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Me Before You-thanasia

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4th June 2016

The film adaptation of Jojo Moyes' 'Me Before You' has enraged disabled activists with its depiction of a man living with quadriplegia who wants to end his life

Me Before You-thanasia

Many people enjoy spotting laughable inaccuracies in film portrayals of their specialist areas - science, engineering, politics, history - but when books and films portray human lives as not worth living due to disability, and then shoehorn in a little 'romance' for good measure, it's hardly surprising that disabled people are incensed. Activists, led by Not Dead Yet UK, have been shining a light on the issue (as discussed by Ryan Gilbey for the Guardian). Below are excerpts (with our emphases) from just a few of the critiques - all by people with disabilities - of the new film 'Me Before You', starring Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin, which goes on general release in the UK this weekend; and of its source material, the best-selling novel by Jojo Moyes. The reality of life with a disability is little-enough understood without another big-budget representation being viewed as the romance of the moment, and it is hardly surprising that 'Me Before You' is being described as a 'disability snuff movie' and 'inspiration porn'.

Kim Sauder has left side hemiplegic cerebral palsy and is autistic. She is a PhD candidate in Critical Disability Studies who blogs about issues of disability and society, and précised the story thus:

In brief, Me Before You tells the story of Louisa Clarke who is recently unemployed and whose family relies on her having an income. She takes a job of a companion to the wealthy Will Traynor who was paralyzed after being hit by a motorcycle. Unknown to Louisa, she has been hired primarily for suicide watch as Will's parents are concerned that he will make a second attempt at suicide. Also unknown to Louisa is that Will intends to seek physician assisted suicide after six months (his parents are aware of this and have agreed to assist him in going to where it can be legally acquired).

After Louisa eventually discovers Will's intentions, she decides to use the remainder of the six months convincing him to live. He, on the other hand, is both intent on dying but convincing Louisa that she is not living up to her full potential. During this period, they fall in love but, ultimately, Will decides to go through with his decision to die. He leaves money to Louisa so that she can be free of the financial insecurity which led her to work for him in the first place and live her life to the fullest.

Sauder was published in the Huffington Post, saying

A disabled person will identify problematic themes in the media portrayal and almost immediately upon voicing those concerns, someone will pop up and say "But, there are disabled people who actually feel that way, so who are you to criticize?"

Here's the thing: There is a big difference between actual human people having feelings about their actual lives and experiences of disability (which I'm not here to criticize) and a fictionalized account written by someone who isn't disabled and which heavily romanticizes very problematic stereotypes about disability (which I am absolutely here to criticize).


When it comes to the book explaining why Will wants to die, he actually has very little to say on the matter beyond that it is his choice and that he can no longer find value in his existence as it does not match what he used to be able to do. He also (completely reasonably) chafes at the negative reactions he gets from other people which range from everyone thinking, they know how to treat his medical condition to just being generally uncomfortable in his presence... The main source of rationalization for why he should want to die actually comes from other people who are usually (with one exception of a guy on a message board) not disabled themselves going on about how if "they were like that, they'd want to die, too." Even Nathan, Will's care aide, says it.

(Read Kim's piece in full)

Emily Ladau is a writer, blogger and disability rights activist who born was with Larsen syndrome, a genetic physical disability. Regarding Me Before You, she wrote:

In far too many cases, non-disabled writers and filmmakers seem to have no qualms about reducing disabled characters to victims or sources of inspiration (referred to as "inspiration porn")... Every time the media thoughtlessly throws around these messages about disability, it's a painful reminder of how the existence of the disability community is so often perceived. "Me Before You" continues this trend, taking it further by trying to use both the victim and inspiration tropes simultaneously, aiming to leave audiences feeling inspired while still ultimately perceiving disability as tragic.

