Monday 13 June 2016

Rather You Than Me

Should I, Shouldn’t I

One of the messages we hear repeatedly as writers trying to make the leap to professional is that we shouldn’t say anything controversial on the net, because agents and publishers will google us as a form of due diligence. But when you’re a minority group writer and something deeply problematical is being said about your minority, then you’re pretty much compelled to comment.

And when a summer blockbuster’s message is that people like you are better off dead, how can anyone with a claim to represent #OwnVoices not comment?

Live Boldly

The PR folk for summer rom-com blockbuster Me Before You, based on author JoJo Moyes book of the same name, probably don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Their film has drawn far more attention than they might have hoped, even breaking into the nightly news shows, but that’s because disabled people are picketing the showings and have thoroughly pwned the social media coverage, subverting the #MeBeforeYou hashtag into #MeBeforeEuthanasia, and making #LiveBoldly about the things we do, not bitter misery.

Me Before You, The Plot in 75 Words

Manic Pixie Dream Girl Lou gets a job at the local castle (because all British towns have one*), which turns out to be looking after the quadriplegic heir to the estate, who is the standard self-loathing Bitter Crip (and an incredibly handsome multi-millionaire). Lou tames Bitter Crip Will, convinces him to enjoy life. Will thanks her, then flies off to Switzerland to top himself, leaving her loads of dosh and an instruction to ‘live boldly’.

I make no apologies for totally spoiling Me Before You’s ending for anyone who hasn’t seen the story, because the two messages people will take away from it are ‘being a wheelchair user is a fate worse than death’ and ‘disabled people are burdens’ and as a wheelchair user I have a pretty fundamental problem with both of them. It also solidly reinforces the ‘bitter cripple’ cliché, which is again deeply problematical.

If you want more details on the plot, I’d recommend Cara Liebowitz’s storify of
Cara Hate Reads Me Before You, in which Cara took one for Team Disability by reading Me Before You and live-tweeting the experience. It’s particularly good at looking at the minutiae of disability that the book fails to capture because of insufficient research. There’s also Kim Sauder’s analysis, which probes into it in a more structured manner.

* Okay, so yes, mine has sixteen.

Doing the Research

JoJo Moyes, the author of Me Before You, the book, and the screenwriter of Me Before You, the film, has said in interviews that she had the idea for writing the story after reading about Daniel James, a rugby player who became a quadriplegic after breaking his neck during training, decided he couldn’t tolerate what he called ‘a second class existence’ and then insisted his family take him to Dignitas, the notorious Swiss euthanasia clinic. She admits to not having talked to any quads before writing the book, depending solely on her experience as relative of a child with a progressive disability. There have been mentions of the director and cast talking to people with spinal cord injuries during the development of the film, but the context has always suggested these were people in rehab. For disabled people, this rings immediate alarm bells – at no stage does anyone from the production appear to have talked with a wheelchair user with a stable and mature view of their own disability (that's mature in the no longer evolving sense). An assumption that is reinforced by their repeated use of the deprecated ‘in a wheelchair’ in interviews rather than the much preferred ‘wheelchair user’. If you can’t even be bothered to find out a minority group’s preferred terminology for themselves, it really doesn’t reflect well on your research. 

There is an adaption process to disability, especially sudden disability, which often takes years, and the best analogy may well be grieving. Even people who are born disabled can go through this if they develop new disabilities or their existing disability worsens. Just as we wouldn’t advise people to make life-changing decisions while grieving, so we shouldn’t advise people to make life-ending decisions while adapting to disability. But that’s the story Moyes creates, and with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the money, the castle, and everything to live for, Will still decides disability is a fate quite literally worse than death. Lou does manage to pull him part way out of his bitterness before his final decision, but even that is problematical, teaching us that disabled people need non-disabled people to show us how to live – we call that infantilization, reducing us to a childlike figure, and it is considered a form of disability hate.

It’s clear Moyes did little if any research into Euthanasia when she claims to have been surprised by the opposition of disabled people to the film. Possibly the most prominent anti-euthanasia group in the UK is Not Dead Yet UK (full disclosure, I’m a supporter of Not Dead Yet), which is explicitly a disabled people’s group. Nor am I certain Moyes did much research around the Daniel James suicide, I remember trying to point out issues with it at the time, and that I and other disabled people were shouted down by the mob for trying to argue that disabled life was worth living. There are disabled people who conclude disabled life is not worth living, but that is largely a problem originating in society’s negative view of disability, which I’ll talk about later, there are many, many more who conclude disabled life isn't actually much different to non-disabled. Unfortunately, Moyes, and Hollywood, weren’t interested in the story of those of us who make our disability our new normal and Me Before You instead chooses to perpetuate the societal negativity that sees disability as a fate worse than death.

