Welcome to my first disabled representation review! Thank you guys so much for your suggestions. I decided to start with a fairly famous book: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. Last month, I watched the film and read the book for the first time for review. I must warn you that this review is going to contain spoilers and will be discussing the topic of assisted suicide.
Young and quirky Louisa “Lou” Clark moves from one job to the next to help her family make ends meet. Her cheerful attitude is put to the test when she becomes a caregiver for Will Traynor, a wealthy young banker left paralyzed from an accident two years earlier. Will’s cynical outlook starts to change when Louisa shows him that life is worth living. As their bond deepens, their lives and hearts change in ways neither one could have imagined.
I’d like to start this review by saying that the topic of assisted suicide is a controversial one – and I would never disregard a book simply for discussing tough topics. However, I think that the handling of this topic was done extremely poorly in Me Before You and I’ll explain why throughout this review. The disabled representation in this was also quite upsetting because it ended with the disabled character ending his own life. While popular disabled representation is so rare and something that the world needs more of, are we sure that this is the type of representation that the world needs right now?
It’s clear that the topic of assisted suicide is important to the author, but I think that the world needed to be exposed to much more positive disabled representation before it was exposed to something like this. The world did not need another book where the disabled character kills themselves – it needs more representation showing people that life with a disability doesn’t always need to be unliveable. The world wasn’t in the right state yet to start thinking about this controversial topic, especially not in the way that Moyes represented it, and I think that she should’ve realised that.
Without further ado, here are my seven thoughts on Me Before You:
1. The Characters
The story centres around Will (a young, rich man who became a quadriplegic after a motorcycle accident) and his carer Louisa (from whose perspective the story is told). I enjoyed Louisa’s character. I loved how quirky she was and I think that Emilia Clarke played her really well in the film.
Will, on the other hand, was extremely mean and moody at the beginning of the novel but turned out to be affectionate to Lou towards the end. I often see defiant disabled characters like Will because it’s a way for them to rebel against the ‘eternally innocent/inspirational’ stereotype most disabled people get labelled with. However, much like the ‘tough, cool, and mysterious martial arts woman’ which was also created to combat stereotypes – it has itself become a stereotype. I still love seeing tough disabled characters, and I understand that Will acts out because he’s going through a lot, but he was mean to the point where I ended up not caring for his character much.
Regarding the casting of the characters for the film, I was shocked to see that the actor who played Will was not disabled, and the actor that played Lou was not plus-sized even though she was in the book. I can’t help wondering what would have been more difficult for Hollywood: to make the leading lady in the film plus-sized? Or to make Will’s character be played by someone who is actually disabled?
2. The Plot and Structure
The plot wasn’t that bad. It was interesting enough to keep me reading, it was realistic, and I liked the character interactions. The only thing that I didn’t like about the structure was how some short, random chapters switched perspective to the secondary characters without much purpose. It didn’t add anything to the story for me.
3. The Pay-off that Never Came
Throughout the entire book, I cringed at conversations where characters kept repeating how horrible being in a wheelchair is. Characters call Will a cripple and severely disregard and disrespect him. I kept waiting for the pay-off when a character would say: “You know what, we were wrong about Will’s disability!” or “So, being disabled isn’t as bad as we thought.” But it never came. There was no comeuppance for the characters who were previously horrible regarding Will’s disability.
At one point, Lou’s boyfriend, Patrick, said that he expected Lou to leave him if he ended up like Will and that he would kill himself if he did. This is never returned to, and in the end, Will does kill himself. And he refuses Lou’s love because he thinks that he would hold her back if they got together. In a way, he was proving Patrick right.
4. The Positive Impact
The good side of Me Before You is that I learned a lot of interesting facts about quadriplegics that I had never known before. My disability is so far from his that I couldn’t relate to anything except for the electric wheelchair struggles (I’ve also spent a fair amount of time trapped in mud). I think that, if the book had continued being like what it was in the beginning about a carer discovering new things about disabilities and slowly growing to like their patient, it could have been a great book.
5. The Negative Impact
I was upset when I watched this film and read this book; upset that disabled children might watch this and start to wonder if they would be holding their future romantic partner’s back if they decided to be with them. Upset, because what if this is the only disabled representation that an able-bodied person ever sees, since it’s so popular? And all they know is the struggle and unliveable side of it? They’d probably start thinking that death is the only, normal solution to a disabled life. And that makes me angry, because if people are going to see disabled representation – I’d rather that they see the positive side before the negative (and not only the negative). There is enough negative stigma around disability as it is.
No wonder so many able-bodied people are scared when they become disabled – because these are the only types of things that they see. I know plenty of disabled people, including myself, who live perfectly normal and happy lives. But our stories are not the ones that are being told. This issue is the one that should take precedence over discussing assisted suicide.
