My Problems With: The Depiction of Disability in Me Before You

SPOILER WARNING!!!!!! I spoil the entirety of Me Before You in this article. The. Entire. Damn. Thing. If you have not watched the film, you have been sufficiently warned.

Right, I feel I need to preface this.

I am not physically disabled. As I think I’ve gone into on this blog before, I do have Autistic Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, which has been argued is a form of disability. That’s not really what I’m here to debate, my point here is that I am physically able bodied. I do not know what it’s like to not be able to move my arm, legs, neck, etc., or even what it’s not like to walk on my own two feet.

When I talk about representation here, I’m talking about it from my own analysis of where I feel this movie went wrong in its depiction of quadriplegia, and a broader conversation on how disability is portrayed on film, as well as its use of euthanasia. If there are people who disagree with me on this topic, especially those who have experience living with these disabilities, then I implore you to call me out and let me know where you think I have gone wrong. I am, in no way, trying to talk about media depictions of physical disabilities with any form of authority, and will read up on commentary about this particular movie, as it did raise a lot of controversy when it was released, to gain a perspective I simply cannot have.

Also, this one probably won’t be filled with as many jokey jokes like my other long-form pieces. Feels kind of off given the severity of the issues brought up here, I feel it’s a little in bad taste. That being said, there have been a good few romance movies about serious illnesses recently, huh?!

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We seem to be transitioning the YA-inspired craze from self-insert dystopian fantasies more wards couples with debilitating illnesses. While a small bracket currently, flicks like The Fault in our Stars, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl and Everything Everything are gaining traction and popularity.

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making films like this-in fact I think it’s a great idea. The realities of terminal illnesses are not something we are comfortable exploring, and those targeted at teenagers are a great way to talk about them. But sometimes it feels…manipulative? And one of the problems with writing about illness is that you make said illness a point of resolution for the characters, not actually explore how it can affect every aspect of their lives.

While Everything Everything absolutely does this in a deeply insulting way (read my review if you want to know why I think this-SPOILERS!!!), and Me, Earl and the Dying Girl has…issues (especially with how said dying girl is framed in the protagonist’s arc), taking an issue like euthanasia and applying it to a man who has spent a year being fully paralysed in an accident necessitates an extra level of care. As you can likely guess, I don’t think the film I’m about to talk about really took that necessary care.

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Me Before You is a 2016 romance drama starring Emilia Clarke and Sam Clafin. Based on a 2012 novel by Jojo Moyes (who wrote the screenplay), it’s about a young man named Will Traynor, a silverspooned successful businessman and larger-than-life character who is injured in a motorbike accident, severing his spinal cord. Completely left quadriplegic and dependent, his parents look for a live-in nanny to take care of him, and find one through Louisa. Will, who’s clearly depressed over what happened to him and whose health is steadily decreasing, is contemplating taking his own life. once Louisa realises this, she tries to cheer him up and make him realise his quality of life is not completely gone. Over the course of the film they fall in love, but (spoilers, if I didn’t warn you enough with the start of this piece) Will realises he cannot deal with what is coming nor handle the loss of his former life. He chooses to euthanise himself, accompanied by Louisa, who is with him when he dies.

The topic of this movie was going to bother people regardless of how it was handled. Before I go any further, however, I need to get this out of the way; I am not against euthanasia. If a person has absolutely no quality of life left, and all that’s left for them is pain and suffering, than they absolutely have the right to die with dignity. Whether is applies for Will’s circumstances is something that will be explored later.  As for now, however, I think it’s important to get a full scope of the critical reaction to this film, and this element in particular. Because it caused quite a stir when it was released last year.

The film received a lot of controversy, inspiring the hashtag #MeBeforeEuthanasia and Not Dead Yet UK saying ‘We are not your inspiration or objects of pity!’. Various other disability advocates and celebrities spoke out against and even protested the movie. As with everything, this isn’t a singular reaction to something-it’s to do with how disability in general is portrayed, and in particular how paraplegia and wheelchair users are used for easy sympathy, or even the implication that they have lost all quality of life because of their circumstances. This is an extremely damaging view and should be left in the past where it belongs, alongside all other negative stereotyping of disability.

The biggest one, of course, is how the movie ends. It’s heavily implied that Will wanted to end his life because his paralysis stopped him from living it. Despite everything else pointing to the contrary, Will cannot feel alive without being able to move, to feel, to touch. This is also made the original advertising of it a rather hilariously contentious point; “Live Boldly! Live Well! Just live!”. As Thea Flaum put it ‘Better Dead than Disabled’ is more like it.

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It should be taken into account is that the film does bring up Will’s worsening condition several times. We have an extended scene where Louisa has to wait with him all night after he contracts pneumonia, he goes to hospital because of his deteriorating health, and his personal trainer explains to Louisa a couple of times that he’ll just continue to decline.

