With the recent theatrical release of Ableist propaganda film, Me Before You, disabled activists have raised their voices in anger over the portrayal of disability and the suicide of the main character. This have left many able-bodied people asking: what’s the big deal? Their desire to see a film that makes them feel good about themselves far outweighs the voices of those speaking in protest of the film. On my own newsfeed I see people who would ordinarily call out Hollywood’s detrimental portrayal of their own minority endorsing the film. So that’s exactly what I’m going to use, stereotypes that already piss them off, to explain ableism.
The Sexless (male) Asian Sidekick
You know that sex swing you accidentally became ensnared in walking into that locked room your parents never wanted to talk about? Well, that wasn’t originally designed for able bodied people. DISABLED PEOPLE HAVE SEX. (Crutches, wheelchairs and walkers are not the only mobility aids we need and there’s an entire industry dedicated to making sure we can get it on.)
It’s rare that Hollywood presents audiences with disabilities that own and control their sexual agency. Like Asian Males, they are usually the token minority friend that is happy just to be along for the ride and audiences never really notice that the Asian friend never quite gets the girl despite his hapless and goofy demeanor, because he’s just background and they’re too busy rooting for the main character. It’s an ironic stance for the media to take considering that China’s population boom required legal measures be taken, but, then again, that’s just China. In the United States one will rarely see Asain people act affectionately within their own cultures and you can almost forget it with interracial relationships on screen, but, then again, this is the U.S.
The Mystical Native American Spirit Guide
This trope is overused with many different people of color, but the term “Spirit Guide” evokes some clear understanding, so I continue… Ever notice that these characters are always one dimensional? They may face tough situations, but their existence in movies and film is solely for the progress of the main character and not their own. Disabled and Native American characters have theses difficulties to serve as a litmus test on how well the main character’s life is being lived and adjustments are made accordingly for their storybook happily-ever-after. What happens to them in the end? What does that matter?
The Otherwise Incapable Black Man in Need of a Savior
A black guy from the wrong side of the tracks/ from the wrong school/ from the bad neighborhood finds a sheltered hopeful young woman from a good family and who throws away her comfort and privilege to teach in a school of underprivileged kids/ who finds herself moving to the wrong side of the tracks/to learn those sick dance moves and shows that poor black guy his true potential that he never knew he had.
Let me be perfectly clear before I start with this one: needing help does not necessarily make one helpless and giving aid does not make you someone’s savior. I am always wary of someone who offers me help or to pray over me in the middle of a crowded area. I find that they’re the type of people that love to be seen doing good, regardless of whether or not that makes a spectacle of me in the process. And why wouldn’t they? The media celebrates the person helping and lifts them up as a hero rather than celebrating the accomplishments of help-ee. When did doing the right thing deserve a medal and when did needing help or guidance make one a spectacle.
The Bitter Spinster
And now to the ladies, did you think I would exclude you? Equality for all. Equality, that is, until you voice a dissenting opinion. Women in politics, entertainment and the workforce are described as shrill, bossy and bitter if they decide to speak up or question what they are told. They are dismissed as emotional, (like men throughout history have been so level-headed) portrayed as lonely cat-women and aren’t taken seriously. They’re damaged. Why should they be?
Now for the entire reason I am even writing this post. In voicing an opinion about ableism inline I was told that I was bitter that I couldn’t walk and that I should read the book to feel better. The world couldn’t accept that I had a viewpoint that made them uncomfortable and that I refused to have my voice tokenized so that they could feel better and that to take me, or make me feel better about my disability, they suggest a book in which the person with a disability kills himself. Messed up doesn’t begin to cover it.
As a woman with a disability, I can never quite tell whether the dismissal of my opinions comes from societal paternalization or whether I’m being written off as a bitter disabled person. Either way, not many people are listening.
The Burdensome Latino Immigrant
Economy tanks in 2008? Blame the banks? God, no, blame the immigrants. Blame the people with some of the lowest-paying jobs whose only goals are to send money to their families, escape violence and make a better life for themselves. And let’s not pretend like the immigrants I’m referring to are the fair-haired Swedish types with the “cute” accents, these immigrants are brown skinned Latino immigrants that we demand speak English the very first instant they step foot in our country. We blame them for societal ills because that is easier than stepping in front of the mirror. They know what this country thinks of them and they live in increasingly dangerous xenophobic environments, isolating them, blaming them, building walls around the America they thought existed.
Despite the idea that disabled people (and “disability cheats”) sit around bathing in the riches collected from disability benefits and social security, disabled people are some of the most financially vulnerable people in the United States and around the globe. This keeps us vulnerable and isolated from society because jobs and marriages could mean losing the benefits disabled people need like reliable health insurance and housing. This stereotype gives the implication that we are “bleeding the system dry.” And burdening the people around us by existing.
I’ll say this loudly for the people in the back: DISABILITY DOES NOT CARE WHO YOU ARE. It cares little what color you are, where you come from, what your goals are. It will meet you at the end of a marathon, in a night club, refusing a vaccine, walking across the street or may even already be under your skin. And yet, media persists in pushing only disabled characters who are white in front of the screen. If you want to truly represent disability, you must express its plurality and the cultures towards disability in which people live. We are over a billion strong, and simply throwing a disabled on the screen isn’t enough. It’s time we get it right.