Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Emilia Clarke and Janet McTeer in Me Before You.

July 26, 2016

GUEST ROOM | Rape Culture, the Romance Genre and Me Before You

Print More

My sister tells me I’ve turned into a book snob. She claims that my reading list is largely propelled by a hunger for cultural capital, that I don’t enjoy the things I read, that I’m checking off the novels of someone else’s book list: some antiquated, white professor’s book list. And to an extent, she’s right. As an English major, I have not only become trained in applying psychoanalytical and queer theories to the ample texts we chow down in a semester, but I’ve become adept at prioritizing certain genres of texts over others, according to their so-called intellectual merits. The classics: Good. Convoluted literary fiction with no real plot: Even better. Romance: This isn’t a real genre, you anti-feminist, bird-brained, silly little girl!

Academia has long fostered a hierarchal approach to literature, which makes sense, given that the backbone of higher education is elitism. In a recent op-ed for The New York Times, the best-selling author and Princeton alumna Jennifer Weiner wrote, “somewhere between my birth and my novel’s publication, I’d gotten the message that there were books that mattered and books that did not; writers whom an Ivy League institution would be proud to claim, and those who would be asked for donations, but not invited back to speak.” Weiner, who writes novels often regarded as “chick-lit,” is undoubtedly of the latter category.

With a limited life span and a bounty of books to choose from, we understandably apply some sort of pecking order to literature. But as with everything that is labeled and categorized, the totem pole of literary genres ultimately has its scapegoat: the romance genre. Sure, it’s not a complete mystery how romance novels got their reputation for being easy-breezy-beautiful-CoverGirl reads. The genre is one that demands formalism: girl meets boy, girl falls in love with boy, girl loses boy, girl gets back together with boy after making some grand gesture or vice versa. Sometimes this plot paradigm is subverted and the girl ends up alone or finds someone completely new several months later. There is still something formulaic about these supposed subversions.

That said, there is an overwhelming and somewhat unwarranted perception among academic readers that all modern romance is cheap and poorly written. When we read bad literary fiction, we don’t categorize the whole genre as bad. Yet we are so eager to write off the entirety of the romance genre after reading the back of one Nicholas Sparks novel. It was this eagerness that caused me to walk past Me Before You with its garish red binding dozens of times before; I shouldn’t, I wouldn’t waste my time on that “airport trash.”

But one day I did pick up the novel and to be sure, there were quite a number of times I placed it right back down again. However, every time I put down Me Before You, it wasn’t because I was bored, it was because I was having trouble coping with my visceral reactions to the novel. As stirring as it was, there was nothing cheesy or maudlin about it. The extensive characterization of each person featured in Me Before You prevented it from being a 400 page Days of Our Lives fanfiction. From the dysfunctional family who relied on Louisa (the protagonist) to support them to the stern boss who was weary of trusting her, every character featured in the book was specific. Of course, there has been some controversy over how Jojo Moyes wrote Will Traynor, Louisa’s love interest who became wheelchair bound after a motorcycle accident two years earlier.

Me Before You author and screenwriter Jojo Moyes

The New York Times

Me Before You author and screenwriter Jojo Moyes

Some believe the book to be a glamorization of paraplegia. As an able-bodied person, I cannot comment on whether the book accurately reflected the challenges one may face if one is paralyzed, but the book did read like an honest attempt by Jojo Moyes to understand the crux of the condition. Me Before You is told from multiple perspectives, including the thoughts of every character but Will’s. Our inability to know exactly what Will is thinking seems fitting: Will constantly had to deal with outside sources inflicting their perceptions of him and his disability. Therefore, while readers are only privy to outsider and able-bodied impressions of paraplegia, they are unfortunately somewhat accurate impressions nonetheless. You should not read this book expecting to be an expert on paraplegia, but it also seems unfair to accuse Moyes of exploiting Will’s disability.

At least not in the book. In the movie, yes, but not in the book. If it’s any consolation, though, we were all exploited by the movie version of Me Before You. Obviously not every detail that is mentioned in a book can be covered in a movie, but there is still a lot that can be achieved in 110 minutes. Keeping some inevitable time limitations in mind, however, I forgave the fact that every character but the leads were simply used to fill space, background noise until the couple’s first romantic kiss. I forgave the fact that when this kiss did finally occur, I couldn’t have been less invested, given the leads’ lack of chemistry and the movie’s lack of stakes. I forgave the fact that the poignant and nuanced love story featured in the book, the narrative that showed us that love does not in fact conquer all, that you can try to do and be everything for a person and it still won’t be enough, became a trope, with the movie following a more traditional “rom-com” trajectory. I forgave the fact that after seven years of dating the same man, Louisa unrealistically leaves him without being the least bit torn. I forgave Jojo Moyes, who also authored the screenplay, for viewing audience members as vacuous, superficial people simply looking for a way to kill two hours.

What I cannot forgive is the silencing of Louisa Clark (played by Emilia Clarke), who was raped by a group of college boys when she was 16 in the book version of Me Before You. “I remember the day I stopped being fearless,” Louisa says. I kept waiting for that line in the movie, waiting for her to tell Will (Sam Claflin) who constantly judges her for being unadventurous, unaware of what she had been through. But it never came.

This is not a small plot omission. This is not hiring a blonde actress to play Louisa when she is clearly marked as brunette in the book. Louisa became like every other leading lady in every other romantic movie with the exclusion of this one detail, and in doing so, she became further removed from the women who were actually watching the movie: the women that know that one night, one string of moments, can impact you for years to come, if not for the rest of your life.

Emilia Clarke in Me Before You

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Emilia Clarke in Me Before You

So why did Jojo Moyes and whatever crappy creative team that was behind the screenplay take out Louisa’s rape? Because it would have affected the marketing of Me Before You as a “date” movie? Because it was too dark? Because it wasn’t convenient? Louisa’s rape and the under-recorded rapes of one in five American women aren’t convenient. Women who have been raped are the protagonists of their own lives and are more than worthy of being the protagonists in today’s romantic stories. Me Before You then was not only a missed opportunity to educate others and de-stigmatize rape victims, but was also — during a time when someone like Brock Turner can receive only six months in prison for assaulting an unconscious woman — a movie that contributed wholly to rape culture.

As for the romance genre, maybe it is seen as trivial because more people are watching these dumbed down movies than reading the books they are based upon. It’s a continuous cycle that is promulgated by basic economic principles: people have a limited amount of time, and therefore want to make the most of it. They are by far more willing to invest two hours into an unsatisfying and cliché movie than double that time on books. Thus, people’s exposure to the romance genre is limited: what they know about romance being insipid is in fact true, but only about a subset of the genre. Perhaps when we expect more for ourselves and respect our time more, maybe movie creators will do the same. Until then, we must realize that these movies shouldn’t be representative of the whole genre and that academia and modern romance may not have to be mutually exclusive.

Gwen Aviles is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]Guest Room will appear intermittently over the summer.