury, which in some cases was great. For instance, it took her a while to acclimate to steering her chair, but she eventually figured it out like the boss she is. She mentioned that the Arrow lair could use some ramps, and commented on how great it was that the lair had an elevator. She doubted her ability to be on Team Arrow (because who, following a traumatic injury, doesn’t begin to question their usefulness?), but then realized that she was just as impressive at a computer as she was before her injury. She made wheelchair jokes (in a “Legends of Tomorrow” episode, she says, “Like my new ride?” to another character…I watch a lot of DC CW shows, please don’t judge). Emily Bett Rickards (who plays Smoak) also spoke about the Reeve Foundation following an episode of “Arrow.” The show could have done other things to promote issues facing the SCI community, but it’s a start.
And finally, there are scenarios where a character is able-bodied at the outset of a story, becomes disabled later, and stays disabled for the remainder of the story: Take Stephen Hawking’s biopic “The Theory of Everything” that garnered Eddie Redmayne an Oscar (making him one of many actors to receive an award for his portrayal of a disabled individual). He had to be able-bodied for some part of the movie, and so I can understand the decision to cast him over an actor with a mobility impairment. Redmayne’s performance was also fabulous (even Hawking was impressed). The script, in addition to Redmayne’s portrayal, were able to show the effects of ALS without turning Hawking’s life into complete inspirational mush.
Here is where “Me Before You” comes into play. This film, starring Emilia Clarke (“Game of Thrones”) and Sam Claflin (“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire/Mockingjay 1 & 2”) is based on a book of the same name (released in 2012). Although the book received good reviews, disability activists have voiced their (righteous) anger over the story’s ending. For those unaware of the plot and unconcerned with spoilers, Claflin’s character is paralyzed from an accident and becomes a quadriplegic. Clarke’s character is his caretaker. They fall in love. He decides that, even though he loves her, he’s going to kill himself (with the help of an assisted suicide organization). He dies and leaves Clarke’s character with enough money to enjoy the rest of her life.
To my understanding, the book’s author, Jojo Moyes, does not have a disability. This explains quite a bit, actually, because she basically wrote a “better dead than disabled” story, which is something that able-bodied individuals tend to sympathize with more than people with disabilities (or, as many able-bodied individuals have told me, they couldn’t imagine life with a disability, or would hate to be me).
“Better dead than disabled” is an actual problem. Disability activists have fought against legalizing physician-assisted suicide, because those with disabilities may take their lives “under the mistaken impression that that they are imminently dying or because they think they are a burden on their families.” It is disrespectful of Moyes to take this serious issue and try to make it romantic, because there is nothing romantic about a person with a disability deeming themselves unworthy of life.
No, I do not recommend this film. Not only is an able-bodied actor playing a character with a disability (which is not ideal to begin with), but the overall message the film sends devalues people with disabilities and their experiences. In the name of all that is sensible, please watch something else that features a character with a disability.
My suggestion: “The Intouchables” (2011) [Note: this is not to be confused with “The Untouchables” (1987), which is about prohibition in Chicago and Al Capone.]
“The Intouchables” is a French comedy-drama starring François Cluzet and Omar Sy (you may recognize him from “Jurassic World” (2015)). Unfortunately, there is cripface, however the movie does a fantastic job of depicting a more realistic wealthy quadriplegic (it may help that the movie is based on a true story). For example, Cluzet’s character hires Sy’s character to be his caretaker, because during his job interview, he didn’t show him pity (the ableism displayed by the other interviewees was all too real). There is also a glorious scene where Sy’s character berates someone for parking their car in what is basically a handicapped parking spot.
To recap, don’t watch “Me Before You,” but instead check out “My Gimpy Life” and “Brothers” (no cripface!), in addition to “The Theory of Everything” and “The Intouchables” (some cripface, but overall realistic narratives).
Although I’ve recommended a few things that contain cripface, please do not think that I support the practice. If an able-bodied actor can raise some kind of disability awareness, and/or accurately and respectfully portray an individual with a disability, then I will tolerate cripface.
But cripface, along with inaccurate and harmful portrayals of people with disabilities, need to be done away with. They promote ignorance of performers with disabilities (who exist), and the very real ableism faced by people with disabilities who are misrepresented in the media. How many more people will, upon seeing a shoddy story written by an able-bodied person about a person with a disability, tell me that I’m inspiring or brave for getting up in the morning because I haven’t opted for assisted suicide?
The hashtag that’s been trending lately is #MeBeforeAbleism. Sounds good to me.