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What These 6 Movies Got Wrong About Chronic Illness

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It’s safe to say most people don’t look to the movies for an accurate representation of chronic illnesses. In fact, it’s pretty rare to see any representation of chronic illness in movies at all.

This makes it all the more notable when a movie does portray a character with a chronic illness. Not only is it exciting for people who live with the same illness to see it in the media, this movie could be the only time people without the condition are hearing about it. Even though it’s “just a movie,” it can have a lasting effect on viewers and give them the impression that what they saw in the film is accurate for everyone with that illness. Separating fact from fiction, then, becomes an important way to make sure viewers understand the truth about the illness.

It’s perfectly OK to enjoy the movie and the awareness it raises. But we wanted to highlight a few movies that people with chronic illnesses found to portray their illness in a misguided way. The following six movies are entertaining and did bring awareness to an illness, but keep reading to discover what their portrayals got wrong.

1. Everything, Everything (2017)

“Everything, Everything,” based on the book by Nicola Yoon, tells the story of Maddy (Amandla Stenberg), whose mom forbids her from going outside to protect her immune system since she has severe combined immune deficiency (SCID). But then Maddy falls in love with her neighbor, Olly (Nick Robinson), who convinces her to go outside and “risk everything” for love.

Many people in the immune disorder community argued that the idea of someone with SCID not ever being allowed to go outside (the “boy in a bubble” stereotype) was completely unrealistic. Most people with SCID receive treatment and go outside like anyone — in fact, the “sterile environment” treatment was only ever used in a handful of cases. Some also pointed out that the movie presents Maddy as having “no life” until Olly came along, reinforcing the idea that people with disabilities don’t lead meaningful lives.

Viewers also found the ending, in which it is revealed Maddy never had SCID and her mom had Munchausen’s syndrome and was faking it all, to be problematic since people often assume they aren’t “really sick” since their symptoms are invisible. Marcia Boyle, president of the Immune Deficiency Foundation called the stereotypes presented in the film “worrisome and dangerous.”

Rare disease groups like the Immune Deficiency Foundation face so many hurdles to raise awareness about the symptoms and realities of living with a chronic disease, so movies like this are a real step backward for our community,” she told The Mighty. “In the future, we would ask that writers and filmmakers take the time to research the conditions they intend to portray instead of exploiting them through detrimental and completely false representations.”

2. Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor (2013)

In this Tyler Perry movie, Judith (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is an aspiring marriage counselor in an unhappy marriage who begins having an affair with Harley (Robbie Jones). It’s ultimately revealed that Harley was abusive to his ex-girlfriend (and to eventually Judith as well) and that he gave HIV to both women.

Members of the HIV community spoke out about the position the film seems to take against HIV — that Judith is being punished for cheating and Harley’s HIV represents his bad behavior. The Positive Women’s Network of the United States issued a statement to Perry that explained how these negative portrayals perpetuate stigma and can make people less willing to get tested and share their status:

Your film depicts people with HIV as untouchable and unlovable, doomed to a lifetime of loneliness, and unable to tell their own stories. It implies that men with HIV are sexually irresponsible and predatory. And the final image — that of a woman who has been infected with HIV due to an extramarital affair walking away alone and unhealthy — sends the message that HIV is a punishment for immoral behavior.

Mr. Perry, as a leader in the African-American community, is this really the message you want to send in 2013, over three decades into this epidemic?

3. Con Air (1997)

Nicholas Cage plays Cameron Poe, who has just been paroled and is onboard a prison transport plane that gets hijacked by other passengers. Poe’s diabetic cellmate, Baby-O (Mykelti Williamson), is on the plane as well, and his insulin and needles have been destroyed.

People with diabetes noticed that Baby-O is acting as though he has hypoglycemia, which is low blood glucose, since he’s sweaty and panicked. The treatment for hypoglycemia is to consume glucose or simple carbohydrates. However, he says he missed an insulin injection and needs an insulin shot – which would actually lower his blood glucose even more.

The website pointed out that even if Baby-O did have diabetic ketoacidosis, which occurs when the body doesn’t have enough insulin, it does not develop as quickly as is portrayed in the movie:

This was an unfortunate portrayal of diabetes, especially as ‘Con Air’ became quite a popular, well-liked film. The intention was admirable, one tends to believe, to include diabetes as a plot device, but it would have been more convincing if it had been days rather than hours since [Baby-O’s] last injection.

