Me Before You: or If you Die, I Can Live

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Me Before You: or If you Die, I Can Live

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!

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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.

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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?

Ashtyn Law is a freelance writer living in Ohio. Focusing on film, she spends much of her days watching and analyzing film and television and also writing screenplays.

10 Comments

  1. Great review Ash – full of smarts, insights and disability power & pride. Thanks and write on!

    Reply
    • Thanks for reading! I’m glad you liked it.

      Reply
      • Although I understand the issues you have with this film, looking at it solely from a gender perspective and perspective of those who are strong enough to live with their disability is also narrow minded. Calling the disabled character vain and ‘just’ unable to function as a man should is a very superficial analysis.

        I am a woman, I am disabled, I can’t even use a wheelchair. I cannot do almost anything I REALLY love to do that TRULY brings me joy and I have so much potential and I was an incredibly active person and had a leader type personality. Now I depend on others ALL THE TIME and the frustration of not being able to be free…is one way I cannot function as a woman or any person should and having sex certain ways may not really feel right…may remind you that you are not whole…may make you feel self conscious, carries emotional pain with it. It is not vanity to see your legs or in my case leg…shrivel…it is A PART OF ME…MY BODY AND MY MIND TO ME ARE ONE because I used to be a dancer. My body was how I expressed my expansive soul and now I can’t move at all like I want or used to…and it HURTS emotionally it guts me every day. I wanted to die…now I have some hope I may recover…which I did not before and I am holding out for that hope, but really…when I think of death…or my inevitable death…I feel like I will finallly be released from horrible physical and emotional suffering that is truly unbearable. I bear it because I have some hope…but if I had no hope…I could not bear it. I am ALWAYS SAD. And as a women, I am very attracive…as I am always told and I even have a man who has fallen in love with ‘me’ except…I am not me…and I do not feel totally comfortable. I feel like an entirely different person, smaller, less able..no differently abled which is an insult…because I am clearly DISABLED FROM doing 90% of the things I love. I will always feel like a lesser being…regardless of how I am treated. I have seen psychiatrists for suicidal thoughts and the most they do is make you feel even less of a person and weaker because they keep telling you why can’t YOU manage to find joy in THIS kind of life while others can’t. Well maybe others weren’t as FULL OF LIFE as I am/was and they can manage their gutwrenching emotions better…mine overcome me no matter how many pills I am put on. I could go on forever, but you are not disabled and I don’t think you should speak for the disabled.

        In my place…if I could give someone a better life by dying…now I would and I would be proud of being able to use my death to do someone else some good. And this person could be a child, a woman a man…whomever…but needy. I get the feminist view point…but life is not all about gender roles etc…it runs much much deeper than that to the level of our souls.

        Reply
        • The problem is that this is one of the ONLY messages written about disability. There are no countering messages representing the millions of disabled people who don’t want to die or kill themselves.

          Ashtyn was not speaking for us…she was signal boosting the message being sent out by many of us who ARE disabled. She also was speaking about the non-disabled character, who is the protagonist, and whose life is remarkably similar to Ashtyn’s actual life. Is she not allowed to comment about being in a relationship with a disabled person, from her standpoint? Is she not allowed to comment on her experience as a personal care attendant? Since this character is the protagonist of the story, and she is not disabled, I think it is fair to say she can comment.

          We need to remember that the disability community will not have equality until non-disabled people join us in sharing and spreading our message, and she does a good job of not co-opting the message we are trying to spread, without making that message her own.

          If you are offended by non-disabled people speaking for the disability community, you should be critical of the non-disabled writer and non-disabled director making this movie as though they are an authority on disability.

          I am also very sorry you feel the way you do, and a lot of it is because of how society views disability. There is hope for more assistive technology, more freedom and with AT, comes freedom. You are not lesser…there are always ways to adapt, but society does not promote that. I respect how you feel and I’m sorry you feel that way.

