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Guest post: Me Before You fuels the fear and ignorance of what it means to be disabled

curlywurlygirlycurlywurlygirly Member Posts: 1 Listener
edited July 2017 in Guest blogs

My social media has been buzzing this past week with talk of the book and now feature film, Me Before You. 

Lady with purple hair smiling at the camera.

Both the book and screenplay are written by Jojo Moyes, but this oddly sexless ‘romance’ has ruffled the feathers of more than just the usual lovers of chick lit who have made this book a best seller.

But why? And why am I talking about it here?  

That is a long and involved story which I will try and keep short, but here are two words I feel are necessary on the off chance you are looking forward to reading the book or watching the movie…spoiler alert!

Here's a very potted breakdown of the book:

• Will is rich and extremely privileged, so you won’t be seeing him next in the queue at your next PIP assessment.

• Will has an accident in which he becomes quadriplegic. He feels his life is no longer worth living & attempts suicide.

• His parents hire Lou, a flaky but charming girl, for six months of suicide watch, unbeknownst to her. Said parents have promised that if Will still wants to kill himself in six months they will support his decision.

• Will and Lou initially butt heads but when she realises she is on suicide watch, she endevours to use piles of money to convince Will that life really is worth living.

• They go out for all sorts of excursions, and even a holiday, all the while falling in love.  

• Will decides that life still isn’t worth living if he can’t do what he could before the accident, and they fly to Switzerland where they all cry and support Will in his decision. Will leaves Lou a bunch of money so she doesn’t have to be miserable and poor any more, while he can be happy and dead.

I have not watched the movie, but Moyes has confirmed that she made every effort to have the screenplay mirror the novel on which it was based. This is what I, and so many other people with disabilities and their champions, find particularly worrying, because the book throws up so many issues, particularly around the depiction of disability.

Leaving the whole euthanasia debate for another day, I’m going to jump right into the issues.

Thea Sharrock has reportedly kept Moyes’s ‘romance’ as streamlined as possible, focusing on its serious central issue: what might make life worth living if you are confined to a wheelchair? She is quoted as saying “By the end, the question becomes: who is it who saves who?”

Is it Lou, who is saved from a life of living in rented flats, and all she has to give up is the man she loves? Or Will, who hasn’t even had a peek at how well people with disabilities can live their lives?

Will, who is played in the movie by Sam Clafin, is a very one dimensional character. Though the whole story revolves around him, little thought has been put into who he is, only what he is, and for so many people, what he is is terrifying!

In this ‘love story’ written by a non-disabled author for a non-disabled audience, Moyes plays on the fear of her readers. ‘What a tragedy! Can you imagine if this were to happen to you? If you were to become, disabled?’

As a disabled woman and wheelchair user, I live a very happy and fulfilled life

But I don’t expect to see people like me in fiction or on the big screen. We are not good for plot development. We are not what non-disabled people imagine when they ask themselves those difficult questions. Instead we see characters like Will, who rather than accept and explore life as a wheelchair user, would rather die. He would rather be dead than disabled.

It is this constant depiction in the media of people with disabilities as sexless, joyless shells of what they were, or could have been were they not disabled, that fuels the fear and blissful ignorance of what it means to be disabled. It perpetuates false stereotypes of what people with disabilities feel and think and do. It not only misrepresents us, it paints a sad picture of what it means to be disabled, something which actively hurts the disabled community.

Tapping into some ‘personal experience’ of disability, Sharrock is quoted as saying,
“My nephew is in a wheelchair and I hope he will be pleased to see this shown in a way that does not make audiences too uncomfortable. If we had shown Will being taken in and out of his chair, or put in a hoist over a bath, the impression we would give is of difficulty. I wanted to make it more normal.”

Um, exqueeze me? Does disability make people uncomfortable? Yes, we have to do some things a little differently, but to spare the blushes of the non-disabled audience, I’m glad they left all this nastiness out. God forbid people actually learn something about a culture different from their own, and disability is a culture, a way of life and a community.

