“Me Before You” Is the Most Terrifying Horror Film of 2016

When Me Before You came out earlier this year, the internet shook with disabled rage. We were not here for a two-hour stereotype parade that cast able-bodied actors in disabled roles and romanticized early death as an escape from the tragedy of being or becoming us. But hear me out: I think we might have read this one all wrong.

Me Before You isn’t half-baked schlock that crumbles under the weight of its own unconscionable ignorance. No — instead, director Thea Sharrock and writer Jojo Moyes gave us a bio-horror masterpiece about a deadly outbreak of Ableism in small-town Wales. With Halloween upon us, it’s time their efforts got the recognition they deserve.

The scariest part of Me Before You is its realism. Unlike most “outbreak” movies, it doesn’t rely on a fictionalized disease (a la the Rage Virus in 28 Days Later or Contagion’s MEV-1). Ableism, as we know, is real: an ideological contaminant that leads the infected person to fear, devalue, or ignore disabled bodies and experiences. It’s spread virally, often through contaminated media, well-meaning friends and relatives, and doctor’s offices. Lack of information and resources can cause symptoms to lie dormant for years — meaning that most cases are already full-blown by the time they’re discovered. The severely infected actually see disabilities themselves as diseases. And that’s what Sharrock and Moyes force us to confront: an alarmingly common contagion allowed to reach its final, fatal stage.

As is tradition in bio-horror, we open with the initial infection that sets up the nightmare to come. Wealthy White Guy Will Traynor ignores a whole bunch of foreshadowing (his girlfriend asking him not to ride his motorcycle in the rain! Nearly colliding with a bike messenger on the sidewalk!) and steps out into the street to hail a taxi — where he’s hit head-on by, you guessed it, a motorcyclist. Without early intervention, Ableism can enter a person’s system the moment they become disabled. You know that’s what’s happened to our good friend Will as the title card fades in.

Then it’s time to meet our plucky heroine and the only person who has any chance of surviving this movie, Louisa Clark. She’s charming and relatable because she wears mustard yellow tights, works at a bakery, and goes by Lou. She’s also played by Emilia Clarke from Game of Thrones, but clearly lacks Khaleesi’s powers of discernment and ability to sense danger. Because once the bakery closes and she needs to find another job, she overlooks some pretty obvious warnings about the one position available. “Care and companionship for a disabled man: six-month fixed-term contract. This is the fifth time they’ve tried to recruit. They’re desperate.”

Fixed-term contract? Four predecessors vanished and are never heard from again? Working for the mysterious family in the castle on the hill? Doesn’t sound like your best idea, Lou. But being the protagonist, she agrees to take the job with no misgivings whatsoever — a sign that Ableism hasn’t yet made its way into her thought patterns. See where this is going?

Surprise! Will is the “disabled man” from the ad! And once we see him again, our worst fears are confirmed: he’s in the grips of late-stage Internalized Ableism (a nearly undetectable strain that eats disabled people’s psyches from the inside). “I don’t do anything,” he says. “I just about exist.”

In her uninfected state, Lou refuses to see Will as less than a whole person and starts figuring out his hobbies, tea preferences, anything that could stop Ableism from spreading and help reverse his symptoms (which include being a total asshole and staring longingly at the falling rain). But we sense that she’s fighting a losing battle — especially as every other character begins to show signs of infection. Will’s mom only talks about his disability in terms of what he’s “lost;” his other attendant, Nathan, laments how his body “doesn’t work” below the neck; and Lou’s boyfriend Pat suggests that “a really good fitness regime” could make him able-bodied again. We’re not just dealing with Patient Zero anymore; the virus has a hold of this entire town.

Lou puts up an admirable fight, refusing to listen to Pat’s bullshit and shutting down Will’s ongoing pity party. She seems to be the only one who has any idea how this virus works and how far it’s spread. But as is too often the case in real life, she wavers once the tough realities of Will’s disability set in. A bout of pneumonia lands him in the hospital, she realizes he’s not going to magically start walking again one day, and boom — contamination. Ableism, after all, feeds on pity and fear. Before you know it, she’s asking him “what… happened?” and displaying the well-intentioned entitlement typical of early infection.

From here, Sharrock and Moyes get absolutely ruthless, teasing some scenes of what could have been for Will and Lou had they managed to fight the virus — which makes it that much more brutal when we realize the extent of Will’s infection. Turns out the reason for that fixed-term contract is that he’s decided to go to Switzerland to have himself euthanized. “I can’t be the kind of man who just accepts this,” he says while living in a literal castle that his parents had adapted for him. And this is where the film’s most chilling message becomes clear: disability is not fatal, but Ableism can be.

