The unprecedented backlash against Me Before You might be remembered as a sort of tipping point in disability-rights activists' fight for fair representation in pop culture. The movie is about a young man Will (Sam Claflin) who sustains a spinal cord injury and becomes paraplegic. He and his caretaker Louisa (Emilia Clarke) fall in love, but — spoiler alert — Will ultimately decides to end his life with assisted suicide. It's this tragic ending that has people with disabilities and their advocates angered. They claim it not only romanticises his suicide but perpetuates the stereotype that life is not worth living for differently abled people — that a paralysed life is so terrible that not even a great love could save it.
A powerful social media campaign fuelled by passionate activists was key to heightening the movement from a whisper to a roar. Critics of Me Before You co-opted the film's tagline and promotional hashtag, "Live Boldly," on Twitter to skewer its irony, considering that Will chooses not to live boldly but to kill himself. Differently abled individuals have been using hashtags like #MeBeforeAbleism and #MeBeforeEuthanasia to share their perspective on what it means to live with a disability. They've also used social media to coordinate events aimed at spreading their message, like protests outside theatres and on premiere red carpets. “I think the huge difference is that now they can’t ignore us and they can’t get away from us,” Lawrence Carter-Long, a disability-rights activist and adviser to the ReelAbilities Film Festival, explained to BuzzFeed.“They can’t brush you off as just that one kook out there.”
The campaign has garnered enough attention for journalists to confront filmmakers with the issues it raises. "It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what the message is," director Thea Sharrock argued in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. "It’s a fictional story about how important the right to choose is. The message of the film is to live boldly, push yourself, don’t settle." JoJo Moyes, the screenwriter and author of the original novel, told Stylist, "This is not by any means sending out a message. It's just about one character — it’s nothing more than that.”
But it seems that it is more than that, which is what Me Before You's detractors have honed in on. “Anybody who tries to tell you that ‘it is just a movie’ or that ‘movies don’t really matter’ doesn’t understand history,” Carter-Long told BuzzFeed. Exactly. As any minority population can tell you, pop-culture representations — accurate and inaccurate alike — are incredibly powerful tools in shaping our perceptions of and attitudes toward them. And the ardent disability-rights activists leading the backlash against Me Before You understand that exceptionally well.