Why are there so many negative portrayals and hardly any positive ones?
This semester I took a Disability in Literature course, in which I was able to examine multiple and varying portrayals of disability in literature and other bodies of media, such as film and television.
Obviously, I was expecting to read some literature that did not paint the best portrait of disability. But I recently finished reading JoJo Moyes' novel "Me Before You", which was made into a major motion picture in 2016 under the same name with Emilia Clarke and Sam Clafin. I was certain that this was going to be one of the better ones.
I never saw the movie, and really had no idea what it was about, but I remember hearing great things about it. I was naturally excited to immerse myself in both media and was already beginning to plan out my essay and presentation where I would talk about the great strides "Me Before You" made for the disability community.
Unfortunately, I'm not taking that path anymore.
If you're unfamiliar with the story, the protagonist, Louisa Clarke, takes a job as a caregiver to Will Traynor, who is left paralyzed from the chest down (medically known as paraplegia) from an accident a few years before. Louisa's job contract states she is only to work as a caregiver for six months, and soon find this is because Will plans to die by euthanasia, or more commonly known as physician-assisted suicide, after the allotted time. Louisa then spends the remainder of the story finding ways to convince Will that life is worth living. And, spoiler alert, she is unsuccessful.
"Me Before You" ultimately gives a poor representation of disability, and although I'm three years late to begin discussing it, I feel it is important to so many people who loved it know that the story has completely alienated the disability community. Although it's wonderful that disability is being represented on the big screen and in print, especially because there are little media outlets that do such a thing, "Me Before You" makes one thing clear: living a life in a disabled body is one not worth living.
It probably shouldn't come as a shock that that's not a great message to be spreading around.
The book, however, does go about this in a better fashion. Louisa constantly goes to online paraplegic support groups for advice and many individuals tell her that although life is difficult, they would never imagine taking their own life because of it. In the film, however, no scene like this exists. This then forces audiences to believe that suicide is the only option when living with a physical disability.
To make matters even more complicated, the reason for wanting to die in the film revolves pretty clearly around one subject: sex. In the film Will never clearly defines the reason for wanting to die, but on multiple occasions, he states that it is due to this.
For example, he states he can't go on a trip to Paris because "I want to be in Paris as me. The old me. When pretty French girls give me the eye." and when Louisa professes her love for him he tells her that it is not enough reason for him to live because when he sees her "naked" he will "never be able to" have sex with her. This is further enhanced when the very first scene of the film is Will, presumably, having sex with his current girlfriend.
The film makes it seem like the only reason Will is willing to die is because he won't be able to have sex anymore, even though this is not entirely true for many paraplegics (although that's another discussion for another time).
In the novel, sex is of course mentioned, but Will gives multiple reasons behind his decision other than that. For example, the fear of infection, the increased risk of needing to have his legs amputated due to unregulated blood flow, running the risk of dying slowly and painfully just by having a fever are all a few factors that weigh into his decision. But this is never brought up in the film because of the forced label of it being a romance, where sex naturally becomes a key factor.
The novel, however, is hardly romantic. But consumers wanted a romance and that's what they got, but in the process created a poor representation of the disabled community.
Of course, the novel and the film are problematic in their own right. But the larger issue at hand is that Moyes has written about an extremely specific group that she is not a part of and painted it in a discouraging light. This is a problem that is intensified when noting that disability is already so underrepresented in the media.
We need to have better representations of disability on screen, and luckily this is already starting to happen. Shows like "Atypical" are perfect examples of disability on the big screen, and we need more of it. It's time we stop showing representations of disability as a life not worth living because this simply is not true for so many people.