Here’s the problem, though-none of this gives a full extent of just how badly he is suffering. They barely show him truly in pain. We are told it. At worst, he sweats kind of badly when Louisa takes care of him. There is way, way more emphasis on his loss of sociability and work life, and his inability to move on, in comparison to his health. While these are valid concerns, the fact that he is given a new lease on life and *then* decides to die anyway is a really poor way of framing this to a mass audience. As stated in Thea Flaum’s article, there are plenty of people connected to her disability advocating organisation that have rich, fulfilling lives both personally and professionally. Me Before You fails to consider those options.

At the same time, this is about Will’s choice, which is a valid consideration. Kaitlin Reilly says that while the criticism are valid, the story is trying to convey that he should have the power to make that choice, albeit this message is slightly muddled. Megan Atkinson of the Florida Self-Advocates Netork’D believes that Will’s struggle isn’t representative of the entire disability community and isn’t pro-suicide. An author of New Mobility magazine praises it for having realistic depictions of what it’s like to live as a quadriplegic, and that Will’s depression was very similar to his own experiences (beautifully written piece, too). The Mind of a Biola Student believed that there was a sense of hope that ran throughout the film, and that Louisa’s attempts to make Will feel better were not all for nought, but you cannot change a person’s mind, only influence their decisions.

All of these are valid points, and the idea of this being Will’s choice is important. As stated above, this isn’t meant to be anti-euthanasia, and this is the choice of one disabled character. Here’s the thing though-he is a character. Will Traynor is not a real person. That may come across as ridiculously condescending, but it’s important to acknowledge that these were decision made by people with varied lives, affected by culture and the world in ways that would influence all these decisions. As Kim Sauder puts it “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)”. There are reasons these choices were made, and that has a lot to do with how the story reinforces negative aspects about people’s attitude to disability for the sake of cheap drama.

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This is why I outlined how poorly Will’s pain was communicated to the audience; it’s not nearly as tragic a plot point as him just losing absolutely everything to his accident and not being able to live his ‘old life’. This is what he emphasises to Louisa in their final conversation on holiday. They are making the choice in the story to push the tragedy of being paralysed over the idea that life can go on. Hell, going back to the conversation, it’s one of the only times the idea of sex whilst paraplegic is brought up, and it’s completely dismissed, which isn’t the case.

Don’t get me wrong-I don’t think these are wholly intentional. Jojo Moyes was inspired to write the novel because she was so sympathetic to the struggle it must be to decide to end your own life and believes it’s difficult to judge how people would act in that situation. Thea Sharrock, the director, believes that people have fundamentally misunderstood the movie’s message and it was about the right to choose. Hell, I think a lot of this has to do with how we view disability in society, particularly quadriplegia. That still doesn’t change the fact that this was a misguided attempt and the ‘choice’ argument doesn’t really work when dealing with subjects pretty rarely depicted in media that affect other’s lives hugely. Nobody is saying you shouldn’t write these stories-in fact, I emphatically encourage it-but you have to be careful about how you tell it with respect of your subject matter.

Regardless of this, I think the film’s biggest problem isn’t that it’s a flawed and botched portrayal of a serious condition. Or even that it reinforces pretty ugly stereotypes about how life ending paraplegia can be (though don’t get me wrong it’s incredibly problematic in that regard). Or even that it uses paralysis as a pithy hook for a weepy love story without seeming any real thought or regard as to how people with the disability would react to it. No, one of my biggest issues with the movie is why I wrote the synopsis earlier in a way that focused on Will so much. This isn’t Will’s story at all. It’s Louisa’s.

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She’s the main focus. Nearly every single scene revolves around her and is from her perspective. Outside of the cold open showcasing the accident, we spend a good chunk of the first act looking at Louisa’s economic struggles, her family’s financial woes, her quirks, her desires. Every plot point is hinged on decisions she makes; her taking the job to be Will’s assistant, her deciding to stop him ending his life, her taking him on holiday, and her decision to join him at the end of his life. The main arc is about her escaping the mundane and smothering existence of living in the country and tending to her family, whose lives are way more fleshed out and developed than Will’s parents. At the end of the movie, Will’s death helps Louisa achieve her goals as he leaves her with enough wealth to escape and start her life.

This isn’t the story of a man contemplating ending his life due to his debilitating condition. This is about a small-town girl whose life was changed because she found out he wanted to end his life. That is really fucked up framing.

In my post about Belle, I outlined that making your protagonist have a complete lack of motivation when engaged with the plot weakens the narrative and forces the story to focus on another character to anchor it. This film has the opposite problem; our protagonist is too motivated, but what’s anchoring the plot is the paraplegia of a character who does not get even remotely as strong a development. Will’s struggles are what give make the story stand out, not Louisa’s. Making her our protagonist and point of view character (seriously there are, like, four or five brief scenes where she isn’t the focus) lessens the development and impact of his decisions.

