Over the summer, the romantic drama Me Before You came out, advertised as a smarter Nicholas Sparks’ sentimental cry-sesh. (If you heard of it and kept accidentally calling it Me Without You, you’re not alone.)
The movie follows a woman named Lou; an upbeat, quirky 20-something “manic pixie” character, who lands a job as a caretaker for the leading man, Will, who was paralyzed from the neck down due to a car accident. Will spends his days staring out the window of his mansion drowning in memories of his previous existence. Lou is hired primarily to be a ray of sunshine in his life.
At first, Will finds her sweet gestures bothersome and behaves like an overly-cynical (though, of course, still handsome) jerk, but through a series of events, he comes to appreciate her annoying, clumsy personality. Lou plans overseas trips for Will, the nurse, and herself, and she alleviates some of his bitterness. They fall in love, and it’s sort of cute. Mainly because she is sincere, and the good soundtrack is playing.
Lingering in the background of the movie is Lou’s neglectful boyfriend, consumed by a bicycling hobby and not giving her the attention she deserves. Not important.
Lou discovers Will has been planning to carry out a physician-assisted suicide in Switzerland. Despite their romance, he continues not to see any other alternatives. She “fails” to bring him enough joy to save him. And yep, he dies. He leaves a large sum of money to her so she can “live boldly” without having the burden of a man with a disability.
The message that came across to me loud and clear was that it is better to be dead than have a disability. Is any of this rubbing you the wrong way? It should.
I watched this film with a friend of mine, Travis (permission was granted to provide name) who was seeing it for the second time, since he liked it so much. He was born with cerebral palsy, and his perspective on the movie was valuable to me. Travis stated that, to an extent, he and other people he knows with disabilities can relate to Will’s feelings and sometimes seemingly irrational choices. For instance, if there are no handicap parking spaces in a Target and you are with someone who is more than willing to push you in a wheelchair, you would be determined to not go into Target rather than inconvenience someone.
A while before this, I’d met a man living with a traumatic brain injury who said that after his life was altered, he had been flooded with fears, such as the fear his wife would stop loving him and the fear of isolation from society. He indicated that even if you want to be loved, you may shy away from opportunities for it, feeling you may not deserve it (similar to Will’s outlook in the movie). Unlike Will, this man was determined to defeat these fears and learn how to adapt.
At one point in Me Before You, Will states, “I get that this [living with a physical disability] could be a good life, but it’s not my life.” He becomes hopeless by comparing his actual situation with a fantasy of what would have been.
Will’s feelings are no doubt shared by some who are suffering due to a disability, but if there had been another character with a disability that could offset Will’s take by seeing life through a different lens, this outlook may not have overpowered the movie. Me Before You focuses solely on Will as if his perspective is representative of this demographic.
As someone who works with individuals with a variety of medical diagnoses and disabilities every day, I’d hate for them to receive the message that it would be heroic and compassionate for them to kill themselves on behalf of those they love. That’s completely wrongheaded and cruel.
The hashtag #MeBeforeEuthanasia was used by many individuals in the community who tweeted:
“I’m not your inspiration porn and I’m not a thing to be pitied or killed off to make the audience cry.” (@grindmastrgrant)
@JohnBrianKelly wrote:“I have Will’s disability. Stop killing me on film! #liveboldly, fight cripple snuff films.”
Will’s character ultimately robs dignity and value from people with disabilities. It reinforces fears and insecurities that already plague and torment many people who are not self-sufficient but must depend on others. It’s also worth noting that Will was financially independent putting him in a much better position than many people with disabilities; how much more defeating is the message for those who are completely dependent on others for financial support instead of reassuring them that they have worth despite their utility.
In the movie, Will is presented as the better alternative to her distracted boyfriend, because he gives off the façade of being innocent and sweet and is incapable of assaulting her physically or sexually due to his disability. In reality, disability or not, Will was withdrawn and verbally abusive in many ways. It is a theme of a myriad of movies that reinforce the unhealthy tendencies many women have to be attracted to men who treat them poorly, because it may be exciting and challenging, or it can provide the pursuit of “saving” or changing them.
