What “Girls” Does Better Than “Me Before You”

TV still image of a middle aged blonde woman sitting in a wheelchair, talking and gesturing

After weeks of reading and participating a bit in discussions about “Me Before You,” (the book and the movie), and its severely problematic view of disability in general and assisted suicide specifically … after engaging with this for so long, I only remembered yesterday that a recent TV show told a somewhat similar story, with a lot more depth and a much different outcome.

*Spoilers ahead!*

I did a Disability.TV Podcast episode last year about a storyline on HBO’s “Girls,” in which one of the main characters, Jessa, becomes a personal assistant for a woman named Beedie, an older, successful art photographer who uses a wheelchair. I’m not sure, but I think the Beedie has Multiple Sclerosis. After awhile working with and getting to know Jessa, Beedie says she wants to die and asks Jessa to obtain the necessary drugs. As in “Me Before You,” her reasons are a bit sketchy. She mentions pain, but has shown little evidence of it interfering with her life. By most objective measures, even factoring in her disability, Beedie has a good life. As does Will in “Me Before You.”

Anyway, Jessa objects to being asked to help Beedie kill herself. Jesse’s objections carry real conviction, but in the end she respects Beedie’s “choice.” She gets the drugs, and seems resolved to sit by Beedie’s bedside and hold her hand as she dies. At the last minute, though, Beedie cries out that she’s changed her mind, and Jessa basically leaps across the bed to the phone to call 911.

Some time later … days? weeks? … Beedie’s daughter shows up, pissed as all Hell about what happened, certainly very angry with Jessa, this random hippie chick her mother hired to take care of her. She’s determined to bring her mother Beedie home with her and take care of her herself. Again, Jessa objects, and is ready to fight for Beedie’s right to live where she wants and do what she wants. She also can tell, as we can, too, that while Beedie’s daughter is basically right about the suicide attempt and Jessa’s role in it, she is also a royal pain and a control freak who will take over Beedie’s life if she’s allowed, and make her miserable. Yet, Beedie lovingly but firmly calms Jessa down and says she’ll go with her daughter.

It’s far from a satisfying ending, but throughout the story, you really get a sense that Beedie is a strong person who goes through a crisis, and is willing to make difficult choices, but will never really lose control or self-respect.

This “Girls” story doesn’t have a clear anti-assisted suicide message, or a pro one either. It’s all ambiguity. Yet, Beedie decides to live, which makes it 100% less harmful than “Me Before You.” I also think the “Girls” story correctly links the appeal for some of assisted suicide, with the importance of choice in the lives of people with disabilities. The links are a bit tangled, but they are there. Plus, Beedie and Jessa are much more real, complex, relatable characters than Will and Lou seem to be, by far … and sketched out in a fraction of the time, in literally a handful of scenes over two half-hour TV episodes.

Assisted suicide doesn’t have to be a pop culture taboo. It can be discussed in a realistic and life-affirming way … or at least a non-death-affirming way. It can be done. It has been done.

Disability Arts

Black icon of a movie camera
Cheryl Green, disability activist, artist, and co-host on my Disability.TV podcast about Glee, asked me to help spread the word about a new independent film called Becoming Bulletproof. It is a film in which disabled people participated at all levels of production, including playing most of the key acting roles. It has already won some film festival awards, and based on what I see in the trailer, it looks like a really, really good film. Click here to find out where you can see “Becoming Bulletproof."

It’s a bit of a departure for me to feel excited about a disability arts project. I’ve never been interested in disability arts. There are several reasons for this.

For one thing, I have an aversion to programs of any kind that are just for disabled people. Disability arts programs tend to look at first glance like segregated therapeutic programs that just happen to use art as their hook, rather than arts programs per se. It’s much more complicated than that, but I’m only just starting to realize it.

Also, I’m usually not fond of art that has some obvious external purpose. For instance, I don’t like highly politicized art. I am all for art that deals with political and social issues, but I prefer it to be subtle, natural, not driven into my head with a sledgehammer. When disability art isn’t explicitly therapeutic, it tends instead to attempt some very heavy ideological lifting.

