Over the course of the past few years, authors of young adult books have decided to turn away from forbidden romances between vampires and teenage girls or gods and mortals, and have instead looked toward a much different kind of star crossed romance. This romance involves two ordinary people in a modern day, realistic setting, such that any pair of lovers could be in, except that one of the lovers is suffering, or even dying, from a fatal disease or life changing disability.
Although it is quite dark, these storylines have made for highly successful novels, films, and franchises, because everyone loves a good tearjerker. But what kind of picture do these novels and films paint of people with diseases and disabilities? Often, it’s not an accurate one. (Warning: spoilers for The Fault In Our Stars, Me Before You, and Everything, Everything ahead.)
In 2012, YA author John Green published a novel, which would soon be turned into a film, entitled The Fault In Our Stars. Main character Hazel deals with an unnamed form of cancer that affects her lungs and breathing ability. At a cancer support group, she meets Augustus Waters, who has lost his leg to osteosarcoma. They strike up a friendship, bonding over a book about cancer called An Imperial Affliction, and even travel to meet the author of the book. Almost instantaneously after Augustus professes his love for Hazel, his cancer worsens. The ending of the book involves Augustus holding his own pre-funeral where Hazel speaks about their “little infinity” together, and Hazel reading a letter that Augustus wrote to her before his death about choosing who gets to hurt you in life.
The book and film tend to undermine the harsh reality of living with cancer. For the first part of the book, Hazel doesn’t have that great of an outlook on how her disease is going to affect the rest of her life, but somehow that all changes when when she meets a boy. Then, when Hazel and Augustus go on their adventure, the only medical equipment Hazel needed was her oxygen tank. In reality, her parents should’ve been much more leery about letting their sick daughter travel to a foreign country with a boy she had just met a month ago, and she should’ve had a nurse with her the entire time. The book also turns Augustus’ death into a magical turning point for Hazel’s attitude about life, implying that if you are going to die from your disability, it’s important to benefit the living before you do.
Another problematic book-turned-film is Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. Main character Louisa is hired to take care of Will Traynor, who was a successful banker and athletic thrill seeker until he was struck by a motorcycle and paralyzed from the neck down. At the time she meets him, he has given his parents six months before he would undergo assisted suicide, being unable to bear the pain and hopelessness of his condition. Louisa attempts to show him things in life to live for, taking him to horse races and vacationing in Mauritius with him. They fall in love, but in the end, (spoiler alert) Will chooses to go through with the suicide. Louisa reads his last letter to her, in which he leaves her a large sum of money and tells her to “live well, or just live.”
Many members of the disability rights movement were upset with the movie’s clumsy portrayal of a quadriplegic life, especially with the implication of Will’s suicide being a burden lifted off of his family and friends. The Twitter hashtag #MeBeforeEuthanasia saw many expressing their distaste with the film and the harmful mental affect it could have on young people with disabilities. Zack Weinstein, an actor who suffered a spinal cord injury in 2005 and is now quadriplegic, said, “The message of this movie is that it’s better for this person to die in order to be of service to her than for him to live. Are you using [Will’s disability] to be emotionally manipulative? That has its place, but it’s very difficult to watch the facts of my life being used as the vehicle for that.”
Now, in 2017, Nicola Yoon’s novel Everything, Everything is being turned into a film starring Amandla Stenberg and Nick Robinson. The book tells the story of Maddy, a young girl who has severe combined immunodeficiency disorder, and is allergic to everything in the outside world. She has lived her entire life inside of her house being monitored by a nurse, until one day teenage boy Olly Bright moves in next door. They communicate through texting and eventually meet face to face, and Maddy becomes convinced she needs to get out of the house and live her life. Her mother is undoubtedly concerned for her safety, but Maddy wants to experience the world for herself no matter the consequences.
While this could have been an interesting novel with a disabled lead, in the end we find out that (spoiler alert) Maddy is not even disabled at all; after her father and brother had been killed in a motor vehicle accident, her mother had developed PTSD and paranoia and had been lying to Maddy about her illness, in order to keep her from leaving the house. Maddy’s negative physical reaction to the outside world is due to her weak immune system from being indoors for 18 years, but she’ll eventually be fine. This leads back to the harmful narrative that disabled people don’t get to have happy endings.
Is it really that out of reach to give a disabled character a happy ending? And why do disabled characters only matter when they’re benefitting their able bodied romantic counterparts?
The most harmful thing about these books and films is the way that they are being marketed and consumed. Young readers and audiences seem to be eating up stories that end in this new form of “half-tragedy” when one lover dies and the other gets to live with them in memory. While it’s great to see main characters with disabilities in romantic situations, it’s not that great to see them being killed off just for the tearjerker factor. It’s especially terrible to see that the only time a disabled character can stay alive and “live life to the fullest” is when they’re not even disabled at all. Is it really that out of reach to give a disabled character a happy ending? And why do disabled characters only matter when they’re benefitting their able bodied romantic counterparts? When writing a disabled character, at least have some kind of understanding of their situation and the trials and tribulations they face in society and everyday life. And most importantly, don’t try to make these struggles seem romantic.