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Seeing Diabetes in Pop Culture

Writer Stu Sherman reflects on diabetes portrayals in the media

Many of us look to pop culture as a sort of mirror, looking at movies, books, even TV shows for a glimpse of ourselves – hoping to see our own issues and concerns reflected back at us. Recently, I started thinking about the different ways I’ve found myself – a person living with type 1 diabetes – on the page or screen. Frankly, there aren’t many. But the few ways diabetes has made it into popular culture have imprinted on my brain.

Here are a few of the most memorable ways I’ve found diabetes looking back at me from the pop culture mirror.

As a kid, I went to a big children’s hospital every three months to see my endocrinologist. Outside his office, there was a pile of magazines, pamphlets on diabetes, and one single video game cartridge featuring a superhero on the cover fighting a giant strawberry donut. One day, my curiosity got the best of me, and I asked to borrow it. When I got home, I immediately popped it in my Nintendo®.

The game starred a caped crusader who wandered across the screen like the Super Mario Bros.™ Instead of fighting mushroom people, he fought anthropomorphic sugary treats! Factoids about diabetes popped up throughout the game as you tried to save the mayor from an obese pie-throwing alien. The hero had to check himself four times a day and give himself injections. It wasn’t very exciting and didn’t teach me anything I didn’t already know about diabetes, but its campy premise was something novel – a diabetic hero!

His heroism, while managing his diabetes and fighting off sweets, seemed tied to the condition itself; this was a rare feat and one that has impressed me to this day.  The only other heroic character with diabetes I remember appears in the cult film Warlock. She defeats the evil warlock by injecting him with salt water. Progress!

Other diabetes depictions were not as encouraging to me as that early caped crusader. For example, the daughter in the film Panic Room cavalierly drinks soda and eats pizza for dinner. We only know she lives with type 1 diabetes because of a cutaway shot of her medications. Her diabetes doesn’t matter until it is a plot point in the movie, an obstacle to overcome. We are never exposed to her daily life, just the overdramatic side effects of the illness.

Steel Magnolias was even more discouraging. Shelby is a tragic figure, whose diabetes seems more like a nineteenth century wasting disease than a condition that can be managed. She eventually meets her end because she wanted to have a child, and her body couldn’t handle the stress. Shelby’s deterioration is rare and overly dramatic, and doesn’t seem to fit the reality I know. Since the film’s release, I have steered clear of beauty salons.

In my view, pop culture tends to use diabetes and other chronic illnesses to further the end of the story. It is so rare to find a depiction of a character that is actually helped by diabetes or grows because of it. Perhaps this is why is there is a dearth of male characters with diabetes. It doesn’t fit dramatically with a male hero (but really, couldn’t one of the Hardy Boys have had diabetes?). Yet when I think about my life with diabetes, I am convinced that, in spite of the hardships, it has helped me become who I am today. And I like myself.

In fact, I like myself enough to admit that in my opinion, Ann M. Martin’s tween series, The Baby-Sitters Club, had the most relatable character living with diabetes, a young girl named Stacey. Her story was told in BSC #3: The Truth About Stacey. As a teenage boy, I was exposed to the character from my bookish female peers, who might have learned everything they knew about diabetes from Stacey! The book explains the basics of the disease and shows the everyday struggles Stacey must face with her friends and her parents. Most importantly, Stacey’s diabetes isn’t tragic, it’s just a part of her life.

While the world of diabetes – and chronic illness – in pop culture still feels a bit barren to me, there are bright spots. Recently, I saw a film, The Exploding Girl, which reminded me of what growing up with diabetes really felt like for me. Ivy, the protagonist, must deal with being on her own for the first time and managing a chronic illness. There is something really powerful in the story that I could relate to. It’s the realization you get when growing up, that your body has placed limits on you in some ways, and to be healthy, you must respect them. I think that is one of the fundamental aspects of a chronic illness like diabetes. It makes you grow up much faster and learn to relate to your body differently because – unlike your peers – you know it is fragile in ways they do not. While pop culture uses that fragility for tragedy and plot development, I know that struggle has made me stronger.

Stu Sherman is an attorney, writer, and health policy wonk. His writing has appeared in Anthem Magazine, PopMatters, and xoJane. He was a big winner on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and promptly blew his winnings on law school. He’s lived with type 1 diabetes for twenty-five years. Sherman is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.   

© 2014 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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