Finally, I’ve always been skeptical of amateur and DIY art. I am sure there are great poets to be found at poetry readings, and I’ve seen a few performance artists who really impressed me, but I cringe at the thought of attending those kinds of events, because I guess I don’t have the patience to sit through something mediocre or ragged.

(By the way, I am painfully aware of the hypocrisy of an amateur blogger and podcaster disdaining amateur art).

This is where my internalized ableism comes in. I am ashamed to say that in the past at least, I have tended to equate “disability arts” with low-quality art … as if arts programs for disabled people necessarily produce bad art, uplifting for the artist perhaps, but not interesting to most audiences, including me. Put another way, I have assumed over the years that experiencing disability art is about doing some thing nice for the artists.

That’s why I am so excited by “Becoming Bulletproof.” Although it is integrated, with both disabled and non-disabled people involved, it does have a disability-related mission aside from art. Yet, it looks like everyone involved worked really hard to do everything really well, to entertain audiences, not just to satisfy themselves or have a meaningful experience. Whatever else the film accomplishes, it looks like it is a good, fun, well-made film … full stop. When I watch this film, it will be because I want to see it, not to support some kind of cause.

I can’t wait to see the whole movie, and I think it’s obviously long past time for me to explore disability arts with a more open mind.


Disability In “Mad Max: Fury Road"

Woman with close-cropped hair with both hands in the air, her left arm a mechanical-looking prosthetic
After reading about it and resolving to see it for real, I am finally ready to blog about Mad Max: Fury Road, which I saw in the theater last Saturday. Instead of writing a long, comprehensive think piece about disability in the film, I want to highlight two disability-related points that moved me the most — a theme, and a moment.

Genetic Mutation and the Quest for Purity

Man with a deformed, skeletal face, pale white, with bushy blonde hair, mouth and nose covered by a breathing device decorated with large teeth
Face of a male young person with pale white face, dark-rimmed eyes, and bald.The main villain, Immortan Joe, and his hordes of pale, spindly "War Boys" all appear to have genetic mutations, presumably the result of nuclear fallout and other unspecified environmental fouling. In a sense, they are all disabled. And apart from the typical quest for uber-patriarchial power, Joe and his clan’s motivating goal seems to be the herding and rough nurturing of “pure” bloodlines … that is, parentages that will produce “normal” children. In pursuit of this otherwise benign goal, they will resort to just about any atrocity, including the kidnapping, slavery, and forced breeding of women who appear to have “clean" DNA. In a sense, Joe and his gang are self-hating disabled people who will do anything to reach an imagined cure of perfect genetics. It’s a lot for disabled people to think about.

Discarding The Arm

Woman with close-cropped hair sitting on top of a prone man, swinging a half-arm stump as if to hit him, a gun held in her other hand
As has been fully discussed elsewhere, our hero ... who is unquestionably Imperator Furiosa, (Charlize Theron) and not Mad Max ... is missing half of her left arm, and through most of the film she wears an elaborate and versatile Steampunk-looking prosthetic. There are dozens of ways that this is awesome, especially for amputees who might be watching, but really for anyone with a physical disability. However, my favorite moment about this by far comes at Furiosa’s point of utter despair, when she stalks off by herself across the sand, dropping her extra gear and clothes, shedding her prosthetic arm almost as an afterthought, then kneels and cries out in anguish and frustration.

I am not an amputee. I have never used a prosthetic. But I did wear braces on my legs when I was a child, and I wore a heavy back brace for a year when I was 10. Even when I didn’t exactly hate them, there was something therapeutic about taking them off just to be me and me alone. I interpret this scene as Furiosa stripping herself down to her essential self, without add-ons, shields, or decorations, and that includes showing her naked, uncovered, unhidden stump, or “nubbin” as one blogger called it. “Showing” it isn’t the right word, either. She’s entirely unselfconscious in that moment. She doesn’t care if anyone is looking at her, or her stump. Even though her mood is sad, even despondent, in a way it shows that at least she’s fully at home with herself.