          Reply
          • No absolutely, she can comment. But that does not mean she knows what it is like to be disabled EVEN IF she works with disabled people. I was married to someone who is disabled before I became disabled and absolutely no amount of sympathy or proximity to a person who is disabled can prepare you for the nightmarish experience being disabled is..what living with non stop chronic pain is like, how you are isolated, how even if you are surrounded by people who love you, you feel alone in your pain. No one who is NOT disabled can judge even a disabled character and decide he decided to die due to vanity and feeling ash though he weren’t a whole properly functioning man. I think that is going to far. Is it vanity when I look at my once perfectly fit dancer’s body and see an overweight disfigured body with muscle atrophy and an extra 25 lbs on me and feel I do not see ‘myself’ anymore. Do not see the results of the healthiest lifestyle I was living and see only weakness where there was once strength and ability. Is that vanity? I don’t think so. People tell me I am beautiful ALL THE TIME they did before and they did after and neither time did it affect me much…to me I am what I CAN DO, WHAT i CAN BE and above all, HOW COMFORTABLE I USED TO FEEL PAIN FREE in my body. When I see my body, I see how FAR AWAY I am from what I was…and I can’t ‘unsee’ that. Is that vanity? Or is it being heartbroken over loss. I am BOTH heartbroken and resilient because I keep moving on. But, it is a huge lie for me say I am happy. It is a huge expectation put on me by others to BE HAPPY so they don’t have to feel sorry for me. Don’t feel sorry for me…even if I am miserable. Let me be me…let me feel what is natural to feel, do not bully me into being the poster child for the happily adjusted disabled heroine. Can I just be human? That is my point. And as for not being a whole man because he could no longer have sex…sex is self expression and how you do it is a part of you. I don’t like how much she criticized this character. My husband lost his sense of smell and sex became something very different for him. He loved my smell, my hair etc…and he was SO SAD even though he could mechanically function…the loss of his sense of smell…of it not being a whole experience for him anymore felt like a loss to him. I think if we want to UNDERSTAND how people experience and deal with disability we need to understand first of all that everyone is UNIQUE and their feelings…no mater how much we don’t care to define them by what they cannot do…count. How THEY FEEL about what they can and cannot do is going to be individual for everyone, so just deciding this character was vain and literally less of a man not because of his disability but because of how he felt about it and dealt with is is like saying there is a RIGHT and WRONG way to deal with disability. It’s judgemental. That is why I take offense. I feel less of a woman…not because of society…but because of my own idea of my own womanhood that included being very strong, capable and totally independent and very adventurous..and that is compromised…that is gone…forever. So, am I now EVEN LESS of a person…a woman because I miss being who I once was? Isn’ that very judgmental? I will work though this the best way I can, and I know I ‘shouldn’t’ feel this way…but I DO…I REALLY DO and I have tot learn to live with it. Based on Audrey’s portrayal of a well adjusted disabled person…not only am I disabled…but I am doing it poorly.

            I will give you that society is terrible at dealing with disability on all fronts…not to make this post even longer…I have had ZERO actual help from the medical community and society that has been meaningful in ANY WAY with my particular disability. I have had to figure everything out on my own. And I have, but if my parents…my caregivers were to disappear tomorrow…I would be completely screwed.

            I would complain more that the movie was totally unrealistic because the disabled guy was SO WELL OFF and had everything he needed. How often does that happen? Where is the reality of the low income housing, the 5 year long or more waiting lists to get it etc…

            I would criticize the entire premise and say it is unrealistic top to bottom. But the character’s desire to die is real…and despite having all the amenities he needed…he did have the right not to be judged for wanting to die because life is not just creature comforts…it’s so much more…it’s the story tha happens inside of us and for some of us those stories are unbearable and I do not think anyone should be judged if they want to die. Helped yes, but judged no.

          • The character was rich before he became disabled, that’s why he had everything he needed, including the ability to fly off and kill himself. I respect that you don’t like my opinion and think that it’s awful that you feel the way you do about yourself, but none of that changes my opinion or the need to critique this movie and the characters in it. Will was written the way he was written. An able-bodied person wrote him. An able-bodied person decided to take someone that can afford every comfort and accessibility and say that that’s still not enough, because I’m not “normal” I want to die. I didn’t decide to judge him because he was in pain.

