Margarita with the Straw: an unsatisfying coctail of queer and disability representation
I am not much of a cocktail girl (I prefer beer, mulled wine, and mead like a medieval peasant) nor am I a movie person (I prefer tv shows) but I still hoped that the mix of queer and disability representation in Margarita with a Straw would be to my taste.
Margarita with a Straw is an Indian drama from 2014 directed by Shonali Bose and it is currently available on Netflix. It tells a story of Laila, a bisexual college student with cerebral palsy who goes to study creative writing in New York and falls in love with a blind woman.
Identity is not a costume
I am a bisexual aspiring writer with cerebral palsy, and I even dated a blind man while I was at Uni, wait, is this movie about me? Sadly, it isn’t because if it was the main character would be played by a queer disabled actress. Rosie Jones, for example.
French actress Kalki Koechlin who played Laila isn’t disabled nor is Sayani Gupta who played her love interest.
They were praised for their performance and as far as non-disabled people playing disabled characters goes, I guess, it could’ve been worse. But that doesn’t matter, even if it was Oscar-worthy, they shouldn’t get those roles in the first place. Disabled roles should ALWAYS be given to disabled actors and actresses.
What was that? It is called acting for a reason? Alright then, does this mean that you would be ok with a white actor playing Martin Luther King Jr.? No? But why not? The make-up artists working on that movie would surely be able to make him look black and the rest is just acting, is it not? It would be racist? I agree, the same way casting a non-disabled person to play someone disabled is ableist.
Identity isn’t a costume, nor is it an opportunity for an actor to showcase their skills. Do you want to prove how talented you are by portraying an experience a mile away from your own? Great, go and play an astronaut.
Representation matters and stories of minorities should be told by minorities both from in front and behind the camera.
The reason why we need to be involved in telling disabled stories is that our experiences are varied and unique. And so is ableism. It has millions of forms and most of them are subtle (which doesn’t make them any less harmful). Yes, there is blatant discrimination and there is hate crime. Those are easily spotted even by non-disabled people, but there are others that are harder for you to see.
I appreciate that this movie unmasked ableism masquerading as trying to help or even being inclusive.
Right at the beginning there was a scene where Laila is being carried in her electric wheelchair up the stairs at school by two men. She doesn’t say anything, but the audience could clearly see that she is scared and uncomfortable. This is exactly how every disabled person feels when offered to be carried somewhere. It is dehumanizing and dangerous. We might smile and say thank you, because we don’t have any other choice at that moment, but there is nothing to be grateful for. Lifts and ramps are the only acceptable solution to the conundrum of stairs.
I also loved the way Laila dealt with being used as inspiration porn. When given an award for the song she wrote not because the judges liked it best but because she was disabled, she gave them a middle finger. Next time someone calls me brave or inspirational for buying groceries I might do the same. So, I guess that in this scene she really was an inspiration for me. Afterwards she was angry and sad which is an accurate portrayal of what inspiration porn does to us. It is not a compliment. It is hurtful and insulting.
The movie also doesn’t shy from exploring internalized ableism: we see Laila edit her Facebook photos in such a way that makes her look less disabled. A lot of disabled people feel like we have to hide or at least minimize our disability otherwise we will never be accepted. But this isn’t true, you say? I was told by both my family and strangers on the street that I shouldn’t wear dresses so my disability would be less visible. Both potential employers and potential lovers treated me differently based on whether they saw me walking during our first meeting. In most cases being confronted with my disability led to ghosting.
Bisexual doesn’t equal cheater
There was a lot to love about this movie there was unfortunately also a lot to hate. At the beginning I admired how Laila’s sexuality as a disabled bisexual woman was depicted.
The movie even addressed homophobia in India and how coming out to homophobic family could be hard or even dangerous.
Laila masturbates, watches porn, has sex, calls herself bisexual and falls in love with both men and women throughout the movie. Her relationship with her girlfriend developed naturally and was very romantic.
Until she cheated on her with a non-disabled male classmate. Her justification? “I was confused… He could see me, that’s why!”
Oh boy, there is so much to unpack, here. Bisexual people aren’t confused, and we aren’t more likely to cheat on our partners just because we are attracted to multiple genders. These notions are biphobic and need to die!
I dated a blind man, and I would never cheat on him with a sighted person just to feel more wanted. That’s so bloody ableist and unrealistic, NO ONE would ever do that.
Furthermore, she had sex with said classmate right after he helped her to use the toilet in his house. While Bose was writing the script, she worked with The Sundance Institute which supplied her with five mentors. One of them suggested that the seduction scene should start while they are still in the bathroom. There is nothing sexy or kinky about providing a disabled person with any kind of assistance, depicting it as such reduces us to a fetish.
Who needs to be independent when you can be inspirational?
After admitting to cheating while she and her girlfriend are visiting her parents in India they broke up. Her mother dies of cancer (there was no trigger warning for graphic depiction of terminal illness, death, or bereavement, btw) and she never goes back to New York to finish her course. She stays in India and lives with her father and younger brother. There is nothing said about her studies or a job.
At the end of the movie, we see her at the hairdresser getting ready for a date but after arriving at the restaurant she orders a margarita with a straw and drinks alone. Toasting to herself in the mirror across from her. If this was supposed to be a message about the importance of loving yourself it felt heavy-handed and reeked of inspiration porn.
How did I enjoy my first Margarita with a straw? It was sweet at first, but it left me with bitter aftertaste and a massive headache. In the future I will rather stick to beer.