Romanticization of Disability and Death

WARNING! THIS POST CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS (The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Me Before You by Jojo Moyes)

I’d like to talk about something that I’ve seen on social media a lot lately; people condemning books (usually those with movie adaptations) for romanticizing disabilities and the dying process. Now, I can only speak for books that I have read, and I will be talking about two in particular– The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, and Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. I’m talking about these two because I’ve read them, they have been very popular in the last several years, and I have seen a lot of negative comments about them.

First, let me give you a very quick run-down of each plot. The Fault in Our Stars is about a teenage girl, Hazel, who is dying of cancer. She meets a boy, Augustus, at a cancer support group and they become friends. They bond over a book, eventually travelling abroad to meet the author. In the end, Augustus dies, and we see some of the grieving process through Hazel’s eyes.

Me Before You is about a young woman, Lou, who loses her job, and out of desperation, takes a job as the caregiver of a quadriplegic man, Will, who used to be very active, and adventurous. At first, they seem to hate each other, but then each of their quirks (mostly unrelated to his disability) charm the other. Through over-hearing an argument between his mother and sister, Lou learns that Will has plans to end his life via physician assisted suicide. She makes it her responsibility to save his life. She takes him on tons of trips, big and small, to try to show him that he can still live a happy life, even without the use of any of his limbs. In the end, he goes through with his plan and dies.

Now, these are very basic plot summaries, and, of course, I would recommend reading both books before forming your own opinions.

A similarity between these books, is that we are reading from the perspective of a girl, who loses a close male friend. In neither story are the two officially dating, but there are some suggestions toward a romantic and/or sexual relationship. Also, both stories include reservations from both parties about entering a romantic relationship, mostly due to the disability that one or more party has.

Now, some people on the internet have made it their job to possess hateful feelings toward these two books, and share them with the rest of us. Typically they conclude with the idea the the author is romanticizing disability/illness/death/suicide, and that any fan of the book is a terrible person for taking advantage of disabled/sick people.

But I saw it a different way. In The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel suffers from depression, and that’s mentioned in the first few pages. In fact, she makes a big deal about it. Part of her depression is caused by that fact that unless someone develops a cure for cancer, she will die. Part of her depression comes from the fact that she has no friends because she doesn’t go to school or participate in the things that most sixteen year old girls do. When she does make some friends, she is afraid to get too close because she knows she’s going to die and that will hurt them. As she says, she wants to “minimize the casualties” of her inevitable early death.

This doesn’t sound very romantic; trouble making friends, trouble getting close to friends…

As the book goes on, she begins to let Augustus in, and they have fun together. As I said before, they bond over a book, and eventually get to meet the author. Not long after that, Augustus, who had been cancer free for about a year and a half, tells Hazel that the cancer is back, and this time it’s worse. The two spend as much time together as possible before he dies, talking about his death, and the legacy he is (or isn’t, to him) leaving behind. And as I said before, we see the grieving process through Hazel’s eyes, and it’s all very sad.

I realize that I have, in fact, given you another, probably better summary. It was necessary to make my point.

I didn’t see this book as romanticizing cancer, or dying. I saw it as showing that people who have cancer are just like everyone else. They have feelings. They get sad. They get happy. They travel. They have fun. They laugh. They cry. The only differences are that they are sick, and they are maybe a little more accustomed to death than other people. The Fault in Our Stars doesn’t just show kids with cancer being sad and dying. It also doesn’t just show kids with cancer having the time of their lives. What it does show is kids with cancer, trying to live a normal life, just with cancer. That includes the hardships of having cancer, and going into and out of the hospital. It also includes having friends, loving and being loved in return, and other parts of normal life.

The Fault in Our Stars, in my opinion, does not romanticize cancer or dying. It only showed that people who have cancer are capable of loving and being loved. It showed that people with cancer are not just sacks of dying human. They are people, and they have feelings and wishes just like the rest of us.

This book did not make me wish that I had cancer, nor did it make me wish anyone else to have cancer. It reestablished that cancer is an awful thing, but some people have to deal with it, and they try to make the best of it. This book helped me be able to view people who have cancer as similar to me, rather than a defined other. I think that’s a good thing.

Me Before You gave me a similar conclusion. The book is similar in that a character dies, however, he does not die necessarily because of his disability, or even complications due to his disability. He died because it wasn’t the life that he’d imagined for himself, nor was it a life that he wanted to live. Many haters of this book say that this is romanticizing suicide. This is not romanticizing suicide. Romanticizing suicide would have been if everyone supported his decision to kill himself, or even if everyone eventually agreed that killing himself was the best thing for him. But that’s not at all what happened. What happened was everyone fought him every step of the way. Everyone did everything in their power to convince him that he could be happy as a quadriplegic. And when he was in that room, waiting to die, no one was telling him that this was the answer. They respected his decision, and even understood his perspective, but that doesn’t mean that they agreed. They still didn’t want him to do it. But they let him because, one, he was an adult, and he could make that decision, and two, because keeping him alive and unhappy, just so that they could keep him and be happy themselves, was selfish on their part. Maybe suicide was selfish on his part, but to him, at the time, it was better than living the rest of his life miserable.

Did I want him to die? No. I wanted him to live. But I understood why he died. Real life doesn’t always have a happy ending. He was miserable. Was suicide the answer? I don’t think so; but he did. He would never run again. He would never eat food that his hands had made.He would never hold his child. These are things that fully able bodied people take for granted, but some people can’t do. That feeling is miserable. Is suicide the only answer? Still, no. Did he know that? Yes. But that was the way he chose to answer. This is not romanticizing suicide because all of the people who loved him were hurt, and the book showed that. More realistically, this book showed how suicidal people think, and how suicide affects others.

In my opinion, romanticizing disability would be if Will had suddenly become a quadriplegic and was just as happy as he had been before. He was an active person who loved skiing and throwing himself off of cliffs. He loved the thrill of using his muscles and moving his body. He couldn’t do that anymore, and the depression that he felt was realistic. If anything, this book shows the darker side of disability. It shows the sadness, and the misery associated with not being able to do the things you did before. Is that romantic?

But people say that Me Before You romanticizes disability because Lou falls in love with Will, and some of those feelings are returned. To them, this is romanticizing quadriplegia. To me, it is the same thing as The Fault in Our Stars. To me, it is showing that even a person who is stuck in a wheel chair and can’t move most of their body is capable of loving and being loved in return. It shows that a person with a disability is capable of happiness, even if they do eventually succumb to their depression.

It’s not romanticizing suicide, it’s showing the truth of suicide. It’s showing how and why it happens. It’s simply telling the story of a man, who died via suicide. That’s it. IT never said that Will was a strong and brave person for committing suicide. That would a romanticization.

These two books outline some of the difficulties associated with their respective illness/disability. But they also show that people with cancer, people in wheel chairs, and anyone else with any kind of illness or disability is capable of love. They are still people, even though their life is a little different. The Fault in Our Stars, I’m sure, left out some of what it’s like to live with cancer. But that’s because the book was not about dying of cancer, it was about living and loving. The main characters just so happened to have cancer. Me Before You is similar. Sure, it probably left out a lot of what it’s like to live with quadriplegia, but that’s because the book was not about quadriplegia. It was about learning to live in a new way. It just so happens that this particular time, he couldn’t, or maybe wouldn’t learn. These books are realistic, not romanticized.

If you ask me, I’d say that the readers are romanticizing these characters, not the author.


For the July 2016 Daily Blogging Challenge

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