New movie ‘Me Before You’ battered by disability rights advocates

Spoiler Warning: This article contains spoilers for both the novel Me Before You, and the movie based on it.

Members of the community of people with disabilities and disability rights advocates are arguing that recently released movie Me Before You presents a harmful portrayal of people with disabilities. Even before the film was released on June 3, critics were focusing mainly on the book it is based on – also titled Me Before You and written by able-bodied author Jojo Moyes.

Me Before You tells the story of a woman, Louisa, who become the caregiver for a rich man with quadriplegia, Will. Will intends to commit doctor-assisted suicide in six months, due to having a disability, and Louisa sets out to use those six months to convince him to live. In the end, Will does commit suicide, leaving Louisa a large amount of money so that she can be free of the financial burdens that lead her to take this job in the first place, and live her life to the fullest. The story is told from the perspective of Louisa, who is able-bodied.

Disability rights advocates are arguing that the novel perpetuates negative stereotypes of people with disabilities and disability itself, such as the idea that death is better than living with a disability and that disability eliminates sexuality.

In addition, the film, continuing in the tradition of Hollywood, has cast an able-bodied actor to play a character with a disability. Addressing this issue, disability rights blogger and PhD student in Critical Disability Studies, Kim Sauder stated, “Now I’m sure this casting decision was made because, after an exhaustive casting search, the producers could find no self-respecting quadriplegic actor willing to be associated with this bullshit and nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that they definitely didn’t even look at quadriplegic actors *sarcasm*.”

This quote is from an article written by Sauder for The Huffington Post. In Sauder’s experience, when an individual points out the problematic portrayal of people with disabilities in many Hollywood films, the main rebuttal is the argument that there are people with disabilities who actually feel the same way about their disability as the film presents. Sauder deconstructs this argument, saying, “There is a big difference between actual human people having feelings about their actual lives and experiences of disability (which I’m not here to criticize) and a fictionalized account written by someone who isn’t disabled and which heavily romanticizes very problematic stereotypes about disability (which I am absolutely here to criticize).” Sauder’s second main critique of the novel is its constant reinforcement of the idea that death is better than living with a disability.

In comparison, the blogger Pretentious Best Friend critiques the portrayal of disability and sexuality in Me Before You. The blog states that Me Before You presents Will as “so nonthreatening that he can’t even be conceived of as a sexual being. His relationship with Louisa has no chance of sexual culmination (at least according to the logic of the film), so Louisa is free of the usual pressures placed upon women in relationships and therefore can pursue Will without being concerned that she will be expected to consummate their love. This is exemplified by the fact that the film’s most romantic scenes (and a few comic ones) are of Louisa acting as a caretaker, and that Louisa doesn’t even bother to break up with her current monogamous boyfriend as she spends more and more time with Will.” The blogger continues, emphasizing, “Again, I understand the appeal of a platonic, non-sexualized romance, but it cannot come at the expense of the dignity to either party of the relationship, and Will’s portrayal deprives dignity to an entire class of disabled persons.”

Emily Ladau, a disability rights activist, blogger and Rooted in Rights contributer, who uses a wheelchair, also weighed into this debate in an article for Salon, “Spare me, “Me Before You”: Hollywood’s new tearjerker is built on tired and damaging disability stereotypes.” Ladau is clearly fed-up with Hollywood’s contributions to the negative stigmas the society directs towards individuals with disabilities and the community of people with disabilities as a whole. Ladau argues that the film will only contribute to the negative view mainstream culture has of people with disabilities, stating, “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.”

Popular YouTube channel The Daily, a “vlog about culture, faith, politics and current affairs,” even contributed an opinion on Me Before You.  They released a video (embedded at the end of this post) called ‘Why does Hollywood keep doing this to the disability community?’ The video’s host argues that you would never see a film about a woman committing suicide because she believes it is better to be dead than be a woman, and questions,  “If we wouldn’t tolerate [extremely harmful portrayals in film] of other sectors of the community, then why should the disabled community have to put up with this nonsense?” The Daily also questions the potential impact this film could have, pointing out that part of the problem isn’t just this film’s portrayal of people with disabilities, it’s that this harmful portrayal is the only portrayal of people with disabilities in mainstream media, and it’s being replicated in move after movie. The host states, “Effectively what we’re saying, with films like this, is that persons with disabilities, they deserve nothing but our pity, their lives really ought to be looked down upon, their lives have no meaning, no value, and really they would be better off dead. And I think it’s disgraceful to speak or to promote [these ideas] about any sector of the community.”

The actress who plays Louisa, Emilia Clarke, recently responded to the criticism. Clarke is best known for her role on the popular show Game of Thrones, and her role as the film’s lead has served to increase mainstream anticipation for the film. In a statement to The Guardian, Clarke emphasized that being harmful to people with disabilities was “never our intention.” Clarke went on to say that she thinks, “That the movie is a Hollywood movie, but I think that what we are showing is something that we took a lot of care over, with [the book’s author] being there as well, because she wrote the book first, so that’s the story that we were going off. We were very careful with how we wanted to present things. And we are showing a situation, we are not showing an opinion.” However, what Clarke seems to be failing to recognize is that it is not just the film’s specific portrayal of people with disabilities that is harmful, but the fact that this is the only portrayal of people with disabilities that Hollywood ever offers.

Readers, what do you think of Me Before You? Do you agree with the critiques of these disability rights advocates, or do you see different problems or benefits of this film?

This video may begin with a commercial which was not chosen by or for the benefit of Rooted in Rights.

Emily Pate is a third-year student at Seattle University interested in Strategic Communications, learning Spanish, and working with non-profits. Her work for Rooted In Rights is focused on discussing current events in the community of people with disabilities. Her experience previous to Rooted In Rights includes writing broadcasts for KBOO radio in Portland, OR, and managing a neighborhood blog in the Seattle community. In addition to work, Emily enjoys drawing, spending time with her friends and family, and backpacking.