It’s been a while, I know, but I’ve been reading tons of responses to the movie based on the romantic novel Me Before You and I wanted to post some of my favorites before the movie premieres on Friday. This isn’t an exhaustive list – this is a thorough list of links – but is a selection of different approaches and ways of saying “fuck this ableist mess.” This isn’t a call to boycott or a litmus test. It’s context. This is the effect these portrayals have on disabled people.
Here there be spoilers.
The disability community is sick of seeing films where disabled people are misrepresented. Part of this is because we are not included, anywhere. We were not consulted for the script. A wheelchair user did not write the script. Even the main actor is an able-bodied actor, which prevents him from knowing how accurate his acting, how harmful his portrayal, and how inauthentic the script really are. Without including the disabled voice, non-disabled Hollywood continues to make life harder for us, because this is all people see, and they assume it’s true.
– I also assume that [Moyes] isn’t an intentionally edgy, avant-garde sort of artist who wants to upset people with a shocking conclusion to a story “ripped from the headlines” of a currently hot social issue. No, I think she wanted and expected her readers to be happy to read her book (and maybe see the movie!) Obviously she intended us to feel sad at the end, but sad in that happy, satisfying, cathartic way, not sad in the smash things and rethink your views on disability and suicide sort of way. I would really like to know what the author thought about disabled people as a group in relation to her novel. Did she a) think we’d love it for it’s unflinching portrayal of the difficulties of disability, b) imagine we’d be excited to appear in any work of popular fiction (and maybe a movie!), or c) did she just not think at all about disabled people as a distinct audience with a point of view?
A disabled person will identify problematic themes in the media portrayal and almost immediately upon voicing those concerns, someone will pop up and say “But, there are disabled people who actually feel that way, so who are you to criticize?”
Here’s the thing, there is a big difference between actual human people having feelings about their actual lives and experiences of disability (which I’m not here to criticize) and a fictionalized account written by someone who isn’t disabled and which heavily romanticizes very problematic stereotypes about disability (which I am absolutely here to criticize). I am also here to criticize the fact that the nondisabled media heavily over-represents disability discourses that fit into ableist stereotypes, which makes it harder for the viewer to differentiate between the feelings of individuals and the experiences and feelings of all disabled people. So if you find yourself asking that question, also ask whether you are hearing other opinions and whether those opinions are coming from actual disabled people or are they the fictionalized imaginings of nondisabled people.
What I find more distressing, though, is how the film blatantly uses Will’s disability as a shorthand for chastity fetishism. Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey have popularized chastity fetishism by substituting sexual attraction with attraction to danger, which leads to problematic romanticism of physical and emotional abuse. Me Before You takes the opposite tactic, by making Will so nonthreatening that he can’t even be conceived of as a sexual being. His relationship with Louisa has no chance of sexual culmination (at least according to the logic of the film), so Louisa is free of the usual pressures placed upon women in relationships and therefore can pursue Will without being concerned that she will be expected to consummate their love. This is exemplified by the fact that the film’s most romantic scenes (and a few comic ones) are of Louisa acting as a caretaker, and that Louisa doesn’t even bother to break up with her current monogamous boyfriend as she spends more and more time with Will. Again, I understand the appeal of a platonic, nonsexualized romance, but it cannot come at the expense of the dignity to either party of the relationship, and Will’s portrayal deprives dignity to an entire class of disabled persons.
The Reeve Foundation is ever so coy here. “Everyone living with paralysis can live boldy” . Give me a break. Borrowing the tag line from the movie here is just offensive. The Reeve Foundation taps into the myth that people who are paralyzed overwhelming desire is to walk again. Sorry, but no. The vast majority of people I know simply want to adapt to disability and move on with life. This is not easy because ableism is deeply woven into the the fabric of society. More to the point, the Reeve Foundation is part of the profit driven rehabilitation industry that sells a false bill of goods to newly minted paralyzed people. Walking is the one and only means of navigating the world. Rehabilitation facilities are now a brand that sell rehabilitation services. For example, the ReWalk is used at many rehabilitation centers. The men and women who use the ReWalk are “test pilots”. Yes, test pilots. Think Maverick. Corporations rely on the fact that most people think using a wheelchair is bad or some sort of tragedy. Walking is ideal. You must try to walk. I get it. The human body was not meant to be paralyzed. But paralyzed people abound. Without a wheelchair millions of people could not navigate the world. I know many people that use a wheelchair who love their wheelchair just like me. Yes, I love my wheelchair.
Lastly, I am not ignoring the fact that my life is sometimes harder than average nor am I saying that people with disabilities don’t have the right to decide when enough is enough but I am DONE with Hollywood and authors romanticizing and perpetuating all the negative stereotypes of my life.
At the end of the day I am simply a human that requires a lot of physical help. Just because I need someone to wipe my ass does not negate the fact that my life is worth living and is fulfilling.
Instead we get a tragedy. We get thousands upon thousands of people with disabilities who will finally see a character like themselves on the big screen in a real Hollywood blockbuster who chooses to end his own life because being disabled is too hard.
Even though Will gets the girl, has ridiculous amounts of money, power, oh and A CASTLE, he can’t imagine living life with a ridiculously higher quality of life than most people with disabilities will ever be afforded.
So, if the movie isn’t about them getting it on or Will’s triumph over adversity, what is the point of the movie?
Will is a plot device.
The danger of movies like, Me Before You, is that they cast disabled lives as not worth living. Not only is this not true but, I would argue, all lives have value and are worthy of love. It’s for these reasons I live my life in such a way that others hear, “You are valued and you are loved.” Every single person, no matter the body in which they live, deserve this.
So let me ask, having read some of my life story, if I said, “My life is too difficult. I think I am going to end it.” Would you say, “What a romantic gesture especially since you’ll leave a substantial amount of money (in my case due to life insurance) behind for those whom you love” or would you tell me instead, “I know your life is difficult right now but I care about you as do so many others. You make my life better and given the benefit of time, distance, and perspective, I believe you will see the value of your life too because you’ll live out the value of shared relational experiences.”
As evidenced by the complimentary Kleenex boxes handed out at the media screening, Warner Brothers is selling Me Before You as a weepy melodrama for female audiences. Louisa “Lou” Clark (Emilia Clarke) is the quirky caretaker of the quadriplegic Will Traynor (Sam Claflin); their romance is doomed from the moment they meet, but why? Will is, for all intents and purposes, a Disney prince: He’s remarkably wealthy, cultured, and (at the risk of putting too fine a point on it) is played by Sam Clalfin. He even owns an actual castle, the cherry on the crippled cake. Will insists women wouldn’t dare find him attractive, as if the wheelchair crafts a permanent bubble blinding women to his good looks, well-bred attitude, and conversational skills. This film has as low an opinion of women as it does of the disabled.