The audience is emotionally led to feel that Will’s decision to kill himself is selfless and compassionate. I understand that if we love someone it seems intuitive to not want to be a burden on them. Nevertheless, his decision was not an example of love, in that it illegitimated her feelings for him. It can also be loving to allow others who are willing and joyfully accepting to help us carry those burdens. Nothing would have significance if it weren’t for love that is sacrificial. People need challenging situations in order for there to be opportunities to truly display love and grow.
In some ways, many of us without an obvious disability can’t relate to Will’s predicament. But in other ways, these same issues also affect everyone in a society like ours that places a high value on self-sufficiency. This individualistic environment does not necessarily encourage people to admit they need help, and it places a tremendous amount of shame on people who are not independent and “together” in various ways. This movie feeds into that terrible atmosphere rather than combatting this attitude when it comes to people with disabilities. We can strive to be become more forgiving towards imperfections in ourselves and others and stop believing that because we are not within the sphere of “normal” we don’t deserve love, acceptance, or support when we are struggling.
The ending of Me Before You was not its only downfall; I was not impressed with how Will was portrayed during the “cute” scenes either. During their romantic getaway overseas, there were still the same love songs you’d expect (I’ll unabashedly say that most of the songs are on a mix tape in my car. The soundtrack was the only thing that mitigated how awful this movie was), but while Lou roamed freely on the beach Will sat back and watched. Why not instead show an individual with limitations doing the same things an able-bodied individual was doing, but with adaptation?
I’m going to compare this film with “The Theory of Everything;” the movie about Stephen Hawking’s experience with ALS. With only movement of his cheek muscle he was able to communicate, write books, and literally formulate “theories of everything.” His weaknesses and frustrations were clearly depicted, but not amplified.
It’s okay that Will didn’t rediscover his passions or ignite new ones, since he had worth regardless of what he was able to do. However, seeing the discrepancy between him sitting and Lou enjoying herself, was a pity party with no other purpose than to disparage a life that does not appear to be ideal.
Travis pointed out that Lou gained a lot from knowing Will. Prior to meeting him, she was inexperienced and had no idea how to take care of someone with a disability, and it broadened her view of life. However, I don’t feel like her character arc was altered in any way from the beginning to the end. She gained a learning experience and a relationship, but there were no deep, lasting realizations for either of them during this film. Will’s attitude changed significantly and then regressed to where he was prior to meeting her when he was adamant that life was not worth living.
I understand, with depression like Will’s, hopelessness is pervasive, and you may not be motivated to learn how to navigate through it. People may have feelings like Will of wanting to die, but a movie that romanticizes suicide for people with depression is problematic at best. In Me Before You, Will’s depression was not even addressed and there were no conversations about how he could find treatment.
Travis felt that the fact that Will was able to have some control over his own destiny was somewhat empowering, since someone else didn’t make that decision for him. Suicide is always a possibility for free individuals with the means to carry it out, and yes, it would be unspeakably difficult to watch someone you love live in pain. To deny them that relief feels cruel. However, even if you believe euthanasia is morally defensible, a decision like this can be impulsive and misguided. This was clearly the case in Will’s situation.
It seems that culture, as a whole, is uncomfortable with disability, so it’s a challenge to figure out how to represent it in the media. I certainly wouldn’t know how to do it. Disability should be acknowledged, but we can’t use it to soak up pity.
A part of me urges people to refrain from watching this movie and another part recognizes that it was good for the complexities of these issues to be brought to the surface and discussed. It would be awful for anyone I know to see this movie and leave believing lies and questioning their worth, but it may bring some sort of comfort or insights, like it did for Travis.
This movie puts a spotlight on the negative feelings that someone with a disability can have without considering the life-giving beauty that it can be if we use weaknesses as an opportunity to learn to love each other better. Our ugly pasts, fears, trauma, or simply awkward disposition can be used as an instrument for good. If you have a disability, chemical imbalance, addiction, sickness, or a cocktail of it all, you are not defined by these things, and your life is inherently valuable.
“But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. “
1 Corinthians 12-26
Monica’s blog: https://monbloggingontrain.wordpress.com/