Sam Claflin who plays Will Trayner in Me Before You is by Hollywood standards a handsome man. His counterpart Emilia Clarke who plays Louisia is strikingly beautiful. Tear jerkers and romantic comedies require leading characters that are exceptionally attractive. The various trailers show Will in a tuxedo and Louisa in a striking red dress and one clip of Louisia sitting on Will’s lap at a wedding party. When I see these images I laugh at Hollywood stereotypes that defy reality. As a paralyzed man many a fine looking woman have sat on my lap. However, any woman that sat on my lap with the sort of dress Louisa was wearing would be angry the second they got off my lap—their dress would be stained. In real life wheelchair use is messy and grime is simply part of life. The nitty gritty associated with wheelchair use ain’t pretty. This fact never entered into the mind of JoJo Moyes, the author of the book the film Me Before You is based on. The reason Moyes never thought about this is because she never bothered to conduct any research into what it is like to live life as a quadriplegic. She left that thought process to her ableist mind.
I have low expectations when it comes to romance novels. I have even lower expectations when it comes to romance movies. Emotional fluff does not appeal. Me Before You is such fluff with a twist. Will is a quadriplegic, handsome and fabulously wealthy. Will is also the stereotypical miserable, angry bitter man post spinal cord injury. Lou as she is known in the film is the opposite. Lou is terminally chipper and has a large smile in seemingly every scene. Lou dresses poorly and was born on the wrong side of the tracks. Her life and that of her family is an economic struggle. But lordy be it’s a miracle! The radically different couple fall in love. Lou will save the day. She will single handedly convince Will that life is worth living. They will fall in love and all will live happily ever after. Not so fast. I am writing about a disability snuff film not your average romance film. This book and film are different. Will is killed. Will, once a man of action, goes to Dignitas, the Swiss assisted suicide facility to die. Oh the tragedy. Tears flow forth and female teenagers hearts are broken. They gush about how brave Will was, oh how so loving was his sacrifice. Able bodied audiences cried their proverbial hearts out this summer. I seethed in anger.
Stop. Let’s back up. The characters fall in love. People who are in love have sex. Here we have a gorgeous couple. There must be some gratuitous nudity. If not an out right nude scene at least a memorable bikini or wet shirt with visible nipples should be in the film. This is standard Hollywood fodder. Sorry, but no. There must be at least one sex scene—chaste or not so chaste. Nope. Not one moan, not one groan, not one look of wonder on Will’s face when he sees Lou naked for the first time. Oh there is some banter about Lou’s magnificent breasts. There are supposedly touching scenes of Lou and Will falling in love. There are standard humorous scenes as well. The sexual contact between Will and Lou though is G rated. Think timid in the extreme. The only conclusion one can reach is not only can’t Will walk but he sure as hell can’t have sex. He says so himself. He is a quadriplegic. He is a head atop a dead body. His life is a fate worse then death. s.e. Smith has noted:
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,
I am among the first generation of paralyzed people to forcefully reject the stigma that stubbornly clings to disability. I reject the pity, stigma, and rampant ableist assumptions made about the quality of my life. This makes me a decidedly unpopular person. Worse yet, I have acknowledged my sexual identity. In powerfully rejecting worn out stereotypes I am subjected to intense societal backlash. Last year I wrote an essay, “Head Nurses” that was censored by Northwestern University. The controversy surrounding my essay played out in a very public and heated manner. Looking back a year later I have no doubt the reason my essay was controversial is that as a paralyzed man I refused to set aside my sexuality. In short, I undermined the myth that people with disabilities are asexual or unable to satisfy their sexual desires.
I find Me Before You deeply objectionable because it perpetuates the myth people with disabilities are asexual. Will and Lou never consummate their relationship. They don’t even come close. Will is to the best of my knowledge the first strikingly handsome male lead in a romance film to be completely asexual. This is troubling to me. Human sexuality forms a core part of our identity. Sexuality is an important part of the human experience. Moreover, men and women have reproductive rights and those rights include those with and without a disability. However, when disability enters into these essential discussions non-disabled people get uncomfortable. Disability and sexuality remains taboo and by extension people with a disability are not considered to be parental material and worthy of love. These assumptions are of course wrong and Me Before You profoundly undermines the human rights that the ADA is designed to protect.