Ms Moyes, please stick to the chick lit! Oh and BTDubs, disabled people DO have sex!!! I know, we’re disgusting!! Best charter a plane to Switzerland…

Have you seen the film, or read the book? What do you think? 

Replies

  • JenniferUJenniferU Member Posts: 124 Courageous
    edited June 2016
    Hi Vicky - great blog. 

    It seems this film is getting loads of criticism, and it's started quite the debate! https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/jun/02/me-before-you-disabled-backlash-not-pitied

    The author of the book also gives a very wimpy response to this protest at the premiere: 
    https://www.facebook.com/Channel4News/videos/10153776735706939/

    It can't possibly be the first time she's heard those views! 

    Are there any films that you think represent disability in a positive way? 

    Jen :)
  • AlexAlex Posts: 1,325 Scope community team
    That Channel 4 video with the author really annoyed me!

    “In all the years I've never had anyone that shares your views.”

    Really?

    Then to comment on how hard it was for the actor to pretend to be disabled, and that they've "done everything we can to make Sam's portrayal as accurate as possible"...unbelievable!

  • EdhlaEdhla Member Posts: 2
    Wow, that sneer about chick lit was... lovely. 

    As a disabled person, I've never felt unrepresented in fiction. A character does not need to be disabled for me to identify with them. And all because a character IS disabled, it doesn't follow that I'll identify with them.

    While I'm not planning on seeing "Me Before You" and find a lot of representation of disability to be wonky at best, I'm firmly against "don't make these movies" or "don't write these books" outrage. If I don't like your book or movie's premise, I'll just not give you my money instead of dictating what art is "acceptable" to me. Easy.
  • JenniferUJenniferU Member Posts: 124 Courageous
    @lauon90 did you say you were going to see this film? What did you think?
  • lauon90lauon90 Member Posts: 10 Connected
    Yeah...I did go and see it on Sunday- much to my embarrassment and disgust (I wore dark sunglasses and used a fake name...)

    I mainly went because my sister wanted to see it (having love love loved the book) but also I went out of a curiosity. Surely it couldn't be so bad as the reviews were saying...oh how I was wrong. It was worse.

    The stereotype of the 'tragic, wheelchair bound' young man who 'had his whole life ahead of him' was the message throughout. For those of you who don't know the plot- Will Traynor city-boy whizz kid multi-millionaire gets knocked down by a motorcycle and becomes a quadriplegic with limited use of his hand to control his electric wheelchair. The film picks up two years after, he is now living back with his parents in a beautifully designed, highly-accessible (and obviously super expensive) annexe. Will is physically disabled but with full mental capabilities but there is not even a mention of him going back to work. I would think that for someone as amazingly talented as Will is touted to be- his company would invest in the reasonable adjustments to bring him back to work. But as @JenniferU
    pointed out- this would be a very different film.

    A carer/companion named Louisa Clark is assigned to him and, with all of the other offensive imagery onscreen, has a 'quirky' wardrobe filled with every manic pixie dream girl cliche possible. She finds out that Will has promised his parents six months before he goes to Switzerland for assisted suicide and undertakes the task of showing him how wonderful the world is, in the hopes to change his mind. However, he doesn't. Even after falling in love.

    Wherever you stand on the assisted dying debate, it is far too complicated to cover in a generic 'romantic' film. 

