The unsexiness of death (or what ‘Me Before You’ is missing)
June 3, 2016
One of these days I’m going to write a nice, fluffy post aaaaaaall about my favorite organic non-hormone disrupting eco-friendly non-GMO spray sunscreen. Or something like that.
Today is not that day.
This weekend marks the opening of Hollywood’s latest offering in the relatively new genre of “death porn,” and it’s a doozie.
I haven’t (and probably won’t) see the movie, because I prefer to remember Finnick losing his life in a heroic act of self sacrifice in the fetid sewers beneath the Capitol, not (spoiler alert) committing suicide while his approving-yet-heartbroken girlfriend holds his hand, and the bottle of pills.
But I did read the book.
And this story, this little love-story-that-actually-wasn’t, is, I think, more dangerous than some of Hollywood’s earlier attempts. Million Dollar Baby sent a depressing message about the value of an elite athlete’s life post-major-trauma, but the confused message of “loving someone enough to kill them” at least wasn’t mixed in with romantic love. It’s a small “at least,” but a notable one, I think, for our culture which has sexual love on a perilous pedestal indeed.
This story is a little different, because the main character is already paralyzed and clinically depressed when he meets his would-be lover and eventual suicide accomplice. It wasn’t a tale of knowing the man before the profoundly life-altering trauma, but knowing – and falling in love with – only the man he was afterwards: the crippled man in the power chair.
So it’s possible, then, to fall in love with a human being who has been profoundly damaged by disease or accident. Because his essence, his intrinsic value, is unchanged. But what this movie gets so wrong is it’s seminal manifestation of love. The climax in this love story isn’t a sex scene, but a suicide scene.
Hollywood has sex pretty backwards, as it is, but things take a complicated cultural turn when we move from letting our feelings be the sole barometer for our sexuality (check) to letting our feelings be the criterion against which we measure the goodness of our continued existence.
Do I feel like I’d be better off dead? Do I have a plan for how I’d like to make this happen? Could I get my loved ones to endorse and even participate in this plan? (This used to be called clinical depression with suicidal ideation, and I’m pretty sure it’s still in the DSM. For now.) Great! Cue next major Social Movement of Great Significance, which you’d better get behind or else you might be a Bigot with a capital-B.
Eons ago, the year before last, Brittany Maynard was catapulted into global fame for her own battle for “death with dignity.” Physician-assisted suicide enthusiasts “Compassion and Choices” jumped onto her bandwagon and road it hard and fast to her eventual suicide death, on November 1st, 2014. It was, by that point, such a Truman Show-esque spectacle, one wonders whether she was able to exercise complete freedom, in the end, or if the intensity of nearly worldwide scrutiny and a nasty public debate signed her death certificate months before the actual event. It was a tragedy.
Telling clinically depressed, chronically ill, and paralyzed people that their lives are not worth living is a tragedy.
Inviting millions of viewers into the complicated, imaginary love triangle between Lou, Will, and his quadriplegia and driving home the message the the charitable, noble, and humane solution to his suffering is death, is a tragedy.
I hope this movie’s legacy is that it gets people talking about the chilling double standard which exists between disabled people – cripples, as one feisty wheelchair-user prefers we call her – as opposed to us able bodied “regular” folks.
Is a human life only as valuable as the sum of a body’s working parts? To the extent that it’s wanted? The right color? The preferred age, weight and gender?
Either all human life is valuable, or none of our lives have value. Not yours, not mine, not Barack Obama’s or Pope Francis’ or Taylor Swift’s.
Our value does not fluctuate with age. Ability. Wealth. Employment status. Health.
Stand up for life this weekend by having a conversation with someone about this movie, and about the idea that a person with a disability is somehow exempt from being assessed against the same mental health criterion as an able-bodied being. Be prepared for some discomfort. But don’t be surprised if, 5 years from now, we’re not watching romantic dramas about euthanasia between consenting adults, but about parents dispatching terminally ill children “out of love.”
Ever read The Giver?
Things always sounds crazy and far-fetched until suddenly they start to sound a little more like common sense. Maybe because we’ve heard them repeated loudly, and frequently, enough.