A line that came up repeatedly with respect to Will’s euthanasia in interviews with the cast and crew is ‘the right to choose is important’ and it is worth looking at that a little more deeply. None of the proposed UK euthanasia laws that have been defeated in recent years would have been applicable to Will. All have been predicated on applying solely to people with terminal illness. Disabled people would not have been covered unless they were also terminally ill, and Will isn’t. However, it’s clear the pro-euthanasia lobby actually intends treating any law based around terminal illness as simply a first step towards a less constrained law, because they keep using examples in their lobbying that wouldn’t actually be covered. There is a suspicion that this is a deliberate tactic to prepare the ground for a second step down the slippery slope by arguing the law has failed: but you legalised euthanasia specifically for person X, and they're still not covered. And slippery slope it clearly is; just look at the example of the euthanasia programmes in both Holland and Belgium, with the head of the Belgium programme holding seminars at ‘inspiring’ Auschwitz and both programmes regularly offering euthanasia to people who were not remotely covered by the original laws their governments passed and who are in no way terminally ill. It may be that Me Before You’s ‘the right to choose is important’ is simply another reflection on the dire state of their research, but it may also be offering us an insight into their true beliefs.

Shaping the Message

Despite JoJo Moyes stating that she was surprised that disabled people are protesting, the production company was clearly prepared for it, indeed the security guards at the UK premiere told the protesters from Not Dead Yet UK that they had been warned in advance to expect disabled protesters. Equally there were common elements that turned up repeatedly in the pre-premiere interviews with stars and director that suggested they had been coached to try and pre-emptively shape the message – thatthe right to choose is important line and claiming that the film is neutral on the euthanasia debate, a claim rather belied by the right to choose is important being clearly a pro-euthanasia position.

And when shaping the message failed and disabled people seized the social media high ground, the film’s PR people went on the offensive, with director Thea Sharrock repeatedly claiming anyone who opposed it hadn’t read the book or seen the film, so couldn't possiblly understand it, female lead Emelia Clarke saying protesters lackeda full view, and the repeated assertion from various members of the crew that it’s only one person’s story. Variations on the Sharrock article turned up in the Guardian, the Independent, Entertainment Weekly, and likely many other venues. No doubt they hoped to counter disabled people’s alternate narrative, but when you look across the breadth of the response, it consistently reads as Go away, the adults are talking. Telling disabled people that we weren’t clever enough to understand the film’s message left many understandably miffed and muttering darkly about ablesplaining.

Nothing For Us, Without Us, Except Casting

It’s not something that Im going to focus on, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the film continuing the Hollywood tradition of never letting a disabled actor near a disabled part, in this case made worse by Director Thea Sharrock’s dismissive comments that We spoke to a few, but there were limited options, with due respect to those we saw and I believe any really good actor should be able to give you what you need. Anything except insight into disabled life, that is.

No doubt we’ll be seeing Sam Claflin nominated for major awards for cripping-up as Will come next Spring, that’s just as much a Hollywood tradition.

Critics, What’s Wrong With You People?

Critical coverage of Me Before You has varied from the informed, to the clueless, to the outright offensive, sometimes covering all three at a single venue. The Guardian’s initial review bought into the company line so completely they had to publish a more sceptical second, especially after the first drew criticism for the horrendous line what might make life worth living if you are confined to a wheelchair? (changed after complaints to ‘if you are a wheelchair user, which makes it sooo much better). That second review saw the headline change from Not Just a Tearjerker to Deathly Dull Euthanasia Rom Com. A third(?!?) review  labelled it a precision-tooled tear-extraction device. And if that makes it sound ruthlessly cynical, well yes, it is rather.

It was only as coverage of the disability protests started to grow that critical analysis of Before You Me started to delve below the surface and probe into its euthanasia trope ('disability snuff' as Not Dead Yet re-christened it). Oddly enough, I was under the impression criticism was supposed to look at things like the plot all of the time, not just when the people it is about start doing the critics’ jobs for them. And we did get some really good analysis in the end, though much of it from columnists with a background in disability writing, rather than from professional media critics. There was s.e.smith’s Why Disability Rights Advocates Are Calling Out “Me Before You” as a Hot Mess And this review from Variety captures some of the nuance, or lack of the same, in the way the film sets out to shape our views on disability and euthanasia.

My prize for offense goes to a couple of reviews I only came across as I sat down to write this. Film & TV Now’s Top 5 Tear-Jerkers: Get The Tissues Ready tries to rewrite Will’s suicide as a sacrifice, implying a loving relationship with a disabled person is a horrifying negative that everyone has to be protected from. But the prize goes to Owen Gleiberman’s review at Variety, which totally buys in to Will’s life being irrevocably rendered worse than death by his disability, but then levels up on its horrific viewpoint by arguing that the film missed the money shot: if the end of the movie had lingered, a little more explicitly, on Will’s final moments, “Me Before You” could have added $25 million to its total domestic box-office tally'. So that’s a review in one of the leading trade magazines, by its chief film critic, arguing not that Me Before You objectified the male lead for the purposes of disability snuff, but that it didn’t objectify him enough.

