Thursday, May 19, 2016

"Me Before You": The Fetishization of Disability

In Theaters on June 3, 2016

The billionaire boyfriend is a trope of romantic fiction that I don’t particularly enjoy, but I completely understand why it exists.  For many, primarily the straight female demographic, their preferred brand of escapist entertainment revolves around a loving relationship that enables adventures through economic privilege, and yeah, companionship and financial security are certainly worthy of romanticism.  However, in the past decade or so, the popular notion of romantic fiction has become increasingly problematic, with writers using gimmicks to mix up the stale formula of straight romance without having to put effort into characters or story.  Me Before You is atypical in how it sets itself apart, but its exploitation of disability for dramatic tension raises a whole other set of issues while still remaining surprisingly typical of modern trends in romantic fiction.

Louisa Clark (played by Emelia Clarke, trying to build a post-Game of Thrones career for herself by being as overly expressive as possible) is a woman in her twenties, living at home with her parents and in desperate need of a job.  She is hired by the wealthy Traynor family to look after their quadriplegic son Will, a former businessman who was paralyzed after being struck by a motorcycle (and played by Sam Claflin, whose acting talents seem to be limited to being conventionally handsome, an ability to smirk, and not moving).  When Louisa discovers that Will plans to kill himself at the end of six months, she enacts a plan to cheer him up by taking him out on dates and adventures, which in turn causes the two to fall in love.

What I actually admire about the film is that the question of bodily autonomy is never wrested from Will’s control; he is the ultimate judge of how and when he should die, and when everyone he loves disagrees with him, he is still allowed to make that choice for himself.  However, there are two disturbing trends in the portrayal of the disabled of popular fiction: that disabled people wish to relieve their loved ones of the burden of their existence, and that suicide is a reasonable, even preferable, alternative to living with a disability.  Me Before You is guilty of both tropes, which serves to dehumanize disabled people by reducing them to nothing more than their disability.  And besides a sense of perpetual smugness, that all Will's character is: a caricature of disability that other characters, primarily Louisa, react to with varying degrees of pity and paternalism.

What I find more distressing, though, is how the film blatantly uses Will’s disability as a shorthand for chastity fetishism.  Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey have popularized chastity fetishism by substituting sexual attraction with attraction to danger, which leads to problematic romanticism of physical and emotional abuse.  Me Before You takes the opposite tactic, by making Will so nonthreatening that he can’t even be conceived of as a sexual being.  His relationship with Louisa has no chance of sexual culmination (at least according to the logic of the film), so Louisa is free of the usual pressures placed upon women in relationships and therefore can pursue Will without being concerned that she will be expected to consummate their love.  This is exemplified by the fact that the film’s most romantic scenes (and a few comic ones) are of Louisa acting as a caretaker, and that Louisa doesn’t even bother to break up with her current monogamous boyfriend as she spends more and more time with Will.  Again, I understand the appeal of a platonic, nonsexualized romance, but it cannot come at the expense of the dignity to either party of the relationship, and Will’s portrayal deprives dignity to an entire class of disabled persons.

What’s perhaps most frustrating about the film is that there is actually some talent behind the camera.  Screenwriter (and author of the original novel) Jojo Moyes is clearly more comfortable with prose than writing for a visual medium, but director Thea Sharrock has a strong enough understanding of visual metaphor and engaging shot composition that it’s hard to say the film isn’t well made in spite of its overly expository script.  Yet on a base thematic level the proceedings are repugnant to anyone willing to devote a few brain cells to deduce why this film might be offensive to the disabled community.  This makes a competent romance film fall infuriatingly flat, and only time will tell if audiences will rightly reject this ableist story or embrace it along with the other chastity porn of the modern age.


  1. Really appreciate this analysis. I am at a stage on my path to wokeness where I get a whiff that ableism is at play, but don't really know how to work through the finer points without reading someone else's breakdown. That said, it sounds like it was pretty glaring in this film! It's something I might have been excited to watch on a rainy day because I like Clarke, but now I'm going to skip it.

  2. It *could* have been worse: Will could have been miraculously cured - "problem" solved!

  3. The sad thing is, if he decided NOT to kill himself at the end (and in pretty much any other romantic movie that wouldn't be an option for the love interest) it might've been nice to have another romance movie with a disabled person.

  4. There are some romance novels out there that deal with disability considerably better than this. I mostly read historicals, and one of my favorites is Mary Balogh's Simply Love. Of course, there are also plenty of terrible romance novels with disabled characters, but I try to avoid those.

  5. I love that you took this analysis on. I do have to point out one contradiction in your piece...that his decision to live or die is his own. Then you mention that it is an offensive trend that suicide is a viable solution. I contend that even mentioning it is "his choice" implies that it is ethical to kill yourself and you would be okay with it.

    1. I don't agree that there is an inherent contradiction there. The first point is to the film's credit, portraying Will with a degree of autonomy and reason that another film may have taken away from him. The second, however, speaks to a larger trend of death being seen as preferable to disability, both in this film and in media at large. Neither of these is a direct commentary on the ethics of suicide, medically assisted or otherwise, and quite frankly that's a whole other can of worms that I would rather not open, at least not in the comments section of my own review.