Same woman as in other photos, here from a distance, kneeling in the desert sand, looking up at the sky
Unlike her enemies, who want to negate and change who they are, Furiosa doesn’t care one way or another. Her prosthetic is entirely practical, too. It proves to be endlessly useful to her, but it's obvious she put no effort at all into making it look like a “normal” arm. Plus, she is comfortable enough in her own skin that in her moment of crisis, rather than adding more stuff, more padding to hide and protect herself, instead she strips things away … including her arm … to become more herself ... as if to say, "Here I am."

As usual, I doubt George Miller or Charlize Theron thought these things through explicitly. This isn’t really a movie about genetics, prosthetics, or the social politics of disability. I don’t think it’s even meant to show audiences how capable disabled people can be. But I am pretty sure it is and does all those things anyway, and I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Plus, you know … there’s ‘splosions!



I haven’t seen a movie in the theater in years, but this evening I’ll be at my local mall cinema seeing Mad Max, Fury Road. I’m going because I read this Tumblr post about the film, (via the Disability Visibility Project), and its amputee main character, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). We’ll see how I feel afterwards, but in movies at least, I get a get stronger positive disability vibes when disability isn’t the main topic, but rather a visible but natural-feeling aspect of complex characters. I prefer “show, don’t tell," and it sounds like Fury Road does just that, and nothing else regarding Furiosa’s missing arm.



Blue pen sketch of an old-style movie camera
I haven't always felt as strongly as some disabled bloggers and tweeters about non-disabled actors playing, and getting accolades for playing, disabled characters. I don't like it, but on balance, I am usually more interested in how disabled characters in movies and TV are developed, whats said about disability in the script, and the messages sent by what happens in the stories.

Still, I think it's important for people to understand that those of us who aren't celebrating Eddie Redmaynes Oscar for playing Steven Hawking aren't just sourpusses or political correctness commisars. There are substantive reasons why this is a real issue.

Supply and Demand

There are relatively few acting roles for disabled characters. There are relatively few  but a lot more than zero  actors with disabilities. It is quite rare for disabled actors to be cast as characters who arent specifically designated as disabled. And it is extremely rare to cast disabled actors to play disabled characters. Sort through all that, and you will see how ridiculously hard it is for disabled actors to get work. With all the odds against them, how must it feel for disabled actors to watch the few disabled roles there are consistently go to non-disabled actors? Plus, when the roles are prominent and popular, those non-disabled actors are praised even more for playing disabled … like it's a double back-flip feat of ACTING! In fact, playing disabled is a well-known shortcut to an Oscar for non-disabled actors. Even people who arent familiar with disability issues often snicker about it. The comedy Tropic Thunder forthrightly joked about it.


The first film about disability that really excited me was My Left Foot, in which non-disabled actor Daniel Day-Lewis played Christy Brown, a real-life Irish poet with Cerebral Palsy. A young non-disabled actor Hugh O'Connor played Christy as a child. Day-Lewis won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal, winning particular praise for the supposed authenticity of his movements and vocalizations. When I saw the film, it seemed to me like it was pretty accurate. He looked and sounded much like people I knew who had CP on the more severe” side of the scale. Granted, I didn’t really pay much attention to the finer details. And I have since been told that the portrayal may have been played up for emotional effect. That can be hard to define, as everyones disability is different, and acting always requires the portrayal (i.e. faking) of emotions. Still, if crucial details are wrong, and especially if actors, writers, and directors knowingly make a character’s disability look more exaggerated than it would be in real life, thats just vile, leading to the next point ...