The movie's tagline is: "Live Boldly. Live Well. Just Live." Yet, Will does quite the opposite. The entire premise rests on the belief that life with a disability is not worth living. In spite of each of the characters in Will's life trying to persuade him otherwise, the fact remains that Moyes imagines a world in which disability is synonymous with misery and assisted suicide is the only solution. And in the book, amidst all this drama, Will never narrates. He speaks, but in so many ways, is voiceless. Everyone discusses him — to his face, behind his back — as though he isn't there.

(Read Emily's piece in full)

Dominick Evans is a director and activist who in 2003 suffered an injury which that left him unable to get out of bed on and off for seven years. He wrote:

Few films make me as upset as The Sea Inside. It has been years since the first time I saw the 2004

Alejandro Amenábar vehicle, which stars Javier Bardem, as a real-life disabled man named Ramón Sampedro, a Spanish man who believed it was better to be dead than disabled. Rather than portraying disability in a way that would open up dialogue about why disabled people feel that way, and addressing the greater issue of how society views disability, the film is a testament as to why non-disabled people should pity the disabled community, especially those who are as disabled as Ramón Sampedro, and support his decision to end his life, even if his disability was not fatal, which it was not.

We look to film and television for how to treat others, how to understand others, and to learn about stories about people we don't actually know. The majority of non-disabled people do not know someone with a disability. This is in spite of disability being the world's largest minority community with... [around] 1 billion worldwide. A lot of this is because disabled people have been kept away, out of public essentially sequestered to the back bedroom... and society still doesn't know how to deal with disabled people. Hollywood doesn't know how to tell disabled stories, so it falls back upon tired tropes that often involve pity or awe.


The disability community is sick of seeing films where disabled people are misrepresented. Part of this is because we are not included, anywhere. We were not consulted for the script. A wheelchair user did not write the script. Even the main actor is an able-bodied actor, which prevents him from knowing how accurate his acting, how harmful his portrayal, and how inauthentic the script really are. Without including the disabled voice, non-disabled Hollywood continues to make life harder for us, because this is all people see, and they assume it's true.

(Read Dominick's piece in full here)

On 7 October 2010, Shane Clifton was involved in a bicycle accident that left him a quadriplegic (C5 incomplete). He wrote:

To borrow Moyes own summary, "the book is about a quadriplegic who wants to die." Actually, the book is about a quadriplegic who wants to die, and at the end of the book chooses to do so - despite the fact that he found love and had a loving and supporting family, and so had an amazing opportunity to live a full and flourishing life. He was, after all, as rich as is a bottle of fine whiskey, and could have afforded any number of compensations to manage life with a disability- unlike most quadriplegics who are poor, but still choose to live.

So let's not beat around the bush. This is a book celebrating suicide. Worse, it's a book that presumes that suicide is the only rational response to the experience of living with quadriplegia.

In an interview about the book (available here), Moyes was asked whether she knew a quadriplegic before she wrote the book. She replied:

"not quadriplegics. The thing that really informed it was a member of my family who suffers from a progressive disease. I have been involved in feeding her, taking her out, and that kind of thing. Part of what inspired Me Before You was just questions I had in my head about quality of life."

Bloody hell. Moyes (when you read that name, say it with venom) writes a book about quadriplegics and she hasn't met one. Had she done so she would have discovered a community of people that have the courage to choose to live.

Now, before you get on your high horse and remind me that some people do choose to die, and that's their right, let me say that I understand that quadriplegia is downright hard to live with, and many people have it much harder than I do. And the person that chooses suicide has my compassion and support.

But I'm not going to celebrate that choice. And I'm not going to allow someone who has never met a quadriplegic to continue the myth that those of us with the injury would be better off dead.

(Read Shane's piece in full here)

On May 24, 2003, Dan sustained a spinal cord injury and began living my life as a person with quadriplegia. He posted an imaginative (and at times colourfully narrated) response to 'Me Before You' on YouTube, picking up on the use of language, the inaccurate depiction of quadriplegia and many other issues stemming from both the book and film:

William Peace, who has been paralysed since he was 18 years old, reflected on the assisted suicide at Dignitas of 23 year old rugby player Daniel James. He recalled broadcaster Libby Purves writing that

"... As civilized people we do not allow ourselves to flinch at a half wrecked body in a wheelchair, yet the flinch and the fear are still there inside".

