The terrifying disablism of Me Before You

If you hit a theatre at any point in recent months, and particularly if you saw a drama or romantic film, you probably saw a trailer for Me Before You, a film based on the book of the same name that stars Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin. You may have rolled your eyes at the ludicrousness of it all — I’ve helpfully provided a trailer below so you can do it again — but this film is actually deeply sinister and upsetting, and that’s something that nondisabled people need to engage with, because it’s likely to get critical acclaim, and it’s the kind of film that’s setting itself up for Oscarbait.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, and I am about to spoil it in case you care, Me Before You is about a quadriplegic man who was injured in an accident. He’s quite wealthy, and when a young, disaffected twenty something shows up to act as his caregiver, they enter a tempestuous romance. Oh, and the premise of the film is that he wanted to commit suicide but his family refused to allow him to do so unless he gave them six more months, so his caregiver has taken it upon herself to change his mind — but in the end, he goes through with it. Swelling violin, crying, etc.

There’s a lot to unpack here. From the outset, this is a cripface role, which is deeply offensive, although one can understand why no disabled actor wanted to take this on, because the whole thing is a hot mess. Most disabled people are not wealthy — he benefits, like Christopher Reeves did, from independent wealth amassed before his accident. Thus, he can afford to live in luxury, pay caregivers well, and even will them money after his death. That’s not really something that speaks to an authentic experience of disability for very many people.

Assisted suicide is an incredibly complex issue, but one theme runs throughout this film: No matter what your stance on the subject is, the character’s family are denying him bodily autonomy and the ability to make his own choice. He’s turned into an object, and he’s powerless to do anything about it because the film, and the book, infantalise him, turning him into inspiration porn for readers and viewers who want to get the weepies, thinking about how tragic it is to be disabled and how it’s the end of his life and how it totally makes sense to want to die rather than be disabled, which is an incredibly pervasive and aggressive notion throughout society.

The thing is that he enjoys incredible social privilege thanks to all his money. Many disabled people experience pressure from a society that hates them and tells them they shouldn’t exist, while yanking out social supports that make it hard for them to live full, happy, independent lives. Some are forced to endure incredible humiliation because they can’t afford full-time caregivers. Some can’t leave their homes because their benefits programmes won’t cover necessary slings, lifts, and chairs, let alone ramps. Some are trapped in nursing homes, staring at televisions, because no one is engaged in giving them a good quality of life.

Nondisabled people have convinced themselves that it is disability itself that causes these things: That people live bereft existences because they are disabled, that disability isolates them from society and creates a life not living. That’s…not true. It’s society that creates these barriers and society that forms an incredible experience of isolation that can indeed push people to want to commit suicide rather than being alive, whether they’re dealing with chronic pain that society refuses to treat, enduring horrific conditions in institutions, or living in the outside world without adequate social supports.

This film underscores incredibly harmful and disablist tropes. Of course disabled people want to commit suicide rather than living, because even when they’re incredibly wealthy and have every possible advantage at their fingertips, they’re still disabled. Disability is gross and unpleasant and wrong, so naturally people don’t want to ‘suffer from’ the indignity of being ‘bound to a wheelchair.’ Girls only date wheelchair users out of pity.

In this instance, the romance is played in a really sticky, unpleasant way. Instead of being an honest film about two people who are in love with each other, there’s a heavy pity element here, and it’s tinged throughout with inspiration porn. Look at the lovely nondisabled person trying to convince the tragic cripple that he has a reason to live! Look at all her sacrifices that she’s making for love! Look at how devastating it is when she fails! There’s no autonomy or independence here: Everything is squarely centered for the nondisabled gaze, which objectifies the disabled character for the tearjerker factor, just as The Fault in Our Stars and The Intouchables did.

This is a cultural presentation of disabled people for titillation and fascination, not their authentic, true selves. We’re supposed to think it’s wild and a bit racy that a nondisabled person would find a wheelchair user attractive — and of course he’s very conventionally attractive, which is supposed to make him all the more pitiful, a powerful, beautiful man brought down by the horrors of disability. The message for audiences is that disabled people are objects to be viewed from afar and pitied, and that it’s unremarkable that so many are at risk of depression and suicide, because it’s disability that causes these mental health issues, not society’s attitudes surrounding disability.

Films like this entrench the belief that disability is something separate, isolated, abstract, and because they’re told from a zone of comfort and familiarity for nondisabled people, they get critical attention. People are very excited to have their attitudes about disability affirmed, and they’ll praise the film (just as they praised the book) for its ‘wrenching’ or ‘searing’ or ‘authentic’ or whatever presentation of disability and assisted suicide, approaching it without challenging it, and it’s highly likely that it will play a prominent role on the awards circuit, because something so unthreatening is like catnip to the nondisabled masses who make these decisions.