I wouldn’t recommend this book to people that are disabled – which is actually the sort of representation that we need. I become overcome with emotion when I see a young, disabled child pointing at a television screen saying: “look, Mummy! That person’s just like me!” because I’m simultaneously overjoyed and slightly upset since I would have done anything to experience the same when I was younger. Positive representation does make a big difference. We need disabled people to be able to relate to strong characters in literature and on-screen. Not this.
6. Story Themes and Motifs
In the film, there is a clear parallel drawn between Patrick, Lou’s boyfriend, and Will. Patrick is fitness obsessed – he constantly talks about sports and spends most of his time training and working out. Whereas Will is paralysed and cannot move most of his body. It soon becomes clear to Lou that Will is more interesting than Patrick and is much better company. I thought that this comparison was actually done rather well.
There is also dramatic irony in the fact that Will is trying to help Lou to live by encouraging her to travel and ‘widen her horizons’, whereas Lou is trying to help Will live by showing him the beauty in life so that he won’t want to kill himself. Although it is worrying that Will thinks that Lou truly ‘living’ can’t happen if she’s dating someone like him, I also like the parallel that is drawn between these two different concepts. I understand both sides, and I truly wanted them both to ‘live’ in these different ways.
I think that the representation of the small, English town was done very well. It’s true how those small places can swallow you up if you grow up there and can make you not want to leave and explore. The juxtaposition between Will’s rich family and Lou’s financially struggling one was one of the most well-done ones in the book. I love how Moyes showed both sides and how both of their upbringings affected each of their perspectives, hopes, and dreams.
7. Ableism in the story
If the story was about an able-bodied man who wanted to commit suicide, it would be very different. It is discrimination to treat disabled people in this situation differently: “When non-disabled people talk of suicide, they’re discouraged and offered prevention. Even though it’s legal, it’s not seen as desirable. When a disabled person talks of it, though, suddenly the conversation is overtaken with words like ‘choice’ and ‘autonomy’ and people are rushing to uphold these prized principles whilst talk of prevention and mental health support are rare. Will is not offered any psychiatric support. What kind of message is this that we’re giving disabled people and the non-disabled audiences?” (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/jun/02/me-before-you-disabled-backlash-not-pitied)
The Response and Moyes’ Defence
I have two opinions about books that cover controversial topics: number one is that you cannot simply show the issue from one side. The only disabled people that we see in the book are ones that want to kill themselves. Moyes also introduces us to a football player who decides to kill himself after an accident while playing. Yes, we are briefly introduced to a disabled man online who mentions once in passing that he is okay with his life, but he isn’t enough. And he isn’t included in the film. If you are going to handle a serious issue like this, you cannot only show disabled people as suffering. Because then of course people are going to agree with the conclusion that you reach at the end of the novel. No matter the issue, both sides should be addressed.
Two: if you write about a minority, you have to listen to the general opinion of the minority that you are representing, because what you write about them changes the way that people perceive them and affects their life. Ever since the book was published, disabled people have been angry about it. People with Will’s disability were angry at always being killed off in films to make the audience cry. The tag #MeBeforeEuthanasia started to be used by famous disabled celebrities and activists. You cannot simply ignore this reaction.
Moyes’ reaction to the criticism was that Will was only one disabled man that wanted to kill himself and she’s not saying that all disabled people should. Yes, he’s only one man – one man which millions of people have read about and have seen in a film. And it’s not as if he’s just one man against tons of positive disabled representation. When Moyes makes Will say: “I get that this could be a good life, but it’s not my life. I can’t be the sort of man who accepts this.” (Me Before You film, 2016), I doubt that she’s thinking about all of the people watching who do have his life.
Rating and Conclusion
In conclusion, if Moyes had written this book hundreds of years in the future when disabled people were already accepted in society – maybe I would think about it differently. But, right now, it is a book creating negative stigma around an already supressed minority.
Despite how problematic this book was, I still gave it a 6/10 because it was an enjoyable read.
Image Citations: https://mebeforeyou.fandom.com/wiki/Louisa_Clark, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/06/me-before-you-disabled-community-controversy, https://nl.pinterest.com/pin/353814114479348616/, https://www.womanandhome.com/life/books/jojo-moyes-on-the-success-of-me-before-you-91705/, https://www.anime-planet.com/characters/mimori-togo, https://nl.pinterest.com/pin/71283606579933983/, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/21/arts/television/review-speechless.html, https://www.elle.com.au/culture/isaac-sex-education-george-robinson-22908, https://www.hobbydb.com/marketplaces/hobbydb/subjects/toph-character, https://dc-and-marvel-megaverse.fandom.com/wiki/Oracle_(DC_Universe), https://www.amazon.com/Hello-Goodbye-Dog-Maria-Gianferrari/dp/1626721777/ref=as_li_ss_il?ie=UTF8&qid=1521682081&sr=8-1&keywords=hello+goodbye+dog&linkCode=li2&tag=booksforlittles-20&linkId=d4f8bd9c15983603de7af7d3e576bccb, https://www.usajacket.com/product/freddy-freeman-shazam-jacket/