The flinch and fear is still there.

I have read these words many times. Do people really flinch when they see me? Do my students flinch when I enter a classroom? Do my fellow scholars flinch when I enter a room? Do family and friends flinch when we meet? I would contend the only people who flinch are those with a typical body who deeply fear disability. Apparently these people abound. The fact they don't know a person with an actual disability empowers them to freely imagine what a rotten existence we crippled people are forced to live. For if we people with a disability were truly brave and strong we would kill ourselves and thereby end our misery. Those of us who live, learn and adapt to a disability are an inconvenient reminder of all that can go wrong in life.


I would characterize it [Me Before You] as another film in a long line of what I call the disability snuff genre. If that phrase upsets people good. I want you to be as upset as I am... All the critiques note that it is a given any person who is a quadriplegic would prefer to die. There is no need to even discuss why a quadriplegic would prefer to die. That is the unquestioned premise. Much drama is manufactured to reinforce this assumption. Will is essentially used as a prop to reinforce what non disabled people know about disability. Will is the perfect dignified puppet. Strong, silent, and asexual.


I recall going to the movie theatre to see Million Dollar Baby. At the end of the film when Maggie is killed the entire audience stood up and cheered. I was stunned. As people exited the theatre people would no look me in the eye. I was angry and wanted the bipeds who cheered Maggie's death to be as uncomfortable as I was. These sort of films are inherently destructive in large part because people with no knowledge of disability believe and absorb what they see in films... theatre goers are going to be entertained by the death of a quadriplegic man and the walk away message is simple--death is preferable to life as quadriplegic. This is so wildly wrong I have no idea how to undermine this line of reasoning.


This film is a modern day minstrel show. White actors in black face. In this case, a non disabled actor playing a disabled man, a non disabled writer writing about disability and a non disabled producer producing a show about a man with a disability. For me the take away message can be summed up in a well known slogan: Nothing about us without us. Are you listening Hollywood?

(Read William's piece in full here)

Sara is a blogger who was born with a form of Congenital Muscular Dystrophy called Collagen VI Myopathy. She wrote:

People with disabilities live every day facing the stigma that being disabled is the worst thing in the world and every day we try to tell people that it's not.


It is important to understand what Will amounts to in this story. He is nothing more than a plot device. He serves only to be a life lesson to the real main character, Louisa. This is another thing people with disabilities have to put up with on a daily basis. Being made into other people's inspiration porn. Will is used to teach Louisa the importance of living and once he's served his purpose he is completely disposed off. Leaving Louisa to ride off into the sunset of a sequel with a new found appreciation for not being disabled or dead where she learns to love again, obviously an equally non-disabled or dead person.


Here we are seeing assisted suicide be romanticised and used as a plot device. We see the audience excusing it because Will is disabled. I mean... it's completely acceptable and understandable for someone with a disability to want to kill themselves, right?


The film boasts the tag line 'live boldly' which has been trending on Twitter. I wonder how those involved with the film are so clearly misguided and ignorant of the message they are sending to us in the disabled community. They are telling us it's acceptable for us to want to die. They are telling us that it's acceptable and even a romantic gesture for us to go through with it. They are telling us that living boldly isn't for us. The best we can hope for is to serve as inspiration and a life lesson in film as in life.

