"Just live well. Just LIVE."
...unless you're disabled.
If you follow me on Twitter you may have seen my Tweets about the book turned film, Me Before You. Originally I was going to hold off on writing this post until I'd watched the film and then write a Bloo's Review on it. However, the more I see the trailer, people gushing about the book and anticipating going to see it in the cinema the harder it's been to bite my tongue. Which is evident by my ranting on Twitter. I also realised I don't want to review the book or the film. The writing or acting doesn't matter to me. Nor does the cinematography. What I want to talk about is how this film portrays disability and the impact this kind of representation in the media has on my community. You may question the credibility of this post because I'm writing it before seeing the film or reading the book but it's a risk I'm willing to take in a bid to make people think twice paying to see this film and as such supporting it.
Spoilers ahead and talk of assisted suicide.
Me Before You is a film adaptation of Jojo Moyes book of the same name. It's the story of Will Traynor, an attractive, white, rich (is there any other kind of disabled person in romance?) disabled man and Louisa Clark, a newly unemployed, uneducated and unambitious but pretty woman with a kooky wardrobe. Despite having no qualifications she's offered the chance to become a carer for Will. But she is not hired by Will. No, she's hired by Will's mother as she hopes Louisa can brighten her son's spirits. Oh, did I mention Will is suicidal?
Since the accident that left him disabled Will has lost the will to live - naturally - and plans to go to Dignitas to die. After a suicide attempt his mother agrees to honour her son's wish but only if he agrees to live six more months. His mum's hope being that in this time she can convince him that life is in fact worth living; enter Louisa. Nothing like a pretty girl to get rid of those suicidal thoughts, am I right?
Well apparently it's not the miracle cure after all as despite falling in love with each other Will ultimately still goes through with his planned assisted suicide. Not before teaching Louisa the importance of living life as fully as possible. No, the irony does not escape me. Will obviously wasn't familiar with the saying 'practice what you preach', I guess.
Now perhaps you're thinking, 'Well, what's the problem?' Maybe you're thinking that sounds like heartbreaking but beautiful and poignant film. Now let me break it down for you.
I touched upon the stigma people with disabilities face in my post Mental Health & Disability. We still live in a world where disability is seen as synonymous with being unhappy. It's the reason why people frequently commend me on my attitude towards life and my positivity. It's the reason why people look at me with pity. It's why people tell me I'm brave for just being and why on multiple occasions people have told me they would rather die than live my life. People with disabilities live every day facing the stigma that being disabled is the worst thing in the world and every day we try to tell people that it's not. A disability is not the end of the world and it should not mean the end of a life well lived. Me Before You completely flies in the face of that.
We also live in a world where disability is extremely under represented in the media. When we are represented, nine times out of ten you will see a non-disabled actor take the role, as seen in Me Before You. The latter usually leads to the age old, "Well it wouldn't be acting if they cast a real disabled person." Because when an non-disabled actor plays a non-disabled role they are basically playing themselves, right? Personally I don't feel that non-disabled people being cast as characters with disabilities is inherently bad. The problem is that the film industry does not give people with disabilities a look in. It is not an equal opportunities industry and that is where the problem lies. However, the lack of actual person with a disability in this particular role is really just a cherry on top of a shit cake. To be honest, I would hope any self-respecting person with a disability would avoid being associated with this film like the plague. An actor with a disability would not change my mind on any of the problematic areas of this story.
In defence of Me Before You I have seen people say that people with disabilities need to understand that this isn't a story about all of us, it's a story about one man's choice. This is where lack of representation comes in. It is 2016 and it is still extremely difficult to get stories featuring disability made into film or television. That is why it matters even more what stories get told and who gets cast. You're right, Me Before You may not represent all of us but these kinds of stories do impact all of us. It perpetuates the worst stereotypes of disability and we have very little to combat that stereotype within the media.
It is important to understand what Will amounts to in this story. He is nothing more than a plot device. He serves only to be a life lesson to the real main character, Louisa. This is another thing people with disabilities have to put up with on a daily basis. Being made into other people's inspiration porn. Will is used to teach Louisa the importance of living and once he's served his purpose he is completely disposed off. Leaving Louisa to ride off into the sunset of a sequel with a new found appreciation for not being disabled or dead where she learns to love again, obviously an equally non-disabled or dead person.
Assisted suicide is a controversial topic and while I would say most people with disabilities want to live there are undoubtedly some that do not. As such I could perhaps agree there is some merit in broaching this subject matter in some way in the media but this is not it. Here we are seeing assisted suicide be romanticised and used as a plot device. We see the audience excusing it because Will is disabled. I mean... it's completely acceptable and understandable for someone with a disability to want to kill themselves, right?
All in all Me Before You is a story chock full of tired romance tropes. These tired tropes are the reason why I mostly avoid the romance genre featuring disability and hope to one day contribute my own stories to it. The only thing that sets this story apart is the fact Will is not 'saved' by Louisa (which would be almost as problematic if that were the case anyway) and goes through with his suicide but this isn't a positive difference.
The film boasts the tag line 'live boldly' which has been trending on Twitter. I wonder how those involved with the film are so clearly misguided and ignorant of the message they are sending to us in the disabled community. They are telling us it's acceptable for us to want to die. They are telling us that it's acceptable and even a romantic gesture for us to go through with it. They are telling us that living boldly isn't for us. The best we can hope for is to serve as inspiration and a life lesson in film as in life.