Cartoon by Amy Hasbrouck
Shallow art is usually harmless. Being blindsided in an elevator by the latest Kenny G offering may feel annoying and vaguely insulting to your intelligence, but the best thing to do is walk it off and shoulder on.
But sometimes art is so vacuously shallow that it becomes dangerous. Such is the case with the newly-released movie Me Before You. Yes, the feel-good romantic date movie of the summer is the story of the cliched bitter cripple who longs to commit suicide and the clueless nondisabled people in his life who want to prove how much they “love” him by helping him do it.
The bitter cripple is Will Traynor, a gratingly miserable guy who used to engage in some sort of raw-ass capitalism and extreme sports. Two years earlier he got flattened by a speeding motorcycle and became a quadriplegic. Since then he’s done nothing but stare out of the window of his family’s mansion and mope.
Along comes Lou, a 20-something woman from the poor side of town who becomes one of his caregivers. Will is rude and abrasive toward her, which is standard behavior for cliched bitter movie cripples. But eventually Lou softens his heart with her irrepressibly enthusiastic spirit, which is standard behavior for caregivers who suddenly enter the lives of cliched bitter movie cripples. Will and Lou fall in love. There they are alone on a moonlit beach. She sits on his lap and they kiss. Now if it ended there with happily ever after, Me Before You would be relatively harmless. It would still be sappy and corny and fluffy, but nothing to get too worked up about
But no! Will ruins the romantic moment by reiterating that he still wants to die. His monologue leaves no bitter cripple cliche unturned. He says Lou has her whole life ahead of her and being with him would only weigh her down. He’s not the man he used to be. He doesn’t want to be a burden. He can’t satisfy her sexually.
Let’s pause for a moment here and recap, shall we? Will is richer than God and Oprah combined. A thoroughly desirable woman is madly in love with him. He’s not terminally ill. And he still wants to die? Are you kidding me?
Okay, I’ll give Will a break. He’s depressed.That why he wants to die. It’s not just because he’s a quad. There are many, many quads who don’t want to die. And when someone is as depressed as Will is, how does a civilized society respond? We urge that person to get mental health treatments. But when someone is depressed and disabled, instead of talking them down off the ledge, some people think it’s okay to give them a shove. And then they call it merciful.
Will goes off to get euthanized, with the full support of his parents and Lou, at this creepy little suicide spa in Switzerland. It’s a place that actually exists. Ironically, it’s run by a group called Dignitas.
No other disabled characters appear in this movie so it’s no wonder Will is so depressed. When disabled folks go through this kind of funk, usually what gets them out of it best is hanging around with other disabled folks. The more other disabled folks they meet, the harder it is for them to swallow the nonsense about life being essentially over because you’re disabled. Hope returns.
This movie puts forth the simpleton’s proposition that when a disabled person is depressed, the only way to restore their mental health is to take away their disability. When that can’t be done, that person is officially hopeless and it is right and just to put them out of their relentless misery.
Reinforcing that notion undermines decades of work and progress by disability activists, like the wonderfully brazen people of Not Dead Yet. The myriad barriers that exclude disabled folks are all rooted in that type of devaluation. Making things accessible for disabled people who will never “get better” can be dismissed as a waste of time and money. Those barriers fall when activists reject that crap and demand to be accommodated and valued as the wonderful crippled-up humans that we are.
It was disheartening to contemplate how many disabled folks might have their feelings of worthlessness validated by this movie. But what was most disheartening was learning that Me Before You is based on a best-selling novel of the same name. So millions of people have already be exposed to this hollow, amateurish analysis of living with a disability. That’s so depressing it makes me think about shuffling on off to Dignitas.
Mike Ervin is a writer and disability rights activist living in Chicago. He blogs at Smart Ass Cripple, "expressing pain through sarcasm since 2010."