Disability in Film

Trigger Warning: Death, suicide, and ableism.

So, I am reading Jay Dolmage’s book “Disability Rhetoric” right now and his first interchapter is about challenging the myths surrounding disability.  He discusses the idea of disability in film and that reminded me of the rage that surrounded the movie “Me Before You.”

***Spoiler alert***

Me before You is a movie about a paralyzed man who decides that he will commit suicide rather than continue to live as a disabled man.

I then began to pattern recognition other movies about disability.  Here’s my list.

  • Me Before You (Suicide)
  • Mask (Death)
  • Freak the Mighty (Death)
  • 6 Feet Under (Institutionalized)
  • Powder (Death)
  • The Secret Life of Bees (Suicide)
  • Aurora Borealis (Heart attack after attempted suicide)
  • Rain Man (Institutionalized)
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Lobotomy and then killed)
  • My Left Foot (considers suicide, then overcomes and writes a book…inspiration)
  • Forest Gump (Both Captain Dan and Forest Gump overcome in that Captain Dan gets prosthetic legs and walks and behaves “normally,” and Forest becomes a father)
  • Girl, Interrupted (Overcoming narrative)
  • Memento (becomes a killer…also, confusing AF)
  • Adam (Overcomes his autism)
  • Temple Grandin (becomes an inspiration)
  • Avatar (Overcomes and becomes a blue monkey alien)
  • A beautiful Mind (overcomes and becomes an inspiration)
  • The King’s Speech (overcomes and becomes an inspiration)

So, disabled characters in movies have two options: overcoming and becoming an inspiration or death.

Characters become an inspiration when they shed their disability and can act or seem to be “normal.”  However, if they are incapable of becoming normal (as in the case of me before you, mask, freak the mighty, powder, and the secret life of bees) to the extent that they seem normal, they die in that they are killed or commit suicide.

What message does that send to disabled people?  What message am I getting when I watch things and see characters begin to lose their disability throughout the movie or they don’t and they end up dead in the end.  The answer: Your better off dead than unable to pass as “normal.”

Now, I recognize there are some that are more positive than this, Breaking Bad is a good one in that Walter’s son doesn’t get killed or murdered or commit suicide.  However, these positive messages are very much in the minority.


One thought on “Disability in Film

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  1. Do you feel like the public reaction to Me Before You shows progress of any sort or the fact that these narratives keep being marketable rejects optimism about public discourse on disability rights? Temple Grandin is an example we should talk about more in class, I think.


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