Tuesday, May 31, 2016

#MeBeforeEuthanasia: The Guy Dies in a Horrid Book and Film

Let me completely spoil the film and book Me Before You, because it represents the worst of ableist pop culture, and because anyone who is disabled knows it, and is saying so. The guy dies in the end.

From Time magazine to individual posts by many disabled people –authors, artists, activists – Jojo Moyes' story of a quadraplegic who 'nobly' chooses to die for the sake of able-bodied others is being excoriated for its ignorance and treacly romance twist on a serious issue.

Let's start with the Time feature, which gives disabled peoples' Twitter posts some deserved attention:

Stefani Shea: Illness and disability do not disqualify anyone from being able to live a full, rewarding life

Imani_Barbarin: Stop perpetuating the idea that disabled people only exist to make you feel better about your life by comparison.

NathanielGale, a fabulous "trans queer non-binary disabled activist and occasional artist" posted his remarks on Twitter, and he just did a BBC interview critiquing the film. 

His colleague, Donnacha Delong, posted a photo of a protest outside the London screening of the film.  The protest was completely ignored by local media.

Here's a little clip of the protest posted on Twitter, which is full of posts with the hashtag #MeBeforeEuthanasia, #Romanticide, and that Twitter users highjacked the cloying film's ironic hashtag #LiveBoldly to preempt the movie's hype.

The activist group No to Assisted Suicide even got the author to sign one of their protest flyers before chanting. Check out this great little clip where Moyes saunters away.

Time's online article ends on an ironically stupid defensive quote from the author: “I think the one thing I do believe is that we shouldn’t judge someone else if we haven’t stood in their shoes,” she said.
Well, lady, if they're "wheelchair bound" as your book publicist stupidly describes, standing in shoes isn't really an option, now is it?

On June 2, the Washington Post offered a two-star review, focusing on the film's other lacking aspects, namely unbelievable emotions, and music patchwork to induce feelings.  

"In place of character development, we get montages and emotional crutches. Since the story isn’t enough to send us into sobs, songs by pop star Ed Sheeran attempt to do the trick. It doesn’t work."

On Medium.com, we get another critique, a bit more bluntly, from David Bekhour

"As much of the world sobs into the last few pages of their books — and soon into their tubs of buttery popcorn — I feel compelled to quote Al Pacino’s famous line from Scent of a Woman: this is such a crock of shit!"

"There is no question this is a crock of shit because, of all the uncertainty that exists in the world, there is at least one thing I know with a deep sense of conviction — people who use wheelchairs don’t actually want to kill themselves."

He also writes: "It’s understandable that most people do not have an understanding of disability beyond popular portrayals and distant observations of what it must be like to have a disability. It is precisely for this reason that movies like Me Before You can have such a negative impact on people with disabilities. Popular films help shape the public psyche, reinforcing perceptions, influencing opinions and contributing to the notion that lives like mine are somehow less valuable, less capable."

AllegraKeys blog points out that, "As a person with a severe disability no one has ever told me to my face that my life is worthless but I'll be damned if Hollywood doesn't constantly push the notion that it's better to be dead than disabled."

Author/screenwriter Jojo Moyes
And Salon's headline puts it bluntly: "

Hollywood’s new tearjerker is built on tired and damaging disability stereotypes.

"The movie’s tagline is: “Live Boldly. Live Well. Just Live.” Yet, Will does quite the opposite," writes Emily Ladau. "The entire premise rests on the belief that life with a disability is not worth living. In spite of each of the characters in Will’s life trying to persuade him otherwise, the fact remains that Moyes imagines a world in which disability is synonymous with misery and assisted suicide is the only solution. And in the book, amidst all this drama, Will never narrates. He speaks, but in so many ways, is voiceless. Everyone discusses him — to his face, behind his back — as though he isn’t there."

So let's be clear: people in wheelchairs really don't want to kill themselves. One would think that's obvious. But not to the thousands of fawning fans of this awful, awful book and probably awful film.

Critical reviews have been sometimes misinformed, too, such as BookList, which notes that Will "postpones his planned assisted suicide, a subject Moyes treats evenhandedly."

An evenhanded ableist view that it's better and more "noble" to off oneself for the good of others. This proves that even the most objective review publication can remain clueless.

This LA Times puff piece focuses on how "brave" the author was to pen the screenplay herself, but not a word about the questionable death-by-disability theme, except to note that her film adaptation was delayed because of the release of the French Intouchables, about a quadraplegic and his male caregiver, and how it might have spoiled her success.

Among the astonishing twelve thousand reader reviews of the book on Amazon, the majority found it "wonderful," "romantic and heart-tugging," and that "My heart was not prepared for those kind of feels... *sigh*" Such adoration, and the film adaptation, are what has kept Moyes' book in the top five best-seller in multiple categories.

This, despite the publisher's book blurb using the stupid phrase about "Will Traynor, who is wheelchair bound after an accident."

Really? Is he tied to the chair? Is there a Fifty Shades of Grey bondage aspect I missed? That even the publisher would use such an outdated phrase (which, by the way, should be hyphenated), universally reviled by wheelchair users, who consider their adaptive devices as a form of freedom, should be a glaring warning sign.

Amid the thousands of fawning one-line five-star tissue-wiping reviews, there are a few dissenting reviews, such as the one that called for "an end to tragedy porn, please."

Another one-star critique calls out the book as "someone's sneaky, political attempt to normalize and glamorize the serious and complicated topic of assisted suicide. Trying to pop-culturize and sugar-coat such a serious, personal, and solemn topic is disgusting."

