First things first. I do not have a disability. I do not have a family member with a disability. I cannot claim to have much experience with the disabled community. I saw the new film Me Before You and was uncomfortable with what I saw. I looked into it and read reviews written by people with quadriplegia and other disabilities and saw that their surprise mirrored mine. So I decided to call it out for what it is- Ableism.
Disabled people do not get much representation in film, and that representation is rarely accurate or positive. How many films have you seen that had a lead/major character with a disability? How many of those films did not make you feel sorry for the character or portrayed them living an independent, successful life? How many of those films did not make it seem like the disability was a tragedy that needed to be overcome? How many of those films made it seem like the disability was a problem without a cure? How many of those films devalued the importance of the disabled?
Exactly. Me Before You is no exception.
In the beginning of the film, the characters are still holding out hope that Will’s situation will “improve.” When she finds out that there is nothing that can be done, Louisa is overcome with pity. She chats with her sister about how tragic the whole thing is. How sad it is that this man is stuck in a chair for the rest of his life, needing constant assistance.
This isn’t the worst offense, but is still a subtle way to manipulate an audience into making generalizations about disabilities. A large portion of the viewers will have had little to no experience with the disabled community, and this subtle dig at the disabled may set a precedent for how they treat them later on in their lives. This scene could have been redeemed had Louisa’s comments been disproved, but it is the same opinion that “disabled=broken,” that led to Will’s death.
But, it gets worse.
It is revealed that Will is suffering from severe depression. Almost six months before the film takes place, he attempted suicide.
His parents struck a deal with him that, if his outlook on life did not change within the next six months, if he was still unable to find the will to live, they would support his decision to be euthanized.
If an able-bodied person attempted suicide, their family and friends would (in most cases) provide a system of support, get them in some type of therapy, or their doctor would provide them with the medication needed to get them back on their feet.
When a disabled person attempts suicide, they are provided with options for euthanasia. If they commit suicide, it is dismissed as a way to “end their suffering” and deemed “understandable”. Because we, as a society, value their lives less than those of the able bodied. Me Before You manipulates the millions of young viewers into believing that this is romantic. That it is beautiful and tragic at the same time. It perpetuates the myth that a disability is a weakness and that a disabled person’s mental illness must stem from some type of feeling of incompleteness due to their disability.
Back to the story.
Louisa makes it her personal goal to show Will that his life can be wonderful despite his disability. She takes him on a vacation, and, supposedly he does a lot of activities in his wheelchair, even swimming with dolphins. But we don’t get to see them. They’re briefly mentioned. Instead, the shots we get of the vacation are of Will sitting in his chair, watching others surf and swim and water ski. He is “confined” to his chair and can’t do anything but sunbathe and think about how much better his life would be if he weren’t disabled. Yep.
Will’s decision to be euthanized is shown as “understandable.” It “puts him out of his misery.” Will can’t shake his depression. He sees his disability as suffocating. Even with all of the trips he went on with Louisa, the majority of the shots showed him sitting in his chair watching as others enjoy being active. We only see him in that one position. Bound to the chair, unable to do anything other than sit and watch as he longs for his previous abilities and lifestyle.
In the end, though the couple falls in love and enjoys their time together, Will decides to go through with his plan.
Because, you know, disabilities are life ruining. You can’t possibly have a disability and live a successful, fulfilling life (right after the accident, Will’s career is ruined and his girlfriend leaves him for his best friend)!
So when he chooses to follow through with the assisted suicide, it makes sense, right?
Let me ask you this- how would you feel about a film where the family and friends of an able-bodied person approved their suicide? Would you think it was “understandable”? Would it be okay?
I’m not done yet.
Louisa benefits from Will’s death. No, she’s not overly happy or jumping for joy at his choice, but he leaves her money. Money to travel. Money to go to school. Money to help her family. The ending scene of the film shows Louisa walking around Paris, buying perfume and reading a letter left to her by Will. She is okay. She gets to go to a pretty bakery and prance around in the brand new tights he bought her. She gets to move on to live a happy, financially stable life.
People with disabilities are not helpless. They are not hopeless. They do not need your pity.
They need your respect, because they are capable and they are complete.
They need representation that actually speaks for them. Representation that doesn’t rely on their disability for drama, for humor, or for tragedy. Representation that isn’t there just to move the plot.
Representation that doesn’t show the able-bodied benefiting from their deaths.
To the able-bodied person who has had limited interactions with the disabled community, this may seem melodramatic. I may seem like just another whiny teenage girl on the internet who is desperate to find the wrong in everything she sees.
But somewhere in the audience, there is a teenage girl with a disability who will leave the theater questioning her worth after seeing a film that implies that she is better off committing suicide. There is a young man with a disability who will have to face a lifetime of stereotypes, prejudices, and uneducated pitiful glances that belittle him. There is a mother of a child with a disability who will be stuck dealing with ignorant individuals who treat her child’s condition as a tragedy that needs a cure because they do not bother to educate themselves, because they equate a body that is different with a body that is not as good.
Films like Me Before You are often the first introduction to life with disabilities that many able-bodied people have. This film does not provide an accurate depiction of life with a disability. It targets a group that already faces prejudice, and a significant amount of the general public is already misinformed about. It puts lives at risk for the sake of “drama,” and perpetuates a harmful preconception about the disabled community.
Please do not let the talented actors and pretty clothes and fairy-tale relationships distract you from the message hidden in this film and so much of our culture. Do not take things at face value. Do not let the emotions evoked by this story excuse a loss of life. Allow the disabled community accurate and positive representation that does not misinform or look down upon its members. Human lives should not be taken because the able-bodied do not educate themselves. Represent every body.