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Monday, 30 May 2016

Me Before You; Popular Defence Arguments

"Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth."
Marcus Aurelius

Here I am talking about Me Before You once again. I'm sure if you're sick of hearing about it now! I hadn't planned on writing this post but after getting into a debate on the Trailblazer's Facebook group I decided I'd like to do a follow up post on some of the points raised there and from other places on the internet. These aren't all the points but just some that I've seen made again and again. An interesting factor to these points is the fact they all came from others within the disabled community. It's important remember not all of us will view the book or the film the same. Art is subjective and up for interpretation. The fact still remains that this is how a lot of us have viewed it and authors and film makers have a duty of care to make sure they try and see how their work may be interpreted from all angles and when that fails them they need to come up with a better answer than it's not the intended message or that we don't understand what they are trying to say. I'd like to say since my first post I have read the book and my feelings have remained much the same. If you missed my original post you can find it here. Now on with today's post.

Warning: This post includes book and film spoilers!

"He plays Will before disability so a non-disabled actor is okay."

Yes, this is true. In the book we see Will's accident and I'm assuming that's what we see in the film too. It remains to be seen how much else we see of Will's 'former life'. I think it's important to understand for some of us the frustration with the casting isn't down to this one film. It's the fact we see this happening nine times out of ten regardless of whether we see them before the disability or not. This film is just another instance. It has been suggested someone with a similar level of disability to Will's character wouldn't have the 'stamina' to be involved in a film such as this. I can't speak to that as everybody is different but what I can reiterate is that this isn't the only instance we're seeing this happen. We see it for all disabilities.

Since the excuse "Well they weren't always disabled so we need a non-disabled actor to play them for the non-disabled parts" is something we see again and again, it leads to the question why are we constantly seeing stories told of people becoming disabled. Why are we - those born with disability - even more so under-represented?

Moyes herself said her own experience was actually of someone within her family with a progressive disease, not in fact quadriplegia. Also, when asked in an interview about why she felt it was important to show Will before the accident Jojo Moyes said that it was important because people tend to see those with disabilities as 'other', as in not like themselves. It was important for the readers to see Will as themselves. What does that say about the rest of us? Is the only way society can see those with disabilities as equal if they were once not disabled?

"Maybe a good actor with a disability hasn't come around yet rather than Hollywood being discriminatory. Maybe disabled actors should actually try auditioning." 

Hollywood has a long history of being discriminatory towards anyone that isn't a white, straight, non-disabled, cis gendered male. Obviously things have gotten better in some respects but we still have a long way to go. #OscarsSoWhite is a testament to that. Even if I was to entertain the idea that there are no good actors with a disability out there then we have to ask ourselves why that is. Why does one of the largest 'minorities' in the world have no actors that are good enough for a Hollywood film?

I believe there are a number factors that contribute to this aside from discrimination within the film making industry and from casting directors. There's a lack of training initiatives for those with disabilities to foster any acting talent there might be within the disabled community. Disabled actors find it difficult to get agents and without that it's difficult to access auditions. This is also where representation comes in. We have nobody to aspire to in the media. When we see disability on screen we largely see it played by a non-disabled person and figure media isn't a place for us, even when representing our own community or disability.

"Get over it. It's just a film."

Eh, this one bothers me because there's a lot of naivety that comes with it. Humans are incredibly susceptible to media's influence. A lot of the time we probably don't even realise the small ways we are being influenced. In this instance we aren't talking about a small advert trying to get us down to a sale in a local store, we are talking about a big Hollywood film that is being heavily marketed and promoted all over the world. Books and films are designed to evoke certain emotions and there's a heavy bias within this one or in book at least. Even if those involved believe this is only a bias in relation to this particular story or character it will bleed out on to all of us. It's the nature of how film influences things and how society likes to put people in boxes.

"It doesn't reinforce negative stereotypes because it's fiction."

I would argue that fiction  - especially presented in this way - is just as dangerous when it comes to reinforcing negative stereotypes. However, Jojo Moyes has stated this book/film is 'based on a true story' and even though I do believe that is a little bit of a stretch, to her mind it's not completely a work of fiction. She's not selling it as completely fictional so therefore that argument is a little bit void.

