I usually try to read a book or watch a movie in its entirety before forming a definitive opinion, but the portrayal of the disability experience in Jojo Moyes’ fictional bestseller “Me Before You” stung so sharply after just a few chapters that I could barely handle any more. I stopped reading, returning to finish it over a year later only after being inundated with trailers for the movie adaptation starring “Game of Thrones”’ Emilia Clarke and “The Hunger Games”’ Sam Claflin. The book overflows with dehumanizing stereotypes about disability, from implications that disabled people are things no more active than houseplants, to assumptions that disability is a fate worse than death. Based on previews, it seems the movie will be just the same.
The plot centers on a quadriplegic man named Will who is suicidal because he has become disabled, and a young woman named Louisa who takes a job as his caregiver and, of course, falls in love with him. Most people have been eating up this storyline, so the movie is practically a hit before it’s even been released. When the trailer first came out, it was received with overblown emotional fanfare. HuffPost Entertainment wrote, “Even The 'Me Before You' Trailer Will Make You Cry.” BuzzFeed declared, “’Me Before You’ Is The Movie That’s Going To Emotionally Wreck You.” Since I embrace my love of anything with a heavy dose of sappy romance, headlines like these would usually have me planning to see the first showing at my local movie theater, armed with a full box of Kleenex. But to me, a physically disabled woman who uses a wheelchair and believes all lives have value, “Me Before You” isn’t just a contrived tearjerker. It’s yet another contribution to an endless line of disability objectification in the media, and I can’t get behind it.
Exploiting disability as a plot device tends to be a pretty common theme across media outlets because it virtually guarantees strong emotional reactions. Look no further than social media for a steady stream of examples. Try to think of the last disability-related story you came across on Facebook or Twitter. I’d be willing to bet almost anyone that it wasn’t real news. It was likely clickbait crowing about how heartwarming it is that a disabled student was asked to prom by a non-disabled fellow student, or a photo of a visibly disabled person and a demand that you should “like and share” if you believe the person is beautiful or brave. Or maybe it was a heartbreaker about someone “suffering” from a disability — either heroic for overcoming odds, or pitiful for succumbing.
I’ve spent my whole life surrounded by these kinds of stereotypical narratives of disability. In far too many cases, non-disabled writers and filmmakers seem to have no qualms about reducing disabled characters to victims or sources of inspiration (referred to as “inspiration porn”). Consider, for example, one of the defining scenes from “Forrest Gump,” in which young Forrest is being bullied by a group of boys because of his disability. As they start to chase him, Forrest’s friend Jenny yells, “run, Forrest, run!” Of course, the uplifting music begins to swell and Forrest magically breaks free from his leg braces, outrunning the bullies “like the wind blows.” In this case, Forrest goes from victim to inspirational figure, evoking feel-good emotions from viewers. On the flip side, consider the movie “Million Dollar Baby.” When Maggie, who is a boxer, becomes a quadriplegic following an injury sustained during a match, the movie does not convey that life goes on. Instead, Maggie becomes desperate to die, begging for assistance to commit suicide. Maggie transforms from inspirational figure to victim, leading viewers to sadness and pity.
Every time the media thoughtlessly throws around these messages about disability, it’s a painful reminder of how the existence of the disability community is so often perceived. “Me Before You” continues this trend, taking it further by trying to use both the victim and inspiration tropes simultaneously, aiming to leave audiences feeling inspired while still ultimately perceiving disability as tragic.
The movie’s tagline is: “Live Boldly. Live Well. Just Live.” Yet, Will does quite the opposite. The entire premise rests on the belief that life with a disability is not worth living. In spite of each of the characters in Will’s life trying to persuade him otherwise, the fact remains that Moyes imagines a world in which disability is synonymous with misery and assisted suicide is the only solution. And in the book, amidst all this drama, Will never narrates. He speaks, but in so many ways, is voiceless. Everyone discusses him — to his face, behind his back — as though he isn’t there.
Perhaps this means Will’s experiences and interactions are more accurate than I care to admit. “Me Before You” capitalizes on existing widely held negative ideas about disability and exploits them as fodder for entertainment. Prior to becoming disabled, Will was successful and happy, but Moyes implies that anything good in life will come to an end when disability becomes a reality. All of the able-bodied people in Will’s life, especially Louisa, try to play the roles of his saviors, but Will believes his life is a burden to himself and those around him. He believes that his life cannot and should not go on. So, through Will, Moyes simultaneously reflects the reality of disability stigma while furthering perpetuating it. And it’s stories like these that continually dominate the entertainment world, while stories that move beyond stereotypes — the ones that truly need to be heard — are rare gems.
The mainstream media frenzy and tear-stained tissues resulting from “Me Before You” serve as clear commentary on the narrow views and beliefs people hold about disability. Yes, disability can be a messy, agonizing, and emotionally trying part of life, but far too many mainstream outlets portray disability in ways far from everyday reality for the millions of people who live in disabled bodies. We can thrive. We can leave our homes, hold jobs, have families, love, laugh, and live our lives. This isn’t radical thinking. It isn’t inspiring. It’s just the truth.
Disabled people are so much more than objects of pity or props for a romantic denouement. And it’s time the media starts realizing this, but until then, I’m saving my popcorn for another movie.