One of the reasons “political correctness” has become such a powerful and incendiary term is that it implies a school of thinking that’s not just coercive but predictable. At their best, though, political critiques are anything but. And the conversation that’s emerged around “Me Before You,” the adaptation of Jojo Moyes’ novel about a young woman who takes a job as the caretaker for a quadriplegic man who intends to commit suicide and falls in love with him, is the perfect example of a multi-faceted debate within a community that’s useful and unsettling for those of us outside it.
The critiques people with disabilities have launched at “Me Before You” are varied and worthwhile; reading a number of them at once may rearrange your perspective multiple times in a single sitting.
“I’m not going to celebrate that choice. And I’m not going to allow someone who has never met a quadriplegic to continue the myth that those of us with the injury would be better off dead,” wrote Shane Clifton, who is a quadriplegic and theologian, of Moyes’ novel and the idea that disability is life-ending.
And Richard Propes of the Independent Critic, who has spina bifida and has had two limbs amputated, wrote acidly about the film adaptation’s idea of what it means to face disability bravely, and the way it skates over the moral issues involved when caregivers become romantically involved with their clients.
“Who’s living boldly here?” Propes asks. “The suicidal gimp who doesn’t practice what he preaches? The underachieving, but adorably cute, caregiver with a complete absence of ethics and an attraction to suicidal gimps….By putting ALL of Will’s problems solely on his disability, Me Before You demonizes disability. He’s got money. He’s got family. He’s got friends. He’s got better care than a good majority of people. He’s got a hottie girlfriend. Yet, we are to believe that the ONLY thing that makes his life not worth living is the disability itself.”
I’d differ with these critics slightly in noting that I think every character in “Me Before You” recognizes Will Traynor’s (Sam Clafin) insistence on suicide as a tragedy, rather than as the logical response to becoming quadriplegic. His caretaker, Louisa(Emilia Clarke), recognizes that he is often in terrible discomfort, both physical and social, and that he misses his old life terribly, but never wavers in believing Will could have had a wonderful, fulfilling life. His parents and his sister suffer terribly as a result of Will’s determination to die. If “Me Before You” sympathizes with Will’s suffering, it also suggests that his decision has a cruel side to it.
But on the whole, I think the critiques writers like Clifton and Propes raise are an important reminder of just how vital it is that we have more representations of people with disabilities, and in particular, more stories about people with disabilities that involve love and sex. As both Clifton and Propes note, it’s absolutely true that some people with disabilities do seek to end their lives. But just because someone‘s experience might have parallels with “Me Before You” doesn’t make it any less suspect that this is the aspect of disability that’s made it onto the big screen when there are so many other stories to tell.
One, in particular, stands out as a valuable counterbalance to the things some observers hate about “Me Before You”: “The Sessions,” Ben Lewin’s graceful, funny 2012 romantic comedy about the late poet Mark O’Brien’s real-life decision to try to lose his virginity.
Mark (John Hawkes) contracted at polio at 7 and has since lived much of his life in an iron lung. But after proposing to his caregiver Amanda (Annika Marks), Mark seeks the counsel of his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy) about whether, as a Catholic, it would be wrong for him to see a sex surrogate, a therapist who would help him learn how to have sex. With the affirmation of Father Brendan and the help of his new caregiver, Vera (Moon Bloodgood), Mark begins sessions with Cheryl (Helen Hunt) that form the core of the movie.
“The Sessions” has a number of things “Me Before You” lacks. Mark is not the only character with a disability in the movie; after interviewing a woman named Carmen (Jennifer Kumiyama, who has arthrogryposis and uses a wheelchair) for a story on sex and disability, they become friends and he has his first few sessions at her home. It is also mordantly funny*. “Would you mind if I asked you a favor?” Joan (Rusty Schwimmer) one of Mark’s caregivers asks him early in the film. “What, you need help moving furniture?” Mark asks her from his gurney. And “The Sessions” is alive to the ethical issues involved in care-giving and sex surrogate work, examining Mark’s transference and the way his relationship with Cheryl influences her marriage with sensitivity and intelligence.
And while discomfort, danger and even death are all part of the story Lewin tells in “The Sessions,” they are elements of a fuller, funnier life. When movies like “Me Before You” are part of a larger tapestry, maybe they won’t feel dispiriting.
*Mark may have a gentler sense of humor than Tyrion Lannister, the character with dwarfism Peter Dinklage plays on “Game of Thrones,” but they have a puckish sensibility in common.