By now, everyone's probably seen the ads on YouTube touting the “romantic comedy of the year.” A young, shapely woman in a red dress, and a handsome man — in a wheelchair?
The short clips are brilliant, and the intrigue is palpable. Could it be? A mainstream, box-office hit that portrays a person with disabilities as a desirable partner?
The answer is both a yes, and a horrifying no.
While everyone can handle death as a tragic but compelling end of a good romance, it's a bit different when a character — despite being happy in love — chooses to kill himself.
But this is the premise of “Me before You,” originally a best-selling book in the U.K. before it was made into a film with breakout stars Emelia Clarke and Sam Claflin.
When a cautious small town girl takes a caretaker job for a moody business mogul paralyzed in a recent accident, their unlikely relationship becomes a friendship that eventually blossoms into love. He teaches her to broaden her horizons and abandon the timid outlook that has been holding her back in life, while she helps him find happiness despite disability.
In the end, he admits that his six months with her have been the best months of his life, and acknowledges that he could have “a very good life” going forward. But it is not the life he wants — and so he kills himself, ultimately with her support.
Yet beyond this, there's something eerily familiar about the movie. The youth, beauty and gripping narrative recall another campaign for assisted suicide, and that was the very real death of Brittany Maynard in 2014.
After receiving a grim prognosis of six months to live due to an aggressive brain tumor, Maynard and her husband relocated to Oregon in order to take advantage of the Death with Dignity law, which legalized physician-assisted suicide in the state.
Compassion and Choices, an advocacy group for right-to-die causes, latched on to Maynard’s youth and beauty after she approached them, asking how she could advocate for rights to assisted suicide for other people. They produced a video featuring Brittany and her family, complete with soothing music and beautiful photos, in which she calmly explains her situation and decision to kill herself.
So what do these two have in common?
Both attempt to normalize assisted suicide by taking the “ick” factor out. A glittering romantic blockbuster, a heart-wrenching People magazine spread with gorgeous photos of the brunette sufferer — both say “look at these beautiful people doing this — you can too.”
How else is anything advertised to us?
But when emergency hotlines exist for those on the same edge, how do we differentiate between rescuing someone from the depths and “respecting their decision”?
Take the real story of Luke, a fresh-faced, 19-year-old man with a full life ahead of him. Luke was depressed for four years and tried to kill himself by crashing his car at 60 miles an hour. He survived. He wants to live now. And what he said about the assisted suicide movement was stark: if someone was on a bridge and wanted to jump, we'd try to save them, right?
Perhaps it's the violence that makes us shudder. Putting a gun to your head, throwing yourself off a building, slitting your wrists — what if Claflin's character or Maynard chose one of these methods? What would the narrative be then?
But no, taking a lethal dose of barbiturates and passing “in peace” as your vital organs shut down one-by-one makes all the difference. And yet, there is no difference. All we've done is put lipstick on something which, despite our glamorizing attempts, is the same awful, isolated despair.
What's arguably most insidious about the character's decision to kill himself is the tired but re-dressed “quality of life” argument: that existence isn't worth it if it's not on our ideal terms. Never mind that this logic justifies ethicists such as Peter Singer making the case for selective infanticide.
The most important thing is that we actualize ourselves the way we see fit — and that anything less renders us the right to shut it down, to call it all off.
Let's be clear: suffering is real, suffering is hard. Suffering makes us not want to live. But when did we determine that life could be without it? It simply can't. And it's the ones who've chosen to keep existing through great adversity that ironically show us how much life is worth living.
When we make reality our enemy, anything is justifiable if it threatens what we've imagined for ourselves. And so we don't flinch at anyone — a fictional hero, a beautiful brunette, a victim of horrific sexual abuse — pulling the trigger.