To her credit, Lou shows some signs of recovery when she recognizes Ableism at work in his decision. But this thing is tenacious. Sensing her growing resistance, the disease mutates to its most insidious form, Ableism as Romance, to finish Will off and feed on Lou after he’s gone. (The power goes out immediately after they kiss for the first time; if that’s not a horror movie warning, I don’t know what is.)

Ableism as Romance makes disabled partners look like burdens and erasure look like love. It’s among the most widespread strains of the disease, perpetuated by “see past it” ideology that detaches disability from who we really are. That is, of course, a lie designed to keep Ableism alive and thriving while disabled people end up alone or ashamed. But once Will says “I don’t want you to miss all the things that someone else could give you,” we know that knowledge will come too late for both of them. In the film’s final, utterly dystopian scene, Lou sits outside a cafe in Paris reading Will’s last letter to her. “Live boldly, Clark,” he mansplains from beyond the grave. “Don’t think of me too often. I don’t want you getting sad. Just live well. Just live.” As she smiles fondly and walks off into the distance, it’s clear that the virus has survived with Lou as carrier.

Look, I know it’s unsettling. I’ve been questioning my able-bodied girlfriend’s motives constantly since finishing this movie. Sharrock and Moyes have created an all-too-real illustration of what Ableism looks like, how it grows, and its devastating consequences for upper-class white people. But the good news is there is a cure: knowledge. The kind you can find right here on Autostraddle. So protect yourself, friends. Acknowledge Me Before You as a cautionary tale and read up. We’re gonna be okay.


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Carrie's body is weird and she's making that work for her. She lives in Los Angeles, where she does a lot of crossword puzzles and longs for a squished-faced dog. Help her get better at Twitter.

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44 Comments

  1. Has anyone here read the book? I’ve heard that in the book he had a lot of medical issues, including a terminal illness and that in the book it was more of a “dignity in choosing how you die, because it’s going to happen very soon regardless,” type of situation. I haven’t read the book or seen the movie and I agree the movie adaptation sounds incredibly ableist.

    • I read the book awhile back, I think because TheSkimm newsletter recommended it (the newsletter is pretty awful, TBH, so who knows why I took their advice.) I can’t remember all the details, but I don’t think the book is any better than the movie in terms of ableism. I also really hated the whole “manic pixie dream girl” trope that was Lou. Basically every character in this novel was one big stereotype.

    • I liked the book, it is an okay read… I gave it 3,5 out of 5 stars on goodreads. Will isn’t in a very good shape in the book, he is constantly in pain and for me it seemed like he really suffered a lot (sorry for my bad wording, English is not my native language). I don’t know how it is in the movie.

    • It’s not terminal in the book. also in the book he literally says that the 6 months with lou were the best months of his life. So narratively it doesn’t make sense as well as being ableist af.

  2. I was born with Spina Bifida with paralyzation at the 4th Lumbar. One of the hardest things about being disabled isn’t the physical challenges, but the challenge of societies’ perceptions of you as the disabled person. As partially paralyzed person, the premise of this book and film literally horrified me. Clearly the author has never had the experience of being told to their face by a stranger that they SHOULD have been aborted because of their birth defect under the guise of “Hey, it’s just my opinion.” We gimps have real, meaningful lives whether others like it or not.

      • I’m not surprised. If she wanted to listen to disable dpeople, she wouldn’t have made the film in the first place.

        I remember when “Million Dollar Baby” came out. The protests were intense, but the filmmakers were resolute in not giving a shit. Clint Eastwood actually went to court to fight to keep disabled people out of his “resorts”.

        As has been said before in many a context, when people tell you who they are, believe them. You don’t make a movie without feeling strongly about it. And movies are often more than just diversions, they are often outright propaganda, and the shitty obnoxious hateful ones are what they are often for carefully considered, not the least bit random or innocent reasons.

  3. Speaking as a disabled person, I didn’t find it ableist.. I found it a real reflection of my life in many ways ( though I’m not paralysed and I’m certainly not speaking from that point of view).. but the terrible loss of my body, my abilities, my LIFE, my usefulness.. my inability to contribute how I want to.. all true for me.

    • I think this in an interesting perspective, though I don’t know if finding reflections of your own life and pain in an imperfect movie means it’s not problematic.

      There is a lack of disabled representation in the media. I’ve watched tons of problematic media representations of lesbians, and been pleased to just have anything shown on-screen, allowing me to be grateful for what there is, despite wishing it were perhaps something more…something better.

      Do you think being pleased to find reflections of ourselves on-screen is worth dealing with the less-than elements? I think I’d say yes. And it sounds like you agree.