"It's promoting choice."

Yes, the book and film may promote choice. However, the book presents the idea that the only real choice someone in Will's position has is whether they live or die. Provided you can get your family on board and afford going to Dignitas I guess. It is said over and over again how little choice Will has in his life - from where he lives to what he eats - despite being extremely wealthy, having a loving support network and being in a much better position than most people with disabilities. I am not saying that there aren't limitations that can come with disability but there is a clear bias within the book because it's within the book's interest to keep the audience on board with the ultimate outcome. While there are mentions of quadriplegics living fulfilling lives it's very much fleeting mentions.

"We can't relate because we were born disabled. You're trying to say it's representative of all disabled people."

While I would never say I know what Will goes through as a non-disabled person becoming disabled I would argue that it's really not that black and white. Although I always knew I had a disability I didn't know what that disability would bring. I didn't know that I'd develop scoliosis and need life saving back surgery at the age of ten, I didn't know that after that back surgery I wouldn't be able to walk again. I didn't know that at twelve I would need to start using a ventilator when I lay down or slept or that my children - if I could even have children - would have 50% chance of having what I have. So while I would never say that I can relate to Will's situation, the nature of my disability has meant I have too had to learn to adapt to changes in my body and although it's progressive it doesn't always happen over a long period of time. I went into an operating theatre being able to walk, I came out and I couldn't. I went into a doctor's office thinking my children wouldn't inherit my disability and came out with the knowledge there was a 50% chance they would.

As I said in my original piece, although I would agree Will doesn't directly represent me his portrayal will have an impact on me because of it's impact on society and how many lump us all together. When I meet someone they ask me "What happened?" because they assume we've all been involved in some tragic accident to end up in a wheelchair. Again this is due to representation and the fact that a lot of the time this is the story that is told. However, to many it is irrelevant how you ended up using a wheelchair. Their reaction to it is one and the same. It's a negative. Often times it's a fate worth than death to people and that's why I feel we have a right to put our foot down and say enough is enough regardless of whether we share Will's disability.

I fear how I would have felt if I had read this book not as I am but if I were more inclined to feel like Will. If I were inclined to focus my limitations. There was a point in my life when I felt very trapped and like I had no options. I didn't want to wake up. I wonder how I would have felt if I had read this book then.

"Some people can relate to this film."

This is another argument I see a lot. It's important to say that I am NOT saying I think that NOBODY feels as Will does. While I wouldn't say it's a majority this is still a very real thing that some people feel. I mean they probably don't live in a castle... but still. However, the fact remains that this still feeds a damaging stereotype of disability we are constantly trying to fight against. Something the mainstream media - especially Hollywood - does very little to help us with. It does this while taking the audience on a journey - from the perspective of multiple non-disabled characters apart from the character who's life hangs in the balance - to ultimately accept why Will would want to die and in the end Louisa supports his decision. How anyone can say this book doesn't represent an opinion or have the power to impact opinion, well I just don't know. If we had a broader representation of disability then this one book or one film wouldn't be such a problem but don't have that luxury. Film particularly as it tends to have a further reach, especially if it's from Hollywood.

What I get from this book is that it was written by a non-disabled person about how non-disabled people perceive disability without actually giving the disabled character a voice or considering how those within the disabled community might feel about this portrayal. It's basically like a man writing a book about what it's like to be a woman in a man's world while not actually giving the one female character a voice or considering how women might feel about the portrayal and then not understanding why women are annoyed when they feel like it's not accurate.

Those are just some of the points I've seen raised and my thoughts on them. This week I also took part in the first episode of the Muscle Owl's Owl Debates where I talked about Me Before You with Peter Duffy, Michaela Hollywood, Vivek Gohil, and Sulaiman Khan. It was an honour to be asked and it was great fun getting out of my comfort zone and chatting with some new people. All people that do such amazing work within the disabled community and I hope I can take a leaf out of their book in the future. Some great points were raised and I urge you to check it out!

1 comment:

  1. "It doesn't reinforce negative stereotypes because it's fiction." Oh, right! Just the same way that "The Birth of a Nation" didn't rekindle any interest in the Ku Klux Klan! Silly us!

    Good post.


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