I have just been to see the film Me Before You. Truth to tell, I didn’t really want to see it. But I believe it needs to be challenged, by the more people the better, and I didn’t feel I had the right to challenge it without first going to see it. This film peddles the same dreary misinformation about disability as Million Dollar Baby, in whose footsteps it firmly treads. It’s a well-made, well-acted film, which makes it all the more dangerous by making its message seem plausible and unquestionable.
The story is of a fabulously rich and very athletic young man who is paralysed in a freak road accident. Despite having everything that money can buy to make his life easier, the adoring love of his parents, and the wonder and delight of a young woman who comes into his life as a carer/companion and enables him once again to experience a truly vibrant love, he decides to commit suicide because, well, that’s how much disability sucks, isn’t it?
Let’s get the just-plain-silly bits out of the way first of all. When Louise, the young companion, peels back Will’s bed sheets, it reveals an improbably muscular torso and arms for someone who has been a quadriplegic for two years. Miraculously, the disabled man’s bodily functions suspend themselves unless his male carer is present, so the love of his life never has to deal with a bag of urine or a soiled pad. And, having repeatedly nursed my own quadriparetic daughter through many a bout of pneumonia, to see him lying in hospital, at death’s door from pneumonia, his skin a rudely healthy pink, made me want to laugh out loud, and underlined the fact that this is a film made by non-disabled people, for non-disabled people, both of whom have no idea of the real magnitude of the problems presented by severe disability, nor of the heights of triumph of which the human spirit is capable.
Perhaps the best way I can show the effect of this film is to ask you to imagine a film in which a black person living in a largely white community (and played by a white actor “blacking up”) concludes that his life is so unlike that of the white people around him that he would be better off dead, and obligingly commits suicide, leaving a large amount of money to someone who is thus conveniently enabled to leave a life of poverty and restriction in order to better herself. Of course Hollywood would never make such a film – there would be outrage at such dehumanising and belittling of someone for their ethnicity, and quite rightly too.
But apparently Hollywood has no such qualms about a non-disabled actor “cripping up” to tell us that if you lose the physical abilities you once had, nothing – not even the vibrant and devoted love of a person full of life and zest – can ever make your life worth living again. While this is not seen as acceptable based on ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or any other trait, disability is placed into another category and it is apparently tolerable to diminish the value of disabled people’s lives to the point where they should consider themselves better off dead.
Why, in the twenty-first century, is such an idea even countenanced? The messages of this film seem to be:
1. If your current boyfriend is enough of an ass you might even fall for a cripple.
2. Even the strongest of human spirits is not indomitable enough to weather a terrible storm and wait for life to feel better again.
3. Needing assistance with bodily functions robs you of all your human dignity and leaves you with no hope but to find “dignity in dying”.
And that’s the key to the message of this film. There is a highly lucrative business in persuading people to believe that assisted dying affords more dignity than assisted living. Of course it is far cheaper for health insurers in the US and the NHS in the UK to kill someone than to provide for their lifelong care. But is that any reason to keep pushing this message into the public consciousness? As John Donne pointed out, every man’s death diminishes me – and if he dies because he has been given the message that his life is not worth living, I am diminished already by the devaluing of his life.
I am not seeking to underplay the intense grief of someone who has led an active life and suddenly becomes disabled. And I know at first hand the grief of a parent whose child becomes disabled – enormous enough when it happens, as in my daughter’s case, at only 9 weeks old, and probably heightened all the more when the child has led an active, athletic life before becoming disabled. But that is only the beginning of a long story, and this film tries to make it the end. I cannot say it often enough or loudly enough: if someone is suicidal, he isn’t suffering from disability, he’s suffering from depression, and the solution is not to kill him, but to treat his mental health.
By contrast, while I was on holiday in France, I went to see a film called Un Homme à La Hauteur. The story is of Diane, a tall, blonde and beautiful lawyer who loses her mobile phone. The phone is found by a stranger, Alexandre, who discovers her landline number in the contacts and calls her. He is amusing and personable, and she likes the sound of him enough to agree to meet him for dinner so that he can return her phone. When she arrives at the restaurant, Alexandre turns out to be a highly respected and successful architect with drop-dead gorgeous looks… and four feet six inches tall.
She falls for his engaging personality, and friendship inevitably turns to romance. The rest of the film is about the obstacles they face in getting friends, family and society at large to accept the reality of their love. Together they overcome prejudice, including in their own hearts, and surmounting the many difficulties, love triumphs.
The film isn’t perfect. Once again, a deeply unpleasant ex is lurking in the background, perhaps to suggest that if your ex is enough of an ass you might even fall for a dwarf –one of two things that I would say it has in common with Me Before You. The other is that a small-statured actor was not used to play the part. Surely they have actors of short height in France? But the point about Un Homme à La Hauteur is that it doesn’t locate the problem in the small-statured man, but in the attitudes of those around him. He is given the full dignity of any other human person.
The film doesn’t even treat him with kid gloves – in one scene he piles up a stack of furniture and climbs on it to reach something on the top of a cupboard. The pile of furniture falls away and he is left hanging by his hands and chin. His rival walks in and asks, “Traction?” (the word being the same in English and French). “Laughing at” is not off-limits in a film for a non-disabled character, and should not be off-limits for a disabled one, if everyone is to receive equality of treatment. But we are more often “laughing with” the character, and so the balance is the same as it would be for almost any lead character in a rom-com.
But crucially, the film does not belittle or dehumanise him for being different from those around him. I accept that there is a world of difference between being a physically able, active person of short stature and being paralysed; the two films are not presenting exactly the same issue. But one of them is telling us that a severely disabled life is not worth living, even when unlimited love and untold wealth remove as many as possible of the societal obstacles to living a good life, whereas the other is affirming that we, society, are the problem; the obstacles and prejudices are of our making and it is for us to remove them.
Every time a Hollywood film includes a non-disabled actor playing a disabled character, whose life is portrayed as no longer worth living (I read that there have now been 30 such storylines in major films, someone has apparently been keeping count) the vile message is again rammed home to the worried well that disability makes life no longer worth living, that disabled lives are, in fact worthless, and the best thing “these people” can do is go and kill themselves, preferably leaving a fortune so that someone benefits by their death.
As a mother it’s heartbreaking to be told again and again by this indirect means that my daughter is a burden, that she should not go on living (see here if you think I’m exaggerating that). As a result people look at her and see only the disability. But the fierce and loyal love, the exuberant joy and cracking sense of humour that she displays have enriched our lives so much that we are infinitely happier to meet the demands of her care than we would be to have to mourn her passing. Disabled lives do matter. They matter as much as everybody else’s. It’s as much an outrage when a politician mocks a disabled journalist as when he belittles Islam and its adherents. We need an outcry of voices against this poisonous propaganda, and it’s heartening to see the growing momentum behind the #MeBeforeEuthanasia hashtag on Twitter.