7 Things TV and Movies Get Wrong About Chronic Illness

Chronic illness is not regularly represented in movies and TV shows. Only recently have movies and TV shows about chronic illness been made popular. For example, The Fault in Our Stars, a love story about two teenagers with cancer was wildly popular with nearly $125,000 in box office revenue. Any representation of chronic illness is a step in the right direction, as an estimated half of all people have a chronic illness. The current representation of chronic illness often perpetuates common misconceptions about dealing with chronic illness.

Seven Things the Movies Get Wrong About Chronic Illness
Hard Work Can Cure Everything
We often see people who are paralyzed and injured struggling at physical therapy appointments. These struggles are intense and common in chronic illness, but one aspect commonly depicted of this struggle is not. Many of the chronically ill characters are cured simply by this hard work. There are a few scenes of them struggling and suddenly are cured of all symptoms. Many illnesses, like Type I Diabetes, won’t be cured with hard work. Symptoms may be kept at bay through activity, but rarely are their illnesses entirely cured.

Diagnosis is Fast
In movies or TV shows, we often see someone get obviously and visibly ill. The character suddenly faints or has a seizure then in the very next scene their illness is explained. In House, MD the most complicated cases the writers can think up are often solved within the time of a week on the show. In the real world, a lot of people do not immediately receive a diagnosis, especially those with rare or newly recognized illnesses. In rare illnesses, it may take decades to be correctly diagnosed. The process is exhausting and representing this problem in diagnosis is crucial to the understanding of what the chronically ill go through.

All Illness is Visible
The chronically ill protagonist is always obviously sick. They are in a wheelchair, on oxygen, or have lost all their hair from chemotherapy. Outside the movies, not everyone who looks healthy is actually healthy. This assumption is problematic to those of us with chronic illness. People assume you aren’t actually sick because every representation of chronic illness they have seen has been obvious and visible. In many illnesses, such as Fibromyalgia and Dysautonomia, patients may look healthy to outsiders.

Chronic Illness is Temporary
Occasionally movies and TV shows claim a character has a chronic illness, but the illness is not actually depicted as chronic. Characters are all either cured or die. The doctors, tests, pain, and medication is all shown as temporary. Audiences don’t see the daily permanent struggle that is faced by sufferers of chronic illness.

It Is All Cancer and Injury
There are so many chronic illnesses that people deal with, but usually only cancer and illness caused by injury are represented. Cancer and injury are easy fall-backs because they are easily understood, but there is no excuse for this lack of creativity and underrepresentation. There are plenty of chronic illnesses that make for compelling characters and stories.

Skip the Coping
Coping with a chronic illness is a huge struggle. Many patients grieve for their old lives and have to learn how to enjoy life in new ways. Coming to terms and learning to be happy with an illness is a rough and inspiring battle. By skipping this struggle and only showing illness as temporary, producers miss an opportunity to share these inspirational stories.

How Do We Fix This?
The more that chronically ill people share their experiences, the better the representation in the media will be. People have trouble understanding the issues chronically ill face and representation of chronic illness in the media is a step in the right direction. An accurate representation of this struggle in the media, TV shows, and movies would do wonders for awareness and understanding.

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2 thoughts on “7 Things TV and Movies Get Wrong About Chronic Illness

  1. The best film I’ve seen about what it’s like to be disabled is a Japanese movie with the unfortunately corny title “I will fly away on my wheelchair” (Kurumaisu de tobu.) It’s about a young man who becomes paralysed after tying to run away from some thugs he pissed off in a bar and the struggle of coming to terms with losing your old life and trying to find purpose in a new way of living. It’s the most accurate depiction I’ve seen and really captured the devastation and guilt and anger and grief and exhaustion you go through when your old self dies.

    I watched it because I was interested in how schmultzy and inspirational Japanese movies about disability would be compared to the eye-roll inducing American kind but was pleasantly surprised.

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  2. I’m not sure what happened to the comment I just wrote but I just wanted to recommend the Japanese movie “Kurumaisu de body was sora” (I will flying the sky on my wheelchair). I’d misremembered the American in my first, perhaps non-existent, comment. Despite the terrible title it’s a very good depiction of what it’s like to suddenly lose your old life to disability.

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