Are You Making Fun Of Me?

maysoonzayid: DD is a phenomonal actor but he was an unwatchable cartoon in MLF @AndrewPulrang @dominickevans #filmdis

dominickevans: @maysoonzayid @AndrewPulrang those portrayals also turn to stereotypes (i.e. autistics rocking as central characteristic)

maysoonzayid: Right I'd be horrified to see how inaccurately an AB actor would clown how CP twists my lips @AndrewPulrang @dominickevans

dominickevans: @AndrewPulrang @maysoonzayid I personally find it very hard to look past the stereotyping physically... that actors seem to do

Sunday afternoon, I had an interesting Twitter conversation about all this with a disabled actor, Maysoon Zayid, and a disabled director, Dominick Evans, who are both regular participants in the weekly #FilmDis discussions about disability on screen. Dominick is the organizer. He and Maysoon were down on “My Left Foot”, and in addition to what they felt was the portrayal’s inaccuracy, they both cited a sense that it wasn’t just wrong, but also a caricature … cartoonish and painful to watch as disabled viewers. I got what they were saying, but I’m still struggling with this. On the one hand, I think a lot of people see Day-Lewis’ Christy Brown, and maybe Redmayne’s Steven Hawking, as bravely honest depictions, not “prettied up” for more sensitive eyes and ears. That’s how I saw “My Left Foot” back in 1990. Of course that presupposes that whats being portrayed is terrible hardship, which is only one facet of disability, for some disabled people.

On the other hand, especially if I had that exact kind of disability, I might have seen the same depiction as mockery … like a class clown in the hallway executing a “perfect" imitation of my odd way of walking and posture. The actors in question almost certainly weren’t trying to be mean that way, but it’s possible that at times they were trying to shock, and that’s nearly as bad. Now, I suppose a disabled actor might end up doing the same thing, but I think it’s far less likely, because they probably know better where to draw the line, when to say “no”. Also, I think there’s a less tangible issue here of trust. It’s hard enough for some of us to see “ourselves” on screen, often mocked, abused, or turned into cardboard cutouts. But if we know going in that the actor is disabled, maybe it helps us get through it, knowing that “our” portrayal is more likely to be in good hands.

Someone To Say No"

Non-disabled writers and directors are like children when it comes to disability. They are over-awed by it, and prone to mystify or fetishize it in unhelpful, sometimes disgusting, often profoundly boring, clichéd ways. A disabled actor can be like an adult in the room. If a director pushes them to do something exaggerated, inaccurate, or stereotypical, the disabled actor can say, Hang on a minute, lets talk about this. Being only vaguely aware of the power relationships in Hollywood, Im not suggesting this would always work. Still, having someone on set with real life, personal experience of disability would at least increase the chance that a finished work would be accurate and not over-dramatized, at least in regard to the disability itself.

So no, advocating that disabled actors be hired to play disabled characters isnt tokenism. It isnpolitical correctness gone mad. It should be standard operating procedure. Its good for disabled actors, it helps improve perceptions of disability, and it makes better art.

Related article:

Justin Moyer, Washington Post - February 23, 2015

Despite some amateur-hour terminology slip-ups, (“handicapped” and “malady” are NOT synonyms for “disability" you can pull out of your Thesaurus just to add variety), this is a pretty good illustration of just how much Oscar loves disability by non-disabled actors. It's interesting to note that Mr. Moyer chooses 1988 as the start date, when two years earlier, Marlee Matlin won the Oscar for Best Actress for "Children Of A Lesser God" … a woman with a disability playing a character with that disability.

Inspiration Porn and Sentimentality

Blue 3-D illustration of a Twitter hashtag
I hope Im feeling well enough tonight to participate in the #FilmDis Twitter discussion. This week’s topic is “Inspiration Porn”. #FilmDis is a weekly real-time discussion about disability on film, led by Dominick Evans  @dominickevans.

Inspiration Porn is definitely a thing, including in film  especially during Oscar Season  especially this Oscar season. Self-consciously uplifting stories of disabled people who overcome their horrible problems to become just as good as everyone else are unoriginal, but reliably effective. Moviegoers who want an emotional catharsis that leaves them feeling better coming out than going in almost always get their moneys worth. I dare say there are lots of disabled moviegoers who lap it up as well. We need encouragement ourselves, sometimes. But for a significant number of us, Inspiration Porn is immediately, instinctively revolting. Why? Whats wrong with us?

