Thursday, June 23, 2016

Me Before This Blog, Part 1

(Note: This blog entry contains spoilers from the film Me Before You.)

If you go to the movies, spend time on social media, or have friends with disabilities, you have probably heard the outcry over the film Me Before You, the new teary-eyed romance from director Thea Sharrock based on Jojo Moyes’ best-selling novel of the same name in which a cheery caregiver (Lou) of modest means falls for a wealthy quadriplegic (Will) who seeks assisted suicide. The controversy surrounding this film along with the swirling of my own emotions, from frustration to anger to anxiety and even depression, have been so intense, in fact, that I have begun to look back fondly on the man I was before I tasked myself with writing this blog!

With so many well-written critiques of the film from writers with and without disabilities, which you can find in this media roundup or by simply doing a Google search for the film, I will not bore you with yet another recap of the film and why it has angered so many people with disabilities worldwide. Rather, I would like to use this two-part blog entry to respond to some of the arguments in defense of this film voiced by the actors, writer, director, and myriad online commenters on the 50+ positive and negative reviews I have read. As in so many debates around sensitive topics, I have noticed that each side repeatedly spouts the same arguments, but there is little interaction between the two positions, beyond outright dismissal or plain disagreement. In the hopes of starting an honest and open discussion about the social impact of the film and how it fits into larger trends of disability representation in film and the extremely complex issue of assisted suicide, I would like to offer my own thoughts as a person living with Muscular Dystrophy.
 A promotional image from Me Before You in which a dressed-up Emilia Clarke
smiles among the film's infamous taglines "Push yourself. Don't settle. Just live"
and "Live Boldly." These taglines have drawn fire from many in the disability community
who argue the implication here is that you cannot live boldly if you are disabled. If the film's
message truly is "live boldly," does it make sense that its main character ultimately ends his life?
I have seen the film and did find certain aspects of the film positive and charming (for more cool-headed reviews of the film, read more here and here), but all together I do agree with many activists that the film’s implied messages about disability, intentional or not, reflect larger ableist trends in our culture that are harmful to actual people with disabilities. As Karolyn Gehrig explained in her recent critique of the film, “When the disability community at large protests the ableism in a film, it is not only the film we protest. We protest the culture which nurtures detrimental ideas about illness, disability, and our lives.” I am also honestly grateful for the film because it has initiated a much-needed, widespread discussion about disability representation in film, united so many people with disabilities via social media and in-person protests, and may even mark a turning point in films about disability.

The film is about the freedom to choose. Yes, it is, and all people should have the right to make their own decisions about their own lives – this is, after all, the whole basis of independence on which the disability rights movement is built – but why does this discourse around choice seem to disappear when nondisabled people seek suicide? People without disabilities, especially when they’re young, are encouraged to seek counseling and other resources when they experience severe symptoms of depression and/or thoughts of suicide. Think also of the It Gets Better Project designed to give hope to young people of the LGBT community dealing with harassment and considering suicide. Why don’t we extend the same messages to people with disabilities? Why do we insist on preventing suicide for so many people, but instead invoke this notion of choice when it comes to people with disabilities? When people with disabilities protest a film showing a disabled character ending his life, it is not the character’s choice they protest; it is this cultural double standard which suggests all lives are worth living unless you have a disability.
Cartoon created by Amy Hasbrouck of Not Dead Yet
 shows a person in a wheelchair looking at a building
 with stairs leading towards "Suicide Prevention Program"
 and a ramp to "Assisted Suicide."
The film simply expresses one opinion. Yes, but one opinion in the absence of others becomes more than one opinion; it becomes truth. Consider these films, which all contain characters with disabilities who either ended their own lives, sought the right to die, or effectively enlisted someone else to assist them in dying: Whose Life Is It Anyway, Gattaca, The Sea Inside, Million Dollar Baby. If that seems like a short list, consider the scores of other films that treat disability as a negative experience, use characters with disabilities to inspire a nondisabled audience, or devolve into melodrama. At the positive end of the spectrum, disabled characters overcome their disabilities and are deemed inspirational; at the most negative, disabled characters seek death. In nearly all, disability is something to be avoided: you can overcome it, you can choose to die because of it, but you can’t live happily with it. There are exceptions to the norm, like Rory O'Shea Was Here, Music Within, The Intouchables, and The Sessions, but they are typically independent films with smaller distribution, not mass appeal, Oscar-winning films that perpetuate stereotypes about disability. Also, despite portraying disability in a more positive light, these films all cast nondisabled actors in the roles of disabled characters, and they paint disability primarily as a privileged white man’s experience rather than the nearly ubiquitous cross-cultural experience that it is. Defenders of Me Before You also explain that no other character in the film agrees with Will’s decision, but I think it’s worth noting that none of these other characters are disabled. In a way, this invalidates their arguments because they cannot truly empathize with Will’s actual experience, and this is in part why I think they ultimately accept his decision. Perhaps if the film included different perspectives from other characters with disabilities, this would have felt more like a single opinion.

Click here for Part 2 of this blog in which I continue to discuss the problematic aspects of the film. In the meantime, if you have any thoughts about what I have discussed above or about the film itself, please share in the comments section below!

2 comments:

  1. A Cool commentary; thank you! :-)
    - Shannon Ellis Hanes

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  2. Thanks Eric. We saw the film yesterday. Here are our reviews.

    From Gene
    I saw “Me Before You” with my dear friend, Anne Roberts. There was so much chatter about this film, on social media, that I was compelled to see it. I really enjoyed the character Lou, as well as the cinematography. The characters reminded m of people I have known and are thus believable. The execution of the storyline was somewhat less than convincing though. I felt the movie makers could have done a better job selling Will’s decision to take his life. Still, the treatment of this controversial issue was far better that than I imagined. I give it 4 out of 5 wheels.

    From Anne
    It was beyond a treat to see Me Before You with my dear friend, Gene. The movie told a beautiful love story. While I personally don't agree with the lead actor's big decision in the film, it was his choice to make. It reminded me that I have decisions, big and small, to make every day about the direction of my life and to consider the impact that these choices have on others. To love!

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