(This article contains spoilers about the movie Me Before You.)
Sexy, attractive, intelligent, witty, sarcastic, and a voice worth dying for – just the kind of man I would have fallen hard for irrespective of his quadriplegia or wheelchair. No wonder Will Traynor’s carer Louisa couldn’t stop herself. She has been appointed by his mother to be Will’s companion, but finds a man who pushes her beyond her boundaries and steals her heart away.
Jojo Moyes’s 2012 novel Me Before You and its recent film adaptation leaves many audiences moved when Will (played by Sam Calfin in the movie) decides that he doesn’t want Louisa (Emilia Clarke) to be tied down with his disability. Not accepting the change that his accident has brought in his life and sure of a pitiable and painful future, Will decides to go to Dignitas and commit an assisted suicide.
Love is often “filmi” and romance influenced by the reel. Now imagine if you were a lonely disabled person somewhere looking to pick up ideas on romance. You would most likely find that that message of stories like Me Before You is that you shouldn’t inflict the burden of your existence on your partner.
As a teenager going blind, I remember sitting in the theatre and watching Mann, another film with a discriminatory lens on disability. In Mann, the woman hides away her acquired disability from her lover and does not disclose the loss of her legs because she doesn’t want to impose her hopeless body on him. At the end of Mann, the lover – being a Bollywood hero – does marry her, putting his devotion and love above the woman’s. I had watched no other films in which someone like me was the protagonist, so I was sure that if I were to have a relationship, it would be unequal and out of someone else’s goodness. It took me years to extricate myself from this internalised prejudice, when I actually started working on www.sexualityanddisability.org
As an artist, I completely understand the need for creative freedoms and the excitement of adapting diverse stories. But as the disabled TV presenter Mik Scarlet says in the BBC podcast Ouch, creative freedom and diversity are okay when there is true diversity, but where are the other positive stories? Persons with disabilities are bad villains, inspiring super-achievers, or loners and depressives. Most of us persons with disabilities offer a complex and colourful picture of the realities that constitute our lives. Yes, we do have our depressions and challenges, but we also have the fun, laughter, romance, friendships and family engagements.
Fifteen per cent of the world population finds very little visibility in the media that give them scripts to follow. You will never find a Dilwale or a Sex in the City made with disabled leads alongside the “normal” protagonists. To add fuel to the fire, films like Me Before You or Guzaarish say that death is preferable to disability.
Persons with disabilities are often considered asexual and desireless, which is very strongly reflected in both the novel Me Before You and the movie. Louisa’s boyfriend is very happy because there is no scope of sexual harassment from her new boss. It speaks volumes of how a person with quadriplegia is viewed – incapable of and uninterested in making sexual advances. But what is even more disturbing is Will’s confession to Louisa that he wouldn’t be able to sexually perform many things that he did as an able-bodied person – indicating that enjoyable and great sex were not for him anymore. This is why our work on disability and sexuality is important: to challenge the idea that sex is only for perfect bodies and only certain forms of sexual acts are acceptable and pleasurable.
Whatever happened to possibilities and creativity? There is a huge hype around sex and assumption that it is the territory of a nondisabled person. But what we forget is that every Kama Sutra position is not for everyone.
Living in environments full of barriers – physical, infrastructural, systemic and attitudinal –persons with disabilities often don’t get to exercise autonomy over their lives and bodies. Being a wheelchair user in many parts of the world, you can’t choose to access public places because of lack of infrastructural accessibility. Being hearing and speech impaired, you can’t engage with larger groups socially because of lack of knowledge of sign language. Being intellectually disabled, you can’t exercise your choice when parents and institutions decide to sterilise you forcefully. In such a global climate where choice and consent are very important discourses within disability rights, Me Before You insists that it is the choice of the person with the disability whether to live the tragic and painful life or end it and set himself and his girlfriend free.
I have a couple of questions for the people who believe that it was Will’s choice to do so. In cases of domestic violence, we have a principal issue with the abuse and violence. Will we stop raising our voice against it if the patriarchal system explains to us that it is the woman’s choice to tolerate it? We understand at many levels that it is not her choice, it is her environment, the pressure, and maybe the lack of a shelter and support which force her to internalise this choice. Then how does it become different for a person with a disability?
Many altered life situations turn people’s future around for the worse. Economies crash, natural calamities hit and conflicts happen, but we do not legitimise suicide in any situation. For instance, when discussions on student suicides involve providing counselling support and working on the systemic pressure points. In the popular Hindi film 3 Idiots, a student suicide issue becomes a chance to bemoan the loss of life, demonise the system that forced the pupil to be depressed, and a strong demand for altering the unsupportive environment of the education system.
But when someone acquires a disability and is scared or non-accepting of future challenges, are we okay with letting him choose death over life? Are we now accepting euthanasia and suicide as alternate solutions to the glaring ignorance around disability and the lack of resource, structural support, social acceptance, and counselling and rehabilitation facilities for persons with disabilities? Yes, because such prejudiced and ignorant beliefs devalue disabled bodies and give them an alien status that is removed from our world and reality.
Media representations shape public opinions and views. Psychiatrists have shared that media depictions and publicity of one kind of death encourages other vulnerable groups to commit suicide. Such films perhaps forget the power of the media. A friend, who has a locomotor disability, shared with me this week that he had considered suicide as a solution in his teens but was too chicken to do it. We laughed at the ridiculousness of the past, and even pointed out the simple pleasures that we experienced in life because he chose to live, such as the dazzling earrings he bought me from a vacation and the tea that I bought for him from mine.
All the while, I was silently glad of just one thing – that he had not met Will Traynor before.
Nidhi Goyal is a disability and gender rights activist from Mumbai, currently working as a Program Director: sexuality and disability project, at Point of View, a nonprofit working for women’s rights. You can follow her work @saysnidhigoyal.