The usual answer is that theres nothing wrong with us at all. Inspiration Porn is bad, offensive, harmful. I tend to agree. But I think theres more to it than that … or perhaps less.

I think that a lot of what we in the disability community call “Inspiration Porn” is actually just sentimentality. I can’t stand sentimentality, and not just when it’s disability themed. I can give all sorts of sociological and literary explanations for why “Inspiration Porn” is vile, but the bottom line is I don’t like weepy movies and cheap, formulaic tears wrung out of me, especially when they are based on what I know to be false and misleading portrayals of a life I actually live. I object to it. More importantly I don’t like it.

In a way, maybe thats enough.

The #FilmDis discussion starts at 9 PM Eastern.



Photo of an old-style movie camera
Scott Jordan Harris, Slate.com - January 20, 2014

I look for three things in TV and film depictions of disability:

1. Authenticity about the details of the disability.
2. Fully developed disabled characters.
3. Insight into real-life disability issues.

Number 3 is optional. Authenticity and fully developed disabled characters are quite often enough for a satisfying disability depiction. Tackling disability issues is a nice extra, when done naturally and not in a “You see Timmy …” moment.

To me, the issue of “Cripface” ... non-disabled actors playing disabled characters ... isn’t whether it is inherently wrong or offensive, so much as whether or not it meets these criteria, resulting in good depictions of disability.

It’s probably important to note here that “good” and "satisfying" often means different things to disabled and non-disabled viewers. The typical moviegoer or TV-watcher seems to have different criteria for disability stories and disabled characters:

1. They want to feel happy when the thing is over.
2. They like feeling lots of feels … sadness, pity, admiration, inspiration.
3. They want to think they have learned about certain disabled people, but they aren’t so interested in learning about disability itself or disability-based injustice.
4. They love “stunt” acting, where an actor convincingly portrays a character that is completely unlike themselves.

I think number 4 is where the Oscar-bait thing comes in. When a non-disabled actor seems to do a good job of playing disabled, most viewers latch onto it as a clear example of raw acting ability. Since a lot of acting talent is subtle and hard for non-critics to identify, there may even be some excitement about being able to easily pinpoint when an actor has done something really difficult … like an able-bodied actor playing a well-known disabled person. Eddie Redmayne looks a lot like Stephen Hawking, so right away, there's an assumed element of "Wow!"

One reason I like this Slate review is that it does give some specific evidence that maybe Eddie Redmayne and the writers didn’t, in fact, do such a great job of portraying Stephen Hawking. I haven't seen 'The Theory Of Everything", so I can't judge for myself. What Mr. Harris describes, however, is not encouraging.

As I indicated, I think it can be done well. I still greatly admire “My Left Foot”, in which the non-disabled actor Daniel Day-Lewis played Christy Brown, an Irish poet who had Cerebral Palsy. I think one reason I still like that film is that the writers made sure to give us a pretty full picture of the man, and avoided most of the usual disability cliches, like dreaming of being “normal” and being super-sweet, that make so many disability depictions seem fake and predictable. It also introduced and fully explored some truths about disability that aren't as familiar to mainstream audiences ... such as the complex nature of disability sexuality, and the problematic ways that "do gooders" often relate to disabled people. Finally, I got stuff out of "My Left Foot", as a disabled person, that I'll bet most viewers missed. It sounds to me like there's nothing challenging or original in "The Theory Of Everything" ... nothing that will rock any disabled viewer's world.

It does seem like “My Left Foot” is the exception that proves the rule. “Cripface” is bad because it’s inherently offensive, but what’s even worse is that most of the time it produces bad art. Put another way, non-disabled actors are apt to make mistakes, and allow mistakes to be made, that disabled actors just wouldn't.


