Warning: this post talks about suicide.
I’m going to hold my hands up right now and apologise for the fact that this is going to be somewhat controversial. Me Before You is, in my opinion, a bit of a marmite book/film: you either love it or hate it. So, to all the fans of Louisa Clark and her bee tights, I’m sorry for my upcoming rant.
Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the book or film. I read the book purely because there was a massive hype about it and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. It’s not my usual genre, chick flicks that fail the Bechdel test are normally avoided, but enough said about my inner feminist feelings.
My issue with the book and film starts with the promotion in the run up to the film adaptation being released. The production team came up with the hashtag #LiveBoldly, whilst promoting the life of a previously healthy man, who became disabled (quadriplegic) following a road accident and was therefore considering assisted suicide in Switzerland. That in itself is a bit of an oxymoron: can you really #LiveBoldly when your aim is to die?
At this point, I want to make it really clear that I do not have an issue with assisted suicide or euthanasia.
But was the underlying theme #LiveBoldly or dying quickly? A disability is not a reason to not live a fulfilling life. Being disabled does not automatically mean the taking away of potential, hopes, dreams and aspirations. And leading a fulfilled life is something that is promoted so heavily in the book.
I have a bigger problem with the fact that Louisa was left a substantial amount of money in Will’s will. Will dictated that he wanted Louisa to swap her boring and stagnant life for one full of adventure and possibility, visiting all the places that she only dreamed of visiting.
Can a person only #LiveBoldly if they are able-bodied? So, whilst Louisa does get to go on her great adventure and experience a life full of excitement and opportunity, this is at the cost of another person’s life. The message that is being given here is that an able-bodied person’s life is valued more in society that someone who has a disability.
People with disabilities are not your reason to cry. People with disabilities are not to the pitied or killed off, in order to give a book or film an emotional ending. People with disabilities are not the reason for making a book a page turner.
The problem could be lessened, if not solved, by the presence of just one disabled character to provide some contrast and show that suicide isn’t the only option. Will is deemed to be a strong and determined man: if a strong and determined man can’t cope with a disability than how are mere-mortals meant to cope? In both the film and the book, Will is portrayed as isolated and as someone who is encased in negativity with very little hope. No wonder his only solution was suicide: this simply is not the reality of all people with disabilities and it’s giving a very one-sided view on being disabled. There are a disproportionate number of stories which relate to the “problem” of disability being “solved” by death. Books, TV and films seem to love the idea of people dying and gaining freedom,
The recent death of Stephen Hawking has showed how this view point has been carried into the real world. When he died, people were saying that he was now free from his wheelchair. The reality, however, is that Professor Hawking saw his wheelchair as something that gave him freedom, not something that restricted it. It allowed him movement, speech, the ability to teach, develop world famous theories, to be a father, husband, son and scholar.
Suicide is still a taboo subject. When able-bodied people talk about suicide, they are discouraged and offered preventative support. If an able-bodied person commits suicide, without the assistance of another person it is legal. When a disabled person has the consideration, the issue becomes more focused on autonomy and being of sane mind but very rarely is a person offered the same level of psychiatric support. Are disabled people less worthy?
On a more personal note, I have struggled with suicidal ideation off and on for a number of years. If I was to say that the reason behind those thoughts and feelings was because of X Y and Z from my past, I would be offered interventions, a crisis plan would be written and there would be a discussion about how I could be helped. However, and this is the important bit, if I was to say that I was feeling suicidal because of disability or chronic illness, suddenly, that isn’t as concerning. I have said that and I was genuinely told that it was “understandable”.
So yet again, we are faced with the question of are disabled people valued less? According to Me Before You, it suggests that and that is not a message that should be given through popular culture.