    Things I found most offensive-
    • The idea that a non-disabled person is the only one who can change Will's mind. There is no talk of introducing him to other disabled people or any positive portrayal of living with disability. Will is completely isolated, surrounded by able-bodied people reminding him of everything he has 'lost'. Whilst meeting a community of disabled people may not have changed his mind- it would have been great to have a positive representation of disability onscreen.
    • The idea that only a disabled person can only really find someone to love after they've been paid to be there all along.
    • The idea that even with all his wealth and amazing adaptations to his house, life as a disabled person isn't enough for Will. It makes you wonder how a film would treat a disabled person who doesn't have the money to access everything they need.
    • Emilia Clarke acts solely with her eyebrows.
    • The number of amazing actors who chose to be in this film.
    • The sappy soundtrack. (Okay I'm getting flippant now)
    • The concept of "Live boldly". Throughout the film Will tells small-town girl Louisa to go out and see the world and do things. Which is essentially a great message...but it totally jars with the message of Will wanting to die. It's as if they're saying the choice to live boldly is only available to non-disabled people.
    Ultimately though I was most upset by the number of 14/15 year old girls (there was about 10 of them in our screening but I've seen numerous examples on social media) who have gone to see it to have a 'Notebook' or 'Walk to Remember' experience and a good old cry. This is likely to be the first time they'll have seen a wheelchair user onscreen and likely to have a lasting effect. A tragic figure with a life cut short. 

    I was thinking yesterday when the first time I saw a wheelchair user onscreen and I think it was in 'Notting Hill' with Gina McKee (again, a non-disabled actress) playing a wheelchair user Bella. The difference here though was it a relatively positive portrayal, there was no real focus on her wheelchair, she was merely another character.

    So there you go...there are my thoughts.
  • RosemaryRosemary Member Posts: 11 Listener
    Vicky this is a superb Blog. I haven't seen the film and plan to go at the weekend. I won't like it but feel I need to see it.  I just feel it takes attitudes to disability back several decades. I will let you know what I think about it. To be honest it is not my type of film, I hate schmaltzy stuff. I am not going into it with an open mind but I will try very hard to focus on the film at a piece of entertainment.
  • JenniferUJenniferU Member Posts: 124 Courageous
    Thanks for the review @lauon90! And thanks for the interview post @Jayni - it aligns with @lauon90's comment "Emilia Clarke acts solely with her eyebrows." 

    I don't think I'll be frequenting the cinema to see this any time soon. But I'm excited to hear your review too @Rosemary
  • AlexAlex Posts: 1,325 Scope community team
    edited May 2017
    Really interesting to read everyone's thoughts. I thought this review from @Mik_Scarlet was great too. Well worth a read.
  • LouleyLouley Member Posts: 4 Listener

    I watched the film, and as I saw it, it gave me the perspective of the thoughts of a disabled person, how his life was, and how he doesn't want to be a burden to anyone. My partner has been fairly immobile for the last 18 months, and he often worries about how much I have to do for him. 
    So I never saw the film as an easy way out, just how hard it is mentally for someone to adjust, and some can't do it, however hard you try. Maybe more support for people with this kind of life changing accident. 
    Louise pooley


  • htlcyhtlcy Member Posts: 133 Pioneering
    Great post @curlywurlygirly ! This is such a contentious issue isn't it?! I actually study the portrayal of disability in contemporary literature and have identified some books with a positive, more authentic portrayal of disability. I haven't read nor watched Me Before You, and although I probably should before making my mind up, I don't want to. It's very difficult at the minute to find books with positive attitudes towards disability. There's a long way to go, but here's hoping the backlash will perhaps help to change minds.

    Great discussion!
    Heather :smile:
  • htlcyhtlcy Member Posts: 133 Pioneering
    Oh and just to add, I feel some children's films are getting better and better at portraying disability in a positive way, where the focus is on diversity and not just confined to the effects of the impairment(s). How to Train your Dragon 1&2 are good examples of this. Both the dragon and eventually his trainer become disabled, but its just a part of the story, rather than a focus. I really enjoyed them!
    Heather :smile:

  • lauon90lauon90 Member Posts: 10 Connected
    There's another film just released on Netflix, The Fundamentals of Caring, which is another non-disabled actor portraying a disabled person. The tone is quite different from that of Me Before You however. Has anyone watched it? I'm thinking of catching up this weekend.
  • JenniferUJenniferU Member Posts: 124 Courageous
    Thanks @lauon90 - it would be great to get everyone's thoughts! Here's the trailer: 

    And it's now on Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80097349 
  • emmavogelmannemmavogelmann Member Posts: 8 Listener
    I wrote this for The Huffington Post. What does everyone think?

