Me Before You: Why is it hard for people with quadriplegia or disabilities not to take the story personally?

Erin Chan
Erin Chan
Jul 24, 2016 · 9 min read
© Annora Dayton/WikiCommons “The official cover for the best-selling novel ‘Me Before You’ by Jojo Moyes. It appears in hardback, paperback, and large print.”

Some viewers regard the movie Me Before You (2016) adapted from Jojo Moyes’ best-selling novel as “tearjerker” of the year. However, if the development of both the film and the book is being examined critically, the disability backlash against its message delivered is not entirely “overly sensitive” or “has missed the whole point of Jojo Moyes’ work” at all.

Me Before You, the motion picture adapted from Jojo Moyes’ best-selling novel of the same title, portrays the blossoming love story between two people who are unlikely to cross paths, Louisa Clark and William Traynor. Lou loses her job in a tea shop. Struck by the pressure of supporting her financially tight family, she becomes a caretaker to a former banker who is left quadriplegic by his motorcycle accident- Will. The tragedy wipes away his willingness to live. Before Lou swoops into his hopeless world, Will finds everything bland and joyless when he cannot move any part of the body below his neck. Lou spices up Will’s life in a riot of color, Will also turns her into a girl who lives boldly and ambitiously. However, Will makes up his mind to practice euthanasia on himself since he could not endure a painful life of living in a disabled body, no matter how much Lou wants to change him. There are so many attacks on the depiction of disability in the film as something character with quadriplegia would rather die than endure. Activists picketed at the movie are also furious at the subject of disability being used as the selling point to make the audience cry. The crowd who are against Me actually has a grounding standpoint.

There are many controversial parts in Me. In one scene, Will speaks to Lou when he finds out how timid she is to broaden her vision in life, “You only get one life. It’s actually your duty to live it as fully as possible.” On the other hand, Will could not see the coming of a vivid life even though residing in a paralyzed skin and chooses to kill himself. The irony is motivating others to have the time of their lives yet pursuing your own death at the same time. It may be more sensible to put the contradiction in this way: Lou has full command of her body while Will is almost entirely paralyzed. When you have free use of limbs, it is supposed to be easier to fulfill whatever you want in your life and therefore it is your responsibility to live your life to the fullest? So one being dead is better than alive when he or she is handicapped? Is this the underlying message conveyed by the movie? It is understandable why the film and the novel feel problematic when the marketing team behind Me Before You promoted the hashtag #LiveBoldly. Does the film intend to promote the message of #LiveBoldly or #DieQuickly? Like when one commentator asked during the Twitter Q&A session of the Me. The part of the movie and the book that causes outcry comes significant at the ending. The true meaning of the name “Will” seems to “make sense” when he dies and leaves a will behind to help Lou continue her life of an adventure. Activists point out the problem is that the portrayal of Will is just a meaningless tool to help Lou achieve a better life and she is the one who deserves a better life because she is able-bodied.

There is one important term to truly analyze the anger over Me - ableism. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, ableism is the discrimination or prejudice against individuals with physical disabilities. In our societies, able-bodied people is the majority; those with disabilities are seen as abnormal from the norm, according to the ableist worldview. The criticism of both the film and the novel largely falls on that the way Moyes twisted the inspiring purpose of book (where humanity is enriched) into something ableist and motivation-crushing. Criticizers slayed Moyes for using disability to move her plot, describing the existence of disabled people like Will as an error that cannot be overcome (can be seen in Will’s direct quotes) and encouraging the movability-constrained community to solve their “problems” by death in her book. But Moyes keeps stressing that she is just describing a choice made by some of the people with quadriplegia in her book.

Some may argue that it is just a work of fiction and the focal point should be put on the protagonist Lou herself and the teary love story between Will and her. Moyes has also reiterated for a thousand times in her interviews that her intention is not to encourage disabled people to commit suicide. “I think that if you cover fiction as a writer in the modern day, you should address tougher subjects.” She said in an interview with Stylist Magazine. Besides, not all books possess the duty to wrap up a positive or light-hearted ending. Gaining inspiration is our own prerogative and it should not be the sole purpose served by books. After all, it is actually our call when it comes to “how to live our lives”- if some want to unlock the pain of residing in a disabled body for the rest of their lives, they have an explanation to resort to mercy-killing. The essence of life should not be defined by the number of years we have lived or “the struggle to live even when you are in paramount pain”. We have to accept that not everyone who had experienced trauma can learn to move ahead and adapt to limitations, it is the nature of some people and neither should it be viewed as “the dead wrong mentality”. What’s the point of talking about “fighting for life” when you can’t let go of the pain and agony? “I get that this could be a good life,” says Will. “But it’s not my life. I can’t be the sort of man who accepts this.” Even though the idea of seeking death when death doesn’t come itself is not generally desirable in the public. The different stances held by the viewers are all reasonable and logical. But it is simply too difficult for people with quadriplegia or disabilities to not take the story personally, if we could step in their shoes. First of all, life is indeed precious and priceless, an important message those who choose to live boldly had gained especially after experiencing life-risking events. People having quadriplegia (or disabilities) are usually invisible socially to the majority. They can only gain understanding from and link to people who share the same past with them. The community with disabilities is like part of their limbs, nose, ears, mouth or part of their souls that help shape them who they are. Part of those who are willing to start a new chapter with their lives are dying inside when some people from their community choose death. People with quadriplegia who seek euthanasia also make the rest who are willing to live question their existence and whether living with quadriplegia (or disabilities) means you are totally useless. Such death-seeking behavior messes up their original values and principles. Disability and suicide are not mutually exclusive when disability is hugely addressed as something deviates from the norm, not to mention when the subject is put in a controversial way into a film.The film and the book may not be inherently ableist, according to every words from Moyes, but it is indisputable that the book and the film have both constructed that impression.