4. The Goonies (1985)

In this classic, campy action-comedy, Mikey (Sean Astin) and his friends set out to find treasure in their town. Mikey has asthma and uses an inhaler multiple times throughout the film.

Like many characters with asthma in media, Mikey is portrayed as weaker and more neurotic than his friends. He appears to use his inhaler when he’s stressed or anxious, which isn’t completely off-base since anxiety and stress can exacerbate asthma. But these aren’t the only factors at play with asthma. At the end of the movie, Mikey takes a breath from his inhaler, discovers he’s out of medicine, and throws the inhaler away, saying “Oh, who needs it?”

Joe Hadsall wrote in The Joplin Globe that this seemed to imply that you can “overcome” asthma, which is not true:

I guess Mikey had a great moment that helped him grow as a person, and that growth meant so much that he realized the inhaler was less like Popeye’s spinach and more like Linus’ security blanket. Like asthma is all in his head, and he decided to outgrow it.

Also worth noting: the scene in which Mikey’s mom says, “If he’s coming down with asthma, I don’t want him out in the rain.” Though asthma can be affected by weather, it’s a chronic condition — you don’t “come down” with it like it a cold.

5. Steel Magnolias (1989)

“Steel Magnolias,” the story of a group of women in a small Southern town, features one character, Shelby (Julia Roberts) who has type 1 diabetes. Throughout the film, Shelby’s diabetes is portrayed with a certain degree of accuracy, though more dramatically than it would be in real life (especially with current diabetes management tools). For example, in the famous beauty parlor scene, Shelby has a hypoglycemic episode and begins having a seizure, which her mom (Sally Field) quickly treats by giving her a cup of juice. It is accurate that hypoglycemia can be treated this way; however, advancements in medicine have made it easier for people with diabetes today to monitor their glucose.

Endocrinologist Jennifer Dyer wrote for Healthline that the portrayal of Shelby’s pregnancy as unsafe, and her kidney failure and ultimate death which is portrayed as caused by her diabetes, is also overdramatized and out-of-date by current medical standards:

Diabetic pregnancy is considered safe with strict glucose control and close glucose monitoring!  Women with diabetes have healthy pregnancies and health babies every day. Strict adherence to insulin shots and glucose checks is required, however — just as they are when not pregnant in order to maintain health. If Shelby had poor overall diabetes care throughout her entire life, it’s likely that she would still have had kidney failure, regardless of the pregnancy.

Mighty reader Kelly Porter told us, “Steel Magnolias — I refuse to watch it [because] A) it’s a chick flick and B) I have type 1 and have two wonderful and healthy children.”

6. Rat Race (2001)

Rowan Atkinson’s portrayal of Enrico Pollini, one of six teams of people racing from Las Vegas to Silver City, Nevada, to claim a locker filled with $2 million, is among the best-known representations of narcolepsy. He frequently falls asleep right in the middle of doing something and can even sleep standing up.

Many people believe that falling asleep at random is the main symptom of narcolepsy; however, there’s much more to the condition than that. Narcolepsy affects the brain’s ability to regulate sleep-wake cycles, meaning it can cause excessive daytime sleepiness, interrupted sleep, insomnia, hallucinations and sleep paralysis. Some people also experience cataplexy, which is a sudden weakening of the muscles, often triggered by strong emotions, causing the person to collapse, unable to move (though they’re still conscious).

While people with narcolepsy may experience “sleep attacks” in which they are overcome by sleepiness and fall asleep at inappropriate times, not everyone’s sleep attacks look the same. It’s also highly unlikely anyone could sleep for an extended period of time standing up like Pollini.

Julie Flygare, founder of Project Sleep, wrote on Medium that narcolepsy is frequently portrayed as a joke and doesn’t always actually “look sleepy,” making it difficult to diagnose:

Popular films like “Rat Race,” “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo” and “Moulin Rouge” feature comical characters with “narcolepsy” falling asleep mid-sentence while standing. This is not what doctors are looking for to diagnose narcolepsy. Narcolepsy’s sleepiness is often much more invisible and pervasive, and that’s just ONE of five major symptoms. Yet, because of the comedic portrayals, people often laugh when they learn I have narcolepsy, even though I have a serious neurological disorder like epilepsy or Parkinson’s disease.

Originally published: March 2, 2018
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