Me Before You is far from the only Hollywood film that badly mangles disability and sexuality. Films that leap to mind are Whose Life is it Anyway and Million Dollar Baby. Disability representation always seems to be used as a plot device to grease the skids of a miserable story. We all know anything and everything disability related is inherently bad. While people who use wheelchairs are far more likely to be depicted in film and television in recent years, Hollywood rarely hires disabled actors or actresses with a disability. The roles of people with a disability in film are awarded to non disabled people like Sam Claflin. Penny Pepper in the Guardian discussed noted this obvious bias:
Prevailing discussion on sexuality among disabled people tends to the broad and the satisfyingly contradictory – but there’s a strong disconnection between what we discuss and what fascinates the non-disabled. Even if the sense of taboo starts to lessen, we’re still left out of debates about sexual freedoms, and have been since the 60s. Instead our sex lives are discussed in terms of these “issues”: what it’s like to be non-disabled and have a disabled partner; what a disabled person might face if they want to have children. It’s even an “issue” if you want to go on a casual-sex rampage! Overwhelmingly, disabled people experience discrimination by way of barriers and negative attitudes. This is as true of sexual adventure as it is of everything else.
I do not have any issues with regard to my sexual identity or my sex life. I do have issues with the way in which non disabled others think about my sex life. I have had to confront this head on my entire life. I have been asked “can you have sex” continuously for 38 years. The question is not really a question but rather affirming that I am an asexual being. The assumption has never changed—I cannot have sex. Strangers have asked me this. People from every walk of life have asked me. What no typical others seem to get is that the question itself, can I can have sex, is dehumanizing. If I were not paralyzed the question would never be asked. But paralyzed I am. Misrepresented I am as are all those with a disability. The battle for disability rights is far from over. Yes the law is on our side thanks to forty years of progressive legislation but the stigma closely associated with disability is reinforced by films like Me Like You. To return to Pepper:
we fight, on many levels, for our experiences to be recognised within the broader body of human experience, to have our views genuinely represented in all their forms, and expressed by our own creatives across all art and popular culture – and always with a favourite mantra from our activist movements: nothing about us, without us.
Please don’t tell me about the exceptions that exist. The Sessions was a good film but is far from the norm. Even the Sessions had serious flaws. The main character had to seek out a sexual surrogate and was a virgin. The not so unintended message was no woman could possibly be attracted to a man who is severely disabled. Think about it another way: how many characters on film and TV played by an actor or actress with a disability are portrayed as sexual beings? This omission has a real impact on lives lived. This thought prompts me to think way back to those awkward early years as a paralyzed man. In 1978 I was a newly minted paralyzed guy. When I launched my adult life at college I was shy and eager to date. I was also eager to have sex. I quickly learned many women instantly dismissed me as a potential partner. This was difficult to accept and an ever present reminder I was in all ways less. I truly had a social disease as Robert Murphy would often quip. Then for a short period of time my dating life picked up. The anti Vietnam movie Coming Home with Jon Voight and Jane Fonda was released. One of the characters was a paralyzed man played by Voight. I loved this movie in part because it was the only film in which a paralyzed man was portrayed as sexually active. Better yet, the character was sexually skilled and provided his female partner with sexual pleasure her able bodied husband did not provide. I was thrilled. Apparently my female college peers had similar thoughts. Women that had once instantly dismissed me were having second thoughts. That is the sort of power Hollywood has on popular culture. Don’t be fooled by those involved in making Me Before You. Movies play a central role in how we perceive others. The film is ableist propaganda and not about one man and his choice to die as Moyes maintains. It is a film that perpetuates disability based prejudice. As such it is and will remain a disability snuff film. It is proof positive ableism kills.