Disclaimer: This article will contain spoilers about Me Before You. I am not quadriplegic or similarly disabled. I have, however, experienced depression firsthand. Obviously this is my own perspective, and I would be interested to hear any points of agreement/disagreement. The point of this is to share my thoughts and to continue learning.
On Friday, I saw Me Before You in theaters. As an English teacher, I am typically an advocate of reading the book before seeing the movie, but I admit that I didn’t do that here. At first viewing, I felt that I loved the story. Other movies that I enjoy had stirred similar emotions in me in the past—P.S. I Love You, Like Crazy, Stuck in Love—and it was nice to get lost in this romantic tragedy. I’m a Cancer, which means I’m no stranger to emotion, and Me Before You definitely caused me to tear up on several occasions.
As soon as the movie ended, I went to Target and bought the book. I started reading it that night, and during a break from reading I decided to check the tags for the film on Tumblr. It was here I discovered that there is a lot of criticism for this story, criticism that I, honestly, am ashamed that I didn’t acknowledge initially. Tumblr users were using the tag #Me Before Ableism, mostly criticizing the story’s portrayal of a character with quadriplegia. Other articles have been written with similar criticisms and beyond, such as this Buzzfeed article and this Hypable article. One of my favorite pieces that I came across was this response video by YouTuber Dan.
With this discourse in my head, I continued reading the book. And I noticed a lot more than I noticed in the movie. I noticed that suicide is portrayed as a solution to problems. I noticed that Will, and other characters, link the value of his life to his physical state, undermining any value that his brain and ability to think and communicate holds. I noticed that Will Traynor is an absolute hypocrite (side note: even though I strongly dislike Will Traynor, looking at Sam Claflin for 2 hours is an experience I would be happy to have again). I noticed that the path Louisa’s life took was always dependent on what those around her wanted/needed and that her opinion was rarely valued. I noticed that many of the characters stereotyped people with disabilities, and plot points or other characters rarely corrected these stereotypes. I noticed that Will was very privileged in the amount of resources and experiences he was able to have.
Mostly what I noticed is that I don’t really care for any of the characters in this book. I don’t think they fall in my definition of a good person. And according to a lot of the criticism out there, these characters and their choices are so bad that this book should not be read. Here is where I believe my thoughts differ (although there is no guarantee that I will not change my mind later on). I believe we are going through a new, or perhaps extended, civil rights movement in today’s time. In this movement, a variety of groups of people are demanding their deserved rights as well as their deserved representation. As an example, the Oscars have received backlash these past couple of years for their lack of minority nominees (#oscarssowhite), with some major celebrities even boycotting the event. Representation is definitely important. I have seen this as a teacher when a Hispanic 7th grader chose Esperanza Rising off my bookshelf, her eyes lighting up as she told me she had never seen a girl like herself in a book before. While keeping this in mind, I think we need to ask ourselves some important questions here, questions that may not have concrete answers. What duty do authors have to include representation of all types of people in every text? And, given that Dignitas does exist, doesn’t this book represent the real story and choices of some people in the world (regardless of how much we may disagree with their decisions)? If we don’t like the characters, does that mean that the book should not be read? What should the point of writing fiction be? What is the point of reading it?
But I digress. Many people think that Me Before You is a book about a disability, which it is, but I would also argue that this is a book about mental health. Will clearly suffered from depression, yet it didn’t seem like they were treating him for it. A therapist did not come to his house, and he was not (to our knowledge) given anti-depressants. Several of the users in the forum, as well as Mary Rawlinson, appear to acknowledge that the largest issue here is one concerning his mental health, but those closest to Will don’t do anything with this information. Louisa’s anti-bucket list could serve as therapy, but I think that professional help is what was needed in this clearly severe case. There are many instances where Will claims that he is in severe pain, which is why he wants to end his life, but there are also instances where it seems like he can’t reconcile with the fact that his life is very different than it had been before.
In conclusion, I may not like the characters in this book, but I have enjoyed what I learned from it. I learned that it is important to seek out the opinions of others. My perspective would have been even more limited had I not done that, and I plan to continue doing so. This book arguably does not do a good job of including a positive representation of a person with a disability, but I think the fact that this book exists and that these discussions are being held helps readers/viewers see the need for the portrayal of other types of people. It would have been really nice to see Will get adequate mental health care and to recover from his depression (in a way where it doesn’t seem like you need millions of dollars to do so). But that doesn’t happen for everyone, and people who do not successfully recover can have their stories told, too. With all of this in mind, I think the book should at least have had a resources page with additional sources for the reader. These sources could include more information on quadriplegia as well as mental health resources. This way, if people do read this book and feel that they relate to Will, which they very well might, they have access to the resources he clearly was not given. They could see that suicide is not a solution to a problem. The marketing of the book and movie could be changed. As much as I love looking at Sam Claflin, a person with quadriplegia could have been cast in the role of Will Traynor. Most importantly, conversations around mental health and disabilities need to continue happening. This will allow more stories to be written and more conversations to be had, ultimately broadening our perspectives of this very diverse world.
If you read all of this, here is a picture of Sam Claflin to reward you for your efforts: