The recent movie Me Before You, based on the best-selling book by Jojo Moyes, has been marketed as the tearjerker romance flick of the summer. The film stars Emilia Clarke (of Game of Thrones fame) and Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games). But the movie has drawn fierce protests from disability rights activists, who say that the story promotes the harmful notion that people are better dead than disabled.
The story goes like this: Louisa, a young working-class woman (Clarke), gets a job caring for Will (Claflin), a man who became quadriplegic two years prior. Will wants to go to Switzerland in order to seek euthanasia in six months’ time. He feels that as a disabled person, his life is no longer worth living. But once Will meets Louisa, they fall in love. (Yes, I’m sure you’re shocked.) But love proves insufficient for Will to overcome his suicidal desires, and he chooses to kill to himself in the movie’s conclusion. Conveniently, he leaves Louisa with a hefty inheritance so that she can pursue her own dreams without Will.
“Live boldly” is the movie’s tagline. Yet disabled activists have rightfully pointed out that the tagline seems to apply more to non-disabled Louisa than to Will himself. On Twitter, disability activists hijacked the #LiveBoldly hashtag and started their own, #MeBeforeEuthanasia and #MeBeforeAbleism.
Our lives are not tragic, pathetic pitiful. This film is. Disabled people the world over #LiveBoldly #MeBeforeYou pic.twitter.com/g68QKReDiL
— Not Dead Yet UK (@notdeadyetuk) May 25, 2016
Activists have pointed out that the film’s ending has potentially serious implications for how society perceives people with disabilities — and how people with disabilities see themselves. Activist and film director Dominick Evans writes:
Writer Ryan O’Connell put it this way:
Numerous other disability activists have expressed similar sentiments about the movie’s potential to harm. Right around now, skeptics might be thinking that this is an overreaction. Me Before You is just a silly romance movie, right? But such a view obscures the effects that portrayals of suicide can have on individuals who are already struggling.
Social scientists have identified the Werther effect. The Werther effect is named after a novel written by eighteenth century German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In the novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), a young artist named Werther commits suicide in the story’s conclusion. The Werther effect suggests that publicized cases of suicide can have a contagious effect. News media have long recognized this phenomenon, implementing professional guidelines for reporting on suicide. Obviously, creators of fiction are not bound by journalists’ standards, yet I would still argue that there is an ethical obligation to limit harm. By most reports from people with disabilities, Me Before You fails on that count.
As disability activists suggest, much of the movie’s problem lies in social perceptions of disability. Take away Will’s disability, and no one would consider Me Before You to be romantic or thought provoking. The film’s premise rests upon the assumption that suicidal ideation is reasonable for a disabled person — and that even the power of love cannot overcome this “obvious” truth.
This issue is not confined to the silver screen. In the U.S., more states are passing assisted suicide laws that allow terminally ill individuals to seek physicians’ assistance in ending their own lives. California became the fifth state to pass assisted suicide legislation, which came into effect in June of 2016. It should be noted that the California bill, and others that have been passed, specifically state that only people with a prognosis of death within six months may be prescribed lethal medication.
However, evidence suggests that the existence of legal assisted suicide invokes the Werther effect. As Aaron Kheriaty writes, states that have passed assisted suicide laws have seen an increase in overall suicide rates — including unassisted suicides. Laws can have effects far beyond their intended scope, and so too can popular culture.
Me Before You isn’t an isolated example of a movie with disturbing disability politics. Clint Eastwood’s 2004 film Million Dollar Baby earned an Academy Award for Best Picture, while Hillary Swank won an Oscar for her portrayal of a boxer who became quadriplegic. Swank’s character also commits suicide at the end of the movie. There is a pattern here.
Let me be clear: Hollywood has the legal right to put out films like Me Before You, and even to award them highly coveted prizes. But doing so is profoundly irresponsible, and deserves our condemnation. At both the movies and in politics, we need to consider how our actions affect all members of our society.