You know that moment when you’re living in an ignorant state of bliss? That was me a few weeks ago. That was me until the trailers for “Me Before You” began rolling out. Coming from a background of film school, analysis, reviewing, and the like, I normally say (and hear) things like, “film is subjective.” And if you say that, you’re correct. It is. For every 100 people that hail a film as “the best,” 100 other people become enraged that some Hollywood suit that doesn’t understand the creative process gave a film crew millions of dollars to make the film in the first place.
That said, there are many parts of a film that are not subjective. People watch films to see representations of themselves, to learn about the world, and to be entertained. Unfortunately, prejudices like sexism, ableism, and racism sometimes make it hard to enjoy even the most “Hollywood” of films. Movie magic may sparkle and shine, but if the film in question is about a specific group of people, and it’s made in a rather derogatory way, you can bet it hurts.
Spoilers are coming….in case you haven’t heard them already.
The film, “Me Before You,” began as a book by the same name. Both the book and the Warner Bros. adaptation were written by Jojo Moyes. In the book/film, Will (played by The Hunger Games’ Sam Clafin) is an affluent, educated businessman who is in a road accident that leaves him paralyzed. In terms of disability, he requires a wheelchair and full-time personal assistance, including things like a lift/hoist to get him in and out of bed (though this is never shown in the film). Louisa (played by Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke) is an emotionally abused waitress tasked with supporting her family, who takes a job as Will’s glorified babysitter (she’s a Personal Assistant that really doesn’t do any of his care or isn’t supposed to, at first – she eventually does at his behest) that is there to ensure that Will does not commit suicide. You see, despite having every necessary accommodation, Will is embarrassed by his disability, and as a result, he wants to die. His parents, family, and friends, are not supportive, but have agreed to let him die if he can stick around for six months to think about it and reconsider. In the end, Will and Louisa fall in love, but love isn’t enough, and as a result, he kills himself anyway.
As a disability activist, I loathe this movie. As a feminist, I am confused, appalled, and mad as hell that a woman wrote this. Will may be wrought with problems, the most visible being that he is nothing more than a rolling plot-device, but Louisa is the one that really gets my goat. Sheltered, emotionally stunted, and raped just to move the plot along, Louisa may be keeping her family together with financial support, but she spends her entire life being told what to do by other people. In fact, Will, who clearly doesn’t even have himself together, spends their time together being the disabled savior, either loving her or berating her depending on the scene.
Will wants to teach her how to ‘live boldly’ before he’s gone, and he even leaves her money once he’s killed himself, so that she can go to school and become something. As a woman, she needs to be rescued, and that is her only purpose. A man, that is, by his own definition, not even a man, has to provide her money so that she can go out and live her life the way he thinks she should live it. Oh, and don’t even get me started on the tagline, “Just Live.” The guy who is going to kill himself no matter what, is telling the woman to just live? This book cannot even follow its own advice!
The thing that I find funnier than perhaps I should, is that Emilia Clarke is in this and in Game of Thrones. Thrones has been continually dinged for its rampant sexism. You continually see women in various shades of nudity, rape is a common theme, and women, at times, are seen as less. That said, Thrones makes no apologies for what it is. It also has some incredibly strong female representations, and it’s a fantasy series. While both are fictional, Me Before You, is set in a reality-based setting, and while there is an opportunity to provide a strong character on both sides of the aisle, weak writing leaves us with two unbelievably appalling, if not embarrassing, representations of the gender spectrum.
Focusing too much on the idea that women are weak and need rescued, and that men cannot be masculine without the use of their legs, Me Before You becomes a caricature of a “romantic” film that only works when the characters fall in love, because no one else could ever want them. There is no patented love scene, because disabled people, or at least ones like Will, can’t have sex. This of course, is not true, but if you didn’t know someone with a disability you might think that’s the case, because that’s what this film, and nearly every other film about disability, tells you.
