Me Before You. I feel like I would be remiss in not covering this potent disability rights topic. There has been tremendous outcry from the disability community towards this film, in theatres now, which is a love story, if you want to call it that, between a man who uses a wheelchair and his caretaker. It is an old story, a romance between caretaker and patient, or nurse and patient, and it has happened many times in history. I am reminded of Peter Stuyvesant marrying his nurse after she cared for him when his leg was blown off by a cannon, in the seventeenth century. She cared for him for a full year, and during the course of that time, they fell in love. Peter healed, and wore a prosthetic leg afterwards, although he always had discomfort from his accident. Unlike the male protagonist in Me Before You, however, Peter went on to live his life, becoming the director-general of New Netherland, now New York City, and going down in history, his prosthetic leg apparent in many statues and paintings of him. I have never heard of anyone thinking Peter Stuyvesant was pitiful or weak because of his prosthetic leg, which is a disability. No one thought that maybe Peter should just give up and retire, or maybe even kill himself. While historic figures like Stuyvesant can be problematic, and this is not to exalt him, he is an example of a story in history that mirrors Me Before You.
In Me Before You, Will Traynor, a disabled banker, and his caretaker, Louisa “Lou” Clark, fall in love after she becomes his assistant, or caretaker, or whatever you want to call it. Of course Will is fabulously wealthy, and his family owns a castle, but he is a quadriplegic, so none of that matters, and Will wants to die. He also cannot have sex, another tragedy. Will decides to die by assisted suicide, or euthanasia, because clearly his life is just one tragic farce in which he can no longer do anything, and using a wheelchair to navigate around is a fate worse than death, and god forbid he be a continued burden on Louisa or anyone else. These are the ideas in the film, presented here with a dose of sarcasm.
For those who are unfamiliar with this trope, it is entirely too common and unfortunately is representative of dangerous ideas about disability, paralysis, and those who use wheelchairs. There are many out there who have not had any kind of considerable personal or intimate interactions with disabled people, or, in particular, a person who uses a wheelchair, at the peer level. Many people I meet have never interacted with a Deaf person before, for example, and often do not know how to treat me at first, if ever, and think things that are just astonishing about deafness. For this reason, a story like Me Before You can be very effective, as it plays into stereotypes held by those who do not experience disability, and the prevailing idea is that disability is a tragedy which prevents one from being able to live a full life. For many able-bodied people, the thought of becoming disabled is horrifying, and indeed, a fate worse than death. They believe that their lives will just stop, become meaningless, and they will be thought of only as burdens upon their families, friends and society, and they also can never have sex or a relationship. The human imagination, and a large influence on human imagination, the media, works to propel this notion rather than to dispel it, and Me Before You is just another example in a long line of ableist narratives. So is it just a fantasy, a harmless love story?
For a story like this to resonate with able-bodied audiences, it must play to their fantasies and biases. It affirms their beliefs rather than challenges them, and unfortunately, has very real-world consequences, in particular, euthanasia of the disabled and mentally ill, which is a huge issue in disability rights. Many disabled people, myself included, are aware that our lives are not viewed as being the same and having the same value as an able-bodied person’s, and in the medical community, we are thought of as defective. When I tell able-bodied people this, they are often stunned, and find it hard to believe. Well, it’s never happened to them. They haven’t experienced it. It’s like race; you’ve got to listen to what people are telling you they experience. If you are part of the mainstream and are not marginalized, you are just not going to have the same experiences. Any marginalized identity is going to experience stigma and biases which often threaten their lives, in particular those with intersecting marginalized identities.
Within the medical model, disability is something to be cured or fixed, and if it cannot be cured or fixed, then the idea becomes that we ought to perhaps humanely put disabled people to sleep. And it happens all the time. This dangerous belief also influences homicide of disabled people, in particular children by their parents, and the resulting sympathy for the murderer over their disabled victim, because the disabled victim was a “burden” and “defective” anyway, and did not have a good quality of life.
Disabled people are murdered at very high rates, they experience abuse and homicide more than other groups. A lot of people with marginalized identities understand that the mainstream is often trying to push them out, get rid of them, or kill them, or in the case of euthanasia, get us to kill ourselves, albeit with a little help. Because if you do not have a mainstream identity, then you are devalued. And there is nothing romantic about that.
Back to Peter Stuyvesant and his nurse, Judith Bayard. When studying history during undergrad at Hunter College in Manhattan, Peter’s story was one we were made to study, as we were living in a city full of things named for him. I was struck by it at the time, and it made my imagination wander. Prior to reading about it, I was certainly familiar with “peg legs”, because as a child, often pirates in the stories I read or cartoons I watched on TV had one. However, I learned that Peter’s injury almost killed him, took a very long time to recover from, and that his prosthetic leg was uncomfortable, and often his injury flared up. His disability experience became more palpable, and I thought at the time of the loving care he received from Judith after he returned to Holland to recover. I thought the story was very romantic. The two had spent a lot of time together, must have gotten to know each other as a result, and fell in love. I wondered about that process and wanted to know more about it. After Peter recovered, he and Judith, his new wife, went to New Amsterdam, where Peter would go on to live his life as the man he always had been; irascible, steely, energetic, powerful, and poetic. The story is not any less romantic, and Peter’s disability did nothing to fundamentally change his life or who he was, and that is because Peter’s story is real; it actually happened. It is representative of a real disabled life. Real disabled lives are worth living. It is only within fiction that they are not, fiction based upon tired notions and biases. However, these tired notions have a way of seriously influencing the lives of disabled people who are not living in the realm of fictionalized fantasy, and that is where the problem lays. Me Before You is not just stupid, it is dangerous, and will have lasting affects over the lives of those with disabilities, as it contributes to already existing ideas on the quality of our lives.