The way disability portrayed in popular culture is one factor that leads to viewers’ negative perception towards Me Before You. There are quite many television shows or movies which spread the notion of life being worthless when you are trapped in an immovable body. In award-winning movies such as Whose Life is It anyway? (1981) and The sea aside (2004), it takes the form of wheelchair users who fight for the legal right to die. The right to die (1987) is about a psychologist diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease who wishes to die peacefully as her disease progresses. You don’t know Jack (2010) focuses on the work of an euthanasia advocate Jack Kevorkian whose aim was to help the hopeless patients suffering from tremendous agony to end their lives painlessly. Although there are movies that focus on disabled people who crave for the will to live, they are not apparent to the public. One of the classical examples will be The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2005) in which the character is left 90% paralyzed by a stroke. Nevertheless, he struggles to live and writes his memoir by the blinking of an eye within 10 months. My Left Foot (1989) describes a man with cerebral palsy and who can only control his left foot. As he longs to fit into this world, eventually he goes on to become a noble writer and painter. The Theory of Everything (2014) portrays Stephen Hawking’s life beyond his contribution. Despite affected by debilitating ALS, he spends his lifetime contributing to theoretical physics. A beautiful mind (2001) is about a mathematician who endures schizophrenia and develops his mathematical theories along the way. Once again, the movies which advocate the will to live is overpowered by those which do the opposite. The media in our society has instilled the impression that they love wanting-to-die individuals. They’re less passionate to cover the rest who are struggling to live.

The fact that disabled characters are usually played by able-bodied actors is another reason why Me Before You has received so many attacks. It is seen as a kind of ableism towards disabled actors. In Me, the quadriplegic character Will Traynor was played by the able-bodied Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games, Love Rosie). A few years ago, Scott Jordan Harris from criticized something similar on The Theory of Everything (2014) for using an able-bodied actor to play Stephen Hawking who has ALS. “When disabled characters are played by able-bodied actors, disabled actors are robbed of the chance to work in their field. Imagine what would it feel like to be a woman and for the only women you saw in films to be portrayed by men.”

Dan Harvey, a Canadian Youtuber with quadriplegia had also displayed his discontent over the Me movie in his latest video “Ableist, Stereotypical and Offensive” since it is “offensive, ableist and perpetuating negative stereotypes about disability.” Harvey put his accident in a witty yet sarcastic way, “ 13 years ago today my brain stopped communicating with the rest of my body with the resistance of gravity and a trampoline. I shattered the c4 vertebrae in my neck and damaged our spinal cord, I should celebrate!” He also dissed on the way disability was portrayed in the film, the level of insult brought by the author to people with quadriplegia when not conducting proper research on spinal cord injury and the use of language in her novel. “Disability is portrayed as a problem without a cure in the film, it is really just there to move the plot. Hollywood loves these stories. Will’s level of injury is a little bit confusing. The book says that its entry level is C-56 but at one point the book also says that he can move his hands a little but not his arms. The research looks kind of walking in the book at one point it even describes C 11–12 injury which doesn’t exist. It looks like the author just picture information online and from Youtube. The language she used in the book is really not that great. Suffering a spinal cord injury should be changed into sustaining a spinal cord injury, quadriplegic people should be written as people with quadriplegia, Will is in a wheelchair should be changed into wheelchair users. Will’s direct quote I can’t do anything anymore, I said I just about exist is just a stereotypical pity party narrative.”

I truly believe that “disabled people should resort to committing suicide” is definitely not the ultimate message the author of Me aims to deliver,but the fact that she makes the book to appear to be in that way is undeniable. In the end, it is meaningless to judge who is right or wrong- Moyes has a sounding standpoint that it is necessary to deal with tougher subjects in our modern society. The community against Me has right reasons to get furious with Moyes’s work since the interpreted-as-the-inherent-message of practicing euthanasia is generally considered to be unhealthy. Some language in the book are not quite friendly to people with disabilities either. The question of whether it is wrong for Moyes to develop the mercy-killing story line is still controversial, but one thing for sure is that she should have been careful when it comes to digging information on spinal cord injury and the use of language in the novel.

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