Growing up in a wheelchair, movies both unified me and put me at odds with everyone I knew. I wanted the romance and fantasy of cinema, but realized that my wheelchair presented unique complications. I never saw a film that represents my experience as a disabled person – and still haven’t. Yet too often, people have used what they’ve learned about disabled people in movies to try to interact with me better (failing in the process). When the screen adaptation of Jojo Moyes’ novel Me Before You was announced, I knew I’d end up having to “educate” people about why it was another misguided and reductive examination of disability, and so it has transpired. (Other disabled advocates have already had plenty to say about it, too.) Why is it that, in 2016, disabled people remain a dark mystery? And how does Hollywood keep the dialectic growing about how people, both abled and disabled, interact with each other?
As evidenced by the complimentary Kleenex boxes handed out at the media screening, Warner Brothers is selling Me Before You as a weepy melodrama for female audiences. Louisa “Lou” Clark (Emilia Clarke) is the quirky caretaker of the quadriplegic Will Traynor (Sam Claflin); their romance is doomed from the moment they meet, but why? Will is, for all intents and purposes, a Disney prince: He’s remarkably wealthy, cultured, and (at the risk of putting too fine a point on it) is played by Sam Clalfin. He even owns an actual castle, the cherry on the crippled cake. Will insists women wouldn’t dare find him attractive, as if the wheelchair crafts a permanent bubble blinding women to his good looks, well-bred attitude, and conversational skills. This film has as low an opinion of women as it does of the disabled.
The chaste relationship between the film’s protagonists is reminiscent of a Victorian romance or Twilight, and it completely disregards the notion that disabled people are sexual and/or desirable. A fully mobile Will lounges in bed with a leggy blonde in the first scene as a reminder to the audience that he was once gorgeous and virile; later on we’re treated to glimpses of his extreme bad boy past, always with a leering eye to how desirable and attractive he once was.
These moments don’t just remind the female audience that Claflin has a six-pack under there; they “bond” the audience to him, because it’s assumed an able-bodied movie-goer will find nothing relatable about Will otherwise. Emphasizing that he was once like you presents common ground and reminds the audience that if they don’t live fully, they could be “cursed,” their freedom taken away and replaced by a ridiculously expensive wheelchair.
It’s this need to relate to the masses, as opposed to the niche, that keeps Me Before You mired in stereotypes. At no point is Will the anchor of his own story. Not even Lou takes the time to understand him and how he feels about himself – she’s content to act as the able-bodied enabler and “change his mind” about his impending suicide. She grants him no agency; when a day trip to the track sees Will stuck in the mud, Lou blithely asks strangers to help pull him out, oblivious to his embarrassment. The predominately able-bodied audience at my screening laughed at Lou’s exuberance and, when the two are turned away from a restaurant, they cheered Lou’s “piss off” speech to a hostess. As someone who’s had able-bodied people attempt to “stand up” for me, these moments play as tone-deaf and misguided.
When Lou and Will finally pour their hearts out to each other, Will declares they can never be together because he’s no longer sexual. It’s the tired old “Pinocchio principle,” wherein Will is only a “real man” if he’s able to have sex. No matter that Lou mentions quadriplegics can have sex – there’s no discussion between her and Will on the subject. Will can be desirable, but can’t have desire or provide it to others.
In many ways, Me Before You is a fantasy for both the abled and disabled. Characters talk about Will’s difficulties, but we’re never shown them, because his money keeps him incredibly comfortable. He lives in a converted house, has a handicapped car, can go on island adventures and travel by private jet. Even his suicide involves him staying in a Swiss model house I’d be willing to die in if it meant I could live there for a few months. For most disabled people, who struggle to stay above the poverty line, Me Before You only emphasizes how selfish Will is for ending his life. He never struggles to pay his bills, afford his medication, or get from A to B, so other than being unable to ski and have sex, his attempts to bemoan his way of life ring hollow.
A gentleman came up to me after the screening – probably because I was one of two people in a wheelchair there – and asked what I thought of the film. I politely explained how it was a stereotypical depiction, to which he responded, “But we’ll all be crippled someday.” And that’s Me Before You’s point. “We’re all dying” doesn’t work in this sense because, as Will’s life plays out, it’s assumed the disabled a) don’t live long, and b) can exit life of their own volition. It’s another way the film tries (unsuccessfully) to relate the abled with the disabled, ignoring the complexities and nuances of how disabled peoples’ lives are both totally different and remarkably similar.
Me Before You is out Friday.