Apologies if this has already been covered in a previous post. I’ve only been sporadically lurking the last little while, so I may well have missed it.
Anyway, last week saw the premiere of the film Me Before You, based on the book of the same name by Jojo Moyes. [SPOILERS] The plot follows an unemployed MPDG-esque young woman named Louisa Clarke, who is hired to provide care for the wealthy, acerbic Will Traynor, who was recently paralysed in an accident. What Louisa is not told is that Will has resolved to seek physician assisted suicide after six months. Predictably, the two fall in love. Predictably, Will chooses to end his life anyway.
The story is rife with gendered, classist and ableist tropes, that Kim Sauder over at Crippled Scholar does an excellent job of breaking down. Of course, the most visible and central trope is that of “better dead than disabled”: essentially, the common narrative device that a character, faced with the awful, unfathomable prospect of living with a disability, chooses instead to end their life. We see this trope played out in Million Dollar Baby and The Sea Inside, as well as variations, in movies like Sweet November, where the ill/disabled character rejects a relationship and walks out of the storyline, for fear of holding their love interest back.
The unusual thing about Me Before You, is that the disabled community’s response to the film has achieved unprecedented visibility. The Not Dead Yet protest at the film’s UK premiere received coverage in The Guardian, while a number of thinkpieces by disability activists, scholars, performers and creators have taken on the task of explaining why this trope is so damaging, and why it stems from Hollywood’s equally damaging failure to include or consult with disabled voices.
However, one set of voices that I think get lost in both the Hollywood narratives of disability, and the disability communities media criticisms, is that of disabled people (often invisibly disabled people) who have an ambivalent relationship with suicide. This is especially problematic because the rote response to criticisms of “better dead than disabled” is that, well, “some people actually feel that way”. The major defense of Me Before You is that it is inspired by the story of an athlete who chose to seek physician assisted suicide after being paralysed in a training accident.
Here’s the thing, though. Even if you are one of those people who “actually feel that way”, this narrative is still reductive and offensive as hell*. Hollywood depictions of disability and suicide are always centred around beautiful, physically fit people who suffer a catastrophic accident or illness. They don’t show people with invisible illnesses, or the depression that stems from being unable to access meds or assistive devices because of astronomical costs or absurd bureaucracies. They don’t show people who are terrified to reveal their thoughts around suicide because if it’s reported to their doctors, they’re just going to get labelled as depressed, and lose any shot at effective diagnosis or treatment.
I fully support the wider disability community’s activism against Me Before You and narratives like it, and I’m really gratified that it’s achieved such popular notice. But I do wish that there were a wider focus on the range of experiences disabled people have in relation to suicide - not just because the narrower focus inevitably ends up erasing certain experiences, but because it misses the opportunity for what I think is a really important critique of the film.
* Full disclosure: Yes, I totally did just link my own piece. As far as I can tell, there hasn’t really been any other discussion of how Me Before You and “better dead than disabled” relate to invisibly disabled people, and disabled people who do contemplate suicide. And I think it’s an important discussion to have. (NB: Trigger warning for frank discussion of suicidal ideation in that piece.)