      But I also think that shouldn’t negate a broader conversation about what is problematic (in this case the ableism, which I’ve only just begun to wrestle with in myself).

      What are your thoughts (if you’d like to share further)?

    • Donna, I hope you can get services, like maybe grief counseling, to help you deal with the changes you’ve experienced, and treatment for any depression you are experiencing, and other supports to address the causes of your unhappiness.

      The “better off dead” belief system makes it hard to get help or even to imagine what would help, but I hope you will not give up, and will find new ways to love yourself, enjoy your life, and understand what you contribute to the world.

      In my experience, any life change can be a challenge, but wishing someone dead or celebrating their suicide is not a response that’s helpful, and it is nevertheless a very common reaction to disabled people whether they are happy or not. Making a movie that romanticizes or exploits this problem to me is very much part of a system that hurts disabled people. That kind of “you’re worthless and better off dead and a burden to the people who supposedly love you” message is enough to tank anyone’s happiness! Being surrounded by messages like that, in the media or in your personal life, can be very demoralizing, and it also drives public policy that keeps barriers in place and makes it even harder for people with disabilities to make our way in the world and find meaning in our social or physical situation.

      When I have been going through hard times, I have sometimes sought out and found cathartic stories about people going through similar things and talking about it. But what helps me about it is the liberation of not hiding in shame or feeling alone with it. Stories that glorify the misery and reinforce the isolation and worthlessness message only make me feel worse.

      I hope there will be other resources for you, so that you can be inspired and find relief rather than stay in a place where your situation feels bleak and valueless.

  4. Every minute I spend on Autostraddle since I discovered it about a month ago, is a minute I love and admire it more.
    What great articles you publish; this particular piece most definitely being one of them.
    The valuable information (especially when it comes to the views of minorities I myself am not a part of) mixed with a delicious and sometimes ruthless sense of humour keep me entertained, grounded, and equipped to face the patriarchy feeling more and more secure in my own skin and identity.

  5. The better off dead trope is as common off the screen as on it.

    At least the dead lesbian tv trope isn’t actually something anyone seriously advocates we make happen in real life.

    See also: “what is she doing here?” in which, if you don’t want to die, you will be treated as an intruder in public places, and the always popular “didn’t notice anyone is missing” approach, which uses the barrier method to prevent you from showing up.

    • Well, to a point. There are areas (see: Pulse) where the dead lesbian/gay trope is advocated for. There are societies/countries/religions where that is advocated. Part of the discussion of it as a trope is how it may consciously or unconsciously influence not only lesbians with a lack of representation, but those prone to violence (when the death on screen is violent).

      You make a good point about the “better off dead” being a common attitude off-screen, however.

      • Thanks, Phoebe! I actually blushed when I read your appreciation.

        Brabkeb, you’re right about some people and places and times the dead lesbian trope is meant seriously– and that media has a powerful effect. (See upthread for my comments about Clint Eastwood and “Million Dollar Baby”– I think it’s not always unconscious, either).

        In my personal experience, the “better off dead than disabled” idea is the majority opinion, and not just a slight majority but actually a pretty overwhelming one, whereas I have been fortunate enough to live in a time and place among people who reject the deathwish for lesbians, so that’s where I was coming from.

        But certainly it’s true that there are other people and places where the desire to kill lesbians is real and very serious.

        It’s especially hard for me that so many people who reject the deathwish for dykes embrace the pity mentality for crips, and couch it in terms of actually being on our side, thinking it’s compassionate and caring! Not that I’d rather be shot while dancing, but at least in my own life I feel confident that if I was murdered for being a dyke, there would be outrage, whereas it’s not unusual for folks to suggest death as a good idea, or to react to the actual death of disabled people I know and love as though it’s a good thing, or otherwise OK, or perhaps “inevitable” when it was clearly caused by something very preventable and not inherent in the disability itself.

        But making the comparison was not meant to “rank oppressions” or erase the severity of one over the other, and I apologize if my way of expressing myself made anyone feel competed against or erased.

  6. I am fearful for writing this comment but I do not understand any of this. I did not read much of the review above as I got what everyone was saying from the comments. I watched this movie and I don’t see how it is ableist. One particular guy who is very sick wants to give up his life so he doesn’t have to live that way anymore. To me, he never seemed to state that others that were in similar positions should do the same. He just felt that way. So, he made the decision to give up his life. The movie, overall, was terrible and badly produced but why the uproar? I am not disabled but I didn’t watch the movie and think “Oh, any and all disabled people should do this”. I felt terribly sad that he was making that decision but respected him because it is HIS body. Please don’t attack. Replies are great but there is no need at all to be rude. Please and thank you.

