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Monday, June 6, 2016

Me Before You: Trouble with the Truth

The above video was posted to You Tube following the red carpet opening of the film Me Before You. The fierce reaction, a hornets nest of anger, has taken JoJo Moyes and all those involved with the film by surprise. Disability activists have staged protests from coast to coast. To say I am proud of my fellow cripples would be a massive understatement. Facebook, twitter, instagram, thunderclap, and more social media sites than I know exist are afire. Hundreds of people who write about disability on line in various traditional and nontraditional platforms have eloquently expressed their disdain for the film and book. This I anticipated. I read the book about two years ago. Last year I heard Me Before You was going to be made into a movie. I knew it was coming. I dreaded its release. I saw the trailer and cringed It was as bad as I expected.  What I did not expect was the mainstream media's perspective on disability rights protests. I am taken aback. Mainstream media outlets have respectfully discussed why people with a disability have reacted with anger and outrage. I need not provide links--there are too many. I never thought I would live long enough to see good articles from outlets such as the Washington Post, Guardian, Telegraph, Globe and Mail and many others. There are of course many dreadful articles in press. The comment sections are a battle ground as one would expect. Romance novel and film enthusiasts who love JoJo Moyes work are viciously nasty. Ableists, with the freedom anonymity brings, are over the top in spouting hatred. The message is clear--death is preferable to life with a disability and we cripples need to shut up or die. Our opposition to assisted suicide legislation is despised. Ableists think our opposition is born of baseless paranoia or we are so embittered that we want other people to suffer like us. Harsh if not hateful words are hurled our way.

What I find fascinating is the failed efforts to spin the book and the film by its makers. These efforts have been comically bad. Thea Sharrock, the film producer has argued there has been a "fundamental misunderstanding of what the message is" on the part of disability activists who have  had the audacity to protest and critique the film. Initially those involved with the film, Moyes, Sharrock, Sam Clafin, and Emilia Clarke told the media and people with a disability to read the book, see the movie.  Not surprisingly people with a disability had in fact read the book and seen the film. We hated both and were vocal about it. The next effort to dodge the outrage and increasing media criticism was to flat out lie. Moyes has repeatedly maintained she received a great deal of emails from people with various disabilities, even those who were quadriplegics, and they loved the book and film. These people remain silent and unidentified. Her tone was condescending. It was as though she were an adult and talked to we cripples like we were children.

The video above shows Moyes being confronted by Liz Carr stating she had never heard from anyone who thought the film implied people with a disability were better of dead than disabled. This is false. Dominick Evans contacted Moyes earlier this year via twitter and a blog post that was widely read. He expressed his grave concerns to Moyes directly. Evans recalls that he:
reached out to Jojo Moyes the author and screenwriter on Twitter. When I did so it was pretty horrible, because even though I was very respectful in what I was saying a lot of her fans jumped on me and were very rude and hateful to me. It got so bad that Jojo herself ended up apologizing for them. She asked to speak to me in DM and I shared my concerns with her for about twenty minutes, when we went back and forth discussing the book and the overall storyline.I was really disappointed when Jojo was confronted by activities at the UK premiere last week, because she told them this was the first time anyone had told her such grievances. She was unaware that I am friends with many of the protesters, and these comments were caught on a video recorded by Channel 4 in the UK. When a lot of my friends and fellow activists saw her downright lying, because they remembered my conversation with her back in February, people made me aware of her comments, and we all started calling her out for the lie. It is especially frustrating because when we spoke she said that she heard our concerns and was noting them for future projects. How can anyone believe that, when she won’t even be honest about the fact that we had a conversation in the first place?
When lying failed and was exposed those involved in the film began stating that the film was about one man, one character, and one person's individual choice. Frankly, I found this to be a ridiculous line of reasoning. The film is but one of many to celebrate the death of a disabled character. More to the point, the film does not exist in social isolation. A message is being sent: it is about one man, a fictional character, who finds his crippled existence so devoid of value that he fights to end his life. This man however is not your ordinary quadriplegic. He is unimaginably wealthy. He lives in a castle. He has access to a private jet. A gorgeous woman has fallen in love with him. Everyone knows this is not how your average quadriplegic lives life. Most quadriplegics are poor and many live in poverty. Some quadriplegics live in nursing homes. Most quadriplegics are unemployed. The symbolism here is overt. Quadriplegics can't do anything. They can't wipe their own ass. They can't get dressed. Some of them need life support. The horrors abound. Moyes and company create the one quadriplegic on earth that has it all and he wants to die.  If the character Will Traynor wants to die then surely your average quadriplegic must be eager to die and lives a nightmare like existence.

This is not about one man and one fictional character in a Hollywood tear jerker. A message is being sent and hordes of bipedal movie goers are getting the message: death is preferable to life with a  disability. Quadriplegia is the ultimate human horror story. A film analogy is apt here. In 1967 Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier starred in the film Guess Who's Coming to Diner. The film is a classic. It won two Academy Awards and addressed the controversial issue of interracial marriage. If we follow the logic of Sharrock, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is about a fiancee who is introducing her future husband to her parents. It is just her story and her experience with her parents. The film has nothing to do with interracial marriage. This is laughable.

So why did Moyes film go off the rails? In light of the many critiques a few reasons emerge. First, a healthy dose of sexism comes into play. It is easy to dismiss romance novels. Chick lit is simply not subject to serious analysis. Second, a mass market mainstream Hollywood summer movie garners a lot of attention. Millions of dollars are at stake. The production cost of the film was $20 million. Tear jerkers draw large audiences and the film has already made money. In its opening weekend the film has earned $27 million. Killing disabled characters in films sells tickets. Third, Moyes never bothered to talk to any people with a disability. Dominick Evans noted: "a non-disabled person wrote this story. A non-disabled person directed this film. A non-disabled actor portrayed the disabled role". No movie about a member of a minority group overcoming gross civil rights violations would be made without an actor from that minority group. I recently saw Race, the biopic about Jesse Owens. A white actor could never be considered. The sole exception here is Hollywood is quite content to have non disabled actors play characters who are disabled. Fourth, the character Will Traynor, who Moyes says was inspired by the case of Daniel James, is more similar to Christopher Reeve than James. American audiences will recall Reeve and have no idea who Daniel James was. Fifth, money is an insulator. Like Reeve, Moyes did not make any effort to interact with other people with a disability. Reeve wanted to be cured. His post injury life consisted of nothing else. Moyes was similarly focused and insulated. She did no research. She worked within a medical model of disability. All Moyes saw was pathology and imagined what quadriplegic life entailed. Moyes is ever so typical of what people see and think when an obvious disability such as quadriplegia is subject of discussion. She sees what cannot be done. In contrast when I see a quadriplegic I wonder about the level of injury and what they can do. As I age I am also a little envious. Power wheelchairs today are powerful, can go fast and far. More than once crossing campus at Syracuse University and heading directly uphill I think a power chair is enviable technology. Oh what people miss--the very humanity of people using what I consider to be cool technology.