The poorly researched, inauthentic and emotionally manipulative book and movie Me Before You have struck a furious chord with the international disability community.
As the straw that broke the camel's back, they have provoked anger and frustration, expressed widely on the internet and with physical demonstrations at cinemas where the film is shown.
Me Before You presents yet another simplistic, ableist take on the wheelchair as symbol of the fate-worse-than-death "problem" of disability. Death is the only and logical solution. I have watched the trailers, read part of the book, and read many reviews by people and publications I respect. Readers of this blog should watch the video Ableist, Stereotypical, and Offensive or: Why I Hate “Me Before You", featuring a person who sustained a spinal cord injury -– just like in the movie – 13 years ago.
On that basis, I am not prepared to spend good money on either the book or the movie.
Espousing populist values
While Me Before You does not claim to be great literature or film, the populist values it espouses are worrying. People have said "Get over it. It's fiction, just a story", but all fiction is written in a social context with an underlying set of values.
Nor is this a one-off. There are many books and films telling the same story. Popular culture is more influential than high culture in the formation of popular attitudes. Disabled people know there is a common belief that they are better off dead, because many recount that they are told by random people in the street "If I were like you I would rather be dead."
If some attempt had been made to sensitively explore the tensions and nuances of the situation we might have more sympathy with Will.
Making no great shakes of his life
Here he is, a young, rich, spoilt and active man who becomes quadriplegic, who thinks he can tell a chipper but unambitious working-class girl how she should run her life, while making no great shakes of his own.
He could still work as a banker, why not? He could still participate in adrenalin sport such as wheelchair rugby if he chose. Instead he chooses to live in self-absorbed isolation with resources at his command that most disabled people in the UK, or anywhere else today, could only dream of.
A plot device for a schmaltzy tearjerker
Many people in his situation do contemplate suicide during their rehabilitation or later. Most manage to work their way through it to "live boldly". Here it is a case of do what I say not what I do. Because the character and situation of Will are so poorly researched, most wheelchair users find him difficult to identify with and he seems to be no more than a plot device for a schmaltzy tearjerker.
That a range of people associated with the book and the movie, including the author, the director and the stars, have found it necessary to "ablesplain" their intent to indignant disabled people indicates to me the essential failure of both.
The message of Me Before You is trite: that no matter how rich you are you can't be happy if you are disabled.
The real and completely unintended message is that we, disabled people, must take charge of our own authentic and much more interesting and satisfying stories. We should be able to do much better than these tired old stereotypes.
Join the Protest Against Tragic Bullshit – Demand Better Disability Stories at 6pm Wednesday 15 June outside the Embassy Theatre in Wellington, where Me Before You is screening.
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