My attraction to injured dudes dates back to my Barney watching days. I still don’t know the why of it, as it’s not like I’ve ever fantasized about donning a hot nurse costume and prescribing orgasms. In elementary school, I was often infatuated with boys who had broken an arm or leg (their blue cast really brought out the color in their eyes, okay?). Some nights I’d fall asleep crafting a narrative in my head about rescuing a cute classmate who’d fallen into a ravine and injured himself and subsequently falling madly in love with each other. Ignoring the reality of the stress and exhaustion that might result from playing caregiver, I daydreamed about intimate moments marred by his plaster cast scraping my skin or helping him button his shirt since he couldn’t. I wished for relationships peppered with moments of laughing off awkward interactions with well-meaning strangers and accepting each other’s quirks and differences as the norm. I desired a life made more interesting by acquiring a partner with a disability, injury, or chronic illness whose daily challenges would somehow make my life, our relationship more.
I think it’s always been about the story; the writer in me would see a wounded cute guy and think to myself, Now there’s a story I would read.
Over the years, I’ve tried to turn those daydreams into stories (just check my folder of abandoned novels), but they always fell into tropes or were steam-rolled by the Florence Nightingale effect. I was parroting what I’d read and watched, only thinking of how the female main character (read: me) would be forever changed by loving Hot Guy with Disability. In retrospect, it was selfish to whittle a person, fictional or not, down to a condiment of my lived experience (She gazed into his ocean blue eyes, caressing his stubbly jaw, and said, “Thanks for being the sriracha of my life.”). How lazy I was to think it would be better to use someone else’s life to make my own more interesting instead of cultivating my own fascinating experiences and thoughts. I feel awful now about the time I spent pining for hot guys with disabilities because I thought they could be the plot device in my life to spring me from my dull suburban girlhood.
And that’s the thing: disability narratives are rarely written with that community in mind; they’ve always been for and with the “norm”/ableist perspective in mind. Consequently, popular characters with disabilities rarely get their own story or go on an adventure that’s not solely focused on the ramifications of their diagnosis. Nor is their role in a narrative likely to surpass teaching an able-bodied person an important life lesson, making that able-bodied person feel good about themselves, or sprinkling in a little drama.
This summer, the novel Me Before You and its film adaptation took our culture by storm. My social media feed was filled with people lauding this work. If this story had hit bookshelves and theaters before I started college, I probably would have been part of that crowd (I was raised on Discovery Health Channel and TLC shows, so this definitely would have piqued my interest).
In college, I took several English courses about disability narratives in literature and film. My naive ableist-oriented mind originally expected to glean inspiration and important life lessons from these narratives (Tiny Tim reminds us to be grateful; a cancer-ridden child whispers “YOLO” in its final breath). Instead, I left those two semesters with an understanding that narratives about and written by people with disabilities shouldn’t be about pandering to the ableists’ love of inspiration porn, but about sharing experiences and thoughts as any person, real or fictional, is wont to do.
That being said, this summer I was extremely wary of the hype surrounding Me Before You. And for good reason. I quickly found a collection of essays and videos discussing why the novel and film were ableist trash. I haven’t watched the movie, and I’ve only hate-read a couple pages under the encouragement of a friend who was also angered by the portrayal of disability. The novel and its film adaptation were never intended for people living with similar disabilities (Will’s spinal injury doesn’t even exist in real life); this was for chair chasers and everyone who finds it deeply romantic to love someone with a disability solely because they have a disability. Readers and media alike seemed eager to roll out confetti cannons and shout, Let us praise that romantic heroine for going above and beyond to love and care for that bitter, crippled man who just wants to die and all that other bullshit.
And this is why those ableist fantasies need to end.
These stories aren’t about romancing a person with a disability; they’re about loving a disabled person, where their disability is their sole identifier and whole story. This isn’t about getting to know a person; it’s about dating a diagnosis and feeling like a better person for it. It’s devolving into finding the wheelchair sexy, but not the person using it. And newsflash, a person is more than their diagnosis or disability; their lived experience is also shaped by relationships, education, career, hobbies, interests, and everyday adventures.
Don’t stories get richer when we factor in everything else?
Consider TV characters like Greg House from House and Auggie Anderson from Covert Affairs. While silver fox Hugh Laurie with a cane and ample sarcasm is all kinds of attractive, and Chris Gorham is always the perfect combo of nerdy and badass (bonus points for washboard abs and tattoos), I was drawn to them for more than their differently abled bodies. Sure, their disabilities did feature prominently in their arcs and how they manifested on-screen, their stories included careers, interests, relationships, and questions about their lives that stepped beyond their disabilities.
We’re missing out if the story stops at the cane or focuses solely on what’s different. We’re not pining for that person or loving that individual; we’re dating a WebMD article written in first person or getting off on a medical device. We’re forgoing an anthology of someone’s life for a single sentence. Successful relationships are built on the similarities that draw people together, so let’s pursue narratives and forge relationships that see the person as a person above all else.
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