by Marie Notcheva
Me Before You
On June 3rd , a “feel-good” movie designed as a ‘dramatic romance’ opened in cinemas nationwide. Being somewhat out of the pop-culture loop, I first heard of it when a European friend posted a disability rights activists’ petition to boycott the film on social media. The main character in “Me Before You”, Will Traynor, is an extremely wealthy, good-looking, educated British man who is left a paraplegic by an accident. Despite having a loving family, access to the best rehabilitative therapy, and a devoted caretaker, he decides to end his life at Dignitas, a Swiss euthanasia clinic.
Louisa, the caretaker, forges a strong bond with Will and tries to talk him out of it; but to no avail. Ultimately most of the main characters in the movie – including his family – cave in and support his “choice” to end his life, which Will has decided is no longer worth living. Amid swelling, emotionally-evocative music, he follows through on his plan. Pro-life activist Stephanie Gray wrote, “[Will’s family] all encourage, facilitate or are actually present at Will’s suicide the way he wants it.”
“‘Me Before You’ literally romanticizes a death wish,” said Tom Shakely, executive director of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network. The main character, despite being in a far better situation personally, economically, and even physically than many disabled people, concludes that he is better off dead than to face the challenges he’s been handed. This is a slap in the face to the many physically disabled people who live productive lives, contribute to society and honor God in their circumstances. (I have a wheelchair-bound friend in Albania who organizes Christian camps for the disabled and shares the Gospel with anyone who will listen; and, despite Albania being far less handicapped-accessible than Britain or the United Sates, Klodi is rarely without a smile or kind word.)
Does this film really portray handicapped individuals? Worse, has the value of human life become so cheap that Hollywood presumes to tell the disabled they should feel worthless? Ben Mattlin, who was born with spinal muscular atrophy, wrote in an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune:
“Make no mistake: Quadriplegia is hard, and it can be tempting to give up. Like Will Traynor, the paralyzed heartthrob in the movie (played by nondisabled actor Sam Claflin), I rely on constant assistance from paid aides and family members. It’s nearly impossible to find a job, let alone a restaurant or store without steps or with an accessible restroom. It’s a good thing I’m positively bursting with self-confidence and know I do want my life to continue. But how many of those who are struggling to maintain self-esteem, who feel unsure of their right to exist, possess the courage and sheer chutzpah to withstand the invidious message that they’re better off dead?” (Emphasis mine).
The Culpability of American Media
There has been much outcry about this film from disability advocates and anti-euthanasia groups, but I fear that they are like a voice calling out in the wilderness, drowned out by the culture at large. The ethical implication of euthanasia, often called “mercy killing” by its advocates, was so taboo until recently that it was rarely considered a viable moral option. Now, it is being debated (and even implemented) around the world as a “patient right.” American film culture, by glorifying this horrible tragedy, is partly responsible. As of June 2016, six states allow physician-assisted suicide to “mentally-sound, terminally ill” patients, as does the Netherlands where euthanasia practices are reported to be non-consensual at times. (“Physician-assisted suicide” is an oxymoron, as doctors are required to take the Hippocratic Oath to heal, and not to kill, before being licensed.)
Hollywood’s morbid fascination with euthanasia is not new. Me Before You is eerily similar to the 1981 film, Whose Life is It Anyway?, which also depicted a post-accident quadriplegic determined to end his life. However, two stark differences stand out: in the earlier film, the hospital administrator staunchly opposes the main character’s decision on moral grounds. In 1981, it was considered acceptable to “put to sleep” one’s aging dog; but mercy killing a human being was still a moral taboo. Secondly, the earlier film was dark and serious. Me Before You is a product of Hollywood’s modern ‘culture of death’ which has been so white-washed that comedies are made about abortion (2014’s “Obvious Child”; 2007’s “Knocked Up”); and now we have a feel-good romantic drama about euthanasia.
American movies, unfortunately, are the unrealistic standard by which many young people worldwide set their moral compass. Whether we want to admit it or not, impressionable students are debating the relative morality of euthanasia versus quality of life in medical schools around the world – largely because it has become a “gray area” in American culture – in less than one generation. Hollywood has a tendency to grossly misrepresent and inaccurately portray entire people groups (such as American evangelicals in Soul Surfer; now the disabled in Me Before You); but people in other countries really believe our films represent American culture. (Case in point: just try and convince a Bulgarian teenager that American teens don’t all drive sports cars and carry Gucci purses, ala Mean Girls).
What is Our Response?
Obviously, Hollywood does not deserve anyone’s support at the box office for making films about disabled people offing themselves. Signing petitions to end “disability death porn,” as one activist group has termed it, is fine. But the Christian response is to influence the culture to the dignity of human life; to reignite the value of men and women made in the very image of God. This is the matter of principle, the point of discussion at which we diverge from mainstream culture. Human life is sacred. Here, it seems The Dove Foundation (considered the authority on “family-friendly” film reviews) colossally missed the point on Me Before You:
“Regrettably, despite the good cast and themes of love, devotion, and the love of life, strong language and sexual situations and comments prevent us from awarding the movie our Dove ‘Family-Approved’ Seal.”
Wait, WHAT?? They were more concerned with cleavage, “shirtless men in a few scenes,” betting on horses and swearing than with the glorification of suicide? When a shirtless man concerns us more than a suicidal man, our ‘Christian priorities’ are out of whack.
Every suicide is a tragedy. What Hollywood doesn’t show is the horribly painful ripple effect suicide has on the relatives, friends, and even strangers left behind. A year ago, I sat in a church for the funeral of a 15-year-old classmate of my son, and watched tears run down the face of another teen boy who had barely known him. For unknown reasons, the child had taken his own life and left a community reeling in shock. The effect would have been no less if the boy had been handicapped; terminally ill; or had Down’s Syndrome. Instinctively, we know how precious life is. I regularly interpret for terminal cancer patients (who do not look glamorous or attractive as the characters in The Fault in Our Stars, by the way). These men and women cling to life with tenacity, wanting to spend every possible moment with their loved ones. This is humanity. This is putting “you” before “me,” not the other way around.
Counseling any suicidal person (pre-emptively or remedially, after a failed attempt) is never easy, and their problems should never be minimized. This certainly applies to physically disabled individuals as well as any other depressed person considering suicide. But the truth is, most disabled individuals arenot depressed or suicidal, and they resent Hollywood’s condescending portrayal of them. Me Before You is a prime example of how far Hollywood has ventured from the sanctity of human life, and cries out for the truth of the Gospel (the Person and work of Jesus Christ) to give redemption and meaning to human suffering. The tragedy of films such as this is that they romanticize suicide; snub the Sovereign Creator; and reduce the moral and spiritual capacity of human beings to the level of animals.