Weekly Reading List: "Me Before You" Edition

Two rows of multicolored books

Book Review: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
Tonia Says - November 30, 2015

Hollywood Promotes The Idea That It’s Better To Be Dead Than Disabled
Dominick Evans - February 11, 2016

Why Are You Complaining? Some People Actually Feel That Way: A Critique of Me Before You
Kim Sauder, Crippledscholar - May 21, 2016

Spare me, “Me Before You”: Hollywood’s new tearjerker is built on tired and damaging disability stereotypes
Emily Ladau, Salon.com - May 24, 2016

Why I Blocked All Advertisements for “Me Before You”
Karin Hitselberger, Claiming Crip - May 27

Die, ableist tropes, die! #MeBeforeAbleism #MeBeforeFuckYou
Alice Wong, Storify - May 29, 2016

*** Spoilers Ahead ***

Except for a few Facebook reposts and Twitter retweets, I haven’t written anything about “Me Before You” until now for a two reasons. First, I haven’t read the book and I haven’t seen the film. It hasn't even premiered yet. Second, It seemed like my colleagues in the disability culture and activism communities had it pretty well covered. I didn’t think I had anything new to add.

It’s been awhile now though, and after reading some great and thoughtful pieces about "Me Before You," I now have a few thoughts of my own to add:

- I feel a bit out of line criticizing a story for not being a different story. I prefer to criticize books and movies on their own terms. It feels sort of like changing the subject to want to rewrite the plot of someone else's work. Still, there are a dozen ways to tell basically this story same story without loading it quite so heavily with disgusting ableism, and certainly without Will killing himself in the end. For example, Will could decide instead to live happily ever after with his caretaker Louisa, using his money to pay for the support and assistance he needs and have a great, liberated life traveling with her. Meanwhile, Lou would still “live boldly.” She’d just live boldly with Will. What’s wrong with that?

- There is a somewhat pro-assisted suicide position held by some disabled people, focused narrowly on the importance of choice. In her blog post linked above, Tonia of “Tonia Says” articulates, (though doesn't quite endorse), a version of this when she says she appreciates that Will made a personal choice to die, which she feels is understandable since pretty much everyone around him treats him like an object with no agency. However, this is also one of the key reasons why the current lionization of assisted suicide is so galling. Disabled people are, by and large, starved for choices in all areas of life. So, why do so many people focus, on granting disabled people the one choice that forecloses all other choices? If Will had chosen not to kill himself, wouldn't that have been a choice, too?

- I don’t think for a minute that the author, Jojo Moyes, set out to anger and upset disabled people. That’s just one of the unique, delightful wrinkles of ableism … nobody ever means it.

- I think it’s just barely possible that the author, Jojo Moyes, wanted Will to be a sort of villain … a nice man we grow to care about, who has massive character flaws, (pointless shame, self-hatred, self-pity, take your pick), that in the end we condemn because they lead to a completely unnecessary downfall for him at the end. Maybe she doesn’t mean Will to be heroic after all, but rather a deeply messed up, narcissist who should have gotten psychological help and maybe some peer counseling to adjust to his disability, so he could use the many tools freely available to him, (wealth, education, good looks, a woman who loves him), to live a rich and fulfilling life … but was instead indulged and allowed to kill himself while imagining himself to be noble for doing it. Maybe she wanted readers to question assisted suicide and think critically about why some disabled people spend the rest of their lives thinking you’re an embarrassment and a burden.

- But, if that’s her deeper message here, then she buried it far too deep to be detected by most readers of her book and viewers of her movie. If that’s what’s happened, it’s a huge literary blunder, most likely brought about by a near total ignorance of both the common tropes of disability storytelling and the current chic for romanticizing assisted suicide. Actually, I don’t think that was her intention. I don’t think she has a hidden message there that we’d approve of. I suspect Moyes means what she says.

- I also assume that she isn’t an intentionally edgy, avant-garde sort of artist who wants to upset people with a shocking conclusion to a story “ripped from the headlines” of a currently hot social issue. No, I think she wanted and expected her readers to be happy to read her book (and maybe see the movie!) Obviously she intended us to feel sad at the end, but sad in that happy, satisfying, cathartic way, not sad in the smash things and rethink your views on disability and suicide sort of way. I would really like to know what the author thought about disabled people as a group in relation to her novel. Did she a) think we’d love it for it’s unflinching portrayal of the difficulties of disability, b) imagine we’d be excited to appear in any work of popular fiction (and maybe a movie!), or c) did she just not think at all about disabled people as a distinct audience with a point of view?

- If, on the other hand, I’ve got her all wrong and she truly set out to provoke anger and controversy, then fair enough I guess, and, you know, Mission Accomplished.

- You can write a novel or make a film that realistically portrays gritty, frightening realities without endorsing them. "Transporting" in a way romanticized another social ill … heroin addiction. But even that film was ultimately quite clear about the fact that heroin addiction isn’t good. People do it, for reasons they think make sense at the time, but it’s bad, even within the confines of the story. It’s to be avoided and prevented. "Me Before You" forgets to deliver a similar message, or else Moyes actually believes it’s noble for quadriplegics to kill themselves. Either way, not good.

- As someone pointed out in an article I can’t find at the moment, there are thousands of real people right now who are newly experiencing significant disability and trying to figure out what their lives mean. The way people’s minds work, I’ll bet a lot of them have friends and family encouraging them to see “Me Before You” or read the book, figuring it will be good for them to see or read about a relatable guy in a wheelchair. The way the story goes, however, it could quite literally make newly disabled people suicidal. That’s a problem that can’t just be shrugged off or justified as a thoughtful examination of an abstract issue of medical ethics.

- There’s also the scarcity problem. Writers are free to tell whatever story they want. However, disability stories are rare in popular culture, so each choice carries extra weight. Choosing to tell a disability story that ends in suicide, possibly a romanticized one, makes a cultural argument, whether or not the author intends it or even realizes it. And when she have this one rare chance to say something to a mass audience about disability, it’s just plain harmful to tell stories that reinforce peoples’ worst beliefs about disability. She could have said something positive and insightful, but she chose to say something ugly and harmful in a way that makes viewers feel good about it. Again, not good.

I’ll probably see the film sooner or later, if only to see how closely the criticisms line up with the actual product. As I said on my Facebook page a few days ago, I’m not going to ask my friends and family to boycott the film or the book. I’d just like them to take these concerns seriously and question the very questionable premises on which they are based. They should also know that while not every disabled person is going to be automatically offended, there are good, solid reasons to be. You really don't have to dig deep to find things that offend. They're right there on the surface and in every layer below.

For what it's worth, the film's Metacritic score at the moment, with six critic reviews, is 49. That's pretty low for a movie that's basically designed in a lab to be a hit. I'm cautiously encouraged by this quote from Charles Gant from "Screen International":

"Resistance to this delirious romantic tragedy is futile, save for that nagging voice in our head wondering if it really has to be this way."


Note: Cara Liebowitz (@spazgirl11) is live tweeting her reading of "Me Before You," under the hashtag, #carahatereads. It's pretty great.