“You only get one life. It’s actually your duty to live it as fully as possible.”
This quote from Me Before You, a romantic drama that opened in theaters last week, illustrates why a growing number of disability rights activists are speaking out against the film.
The film, based on a book with the same title by author Jojo Moyes, follows a relationship between a quadriplegic, wheelchair-bound man and his female caregiver. The man is deeply depressed about his disability, and even though he and his Manic Pixie Dream Girl caregiver fall in love, he ultimately decides his life as a disabled man is not worth living — and opts for assisted suicide.
To people who have a disability, this storyline sends the clear and disturbing message their lives aren’t worth living fully.
“It’s trickery. You see the movie poster and think ‘hey that person looks like me, I’m going to see it’,” said Liz Jackson, an active member in the disability rights community. “But then you learn the person killed themselves because of it. That’s the lesson you’re taught.”
We have to remind Abled ppl that this kind of ableist representation is overwhelmingly pervasive & exceedingly harmful. #MeBeforeEuthanasia
— Eb (is not blinking) (@erabrand) June 6, 2016
Like the film’s main character, Jackson wasn’t born disabled — which is why the film especially resonates with her. After waking up one morning in 2012 and not being able to move her feet, Jackson was sent from specialist to specialist to try and figure out what was going on with her body. She still has yet to get a solid diagnosis — but has learned to live with her unexpected disability, and now walks with a cane. But through her research, she’s found that neurological diseases like hers often appear in women when they’re in their mid-20s to early-30s. Coincidentally, she said, this is also the “target audience” of this film.
“These diseases, especially if they’re diagnosed, can be really isolating for people,” Jackson said. “This film will only make them feel worse, that their lives are less important. It will stick with them.”
She said she doesn’t know anyone living with disabilities who hasn’t considered suicide.
The most frustrating part, Jackson added, is that the film’s director, Thea Sharrock, hasn’t genuinely addressed the many questions raised by the disability rights activists online — especially when it comes to its accuracy.
Disabled Voters Feeling Ignored By Candidates Take Election Into Own HandsHealth by CREDIT: AP Photo, Gerald Herbert Unemployment. Incarceration rates. Access to education. Medicare coverage…thinkprogress.org“All she’s saying is ‘I’m so glad people are having questions, are talking about this’,” said Jackson. “But she’s not responding to any of them.”
Jackson said that she might go see the film in theaters, but she refuses to pay for it. Instead, she will join in on what fellow advocates have been doing: Paying for the most recent X-Men movie — which she says portrays disability in a “respectful” way.
Jackson is just one of many people in the disability rights community raising concerns about the film. Shortly after the Me Before You trailer popped online, advocates took to social media (and some, to the streets) with their upset, using hashtags like #MeBeforeEuthanasia and #MeBeforeAbleism to gain momentum.
To Cara Liebowitz, an active online advocate for disability rights who has cerebral palsy, the issue is less with how the movie dramatically ends, but more about how the character with a disability is portrayed in general.
“The most disturbing part is that this character has no autonomy,” she said. “He’s infantilized by his parents, who make all the decisions for him, and society. That’s an unrealistic depiction.”
— Stefani Shea (@Lilacmess) May 25, 2016
Liebowitz said that this conversation might be a bit different if people with disabilities were represented equitably in media. But she said this new movie fits into bigger patterns about how people living with a disability are depicted — often, in a dark, “woe is me” narrative.
But how can that change?
“The first way to do so is to actually talk to us if they want to tell our stories correctly,” Leibowitz said. She and Jackson both noted how obvious it was from the book and film trailer that the writer didn’t do her research. Moyes, the book’s author, has said the quadriplegic character is based on a real person — but has yet to share any other details about her research.
The increased awareness around these issues helps. Jackson said that only recently have people with disabilities been turning online to advocate for themselves and their rights. She speculated that, even just a few months ago, this kind of movie may have not sparked such a backlash.
For Leibowitz, it’s obvious that a clear shift that needs to take place in the way people with disabilities are seen on film and TV.
“It’s not about not changing ourselves,” she said. “It’s changing how society looks at us.”