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The Best (and Most Controversial) Movies and Shows Featuring Chronic Illness in 2017

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Editor’s Note: The following post contains spoilers for the TV shows and movies mentioned. 

Chronic illnesses aren’t usually the most popular subjects to be incorporated into movie and TV show storylines. Usually, portrayals are limited to terminal illnesses, stories of triumph where the sick person makes a full recovery or medical dramas where the focus is on the doctors and their quest to find a diagnosis. Rarely do we see media portrayals that show the everyday challenges of more common conditions and illnesses like fibromyalgia or Crohn’s disease.

That makes it pretty remarkable when a movie or TV show includes a chronic illness. These portrayals can be wonderfully validating and educational if they “get it right,” but they can also perpetuate harmful stereotypes and misinformation if they get it wrong. With 2017 coming to a close, we wanted to look back at the times chronic illnesses were featured in movies or TV shows this year and discuss which ones were our favorites, and which ones were the most controversial — “controversial” meaning the ones some viewers thought missed the mark.

Check out our picks below, and let us know if you agree or disagree in the comments below.

Here are our favorites…

1. “Gaga: Five Foot Two”

“Gaga: Five Foot Two” is a documentary that chronicles Lady Gaga’s daily life as she finishes her latest album, “Joanne,” and gets ready to perform at the Super Bowl. A few weeks before the documentary was released on Netflix in September, Gaga revealed that her struggles with chronic pain would be a part of the film, ultimately announcing that the type of chronic pain she deals with is fibromyalgia.

In the documentary, we see Gaga crying while dealing with a pain flare and talking to a doctor about treatment options — two experiences every chronic pain warrior has gone through. She also acknowledges her own privilege and stands up for people who don’t have the resources she does:

I just think about other people that, like, have maybe something like this, that are struggling to figure out what it is, and they don’t have the quick money to have somebody help them. Like I don’t know what I’d fucking do if I didn’t have everybody here to help me. What the hell would I do?

To hear someone as famous as Gaga discuss the harsh realities of chronic pain that so many others face (and are very rarely discussed in the media) was pretty monumental and validating to those who have faced skepticism.

Though some viewers pointed out that Gaga never actually mentioned the word “fibromyalgia” in the film and wished she went into more detail, many appreciated her care in showing what chronic illness actually looks like and using her platform to show others that they aren’t alone. As Gaga said in an interview before the film’s premiere, “My pain does me no good unless I transform it into something that is.”

“Lady Gaga put her heart and soul into making sure this documentary showcased what it is like to deal with illnesses, and it truly shows,” said Mighty contributor Lisa Friedman.

2. “The Big Sick”

Comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon based their film “The Big Sick” after their own lives: The story of how Gordon (Zoe Kazan) suddenly became sick with a mysterious illness, plunging Nanjiani into the world of chronic illness along with her parents. Gordon was ultimately diagnosed with adult-onset Still’s disease, a rare autoimmune disease, and the film highlights all the challenging aspects of chronic illness from the point of view of the sick person, their parents and their significant other.

In a world where portrayals of illness are most often limited to soapy medical dramas or tear-jerkers that end in the sick character’s death, it’s refreshing to see a film portray every day and even mundane aspects of illness such as making small talk in the hospital cafeteria, arguing about the best treatment plan, what you do after you leave your loved one at the hospital and go home and the pressure that’s often put on the sick person to “get over” the emotional trauma of illness. The film’s frank and realistic portrayal of illness rang true for many people who have chronic health challenges (and their caregivers).

“I found myself in tears at Nanjiani’s persistence and fight when he found himself in a helpless position,” wrote Mighty contributor Colin Seal. “I see that same fight in my wife when she is worried about my energy levels, or a new law that is being proposed that will affect us more than anyone on either side of our families.”

3. “black-ish”

“black-ish” isn’t necessarily known for incorporating illness into its storylines — which made it all the more surprising and commendable when a December episode focused on Anthony Anderson’s character, Dre, being diagnosed with diabetes. Anderson himself has type 2 diabetes, and it’s clear from the episode’s authentic tone that he had a hand in the portrayal.

Dre goes through all the stages of the grieving process after his diagnosis: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. He tries to say that he’s not experiencing symptoms, explores “natural cures,” balks at testing his blood sugar, finally realizing that his illness doesn’t have to be the only thing that defines him. Also commendable is the fact that the episode is factually accurate and actually encourages the audience to educate themselves about diabetes (something few shows seem to take seriously when portraying illnesses).

“We have a platform that we can use to bring awareness to a lot of things affecting us. I hope people watch and learn from it. By speaking up publicly about my personal health, I hope I will inspire other people to get themselves checked out,” Anderson told Parade last month.