Disabled activists have been protesting the release of Me Before You, and they are doing better than any of the previous protests for films, which seem to pale in comparison to the triteness of this one. In fact, they are getting so much attention that Clafin ducked out of a Twitter chat that turned on him, filled with questions he couldn’t answer, and other members of the cast and crew have commented on the protests and the protesters, often in a condescending manner.
The director of the film had this to say:
“People are so quick to judge and make judgments about other people and maybe that’s something to be reminded of, and take a breath, and not necessarily know, or think that you have the right to judge somebody else until you’ve been in their shoes.”
It’s ironic that she said this, the way she said it. I mean neither her or the writer have the experience of being a newly paralyzed man. I have been a server and I am currently a Personal Assistant. This gives me a pretty good insight into what a real Louisa would look like. The person I am in a relationship with, Dominick, has all of the care needs that Will has in the book/film. So, other than the fact that he was born with his disability, and we don’t have the endless wealth that makes disability much easier, me and Dominick could be these characters. So, though I am sure the director wasn’t expecting anyone to have unique perspectives that would allow them to judge this film, here I am.
The problem, other than the feminism issues I mentioned above, is with how Will’s interest in death is handled. Yes, the people around him protest and attempt to talk him out of it. Still, no one gets him psychiatric help of any kind. If I, a non-disabled person with no physical disability to speak of, said I wanted to die, therapy would be mentioned as one of my needs. No one seems to think Will needs this. You also don’t see him seeking other people that have been paralyzed longer than him. The disability community is huge, vast, and you can generally find someone welcoming to those who are newly joined that need help and have questions. Of course, Will’s only question is when he can roll off into the sunset, toward the light that will allow him to end his life. And even though you’d think the plot would be Will and this decision, it’s actually about Louisa and how her life will be better because of him, and because he’s gone.
The problem is that while everyone is different and everyone has their own opinion, Will’s opinion has been expressed before, and it is one frequently (though usually better expressed) offered when it comes to having a disability in the realm of film. It’s safe to say that one of the most-hated disability related films by activists is Million Dollar Baby, another film about suicide in relation to disability. However, one could argue that the decision for the character to want to die in Baby was made immediately. There was no buffer-zone where she learned how to live life. She became disabled and immediately wanted to die. It’s by no means excusable, but she wasn’t around for the wheelchair, lift, carers, and general aftermath beyond the label. Her decision was made in haste, with little thought beyond her immediate desire to die. Will is not pressed or offered help for his decision because it is assumed that anyone in his position would, and more incorrectly, should, feel this way. He has, after all, “survived despite his suffering” for so long already!
The bigger problem is suggesting that assisted suicide is acceptable for people with disabilities or other medical conditions that are not actually terminal. Will believes that because he does things differently, because he needs help, and because he’s not man enough, he needs to die. The writer, director, and even actors, claim that this is one opinion. It’s also one of the only opinions non-disabled mainstream audiences see about disability, beyond those viral videos at McDonald’s of minimum wage workers feeding someone in a wheelchair (but that’s for another day).
Oregon is a state that has offered assisted suicide for years. Every year they release a report that explains how many people used the option, why they chose it, and other demographic facts. The 2015 report listed the following reasons for choosing assisted suicide over life:
- Losing autonomy
- Less ability to engage in activities that make life enjoyable
- Loss of dignity
- Loss of control of bodily functions
- Burden on family, friends, or caregivers
- Inadequate pain control
- Financial implications of treatment
All of these things are things that people with disabilities deal with in various degrees, depending on the disability or their personal situation. These were the only reasons people listed in Oregon when asked why they were seeking suicide assistance. Imagine if we focused our efforts on making sure disabled people did not feel like they were a burden, instead of supporting the idea they are better dead than the disabled.
Now, remind me again why we need a fictional portrayal of a disabled man who wants to die merely because he doesn’t function as he thinks a man should? Where is the romance in death due to insecurity and vanity?