This new holiday movie would have changed everything for my teenage self

Melissa Blake is a freelance writer and blogger from Illinois. She covers disability rights and women’s issues and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harper’s Bazaar, Good Housekeeping and Glamour, among others. Read her blog, So About What I Said, and follow her on Twitter. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers. View more opinion on CNN.

As a pop culture writer and lover of all things TV, I love cozying up on the weekends and watching holiday rom-coms — but for me, there was always one thing noticeably absent from all the chance meetings, almost-kisses and happily-ever-afters: a disabled actor in the lead role.

So, when Lifetime announced their slate of holiday movies for this year’s It’s a Wonderful Lifetime, their much anticipated annual lineup of new original holiday movies, I actually screamed with joy when I saw a photo of Ali Stroker. The singer/actress, who uses a wheelchair, starred in Sunday’s “Christmas Ever After,” continuing to blaze a trail for disability representation following her historic Tony Award win last year for her performance in Oklahoma.
Melissa Blake

In “Christmas Ever After,” Stroker plays Izzi Simmons, a romance novelist with a bad case of writer’s block. Hoping to recharge and get inspired, she heads to her favorite bed & breakfast, where she discovers the new owner Matt (Daniel di Tomasso) bears an uncanny resemblance to the dashing character in her books. Predictably, sparks flew between Izzi and Matt and, as the saying goes, they (spoiler alert) lived happily ever after.
Of course, I loved the big kiss at the end, but it was actually the rest of the movie that gave me butterflies. Izzi, an independent woman who is funny and confident, has her own life and her own career that she’s proud of. Her disability isn’t the central focus of the story.
    In other words, she’s everything we haven’t seen from disabled characters before — especially in the romantic comedy genre, where characters with disabilities are typically even more rarely featured than in other kinds of stories.
    As a disabled woman myself, I’ve written about yearning so much to see women like me in my favorite movie and TV shows over the years, and, honestly, I was starting to think it would never happen. I came of age during the Rom-Com Renaissance of the 1990’s when leading ladies like Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan dazzled on-screen. For a lot of viewers, they were America’s sweethearts because they seemed relatable. Sure, for some, but they looked nothing like me — and they were the default vision of what mainstream America desired in a woman. So, no matter how much I loved their movies and rooted for their characters, they weren’t enough for me.
    Ali Stroker as Izzi in Christmas Ever After

    Indeed, this movie isn’t just groundbreaking because it stars a disabled actress. It’s also groundbreaking because the movie is about love and romance, which is something you don’t see much of when it comes to characters with disabilities. Disabled people are very often viewed as asexual by our culture and this is reflected in the ways we see people with disabilities portrayed in movies and TV.
    These views are all too often made through the ableist lens by non-disabled people, leading to inaccurate and sometimes-insulting assumptions about how disabled people actually live. There’s this societal misconception that disabled people don’t or can’t fall in love and have relationships just like non-disabled people. The total absence of social messages when I was growing up that women with disabilities can be sexy constantly left me feeling like romance wasn’t something that could ever happen for me or that there must be something wrong with me.
    Stroker says she felt the same way growing up, according to an interview with PEOPLE.
    “I was always so nervous, like, ‘Am I ever going to have a relationship? Am I going to have a love story in my life?’ I wanted that so much,” she said. “I wish I had seen stories like this, I wish I had seen myself represented in that narrative, it would have made such a difference in my life.”
    With Stroker’s portrayal of Izzi, we’re seeing a more accurate depiction of how disabled people actually live. They live, work, take vacations and have romantic relationships. As Variety notes, “the movie is not about her disability but about her career and love life — two aspects of life that often are not portrayed on screen for disabled characters.”
    And these romantic stories on screen are also having a ripple effect, causing cultural shifts and more open and honest conversations in real life. Disabled people are now feeling freer and more empowered to talk about disability and sexuality, and social media influencers like Alex Dacy are leading the charge.
    “Christmas Ever After” also comes at a time when the push for diverse, authentic representation is reaching a fever pitch. For 10 years, GLAAD has tracked the representation of people with disabilities on TV. For the 2019-2020 television season, there were 879 series regulars on broadcast programming and only 27 of those regulars were disabled characters.
    The number may be up from the previous year, which saw 18 characters, but if the goal is to truly reflect reality, we have a long way to go, especially considering that 61 million adults in the United States live with a disability — that’s roughly a quarter of the population.
    It’s not enough, though, to have a disabled character and say “OK, we can check off that box.” What’s just as important is the kind of character. The few times we’ve seen disabilities on TV (think the disaster that was 2016’s “Me Before You“), their disability plays a central role in the storyline in a way that is condescending at best and downright ableist at worst. These characters are often seen as victims to be pitied and their disability is portrayed as something negative, a hindrance or something “to overcome.”
    Or, these characters are seen as “so inspiring” solely on the basis of their disability — a scary trend identified as “inspiration porn” by the late disability activist Stella Young in 2012.
    And even worse, these disabled characters are routinely played by non-disabled actors — a trend that continues to receive criticism from the disability community at a time when there’s no shortage of disabled actors ready and willing to take on these roles.
    Just last month, singer Sia received backlash for casting Maddie Ziegler, a non-autistic actress, to play an autistic character in the upcoming movie “Music.” Disability activists quickly spoke out against the casting choice, calling it “offensive” and asking Sia to cancel the film altogether.
    Her response on Twitter was just as problematic; not only were her responses hostile and downright rude to members of the disability community (telling one Twitter user “Maybe you’re just a bad actor”), but her use of phrases like “special abilities” instead of “disabled” for people with autism reeked of ableism — an insult to the very people to whom she claims her movie is a “love letter.” Sia’s heated Twitter exchange and other statements on the matter further underscore the deep chasm that still persists on the long road to authentic representation. On Twitter, Sia said she “actually tried working with a beautiful young girl non-verbal on the spectrum and she found it unpleasant and stressful,” so cast a longtime collaborator instead.
    Maybe that’s why I loved “Christmas Ever After” so much. After years of seeing tired disability tropes and negative stereotypes play out on my TV screen, Stroker is now ushering in a new era for a younger generation.
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    A movie like this would have been a game-changer for my teenage self. Whether 18 or 80, we all fantasize about those fairy-tale moments and we all yearn to see ourselves reflected in the media we consume, as if to confirm, “Yes, you belong. You’re included. You matter.”
      And, honestly, the teen years can be very isolating and confusing for anyone. Had I seen a disabled woman in a rom-com when I was 16, sure, I would have still enjoyed the escapism of the movie, but it also would have given me a giant jolt of much needed self-esteem.
      Disabled people deserve their own meet-cute — in movies and in real life.

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