“Me Before You” Sparks Outrage with Disabled Audiences

Me Before You looks, at first glance from the poster, like a typical, probably shlocky romantic movie. But that innocuous poster hides what many have stated is a sinister message.

Like me, you probably didn’t read the book (or ever hear of the book until the movie came out), but Me Before You is the adaptation of the book of the same name by Jojo Moyes. The story revolves around a woman named Louisa who falls in love with a man named Will, a guy who felt like he was on top of the world before his spinal cord injury. Louis has been hired as Will’s caretaker, and instead of still having a zest for life, Will, now needing the use of a wheelchair, wants to kill himself. Louisa asks him to hold off on his plans for a couple of months so she can show him how great life can be. The weirdest part of the plot is that Louisa succeeds at showing how great life can be, yet the man still wants to die. And does.

The story is supposed to be uplifting (which is what its promotional hashtag #LiveBoldly is supposed to represent), but for whom? And to whom is the film and book’s message for? Exactly what is the film’s message? For many disabled people, the message is clear: that life is only worth being lived boldly if you’re able-bodied. Non-able bodied people need not apply for their happy ending, because even if you do get your happiness (which the man does receive throughout the film), you can’t really appreciate it due to your disability. This is what has made so many people so angry. For further proof, check out the Storify collection created by Disability Visibility Project’s Alice Wong:

David Bekhour wrote about the film in his Medium article “People Who Use Wheelchairs Don’t Actually Want to Kill Themselves.” Bekhour writes about his own usage of a wheelchair and how his disability hasn’t ruined his desire to live.

I was born with a rare neuromuscular disease, and I’ve used a wheelchair my entire life. My condition affects the muscles throughout the body, slowly creating greater and greater paralysis. I went from an adolescent boy who double-fisted most meals to a man approaching middle age who has eaten through a feeding tube for the past twenty-two years. Most recently, I had a tracheostomy placed and began using a ventilator to support my respiratory muscles.

And life still goes on.

It actually goes on in quite a busy and fulfilling way. After being mainstreamed into public school in the fourth grade, I went on to earn two degrees from a major California university, rushing a fraternity and participating in the honors program. Then I graduated from law school. And then I became a member of the State Bar of California. Today, I work with people from around the world as a freelance writer. I make some people laugh, I piss others off and I worry about the grey hair in my goatee. I have wonderful friendships and an awesome family. And from personal experience, I can assure you that Helen Hunt does not portray the only woman in the world who has ever made love with a man who uses a wheelchair.

Bekhour states that films like Me Before You are allowed to flourish because not everyone has someone in their life who has a disability, and that such films make people who do have disabilities feel like they are left out of the collective conversation.

Popular films help shape the public psyche, reinforcing perceptions, influencing opinions and contributing to the notion that lives like mine are somehow less valuable, less capable. Though less dramatic, the reality is that people who use wheelchairs contribute to society in meaningful ways–and they don’t actually want to kill themselves.

The film also seems like it could be spreading another harmful message. Despite casting heartthrob Sam Claflin, Will’s suicide suggests that he himself doesn’t see himself as desirable and, by extension, that other people with disabilities shouldn’t see themselves as desirable as well.

Nik Moreno wrote about the intersection between disability and desirability in her Wear Your Voice piece, “If You Think All Disabled People are Undesirable, Check Your Ableism.” She writes about how she internalized harmful views of herself from the outside world.

I learned that I wasn’t lovable. I was always their secret–or their fetish. They only wanted to sleep with me because they were that desperate. They would only give me the time of day out of pity. Even now, folks rarely find me desirable, usually because they see my wheelchair first and think of everything involed in being with someone who has a disability. We aren’t viewed in the same light that able-bodied folks are. We’re either seen as disgusting or unattractive—and people try to pass it off as a “preference” as if it isn’t rooted in ableism.

Will seems to view himself from an ableist perspective (probably because the author viewed him from an ableist perspective) and therefore pities himself and sees himself how a severely ableist person might see him; undesirable and unworthy of life. Moreno also tackles the subject of pity in her essay, stating that pity is just another way of erasing the human experience from a person with disabilities.

Pity is such a prominent experience for people with disabilities. Able-bodied people pity us because they think we’re helpless. Folks see us and think that we lead awful, sad lives. Pitying us definitely plays into desirability and dating. Able-bodied people often date us because they feel sorry for us. Even younger, high-school-aged folks will ask a disabled person to a dance or prom out of pity. But when you pity us and make us into a sad story, you almost don’t even see us as a person; you just see our disability. It’s dehumanized.

It seems like Will has dehumanized himself simply because of his injury. It’s like he doesn’t realize he’s the same person he was before his injury. He now sees himself as someone that’s not worth Louisa’s love.

The creative team behind Me Before You have chided activists and potential audience-goers for disapproving of the film. As reported by Metro UK, the film’s director Thea Sharrocke the outlet that she found the story “life-affirming,” saying:

Within that is one man who has a choice to make, and he makes his own individual choice, and that’s another thing that I think is incredibly important to remember—that we all have earned the right to have our own choice. 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 a little rich that she says this, since this is precisely what those against the movie are saying. Sharrocke wants to advise those who don’t like the movie’s message not to judge the character by his actions, but the people against the film are also advocating that the film’s cast, crew, and those who watch the film not to judge people with disabilities and believe that they all feel so undesirable that they want to kill themselves.

More importantly, maybe the author didn’t do enough due dilligence when writing the book and screenplay. Bekhour writes in his article that Moyes “describes her motivation for writing this novel as being related to family members with disabilities and a news account of a paralyzed rugby player who sought out assisted suicide.”But, as Bekhour states, that explanation rings hollow. “At its core, it’s a story that embraces an idea that people with disabilities (and their families, friends, teachers, colleagues and lovers) have been pushing back against for decades; the idea that our lives are somehow less worth living,” he wrote.

IsaJennie of the site Journey of IsaJennie wrote about the film in the article “#LiveBoldly…Unless You’re Disabled?”, and at the very beginning of the article, she states that the story isn’t Moyes’ 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.

Overall, it makes sense that people would be up-in-arms over the reckless ramifications presented in this film. Let’s hope Hollywood hears the outcry and understands why it’s happened instead of what it has done in the past, which is ignore it.

Another article to check out: Weekly Reading List: “Me Before You” Edition | Disability Thinking

  • CParis

    I had little interest in seeing this film. But after reading this eye-opening article, it’s definitely on my NO list.