WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Before I begin this post, I think it’s important that I acknowledge that I am not disabled. I want to make clear that I do not speak on behalf of the community. These are merely my own thoughts. An important part of being an ally is not talking over the group you’re allying yourself with, and I just want to make sure that if any disabled person out there reading this thinks I’ve overstepped my bounds, you all are totally free to call me out on it.
Anyway, last weekend, I saw the movie Finding Dory with the boyfriend. As someone who idolized Disney films well into her adulthood, I was beyond excited for the much touted sequel to the highly successful Finding Nemo (and ready to kick toddlers and prepubescent kids out of my way should the need arise). The movie did not fail me. There are a thousand and one reviews out there that could tell you how excellent a movie Finding Dory was. That’s not what I’m here for today.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a scathing Facebook post about the book Me Before You, and how I refused to see the movie adaptation because of the way the story portrayed wheelchair-bound Will Traynor, who despite being rich and handsome (hello, Sam Claflin?!) thinks his life isn’t worth living and – spoiler alert – decides to commit assisted suicide, subsequently leaving a chunk of his fortune to the love interest (played by the gorgeous Emilia Clarke – oh, Khaleesi, why?) so she can go live the life she’s always wanted. There’s a plethora of articles out there talking about the ableist message of the book and movie, so I won’t go into that too much.
What I want to do now is compare Me Before You to Finding Dory. If Jojo Moyes really wanted to tell the story of a disabled man without offending hundreds of people, she should park her rear in the nearest theater showing Finding Dory and start taking notes.
The titular character, Dory, has short-term memory loss, which makes day-to-day life difficult for her. In the first movie, we encounter her as a happy-go-lucky fish aimlessly wandering around the ocean, when suddenly she runs into Marlin, Nemo’s father, chasing after the boat that took his son. The first half hour (I’m not actually too sure how long that part of the movie was, I was too busy drying my tears) of Finding Dory shows us how Dory got to that place. We see her parents, Jenny and Charlie, and Dory as a baby (“I had to punch a wall to feel manly again,” was my boyfriend’s only remark), already with the short-term memory loss that made her character so memorable in the first movie. Her parents are teaching her how to deal with her disability, seemingly in preparation for Dory going out to play with a group of other children. Sadly, the next time we see Dory, she seems to be lost and alone, and, heartbreakingly, remains so until she grows up and runs into Marlin. (CUE THE TEARS.)
What really struck me was that throughout the movie, Dory’s disability isn’t treated as a character flaw. It’s a trait just like any other, like height or hair color or weight. And even those who do see Dory’s short-term memory loss as a flaw end up learning from their mistakes and treating Dory as someone deserving of patience and respect. Marlin himself is schooled by Nemo when he loses his temper with Dory. “You made her feel like she couldn’t do it.”
There’s also no ‘othering’ of Dory’s disability. Finding Dory firmly sidesteps this by having other characters with disabilities, who are at first impeded by them but then learn to work around and/or with them: we have Destiny, the nearsighted whale shark (HOLLA AT ME EVERYONE WHO NEEDS TO WEAR CORRECTIVE EYEWEAR); Bailey, the beluga whale who believes he can’t echolocate; and Hank, a seven-tentacled octopus.
Dory, Destiny, Bailey, and Hank live in a world not built to accommodate them, and at the beginning of the movie, we even have Hank and Bailey actively wanting to stay hidden in the Marine Life Institute for the rest of their lives without being rehabilitated back into the ocean, afraid that they won’t be able to make it out there. But they learn how to function anyway, and function well. Their disabilities aren’t magically cured – and this is so important, honestly! – but they leave the Institute and make new lives in the ocean, with their disabilities, which don’t preclude them from living happy, fulfilling lives. No miracles needed. Just a bit of tenacity and patience and support from their loved ones.
Another thing I loved about this movie is how it portrayed Dory’s independence. Too often, this is a problem with the depiction of disabled people in movies and literature, leading to their infantilization. But from the very beginning, we see Dory’s parents, Jenny and Charlie, teaching Dory tips and tricks for surviving in the future without them. From shell trails leading back home to song lyrics with important messages, Jenny and Charlie’s whole parenting style revolves around teaching Dory to be self-sufficient – and it works! Using lessons her parents have taught her, Dory manages to find her way back home to the Marine Life Institute and to her parents. I have to admit, I found myself openly sobbing when the camera pans out to the makeshift home Dory’s parents have constructed in the ocean outside the Institute with shells radiating outward in every direction. They had faith that Dory would survive, that she’d remember, that she’d follow the shells and that she’d eventually come back home.
The movie begins with Dory constantly apologizing for the way she is, seeing herself as a burden on the people she loves. But by the time the movie ends, Dory is no longer unsure of herself. The ultimate response of those who’ve put her down for her disability is that they were wrong to make her feel that way, and that she is loved and worthy of respect just the way she is. How her mind works allows her to perceive a problem and find a solution in ways that are totally lost to Marlin and other abled characters. She saves the day not in spite of her disability, but because of it.
Dory is not tragic. She’s not the subject of ‘inspiration porn’. She’s plucky, happy, positive, and she has short-term memory loss.
(Honestly, the only bone I had to pick with the movie was this: why on earth was the whale shark speaking whale when whale sharks are not whales????)