    Being Disabled Doesn’t Have to Be a Tragedy

    I went to see the film ‘Me Before You’ last week, not knowing how I would feel about it given the protests made by the disabled community and given that it was one of the first big ‘Hollywood’ films about an ordinary disabled person. I had seen ‘The Theory of Everything’ when it came out and, like everyone, I was in awe at the brilliance and determination of Stephen Hawking but I didn’t feel that personally connected to his story. ‘Me Before You’ however, was entirely different.

    [SPOILERS]

    The film is about a man, Will, played by Sam Claflin, who becomes a quadriplegic after an accident and finds an unlikely friendship, and possibly love, in his new carer Louisa played by Emilia Clark. This twist in the tale is that Will is deeply unhappy being severely disabled and cannot let go of the active person he once was and he wants to end his life through assisted suicide in Switzerland. A large part of the disabled community took issue with this as they believed the film suggests it is better to be dead than live severely disabled. I understood this point before I saw the film but wasn’t sure I completely agreed with it as it never occurred to me when I read the book. I think I never thought about it because the book was about Louisa and the film was about Will. During the film I paid more attention to Will’s negative attitude towards being disabled and not Louisa’s determination to show him the wonderful things life can still offer him. The book had a positive feel to it as it focused on all the things Will could do but the film chose to focus on all potential the obstacles he’d face doing anything.

    During the film I felt myself getting angry, not because I’m not sympathetic to Will’s incredibly hard situation, but because I couldn’t help but make comparisons between his life and my own. Here are the differences between my life and Will’s; he lost his ability to walk whereas I have never been able to walk. I cannot imagine how hard it must be to have full independence and have it taken away and I don’t wish to belittle it in any way. The similarity between my life and Will’s though, is almost everything else. Neither Will nor I have a condition that will get worse and might eventually kill us or cause us unbearable pain, and we both completely rely on others to take care of us. There are so many mentions in the film about some of the care Will needs that the able-bodied characters say they would find humiliating. I find these types of comments more hurtful and humiliating than the care they’re talking about. Personal care is not something disabled people get a choice on. It is part of our daily lives so we learn how to deal with it and it is normal to us. I felt like the characters were passing judgement on me and my life. Is this unreasonable? Well yes and no. Yes, because it is just a film and it’s not about me. No, because while most people seeing the film won’t have first-hand knowledge or experience of being disabled or know someone disabled and therefore are able to treat it as just a film, I can’t. The problems Will faces in the film such as people talking over him because they assume he can’t understand and having to figure out where he can charge his equipment, are problems I face every day so it’s hard not to take the attitudes in the film personally, particularly when some of these are small problems to me but to Will, they feel so big that they dissuade him from doing things.

    I understand that not all people are able to cope with the loss Will goes through and ‘Me Before You’ is portraying that story. The problem is that there are so few “Hollywood” portrayals of the disabled experience that when one comes along, particularly as big as this one, it is important to accurately represent the members of the disabled community. I think this is partly why I took the film so personally, because it is one of the few mainstream films about what it’s like to be disabled and whether I like it or not, it will have an effect on how people think of real disabled people. I acknowledge there are those like Will, who can’t cope and I’m not saying his feelings are invalid because of it, but there are so many more disabled people who aren’t like Will. The majority of us learn to cope with our struggles and lead full lives.

    A friend of mine said that not all people are as strong as I am which I understand, but strength wasn’t a choice I made. Not leading the life that I do was never an option I considered. I never considered just staying at home where things are comfortable and easier instead of getting a law degree and trying to get a job campaigning for human rights. (We can’t really afford fewer people to be doing this right now!) I don’t want people to think of my life is humiliating because it isn’t. My life is hard but it is also rewarding. I want people to have a better understanding of the challenges I face on a daily basis but understand that this is not all that I am.

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