What’s even weirder is just the lengths as to how Louisa’s life is characterised! On top of getting a way better insight into her family life than Will’s (though his parents do get a bit of development, mostly Will’s mother-one of the more poignant scenes is the two of them distraught discussing their son’s decision to end his life), there’s a huge portion of time devoted to Lou’s doomed relationship with Patrick. Patrick is a personal trainer, fitness crazy, completely oblivious to his girlfriend’s needs and really dopey-he’s designed to be the complete antithesis to her other suitor. It wouldn’t be too bad, but that’s all his character’s function is, and he’s in the movie a lot. A lot of time is devoted to excruciatingly telling us that he is not right for Lou while Will is. And while I get the contrast being displayed here, the fact that they make such a point of outlining Patrick’s physical lifestyle is a little…crass. We get more development of how Patrick is not right for Lou than how sick Will is getting, and it’s really frustrating.

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And this is the main crux of my argument; this film cares way more about cheap pathos than actually exploring a man coming to grips with ending his life. Nothing better outlines this than the fact that the entire movie is designed to be Louisa’s story, and his death at the end is made her bittersweet reward. While the story has a whole heap of other issues involving the portrayal, a lot of which I didn’t go into (the awkwardness they handled the scene with Will’s ex-girlfriend comes to mind), a lot of this could have been resolved if Will was the protagonist, or even if they shared equal focus of the narrative. But they don’t, and instead it’s about an able-bodied girl written and performed by able-bodied people deciding the best course of action for a quadriplegic considering ending his life without ever so much as talking to him about it. everything about this feels shallow and detached.

SPOILER BRACKET!!!!!! I WILL DISCUSS THE RECENTLY RELEASED MOVIE BREATHE AND GO INTO MAJOR SPOILERS, SO IF YOU WISH TO AVOID SPOILER TALKS FOR THIS RECENT MOVIE AND WATCH THE MOVIE YOURSELF, JUST SCROLL DOWN UNTIL YOU SEE MORE BIG WORDS TELLING YOU IT’S SAFE. OKAY? OKAY. GOOD. LET’S MOVE ON.

You know a movie that actually handled this better? breathe.

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Now, granted, this is a biopic, not a fictional story, also one where the person in question’s son was involved in the production. Either way, it focuses on the life of Robin Cavendash, who was left paralysed from the neck down by polio and confined to a respiratory system. He eventually forced his way out of hospital and back home, helped inventor Teddy Hall develop a built-on respirator to a wheelchair, and ended up being the longest surviving polio patient in England, living for 36 years after his diagnosis.

By the movie’s conclusion, he decides to end his life due to failing equipment and his own health issues. This decision is excellently handled, examined, well understood and even rather brutally displayed. We don’t just see Robin suffer pristinely in bed-we see him bleed from the tube in his throat! Because this is Robin’s story, and the movie nearly entirely focuses on him, we get the fullest extent of both the heavy weight euthanasia has on him as well as the quiet dignity of ending his life on his own terms. I’m not even saying Breathe is perfect, I just think the way they depict this is handled way, way better because he is cantered in the narrative. Hell, his wife is as focal a character, so it’s not as if they couldn’t do a love story about disability like this.

OKAY SPOILERS DONE SPOILERS DONE! THE SPOILERS ARE DONE FOR THE RECENT MOVIE BREATHE, HERE ARE THE CONCLUSIONS TO THE ARTICLE. I AM GLAD WE HAVE TAKEN THIS JOURNEY TOGETHER, DEAR READER

That’s why I’m writing all this, and talking about this movie over a year after it came out. While I respect that there are those who took a lot more from this than I did, at the end of the day it pushes rather negligible stereotypes and puts the paraplegic person away from the main of focus of what should be his story to make it a weepy little romcom. There are still films being made like this that use disability in a regressive manner just to get cheap drama out of the situation instead of actually exploring the conditions on which these disabilities affect people. Everything Everything is a more recent example, and while that film does something arguably worse than what Me Before You does, I find this a more interesting case study because it nearly tells a compelling story, just takes some major missteps, and it resulted in a movie that hurt a lot of people due to its negative depictions.

People with disabilities should have their stories told. They deserve to have them told, and creators should not be afraid to tell them. But they can do a much better job than this pandering, insulting, lazy, superficial attempt at tackling serious issues. If you wish to write about quadriplegia, or something as contentious as euthanasia, consider the people whose stories you are telling.

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2 thoughts on “My Problems With: The Depiction of Disability in Me Before You”

  1. Thank you so much for writing this article. It’s well written, well sourced, and sensitively handles the topic at hand. Disability in media is something that’s close to my heart, being disabled and all. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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