4. “Unrest”

Jennifer Brea had been bedbound due to chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME/CFS) for a few weeks when she first picked up her iPhone and started filming herself. A lifelong writer and reader who could no longer do either, Brea turned to her “video diary” as an outlet for her fear and grief. After showing her footage to a doctor resulted in a greater quality of care, Brea realized the power of filmmaking when it comes to ME/CFS, and created a documentary about the illness called “Unrest.”

Because she was unable to leave bed to go on shoots, which took place all over the world, Brea filmed herself as much as possible using her iPhone and encouraged others in the film to do the same. She also interviewed people via Skype and set up a live feed that allowed her to watch her crew’s footage while it was filmed on location.

When the film was released in September, Brea got a chance to watch others with ME/CFS react to the film. To her, it felt like viewers experienced a “catharsis” from being able to see their experience validated onscreen.

“I want the general public to recognize how devastating this disease can be and how little we understand, not because it’s so complicated or unknowable but because of how little has been invested into finding the answers and how that has been a choice people have made,” Brea told The Mighty. “I would hope they would join us as allies to address this inequality, which is stunning.”

And the Most Controversial…

5. “American Housewife”

An October episode of the ABC comedy “American Housewife” sparked controversy with its mention of Lyme disease. The episode involved one character, Katie (Katy Mixon) saying she had Lyme disease in order to get out of volunteering with the PTA. In reality, Katie doesn’t have Lyme disease, and some viewers felt it was offensive for Lyme disease to be played for laughs. Mighty contributor Kate McLaughlin pointed out that people with Lyme disease are often accused of faking or “doing it for attention,” and felt episodes like this contribute to the stereotype that Lyme disease isn’t a “real” disease and when people say they have it, they might be faking (and that other diseases would never have been used to stand in for a faked diagnosis).

“The message that they are sending out is dangerous and contributes to the misunderstanding and normalizing the mistreatment of people with Lyme disease,” McLaughlin said.

However, other viewers interpreted the episode differently. They maintained that Katie’s efforts to get out of the PTA weren’t meant to be taken seriously and that it wasn’t offensive for Lyme disease to be used as the disease she didn’t actually have.

“The point of the whole episode was that the shenanigans of Katie and her friends were awful and needed to change. The idea that Katie should pretend to have Lyme is supposed to be viewed as shocking and wrong,” one Mighty contributor commented.

6. “Haters Back Off”

The Netflix series “Haters Back Off” was canceled last month, but its two-season run from 2016-2017 featured a character who claimed to have “undiagnosed fibromyalgia,” and many viewers were unhappy with the way the show seemed to suggest fibromyalgia wasn’t a real illness. Miranda’s mom, Bethany (Angela Kinsey), frequently tells people she has undiagnosed fibromyalgia, wears wrist braces (despite the fact that fibromyalgia generally includes all-over body pain), talks about having fibromyalgia so she doesn’t have to lift heavy boxes at work and gets sympathy from the man she’s dating due to her condition. Ultimately, though, Bethany reveals that she has a kidney condition, which is not played for laughs.

Some viewers felt fibromyalgia was used as a punchline, used to represent a “fake” illness that Bethany probably doesn’t have. The problem is that fibromyalgia is very real, and people who have it tend to be viewed as fakers and hypochondriacs, just like Bethany is portrayed to be.

“The stigma that invisible illnesses aren’t real is such a huge issue people such as myself face. This show has inadvertently solidified what a lot of ignorant people feel to be true, that we are just faking it,” wrote Bridget Parker on her blog Beautifully Broken — Chronically Strong.

Not everyone minded the way fibromyalgia was portrayed. “I thought it was funny. It really does just play off people who complain to everyone about made up problems. They make a point to say undiagnosed each time to stress the absurdity,” said Reddit user peanutgallerie in a thread about the show.

7. “This Is Us”

The latest season of “This Is Us” featured an emotional storyline in which Kevin (Justin Hartley) injures his knee, which results in surgery and a prescription for painkillers. What starts out as chronic pain quickly turns into an opioid addiction. On one hand, the show handled Kevin’s addiction well — it’s clear he is dealing with unresolved emotional issues, is repeating his father’s behavior (he was addicted to alcohol) and that he is abusing opioids in order to deal with his trauma. Viewers are encouraged to sympathize with him rather than see him as “just an addict.”

The controversy, then, is in the fact that opioids are so often misunderstood, especially this year with the opioid crisis intensifying and getting more media attention. While the show is under no obligation to show both sides of the issue, some people with chronic pain were concerned that the show perpetuates the idea that opioid use leads to addiction, and is yet another media portrayal of opioids that leaves out those who use their medication responsibly.

“As soon as I saw him take that first pill I knew where the storyline was going. And while it is a worthwhile topic, it is also one that has been done and done and done again,” said one Mighty reader. “Most chronic pain sufferers use many methods along with medication to manage their pain, and are under the magnifying glass for what meds they do use.”

Originally published: December 29, 2017
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