I’ve recently become a member of an underrepresented class. I’m disabled, and my new status has sensitized me to many things I never noticed before. For example, it’d be really hard for me to go from the Bergen Street station to the Fort Hamilton Parkway station in Brooklyn on the subway. It’s a simple 10 minute ride on the G train if you can reliably walk and use stairs. It’s an hour and three minutes when you select the “accessible ride” button on the MTA trip planner, because neither of those stations have elevators. In fact, only about 25% of the subway stations in NYC have elevators. That’s not enough.
I’ve also become more conscious of the representation of disabled people in art and media. I’ve heard of good examples out there – Atypical and Speechless come to mind – but I’ve seen some things in the last few days that have really troubled me.
One was the trailer for an upcoming movie called Las Píldoras de mi Novio (My Boyfriend’s Meds). The trailer introduces us to a sexy, successful professional woman striking out in her search for Mr. Right. Luckily, this novel character meets him! She gushes, “Our love is so strong, it’s like I got hit by lightning. Hank is almost perfect. He is passionate, caring, sexy, and he is a great, great lover.” On the night Hank is planning to share personal info about his medical conditions, Ms. Right invites him on a sudden trip – a tropical working vacation with her job. He puts off the disclosure and hits up his doctor, Jason Alexander, who condescendingly lists his conditions: “Mild bipolar NOS, agoraphobic, hyperlexic with OCD, GHD, ADHD and cyclical Tourette’s,” before chirping, “It is remarkable that someone has achieved this level of success with meds.” Hank stocks up on his prescriptions, but when he isn’t looking, his cat bats the bottle out of his suitcase – as cats are wont to do – and he unknowingly leaves for vacay without them. The balance of the trailer is the, uh, hilarity(?) that ensues.
I found this trailer distressing to watch; in fact, by the end I was nearly in tears. What I saw wasn’t hilarious, it was heartbreaking. This man is unable to take medication necessary to his health and is too shamed by the stigma of mental illness to tell anyone before he succumbs to what must be terrifying symptoms. He has physical challenges and involuntary tics; his behavior becomes erratic and he is mocked and humiliated, watching himself lose esteem in the eyes of the woman he loves and everyone around him. And no one understands what is going on with him. He looks basically normal. Everyone thinks he’s just being a dick.
I showed the clip to my husband. Not a fan of romantic comedies, particularly the super silly variety, he offered, “I think they probably showed all the funny bits in the trailer?” He doesn’t see it. He’s just trying to dissuade me from making him watch this awful movie. He has nothing to fear. It’s been four months since the incident; I’m sure he remembers, but his perspective is different. September, 2019. We were taking our youngest to college 3,000 miles away. I was bummed, but my bigger concern was with the logistics of air travel – wheelchairs and narrow airplane seats, dietary requirements and the availability of adaptive devices. I almost didn’t notice when one of my prescriptions ran out, but I had it refilled before the trip. I’d been without it about a week, though, and had started feeling weird.
The pill I’d been missing is for depression. It’s not uncommon for those with chronic illness to take something for the emotional component; unrelenting pain is seriously depressing. My feeling without the medication wasn’t depressed, though, it was enraged. Furious, livid, even a little… violent. If you know me, you’re smiling at the comical image of it. I’m so low key that I literally had a Widowmaker heart attack and my EKG didn’t change. Yet here I was: Patricia Mitchell, Rage Monster. But it wasn’t funny, it was scary as hell. I could barely sit still. My skin was too small, my brain was on fire. Every single thing was making me mad – the air, my seat, my husband, the clouds, the flight attendants. The woman in front of me reclined her seat into me and, but for the quick action of my husband, I would have hit her in the head with my backpack with great prejudice. I was physically in the process of trying to assault another human being when he intervened.
This trailer isn’t for a romcom, it’s for a horror film. One movie previewer clucks a knowing tongue at the film: “the things we put up with for love.” I’m sure in the end these crazy kids will work it out. Ms. Right will discover that her love of a man she considers perfect is strong enough to endure the fact that he takes medication that fully treats his incurable, yet entirely non-communicable, conditions. Speaking of crazy, the tagline for this masterpiece is “Get ready for one crazy trip.” Wow, you know what people with mental health issues love even more than having mental health issues? Being called crazy.
Would the movie still be funny if Hank was an amputee and lost his prosthetic leg and had to hop around? If he was blind and forgot his cane and kept falling? Rejected his donor kidney? Couldn’t afford his insulin and, for the lack of a simple shot, went into a diabetic coma and died? Good times.
I feel strongly about the power of representation. I recently saw an interview with Awkwafina, who was talking about what it was like to be in Crazy Rich Asians; the first Hollywood movie with an all-Asian cast in 25 years: “[W]e… would sit through these screenings and see these kids come out crying because that is the power of representation. You don’t realize how important it is until you realize you’ve been missing it your whole life.”
It’s true that seeing someone onscreen who looks like you is a powerful thing. But not all representation is good. The character of Hank in the trailer for My Boyfriend’s Meds feels less like the fully-realized characters in Crazy Rich Asians and a lot more like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. That’s the kind of representation we can do without.