How is Diabetes Depicted in the Media?

TV shows and movies are an important and entertaining part of many of our lives, but they don’t always offer an accurate portrayal of people living with serious or chronic medical conditions, like diabetes.

Incorrect Facts Lead To Misconceptions About Chronic Medical Issues

Nuanced or realistic portrayals of serious issues are simply not always possible due to the constraints of the film and television format, namely the fact that directors and producers usually have less than two hours to tell a complete story. There’s also the important fact that movies and TV are a form of escapism for many viewers. Most people don’t want to see real-life when they go to see the latest Steven Spielberg movie or sit down to watch their favourite show on Netflix.

But that’s not to say that movies and television shows can’t do better in their portrayal of serious or chronic medical issues. Dramatic license is one thing, but getting the basic facts about how certain medical conditions affect people wrong can lead to serious – and sometimes dangerous – public misconceptions about said conditions. Nowhere is this more common than in how diabetes is depicted in movies and TV.

Diabetes Is Commonly Misconstrued

We all know that movies and television shows require drama – and where characters with diabetes are concerned that drama most often occurs in the form of a low blood sugar emergency caused by the absence of insulin. These characters essentially become a ticking clock, a problem for the main character to solve before time runs out.

In Con Air (1997), starring Nicolas Cage, a plane transferring dangerous convicts between prisons is hijacked by the criminals on board. Cameron Poe (Cage) has been paroled and is hitching a ride home on the plane in question. Poe’s diabetic friend, Mike "Baby-O" O'Dell (Mykelti Williamson), is also on the flight, but has his insulin syringes destroyed during the chaos of hijacking. O’Dell almost immediately begins going into diabetic shock, creating yet another problem for Poe to deal with on top of saving the day.

In reality, O’Dell’s diabetic emergency could have been treated with something as simple as a piece of candy, a glass of fruit juice, or a can of pop, but because Con Air is a Hollywood action movie it requires that his low blood sugar issue be solved by a dramatic needle injection.

In the 2002 film Panic Room, starring Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart, a similar situation unfolds when a mother (Foster) and daughter (Stewart) lock themselves in a panic room during a home invasion. Locked inside the safe space without insulin, Foster’s 11-year-old daughter Sarah begins to experience diabetic seizures due to low blood sugar. The film then becomes a battle for survival – both against the robbers and diabetes.

Although diabetic seizures are always a possibility in low blood sugar emergencies, they rarely happen so quickly in the absence of available insulin as depicted in Panic Room.

Hollywood Can Do A Better Job Portraying Chronic Illness

These are just a few examples of how Hollywood needs to do better when portraying serious or chronic medical conditions such as diabetes in movies and on TV. It’s one thing to cut corners in order to entertain, but in many cases it’s simply irresponsible to mislead the public by depicting serious illnesses, their symptoms, and their treatments in an inaccurate manner.

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