Reality, TV, and Diabetes

Disease portrayal still often unrealistic and sometimes dangerous.

with Amy Tenderich

straightup-hiresEditor's Note: While this columnist is no longer writing for and we have ceased to update the information contained herein, there is much to be read here that is still applicable to the lives of people with diabetes. If you wish to act on anything you learn here, be sure to consult your doctor first. Please enjoy the column!

June 2006 —It's safe to say that everybody reading this grew up with TV and movies — inundated with them, in fact. They are as integral to our reality as eating and sleeping. (A friend of mine in college actually mixed up her own family history with episodes of The Brady Bunch!)

On the other hand, lots of us here didn't grow up diabetic. Now that I'm a grown-up aware of just how prevalent this disease is, I wonder: Where are all these millions of people with diabetes? If art reflects life and vice-versa, there ought to be some very extensive and very sensible coverage of diabetes in TV and film. But there isn't.

Maybe it's simply a matter of finally growing up enough to thoroughly distinguish media from life, and stop expecting silly shows and films to offer anything useful in the real D-world.

There are lots of lame or silly portrayals of diabetes on TV and in the movies. For example, I caught a snippet of a pre-teen girls' flick on figure skaters that my daughter was watching: in one scene, a team member is discovered crying in a ladies' room stall, fumbling with her syringes. She admits she has diabetes, and the other girls assure her they're OK with it. Then everything gets happy. As if the only issue were the girl's embarrassment! Not a word about how being diabetic might make competitive skating a little tougher. Just keep the syringes out of sight and you can be normal, too!

Of course, there was the X-files episode a couple of years ago, where a criminal and an FBI agent mysteriously switch bodies, only the criminal doesn't know he's inhabited a insulin-dependent diabetic body. He runs around guzzling soda and eating candy bars. Even though the criminal ends up dying, critics note that this is still "a world in which type 1 diabetes is treated in the same regard as the common cold."

And let's not forget that Seinfeld episode where Jerry and Kramer think Elaine's date has passed out from hypoglycemia, and try to feed the unconscious guy a cookie. (Funny! But a good way to kill a diabetic by choking.)

On the other end of the spectrum, movies like "Panic Room" and "Steel Magnolias" leave the audience with the impression that diabetes draws all its victims into an "uncontrollable tailspin towards death."

Those of you with diabetes will join me in a little eye-rolling here. Most of these portrayals range from the shallow to the ridiculous to the just plain wrong. Naturally, for the entertainment industry, diabetes is just another dramatic element to spice up the story. Hollywood is notoriously dodgy when it comes to realistic portrayals of diseases and ailments.

Danger Zone
But the dangerous thing, I think, is the impressions spread to those outside the diabetes community: diabetes is like laryngitis – bothersome, but not serious; or worse, it's a two-week death knell; or maybe you should actually try to stuff food into the mouth of person who's passed out from low blood sugar. Aaargh!

This wouldn't be so troublesome if it weren't well-documented that we Americans learn about the "outside world" primarily through TV and movies. So for millions of non-diabetics out there, this is all the information they've got about diabetes. No wonder they say silly things to us diabetics sometimes!

As diabetes consultant Kelly Close once noted about the 1997 adventure flick Con Air – in which the drama circles around a diabetic inmate who's lost his syringes and will die without a quick insulin shot – "Why show the scariest, freakiest thing? It's backtracking in terms of education (about diabetes)." This type of thing happens only once in a million, yet it's one of the few instances where diabetes was featured prominently in a major Box Office feature film.

A Few Got It Right
Thankfully, a few shows got it right – but in unexpected places. The daytime drama "The Young and the Restless" actually won an award in 2001 for their credible handling of diabetes diagnosis and treatment in a segment called, "Raul's Diabetes."

And a teen movie flick called "The Babysitter's Club" was applauded for including one of the most positive media portrayals of a teen with diabetes to date.

The dLife team has compiled a list of movies highlighting diabetes, with varying degrees of success.

Personally, I was hoping for something like the portrayal of being Jewish on "Sex & the City"– with authenticity, compassion, and a generous dose of humor. Maybe next season, on some other HBO hit…

Meanwhile, I'm just hoping that others are now also watching TV and movies with a more critical eye than we did as kids. Just because "Reality TV" is trendy, doesn't mean TV = reality. Being a bona fide grown-up means knowing how to tell the difference.

dLife's Daily Living columnists are not all medical experts, but everyday people living with diabetes and sharing their personal experiences. While their method of diabetes management may work for them, everyone is different. Please consult with your diabetes care team to find out what will work best for you.

Read more about Amy Tenderich.

dLife's Viewpoints columnists are not all medical experts, but everyday people living with diabetes and sharing their personal experiences, most often at a set point in time. While their method of diabetes management may work for them, everyone is different. Please consult with your diabetes care team before acting on anything you read here to find out what will work best for you.

Last Modified Date: May 24, 2013

All content on is created and reviewed in compliance with our editorial policy.

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