And yet another: "Jojo Moyes needs to learn about living life with a disability before she dares to write another book about a character living with a disability. What research did she do before writing this book? Does she really think that a person living with quadriplegia would want to commit suicide simply because they have a disability? Are you kidding me?

"It's thoughts like this, sold in books and the media, that reinforce the negative stereotypes about people with disabilities. For the record, we live incredibly fulfilling and independent lives and we don't all want to commit suicide just because our lives have challenges. For the sake of the disability community, please go out and educate yourself before you write any more inaccurate books."

One wonders if the editors at Penguin thought to pass Moyes' manuscript on to any disabled editors or employees, presuming they have any. The same should be asked of Warner Brothers films, which probably has few if any disabled advisers or employees.

And what of two of my favorite actors, Sam Clafin (of The Hunger Games franchise) and Emilia Clark (Game of Thrones)? Did they even talk with any disabled people in preparation for their roles? Do they even realize how big an issue of assisted suicide is in the UK?

Apparently, Clafin was clueless, when he dropped out of a Twitter promo chat after being barraged by pro-disability users who questioned the film's message. The Black Triangle Campaign, a disability activist group, also covered numerous protests in person and online.

So, who am I to criticize such a best-seller? Am I simply jealous of so many thousands of fawning reviews? Not if it would mean writing crap like Me Before You. My comparatively tiny fandom seems to know that I wrote a pair of award-winning and nominated novels about Everett, a young gay man who becomes disabled. 

Written from the perspective of his boyfriend, Reid, Every Time I Think of You and its sequel Message of Love includes some of the predictable plot devices of a romance, but, as noted in critical and fan reviews, they include a bit of literary value, and an honest depiction of such a relationship. Oh, and there's sex, lots of it, in fact.  

Me Before You, on the other hand, employs what has been called "chaste fetishism," a device where not having sex is considered romantic and sexy. Because unlike the gay 1980s reality I wrote of, Moyes' cloying straight romance world doesn't dare explore the real, and sometimes difficult, descriptions of how disabled people can have sex. That seems to be the key to writing astoundingly successful books like hers; lie.

Similar to the misrepresentation of disabled people, gay people have been historically represented as suicidal in literature and film until only a few decades ago. Pulp fiction books of the 50s and 60s traditionally had characters who ultimately died or killed themselves.

Kim Sauder wrote on Huffington Post that other troubling aspects of the book and film, include the lack of casting any disabled people. She also covers the bias inherent in non-disabled fiction films and books about disabled people.

She writes, "The non-disabled media heavily over-represents disability discourses that fit into ableist stereotypes, which makes it harder for the viewer to differentiate between the feelings of individuals and the experiences and feelings of all disabled people."

Not Dead Yet activists
She also critiques the deception and disgust factors of non-disabled characters. "Manufactured drama around something life and death with the potential to be harmful to the person who doesn’t know and reasonably should, is deeply problematic. While someone shouldn’t feel compelled to publicize their desire to seek assisted suicide or the fact that they attempted suicide when the former request was denied, there are people who do need to know — not only to do their jobs properly but to protect themselves emotionally."

On The Independent Critic, Richard Propes, who happens to be disabled, and knows what the frak he's talking about,  thoroughly excoriates Me Before You in his review:

"If you have a disability and you see this film and you find yourself thinking how cool it is that there's a romantic leading man in this film with a disability, I urge you reach out to others because I promise you that it gets a whole lot better than this. There are disabled men and women every day who work and live and dance and travel and fuck and succeed and are completely fucking amazing. Life can be both ways - you can need help with every single aspect of your life AND be an absolutely amazing human being. They aren't mutually exclusive. You can live boldly. This ain't it.

"You want a hashtag for Me Before You? How about #DontBeWill?

"You want to live boldly? Disable self-hatred. Skip this film. Disable its profit. Disable its message. Disable media messages that tell you that just because you have a disability you're less than anyone else. There's nothing bold or brave or inspirational about Will or this movie. So, go on. Do it. Live boldly. #SaytheWord #Disabled. Live into your disability. Now that's fucking bold."

On Facebook, Kate Willette says, "It's a cheesy romance novel by an ambitious writer who's using quadriplegia as a hook. She admitted in an interview that she didn't feel the need to go talk to anybody living with paralysis, which won't surprise anybody who uses a wheelchair and has read the thing.

"To those who don't seem to get why that's an issue ... yes, we know it's fiction. But what would you say about a writer who set a novel in Bulgaria without being able to find it on a map or speaking to anybody who had ever lived there?

"This is essentially what's going on here. In lots of ways, being paralyzed is a sort of foreign country. It has its own customs, rules, and culture. To write as if these don't exist is just rude."

Actually, it's more than rude. It's stupid. Author Moyes' bio claims that she was a journalist in the U.K. for a decade, and therefore might have spent a bit of time researching the various lives of thriving independent disabled people. 

London's 2012 Paralympics closing ceremonies
Yet somehow, despite the most successful Paralympics in history having taken place in her home city of London four years before she penned Me Before You, she couldn't find it to represent a happy fulfilled and non-suicidal person to write about.

The realistic depiction of disabled lives is a continual struggle. As a staunch ally, and someone who spent years researching disability, talking with real disabled people, I'd like to think I did my job right, even though I'm not (yet) disabled, and even though I'm not a bestselling author.

But I'd much rather be a small potato in publishing who gets it right, rather than a sellout who deliberately warps real lives into biased crap.

To have your say, consider protesting film screenings on June 3. The website Not Dead Yet has more info and links.

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