CONTENT NOTE: This post will contain spoiler alerts for the book and movie Me Before You. It will also be dealing with (assisted) suicide, depression, and ableism.¹
The Lie of Living Boldly and Me Before You
I have been avoiding blogging about Me Before You, most likely because it hits me in a place I try and hide from others. I have sobbed in the shower and screamed into my pillow over its existence and the praise it has already received; over the willful ignorance of the author (Jojo Moyes), the cast, and the general public surrounding issues that affect my life and the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals in the disability community.
Me Before You is being touted as the “love story of the summer” and the “romance of the summer” (that’s according to the movie trailer and the sponsored ads). Long, horrifying story short:
“Successful” rich man (Will) with everything going for him is in a “tragic accident that leaves him paralyzed.” And his paralysis convinces him life isn’t worth living. Will needs a caregiver so enter Louisa who is the savior who teaches him that life can be worth living…but not really…so Will decides to commit suicide and leave much of his wealth to Louisa so SHE can #LiveBoldly and he won’t be a burden to anyone.
The Problems with the Book & the Casting
- NOT JOJO MOYE’S STORY TO TELL: First and foremost let me say that the author of this book turned screenplay is abled-bodied and healthy by her own admission. She has never met a paralyzed person. My absolute biggest criticism of this book and the movie is that this was not her story to tell. This topic requires in-depth knowledge of the community, it requires some level of lived experience, and it requires a sensitivity to the far-reaching implications of the work and the people harmed. Jojo Moyes lacked all of these attributes.
- LOUISA AS THE SAVIOR: This is ableism in action. Instead of Will being the hero of his own life, Louisa is brought in to “save” Will from himself and to “heal” him (because Disabled =broken).
- FAILURE TO ADDRESS ABLEISM IN SOCIETY: Will was active and happy before he was “tragically injured in an accident” and now he believes he can’t do what he loves, he can’t be who he was because of a wheelchair. (I’ll be honest, this is a phase that some wheelchair users and PWD/Disabled folks go through, it’s an adjustment for those that aren’t born disabled.) But the reason Will believes *he* can’t enjoy his life anymore (he can), is because of pervasive ableism built into our society that has cemented in most of us that we need to be abled in order to be whole and happy. This is an issue Ms. Moyes never addresses because it’s an issue she isn’t familiar with. She’s made this an individual struggle, a relationship story, a family battle, but not a societal issue.
- CASTING OF AN ABLED-BODIED ACTOR AS WILL: There are Disabled actors, including physically Disabled actors that could have played the role of Will and brought so much more to the role. I see Sam Claflin, the actor who is playing Will everywhere now. So easy to cast aside that wheelchair when the filming is done, after you’ve harmed so many PWD/Disabled folks portraying a reality you don’t live and don’t understand. Do you think he’s noticed how inaccessible all the venues he’s graced for red carpet premieres are? How many interviews he wouldn’t be able to attend if he came in his wheelchair? But it’s just a prop for him.
- LACK OF APPROPRIATE HELP: Typically, when you find out someone is suicidal, you get them qualified mental health care, if you’re able. In the case of Will and his family, we know that he is able to access great health care (he has the money and the connections). But for some reason, the family and Louisa never get him into see a therapist or a psychiatrist or any kind of mental health professional. Will’s own mother agrees to “let” Will kill himself but only if he lives for six more months. Why doesn’t she make him promise to seek help, since she’s coercing him anyway? Why is it that all of these people in Will’s life believe that suicide is a reasonable and rational response to a non-progressive, non-fatal condition? Why aren’t they willing to get Will help to treat his depression or even acknowledge that he has depression? Quote from the book:“Of course he’s miserable. He’s stuck in a bloody wheelchair!” Basically: of course a Disabled man is miserable, HE’S DISABLED! Let’s use his misery as a plot device for abled-bodied Louisa so she can learn! She can take him on adventures! But heaven’s no! Don’t actually get him into see anyone who might actually be able to help him. This just clearly illustrates how unaware the author is when it comes to depression and disability. When all of the characters in your book hold deeply ableist beliefs and there’s a plot issue a mile-wide that screams “Better dead than disabled,” there’s a good chance the author holds some of the same views.
- WILL AS A RESOURCE: Will serves many roles in Me Before You: he’s the tragic plot device that drives the story, he’s a source of inspiration (inspiration porn) for those around him (bitter cripple though he is, he’s a means of distraction for people in his life, and he is the sacrificial lamb/cash cow for Louisa. Oh of course Louisa doesn’t think of him that way, but the reality is, everyone is using Will. (There’s a bit of twisted Christian allegory in all of this: Will feels useless in life because he’s Disabled and he decides to sacrifice himself so that those around him can have a better life). The bigger picture for Disabled people and marginalized people in general is that often, we are used simply as resources, when we are considered “useful” at all, so it’s interesting and also infuriating to see how a Disabled man is treated as only a resource by the people who claim to love him and by the author herself.
Things that inform my opinion: I am physically Disabled (not a person with a disability). I have several disorders and conditions including an incredibly painful degenerative disease. I was once a caregiver for a man with Lou Gehrig’s Disease and I became very close to him. I’ve worked with Disabled kids. I’ve lost friends to disease and disability. I’ve met with a wide range of wounded warriors. I’ve studied psychology extensively. I am a Disabled activist.
My Critiques of Critiques
- “WILL ISN’T LIKABLE”: Some PWD/Disabled people aren’t likable. That doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve to be treated with basic human decency and respect. Yes, he’s angry and bitter at times. I’m often angry and bitter. Like I said previously, there’s an adjustment period.
- DISMISSAL OF DEPRESSION: (In community) It’s clear to me that Will is struggling with depression combined with a serious lack of support. But I’ve seen a lot of people say that he has no reason to be depressed because he can still work and do so much that he used to do, as though depression is logical. Yes, he can still do a lot, but that’s like saying someone isn’t actually Disabled because they’re “able” to do so much. It doesn’t make sense and it’s harmful.
- “DISABLED PEOPLE DON’T WANT TO DIE”: Do most PWD/Disabled people want to die? No. But is there a percentage that do? ABSOLUTELY! (And for those that DO want to die, it’s a last resort, unlike with Will.) I don’t know how we balance the needs and wants of everyone within the disability community, but I do know that we shouldn’t discount some needs to make blanket statements because they make us look better as a group. Some of us *are* suffering and do want it to end and it has nothing to do with the societal ableism that constantly tells us we’re better off dead than disabled. Those wishes (somehow) need to be respected.
- RESPECT OF BODILY AUTONOMY: I’m big on bodily autonomy² and it’s something that I’ll be blogging frequently about in the future, but something that’s been bothering me both with Me Before You and in people’s discussion surrounding it is that no one seems to want to respect Will’s bodily autonomy. As a very thin Disabled woman who’s also mentally ill (and Autistic), I often feel that I have no bodily autonomy.
I am profoundly disturbed by Me Before You.
Imagine taking something you have no connection with, no passion for, something that keeps people up at night and eats them alive, and using it as fodder for a romance novel. Imagine! Imagine creating a down-on-her-luck but looks-on-the-bright-side gal as the hero to a bitter angry cripple. Imagine writing a romance novel that confirms the worst fears of thousands (if not more) of PWD/Disabled people…that they are burdens, and that the most noble, most romantic sacrifice they can make for their loved ones is to kill themselves. IMAGINE!
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¹ableism: societal oppression of PWD/Disabled people and people perceived to be disabled
²bodily autonomy: total control and rights over one’s own body