What Me Before You Gets Wrong About Disability

Photo: Erin Clark
Dear Hollywood:

You may know me as the love interest in the movie of my own life. I cast myself in the coveted lead role when I got so sexy and interesting that there was just no one else who could play me, a travel blogger and model who has become a self-styled international sex icon.

Maybe you’ve seen my solo, globe-trotting adventures in Morocco or Paris or New York, documented in the selfies of me upstaging famous monuments. Or maybe you’ve seen my Instagram posts of me enjoying ordinary moments like drinking a latte and being pretty, or taking a quirky bubble bath, or sunning my beach body on a catamaran in the Mediterranean. You’ve probably read about my Spanish mountain expedition and were like, Wow, that was just like a sexy action flick. In my version, though, my wheelchair is there, too. When I'm making my life movie, I work out the logistics of being romantic and interesting while paralyzed. I tell an engaging and believable backstory, and I create sexy and satisfying payoffs that work for people, whether they’re disabled or not.

But I share my sex appeal and talent with a relatively small audience, compared to you, Hollywood. So I got a little excited when I thought you might finally be joining me in my pioneering work of portraying disabled people as desirable romantic partners, with the upcoming film adaptation of the book Me Before You by Jojo Moyes — that is, until I started reading the articles and reviews of the book and film. Oh boy. (Spoilers ahead.)

The book, which sold over six million copies since it came out in 2012, and the recently-released film (featuring Game of Thrones' Emilia Clarke and The Hunger Games' Sam Claflin), tell the story of Will Traynor, a wealthy playboy and quadriplegic (after a motorcycle accident), who hires Louisa Clark, a beautiful, stuck-in-her-life woman, to be his caretaker. Will and Lou travel and go on some romantic dates as she blossoms into a confident woman who wants to spend her life with her dream guy. In return, Will’s grand romantic gesture is to visit a euthanasia clinic to "free" Lou and himself from the burden of his disability. He leaves her his riches so that she may continue to flourish without having to be middle-class anymore or deal with paralysis.

The tagline for this movie? "Live Boldly. Live Well. Just Live."

Not again, Hollywood! We have discussed this. Your relentless need to portray disabled characters' suicides as a noble act (or as the catalyst for a lost soul to find new purpose in life, or as the motivation for someone to find a cure for something or become more self-aware) is bad enough. But #‎LiveBoldly? I guess you mean, #‎UnlessYouAreDisabled.

Yes, Will says he kills himself because Lou's love is not enough, because he can’t do the things he wants to do with her, because it’s the end he wants. But regardless of what the character says, it isn’t the voice of a disabled person speaking for himself; it’s the voice of an able-bodied author projecting her feelings about disability onto a poorly-researched character so that studio executives would say, "How emotionally satisfying and popular — let’s make it a blockbuster movie!"

And this is always the case with you, Hollywood.

Self magazine put it this way: "A 2011 study showed that less than 1% of regular characters on broadcast TV shows had any sort of disability. And when characters in entertainment do have a disability, rights activists argue they often follow the same storyline: suffering, then death. They cite 2004’s Oscar-winning drama Million Dollar Baby, for example, where a boxer becomes a quadriplegic and then asks to die."

Hollywood, I am so bored watching the fear able-bodied people have about becoming disabled play out as a narrative device.

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Hollywood, I am so bored watching the fear able-bodied people have about becoming disabled play out as a narrative device. It is possible to tell interesting and aesthetically pleasing stories about disabled people enjoying life, falling in love, ruining that love with ridiculous hijinks, and overcoming obstacles that aren’t directly caused by their disability. You know, the same obstacles faced by other humans. I tell these stories every damn day.

There was a time in my childhood when sitting upright on my own was a heroic act, because everyone believed it was impossible. I conquered that milestone, and now I am an international sex icon in a world where the mainstream media believes the sexiest and most romantic thing I can do is kill myself so that my love interest can be empowered and remember our emotional bond fondly and fuck someone else without feeling guilty. It’s a world in which my biggest challenge is to face my own reasons to not exist.

Challenge accepted.

I am dauntless, Hollywood. I have climbed literal mountains more imposing than your insistence on confusing "disability" with "character trait."

Still, I am very upset that you champion and reinforce the belief that a disabled character can in no way be the catch that makes a not-disabled person’s emotional, romantic, and sexy dreams come true in the long term. I have strong feelings to process and so much trope-busting work to do that I have no choice as a Canadian but to do what all Canadians do when passionately miffed about pervasive ignorance: make a friendly public service announcement.

Attention Future Boyfriends:

When people tell you how "wonderful" you are for being with me — and they will, frequently — forgive them their unsexiness; they know not what they do.

Yes, I know it breaks your heart that people so aggressively insist you are doing me a favor, that you are sacrificing your romantic and personal fulfillment by taking on my beautiful burden. I know it makes you want to barf when they openly imply you are pretending to love me and that your very insincerity is somehow noble.

You are noble for supporting my humanitarian efforts by being shirtless so frequently in my prolific and impressive selfies. And we must educate people, even as we pity them, with the artistic and intelligent social commentary that is our PDA.

Come here, baby, and let me make it better. We will spend our time making out, not wasting it being angry at people who think being with me is a charitable act.

And in case you have watched too many Hollywood movies with their dull, disabled stereotypes, pleased be reassured that I will be too busy having sex with you to kill myself.

Sincerely,
Your fantasy girlfriend and international sex icon, Erin Clark
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