            I’m critiquing a movie that includes a man (the story isn’t about him, his need to die just propels Louisa’s story forward) that says he’s not man enough. He says he can’t enjoy things because he is not the man he was before. He could do his job from his chair, but he can’t work because he doesn’t want people to see him like that. It’s vanity and apparently it’s as much the vanity of the non-disabled writer and director, who decided society wasn’t ready to see things like lift transfers, and who only spoke to disabled people in hospitals, not ones out in the community. They are telling a story and that story helps how society sees people that are disabled, because people learn and form thoughts and feelings from movies…and this movie tells us that if Will can have all of the best accommodations that money can buy and still want to die because he’s not good enough, then everyone lesser off with a disability might as well kill themselves, too.

        • I didn’t see anywhere where Ashtyn professed to know what it was like to be disabled. She doesn’t and she would be the first person to say that she doesn’t.

          I too live with a disability every day. I’ve been in a wheelchair for 20 years this Dec. Five years longer, than over half of my life. I’m not about to say it isn’t hard. I’m not about to say it does not suck sometimes. I have had chronic pain for over 10 years. I’ve had to fight for a wheelchair for the last three years.

          However, all the reasons you are saying disabled people should want to kill themselves for are reasons that should not truly be issues. How about we address the very real struggle to find ways to handle chronic pain? Imagine if they spent as much money researching this instead of spending it on assisted suicide initiatives? Instead of killing ourselves because we are in pain, we need to find a way to handle the pain so it’s no longer an issue.
          That means not treating those in chronic pain like drug addicts. That means making medication like medical marijuana available to everyone who benefits from it. That means having access to treatments that actually help, without having to worry about cost or if insurance will pay. That means having access to things like water therapy, that are essential to many, but inaccessible to even more.

          Just because we are critiquing a movie doesn’t mean we are judging actual people. Perhaps if we looked at disability as though it were something not a nightmare, and made accommodations so all disabled people had more mobility and accessibility, people would not feel like they are burdens or in a nightmare?!

          I have a friend who is no longer able to use a wheelchair traditionally, because she is not able to sit up anymore. A man at a durable medical equipment company worked with a wheelchair manufacturer to design a specially made wheelchair where she can drive lying down. This gives her freedom to move around, and also accommodates her disability. I have another friend who can no longer sit up, however she can lay on her stomach, so she had a specially made wheelchair that she can drive laying on her stomach. She now attends college, three hours away from her parents and family, with her own hired personal-care attendants.

          Perhaps if there was more ingenuity in creating mobility devices for everyone… people would not feel trapped by their disability. These are the issues we need to tackle….

          Nobody is asking anyone to be a poster child for a happy cripple… we are asking people to treat us like human beings. I am grateful that Ashtyn is willing to boost that message for us.

          I also hope that you can get the help you need, and that you receive better care to handle your pain. Pain is not fun for anyone, and nobody should have to deal with it.

          Reply
  2. I was a 20 yea old male athlete who became disabled through a sport injury. I did not almost die, I was suppose to die and have memories of doctors standing around my bed pronouncing me dead. 40 years later, I have endured comments like: don’t you wish you had died? My answer is a loud “FUCK NO!” Life was much the same except for other people’s attitudes. After the injury,I completed my BA in chemistry/math, aMS in a science Education with coursework for a second MS in chemistry, then I taught for 36 years as adjunct faculty in community colleges, colleges and high schools got married had a son was divorced and lived a life not to different from the able bodied people I knew death was never an option. Those who would suggest that one’s own death is preferable to life with a disability died long along. The suggestion that the disabled are better dead or dieing gives an unpleasant insight into our society’s values about life and the disabled..
    “Forest Gump” was disturbing enough. How is death more convenient than life? And for who?

    Reply

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