    • I didn’t see the movie, so I don’t actually know how it was depicted, but:
      the problem is that this is such a popular trope and brings a message across, no matter how individual this choice might have been presented. This is why I am also wary of assisted suicide since it is often connected to ableism. If we lived in a society where every single life was appreciated the same, I’d agree with you that it is okay to depict a man who wants to end his life. But the problem is that there are actual people that believe disabled lives are not worth living (i.e. the man who murdered 19 people in a residence for the disabled, who, before he committed this crime, had sent actual requests to the Japanese government to kill disabled people). And there’s enough of that already. Disabled lives are not inherently horrible. We are not a burden to those we love. But that’s how 99% of the media depict us. And we’re tired of it. Where are stories about disabled people living fulfilling lifes? on another, related note: if a mentally ill person decided to kill themselves, many would perhaps try to stop them. When a disabled person decides to take their own life, many react with some sort of “yeah it’s understansdable. better dead than disabled”. And that is horrifying. People don’t realize that ableism can lead to mental health issues that could lead a person to want to commit suicide. Imagine watching a film where you feel represented and that character wanting to kill themselves because they are, in some way, like you. That hurts. Hope I could explain my view on this 🙂

      • To add to M’s brilliant point, although you didn’t come away thinking ‘every disabled person should kill themselves’, you came away thinking that Will made the right decision. If you take away the disability, we are talking about a very wealthy,well educated man with a family who clearly loves me and in a meaningful romantic relationship. I am going to be referring for things in the book(which I read because it was given to me and I could not be a to watch the film). He states that he can’t do his job – it’s implied his work is law or finance or something that doesn’t require manual labour. It could(and legally should) be adapted so he can do that job. I have many friends who have similar impairments who have amazing careers. Then there is the sex issue – his idea of sex seems to be that penetration is the only thing that matters which is a very limiting(and was probably quite dull for previous partners) way of thinking about sex. I recommend reading what Mum Scarlet has written about it(he actually says lesbians took him under their wing somewhat to broaden his idea of sex after his paralysis) If Will wasn’t disabled, and wanted to kill himself, what would everyone around him do? GET HIM SOME MENTAL HEALTH CARE. But because it is seen as expected that he would be unhappy, they just send in somebody untrained to ‘cheer him up’. Finally, the problem is that the story isn’t Will’s story. It’s Lou’s story of being inspired and getting a load of money from a magical cripple who basically exists for that purpose. The fact that there is a sequel confirms that
        I hope that helps.

        • I think it’s important to think about what would the reaction be to ANY non-disabled person wanting to commit suicide. Would you consider it a good thing, or is it something that caring people would want to prevent?

          When we see stories about suicide of LGBT youth who were bullied in school, or rejected by their families, we are outraged and vow to make the world a better place so this doesn’t keep happening, and so that people don’t feel so alone and hopeless. We ask questions about what we could have done, why no one reached out, where did we go wrong as individuals or in society as a whole?

          But when it’s someone with a disability, we are conditioned to think it’s just the way it is, and that it’s not a big loss to the rest of us– in fact it’s a relief that the person is not around anymore! That’s ableism pure and simple.

          Ableism is the system of thought or action that makes disabled people lesser than others. It drives pity rather than respect, and exclusion rather than embrace. Whenever you think of someone as expendable, or define their existence as inherently tragic (not that tragic things happen to them, but that they themselves are a tragedy), it’s not love, it’s not respect, it’s not perceiving their worth– and it squelches the potential for solving problems or interacting in a lucid way.

          Sometimes people think that “isms” like ableism or racism or sexism mean you feel a violent hostility towards the person or group, and anything else does not qualify. But not all manifestations of prejudice are driven by a conscious hatred. With ableism, in particular, often the prejudice manifests as apathy, or pity, and people actually think they are being compassionate, when what they are doing is the opposite.

          This has a huge impact on how we design the world and how we think about ourselves as well as others.

        • I did not leave the movie thinking he did the right thing. I do not see disabled people as a drain on our society. I said that I respected his decision, as it was his decision to do what he wanted. Not that it was right or good. Your comment was great…I just wanted you to be clear as to my view of that piece of your comment.

  7. I would like to point out from reading this you did not read the book at all.. he did not LIVE in the castle his father was a caretaker for the grounds. He also did not want to die just because of his disability alone
    He had pain that caused him to wake up screaming. To always be hurting. He was sick more than he was healthy. I agree with the fact that he could of lived a beautiful life, he chose not to.

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