7 Times TV And Movies Got Diabetes Wrong
8/17/16
WRITTEN BY: K. Thor Jensen
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One of the most frustrating things about living with diabetes is the massive amount of misinformation that’s floating around. It seems like almost every person you meet has some crazy idea about what causes it or how you treat it.

Where does that misinformation come from? In many cases, the media. TV shows and movies have used diabetes either as a cheap way to ramp up drama or as a lousy, lazy punchline in comedies for years. Come with us as we spotlight seven of the absolute worst offenders.

1 – Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

This absurd action flick shows what happens when you try to apply logic to the fairy tale world. Hansel, played by Jeremy Renner, has grown into an adult “witch hunter” with a “sugar sickness” caused by eating too much candy as a child. In between fights, he needs to inject insulin to bring his blood sugar down.

Instead of monitoring his blood glucose with a finger prick or a diabetic alert dog, Hansel instead takes regular insulin injections when his watch alerts him, no matter his carb count or level of physical activity. We’re not saying that we needed him to explain his IC ratio on camera, but they could have handled it a little better.

2 – Do No Harm

This short-lived NBC drama told the tale of a high-powered neurosurgeon afflicted with an evil split personality that took over from 8:25 PM to 8:25 AM. While T1Ds who go low can often seem like completely different people, that’s not what put Do No Harm into the hall of shame. The protagonist explained his inability to be on call in the evenings by saying he has diabetes, and despite working in a hospital, nobody calls him on how ludicrous that excuse is.

Everything about the way the show handled T1D was insane, from the massive blood glucose reader that somehow delivered numbers with infrared light to the wide-ranging ignorance of medical personnel as to how the disease actually works. In the first episode, he’s declared “hypoglycemic” with a BG of 315 and told he’s about to go into “diabetic shock” if he doesn’t take 20 units of insulin. That’s … an awful lot for a 315.

3 – The Big Bang Theory

I personally can’t stand CBS’s hit nerdsploitation comedy, but lots of people seem to like it. They lost more than a few diabetic viewers in 2014, though. In a Season 8 episode, Penny is recounting a previous job at the Cheesecake Factory, where she successfully convinced a table of “chubsters” to order more dessert. She follows this with “one of them even had an insulin pump!”

This is a sterling illustration of lazy writers using diabetes as a punchline. Painting diabetics as lacking in self-control is one of the worst stereotypes the disease has. There’s absolutely no reason a diabetic shouldn’t allow themselves to have dessert once in a while, especially if their glucose levels are under control. Shaming sufferers of a chronic disease is about as low as it gets.

4 – Big Nothing

It’s kind of silly to take 2006 crime caper Big Nothing to task for lack of realism, but the way the flick handles diabetes is pretty ludicrous. The flick, directed by Jean-Baptiste Andrea, tells the tale of a group of small-town scammers who get caught up in a blackmail scheme that goes wildly out of their control. When a corpulent FBI agent with diabetes gets involved, the group takes him out by force-feeding him a giant lollipop.

It’s a lousy punchline, but it’s also not medically accurate. Yes, excessive sugar intake would eventually lead to the agent going into diabetic ketoacidosis, but that wouldn’t happen for a while, and as a murder weapon, it’s not as effective as a bullet to the head.

5 – Hannah Montana

If you ask many diabetics, the thing they’re probably the sickest of hearing is “Oh, you can’t have candy?” Depending on how you treat your lows, many T1Ds don’t even want to eat candy for fun anymore because they use it to bring their blood sugar up. One of the most egregious examples of this stereotype came in a 2010 episode of Hannah Montana, in which supporting character Oliver is revealed to have diabetes.

The plot centered around Hannah and her friends learning about his condition and essentially keeping him away from sugar because he says he can no longer have it now that he is diabetic. The original cut of the episode featured tons of misinformation (as well as Oliver diving into a garbage can to get a candy bar!), but after protests, Disney pulled it from airing and re-shot several scenes to remove the most inaccurate material.

6 – Con Air

One of the most notorious portrayals of diabetes in film came in Simon West’s 1997 action flick. When a plane full of criminals being transferred to Alabama gets taken over by the crooks, one passenger – Mike “Baby-O” O’Dell – has his syringes and insulin taken from him. Of course, because we need to ramp up the drama, he instantly goes into diabetic shock and the only cure is a shot.

We can understand why Hollywood keeps writing diabetes this way. For a typical type 1, if they were having a sudden life-threatening event, it would be a crash low treated with juice or glucose tabs. But drinking a tall glass of orange juice isn’t quite the visual that getting stabbed with a needle is, so we get scene after scene of emergency insulin injections and the patient fully recovering in just minutes.

7 – The Walking Dead

During the sixth season of AMC’s smash hit show, rugged survivalist Daryl was wandering through the woods when he was captured by a trio of other survivors. One of them, a woman named Tina, is a Type 1 diabetic. When he escapes and runs off with their bag, Daryl finds her insulin and, because he’s a good person, returns it to her just in time for her to pass out. One shot and she’s up and running and ready to go.

So first off, if a diabetic suddenly passes out it’s likely their sugar is low, not high, and they certainly don’t finger prick her to check. Not that it matters much, in the long run – Tina is killed off by the end of the episode, chewed up by zombies in a greenhouse. How exactly she’s managed to keep her insulin cold for the two years since society collapsed is a mystery.


Read The 10 Most Expensive Liquids in the World by Alexi Melvin.

K. Thor Jensen

K. Thor Jensen lives in Friday Harbor, Washington and splits his time between writing with words, writing with pictures and writing with code. He has two amazing children. You can see more of his work at shortandhappy.com