I’m sure some people will argue that I’m expecting too much of critics, that they aren’t disability studies academics. But let’s try a though experiment: if, rather than a disabled man, the film had instead been about a LGBT teen wanting to commit suicide because of the hostile world in which they find themselves, and had carried through with it in the same way that Me Before You does for Will, then wouldn’t the critics have been all over it for an utterly irresponsible approach to a real world problem? And if that’s true for being LGBT, then why is it different for being disabled?

The Message that Remains

Both JoJo Moyes and Thea Sharrock have argued that Me Before You takes the ‘brave’ and non-cliched approach by carrying through on Will’s determination to kill himself, yet the disabled guy dying in the end is so common that Bury Your Disabled is just as much a trope as Bury Your Gays/Dead Lesbian Syndrome. The rarer, non-cliched ending is the one where the disabled person goes on to have a normal life, and that’s the one Will, Moyes and Sharrock explicitly reject.

If Me Before You was a one-off, then that might not be a problem, but it isn’t, it’s the latest iteration on Gattaca and Million Dollar Baby and all the rest. It’s simply non-disabled society’s ‘I’d rather be dead than in a wheelchair’ recycled into fiction, which goes on to feed society’s presumption that being disabled is a fate worse than death and round and round the cycle goes, with what actual disabled people think never given a thought. (For the record, my wheelchair is incredibly liberating, I’m kicking myself for not becoming a wheelchair user a decade ago, and I don’t even have a particularly good one. And that’s pretty much the unanimous view of wheelchair users. It isn’t having a wheelchair that’s limiting, it’s not having one.)

The danger of these negative views of disability manifests in multiple ways. For disabled people in general, they’re problematic as they argue our life is a lesser one, and it’s very easy to slip from there to regarding us as lesser. Equally that view of us as lesser and limited in what we can achieve makes it far easier to de-prioritize improving access and other provision for disabled people and for employers to dismiss disabled people as incapable of working as the equal to non-disabled people, leading to the massive 30 percent gap between employment rates for disabled and non-disabled people**.

But where these views are potentially lethally dangerous is for newly disabled people. We see that in Daniel James calling his life
a second class life, in narratives about not wanting to be a burden. Our society raises children to have negative attitudes towards disability pretty much from birth; it isn’t an exaggeration to describe it as brainwashing. And when someone becomes disabled, the only model of disability they have to draw on is the one that says it’s a tragedy, that their life is now worthless, and that they’ll weigh down their family through the burden of disability. There’s a window of vulnerability, between the realisation that disability is for life, and the realisation that life goes on as normal, even with a disability, where someone can be swung towards suicide by the wrong message, whether that comes from family hinting that they’ll be a burden, from society’s negativity, or from fictional narratives about disabled life not being worth living.

This is particularly a problem where those fictional narratives are built around paraplegia, especially quadriplegia, because society preaches a horror of being reliant on others for personal care, with a particular horror of incontinence, and, for men, impotence. Even if it carried through on the fate worse than death narrative, Me Before You had the opportunity to educate its audience and to show that it is possible to have an independent life, even a sexual life, while still being reliant on carers. For that matter, most paras and a substantial percentage of quads are able to handle personal care and continence without relying on anyone else. But Moyes chose to shy away from that, providing Will with an unlikely nurse to save Lou getting her hands dirty, and Sharrock has expressly said she didn’t want to show any element of personal care, not even hoist use, because she wanted to portray disability as ‘normal’ (or rather she didn’t want to show the normal reality of Will’s disability).

** 48.5 % of British disabled adults are currently employed, compared to 78.8% of non-disabled adults. Figures in the US are worse, with a 44.7% gap.

The Art of Writing (and Directing)

I’m horrified by all of this not simply as a disabled person, but as a disabled writer. In fact particularly as a disabled writer. One of the core messages of the diverse books movements is that stories shouldn’t whitewash out minorities, whether they be ethnic, gay, or disabled people, or whoever, and equally that they should respect those minorities. That means doing the research and finding out what the members of the relevant minority would think of your plot, so that you can be sure to portray them in an accurate and respectful fashion. Moyes seems to have relied on what she thought she knew about disability, a very common mistake, and even if the book version of Me Before You predated the diverse books initiative, the screenplay didn’t. Much the same seems to go for Sharrock, who we know did the research of talking to people in rehab, but then explicitly chose not to use that research to show a realistic version of disability, because she didn’t consider that reality ‘normal’.

Ultimately both Moyes and Sharrock have chosen to tell the story in ways which objectify Will as a cliché of disability, a cautionary tale who exists solely to make the audience feel better about themselves, and that’s the very definition of Inspiration Porn. As writers, as directors, as actors and artists and critics, we must do better.

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