(Read Sara's piece in full here)

Mik Scarlet is a successful broadcaster, journalist and musician. Reflecting on how he came to terms with his own disability as a young man for the Huffington Post, he said:

In 1981 I awoke in agony. My legs felt like they were on fire and my back was killing me. My poor Mum was sure I was faking it, trying to get out of going to school. It was the morning of my first exam, and instead of spending the night before swatting up I had gone to Wembley Arena to see my hero Gary Numan play his farewell concert, so it did seem obvious that I was trying to get of going to sit an exam I might fail. She ordered a cab, and I went to school. On arrival I collapsed and I was rushed of hospital. Long story short, my spine had collapsed and after spending nine months in hospital I was told I would never walk again. I was pushed out of the hospital in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down.

When I got home I became depressed, sure that any life I may have hoped for was now out of my reach. I would never find love, or even have sex, and could only imagine a life of requiring care and support with no independence or quality of life. I soon began planning to take my own life. I had it all ready when it became clear that my corpse would be discovered by my mother, who was carrying out all of my care. I could not have this, I could not break her heart, so I didn't go through with it. Instead I waited, biding my time until I could think of a way of ending my life. In the meantime, life happened.

Mik goes on to describe how his life since that time has been filled with all manner of 'things I could never have dreamed of, even before I became a wheelchair user', and having turned to the matter of 'Me Before You', says

On top of lazy writing, this film will leave a tragic legacy. Aimed at the younger audience, the book and now the film will create another generation that is sure that they'd rather die than be disabled and that assisted suicide is a noble thing to do. As most of the disabled people in our society, that is about 1 in 5 of us, become disabled later in life this will mean that another young 15 year old boy who wakes up to find themselves suddenly a wheelchair user will possibly feel exactly as I did in 1981. Forget all the other reasons why this film is a pile of dog poo, this alone is a reason to despise it. I would hope most people would like to know they had played a part in building a better world, not reinforcing the problems of the current one.

(Read Mik's piece in full here)

Ben Mattlin was born with spinal muscular atrophy, 'a progressive neuromuscular weakness that renders me quadriplegic'. Writing for the Chicago Tribune, he said:

the timing of the release could not be any more disturbing. Just a week after, on June 9, California's so-called Death with Dignity law takes effect... Nothing to worry about, supporters say. It applies only to those with terminal conditions who have been thoroughly evaluated by medical professionals.

I wish I could believe it. But all the safeguards in the world are nothing against the power of Hollywood to influence sentiments... my deepest concern is for the newly disabled or not yet well-adjusted or well-supported disabled who will be unduly seduced into relieving their relatives — and themselves — of the burden of living with a chronic condition. In short, the hazardous risk in movies like this is that it romanticizes and glamorizes an early exit for those who already feel marginalized, who feel they are living on borrowed time.

It may sound paranoid to worry about people being improperly influenced to have suicidal ideas. But as people like me know too well, the pressures already exist.


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? That the world might be better off without them taking up space?

This certainly isn't the first portrayal of a disabled person's suicide as a romanticized and noble sacrifice, and you can bet it won't be the last. It's a well-worn cliche of a saccharine fantasy. But from a disability perspective it's nothing short of an offensive stereotype. Hollywood has been widely criticized for under- or misrepresenting women, ethnic minorities and the LGBTQ community; isn't it about time it was brought to task for perpetuating primitive and potentially life-threatening prejudices about the disabled?

We shouldn't be impelled to feel guilty for our needs or coerced into resolving them through suicide. It's a matter of achieving life with dignity, not death with dignity.

(Read Ben's piece in full here)

Referring to the franchise that made Me Before You star Emilia Clarke a household name, poet, singer and disability activist Penny Pepper wrote in the Guardian, that in Game of Thrones,

we have Peter Dinklage, a real disabled person, as Tyrion Lannister, "the Imp". He has his fair share of sex, booze and outbursts of violence, and he is there as part of GoT's great storytelling. For disabled people, strangely enough, are human beings who find their lives going a certain way, and this gives us a unique understanding of the greater human condition. Overwhelmingly, we want to live as part of you. So open an accessible door, and let our stories through.

(Read Penny's piece in full here)

© Image copyright of Miguel Sousa and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons License 2.0

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