Buy It: "The Other Sister"

This film is underrated, despised, actually, by most of the pop culture enthusiasts and movie critics I respect. The reason, I think, is that it is an unusually pure example of a bad movie with very good disability depictions at its heart. Yes, once again we have non-disabled actors portraying disabled people. To be sure, Juliette Lewis and Giovanni Ribisi go overboard and seem to have their eyes fixed on intensely craved Oscars. At times, the characters’ adorableness drifts into condescension. Yet, through it all, we get a strong statement in support of freedom, integration, and the dignity of risk for people with intellectual disabilities. Plus, if you care to dig a little deeper, the film can prompt interesting discussions about disability and social class. At the very least, this should be required viewing for anyone applying for direct care and support jobs in the developmental disability field.

The AV Club Looks At Intellectual Disability Portrayals

Josh Modell, The AV Club - June 2, 2014

Here’s another welcomed, decent exploration of a disability issue by a “mainstream” publication.

The default position of most pop culture consumers seems to be that movie and TV portrayals of people with intellectual disabilities are by definition profound and heartwarming. There’s a sense that as long as intellectual disability stories aren’t obviously mean-spirited, we sort of have to love them. To quibble or critique is to come off as heartless and insulting. So, this article starts out with a lot of credit simply by acknowledging that such portrayals can actually be both well-intentioned and “awful”.

Writer Josh Modell rightly faults the apparently cynical trend among aspiring actors to take on intellectual disability roles in hopes of scoring acting awards, as if playing intellectually disabled people can’t help but reveal true acting brilliance. In fact, it tends to come off more as stunt acting … a set of formulaic tricks that display actors' knowledge of the tricks, rather than their depth of acting talent. I think that the key to portraying people with disabilities is the same as portraying anyone else … character depth and development. In a few examples, Modell also points to how frequently details are simply unrealistic, like Sean Penn’s “Sam” in “I Am Sam”, who in real life would have at least a few difficulties raising a little girl, but in the movie all of those troubles are depicted as nitpicks from mean bureaucrats. In fact, I think Modell kind of misses the boat on how often intellectual disability film plots rely on straw-man opposition that feels familiar, but is almost never as evil and unwarranted in real life.

The most interesting thing in this article, though, is that Modell seems to be engaged in a kind of dog-chasing-his-tail exercise about the difference between insulting stereotypes and realistic portrayals. An intellectually disabled character talking loud and having “specific obsessions” can certainly be overdone. On the other hand, intellectually disabled people often do both of these things, and sometimes it’s the first thing you notice about them. When it is overdone and that’s all there is to the portrayal, it is insulting. But if they are surface traits that lead to deeper understanding later on, then they aren’t necessarily offensive … unless we think those behaviors themselves are totally unacceptable, which would in itself be insulting and ableist. I think this sends Modell off the rails a bit regarding “The Other Sister”. True, most critics and discerning viewers hate this film for supposedly being over-the-top, but Juliet Lewis and Giovanni Ribisi’s scenery-chewing didn’t bother me that much precisely because their behavior and demeanor felt real to me, and not one-dimensional. Some people are, in fact, uninhibited and extroverted, and there are very real, important stakes involved here that fully justify the characters’ outsized emotions.

I wish the article explored this dilemma a bit more, though there are hints to a solution. Modell notes at least one occasion when intellectually disabled supporting characters were portrayed by intellectually disabled actors … much more effectively than the supposed star.

There are several of these movies I haven’t seen, and am very curious about now, especially “Tim” (Mel Gibson) and “Profoundly Normal” (Kirstie Alley). What I would really love to see is a followup article identifying some “good” intellectual disability portrayals. By leaving out “Forrest Gump” and “Rain Man”, does Modell mean to imply that he likes them … that they aren’t overdone or insulting? They’re not terrible, but I think a lot of his criticisms could be applied to these films, as well.

Still, quibbles aside, it’s good to see wide-audience pop culture websites take on disability issues. More of this, please!