Evaluating new film ‘Me Before You’

Me Before You portrays life with disability as hopeless
Me Before You portrays life with disability as hopeless

Hollywood’s latest attempt to portray people with disabilities in film debuted to a flood of criticism from disability rights advocates. Me Before You, released on June 3, tells the story of a quadriplegic man who ultimately decides to end his own life rather than live with his disability, and is viewed by many in the community of people with disabilities as a harmful depiction of disability.

“Book and screenplay author JoJo Moye admits she knows nothing about quadriplegics, yet her ignorance is allowed to promote the idea that people like me are better off dead. We are not ‘burdens’ whose best option is to commit suicide. No one’s suicide should be treated noble and inspirational. We reject this discrimination. Our suicides should be viewed as tragedies like anyone else’s,” stated John Kelly, New England regional director of Not Dead Yet. According to their website, Not Dead Yet “is a national, grassroots disability rights group that opposes legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia as deadly forms of discrimination.” In light of the release of ‘Me Before You,’ Not Dead Yet has offered suggestions for peaceful protests at screenings of the film, and encourages supporters to voice their opinions on Twitter using the hashtags #MeBeforeYou #LiveBoldly #MeBeforeEuthanasia and #MeBeforeAbleism.

We at Rooted In Rights became aware of the disability rights community’s disapproval of Me Before You in the weeks leading up to the film’s release, and published an article detailing some of the critiques. We also decided to send some of our team members to evaluate the film first hand and to decide whether or not we agreed with the criticism being directed at it. Those who saw the film were Cuquis Robledo, Coordinator – Rooted in Rights Storytellers Project, Tina Pinedo, Digital Communications Manager. Gillian Maguire, Blog Editor and myself: Emily Pate, Writer and Podcast Host. Here are our reactions:

Robledo: “I was actually really excited to see this movie when I saw the trailer last month. I thought that Hollywood was finally going to give someone with a disability a chance to find love…but boy was I wrong.

Overall, Emilia Clarke who plays “Lou” does a good job at playing the role of a caretaker. What irked me was that Will Traynor did such an idiotic thing at the end and was so closed-minded to life outside his disability that he was willing to sacrifice such an amazing relationship he had with Lou. How can one be so closed-minded when all Lou was trying to do was show him that life was actually worth living for? There was a lot of pitying going on in this movie, and as someone who has a disability herself and who has a mom to help when things get difficult, I was always told the opposite…to not pity yourself. It’s also emotionally traumatizing for the caretaker, and the way the movie was written may offend other caretakers when Will tells Lou that she has more “potential” than being a caretaker and that he doesn’t want to “burden her.”

Lastly, I know so many other people who are quadriplegic that do amazing things with their life. A friend of mine who graduated from Duke University is now a Rhodes Scholar and traveling to Oxford England to continue studying. So it surprised me that the author decided to portray Will as someone who is incapable of doing ANYTHING after the accident. That is not a good representation of anyone with a disability. We are capable of doing more than just sit around, mope, and watch TV.”

Pinedo: “The tragedy model of disability portrayed again. Will’s attitude, and everyone around him, seemed halted in the time period right after the accident. The movie takes place two years after the accident where he acquired the disability. Things evolve, bodies and routines adapt… everyone does, including people with disabilities. Will could have continued to work with assistive technology (especially considering his wealth), he could have been more sexually intimate with Lou (there were two kisses and some cuddles), and he could have traveled to Paris (like, really!). The movie decided Will couldn’t, because of his disability, and that’s a shame. It’s also a shame Lou was told she has so much more “potential” than in her occupation as a caregiver. Sigh…”

Maguire: “If you’re looking for a summertime romance with a tear-jerker ending, this movie could fit that bill. Fair warning, though, you’ll have to work at ignoring the message of the uselessness of a life after quadriplegia, the futility of love if you have a disability, and the inevitability of taking your life if a severe accident leads to paralysis. Granted this is a story about one man’s reaction to a severe accident, but movies are powerful purveyors of social norms and expectations. And what are the not-too-subtle messages in this movie? A life with quadriplegia is not worth living; a romance with a person with quadriplegia will remain platonic; and it would be impossible to return to a career as a business person despite access to high end assistive technology and all sorts of physical support services.

It’s a real shame that Hollywood missed an opportunity to portray the real lives of real people with disabilities, and instead chose to portray the leading man as the object of pity. It seems like all the strides we’ve made in terms of technology, independence, and civil rights for people with disabilities have evaded notice by this writer and the movie-makers.”

As for me, I agree with my the observation of my co-workers: this film has so many problems. However, what struck me the most is that Me Before You’s portrayal of people with disabilities is representative of the only way that people with disabilities are ever portrayed or discussed in mainstream movies – as subjects of pity who need to find a way to “solve” their disability. One of the defenses that actress Emilia Clarke, who plays the main female lead, has offered in response to the criticism is that the film shows “a situation, not an opinion.” Yet I fail to see how supporting the status quo that is harmful portrayals of people with disability in film can be anything other than an opinion, and in fact, a statement.

Author of the blog Bad Cripple William Peace, expressed similar sentiments in a recent post, saying, “The fact [the filmmakers] don’t know a person with an actual disability empowers them to freely imagine what a rotten existence we crippled people are forced to live. For if we people with a disability were truly brave and strong we would kill ourselves and thereby end our misery. The problem is we people with a disability have a radically different view. We value our lives. We maintain the same dreams and goals as typical others do. We want to have a family. We go to school. We get married. We get divorced. We do all this in the face of deeply ingrained ableism.”

So readers, what are your opinions about Me Before You? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.

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.