Oprah, Owen, Diabetes, Me

I admit that I rarely get upset over the often-mistaken or ill-conceived portrayal of people with diabetes on television series, in movies, on talk shows, or when a nightly news segment reports erroneously on diabetes and fails to provide good, factual information and chooses instead to fearmonger.


This laissez-faire attitude of mine is a symptom of larger psychological issues from years back. I’ll spare you an insightful analysis of my formative years, however, and simply say that to not get worked up over things such as mishandled diabetes in the media is a protective coping mechanism, a way my brain saves itself from meltdown and lives to fight other battles it feels more readily equipped to handle.

So it’s with more bemusement than anything else that I choose the media and diabetes as my topic this week.

Because some people do get upset about the representation of diabetes on TV and in film. They end up ticked off, enraged, and spiked-blood-pressure angry. Thankfully, there are quite a few bloggers out there who write about their dissatisfaction with the way people with diabetes are portrayed. My bemusement isn’t with these bloggers, either. Not at all. I’m so grateful for their voices, for their attempts to hold Hollywood and other media outlets accountable. I respect their writing and often wish I would do the same, yet my nonconfrontational self shrugs his shoulders and says, “Eh, what are you going to do?”

Last week Oprah made a pretty big diabetes-reportage gaffe by allowing Dr. Mehmet Oz to misrepresent both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes on her show with varying degrees of omission and deceptive editing. Please know that I did not watch the program. A neighbor alerted me to its airing, and without even checking to see what it was about, I responded with the following:

Thanks, but I’ll probably skip it. My guess is that it’s about Type 2 diabetes, and not Type 1. Bet. You. Money. I’m Type 1. They’re totally (like, seriously) different diseases. Type 2 is the epidemic they talk of, and the type that nearly 90% of people with diabetes have. They don’t do much on major media networks about people with Type 1. We’re not that much of a market for major venues such as Oprah. (But because a good majority of people with Type 2 are overweight, and because Type 2 affects tens of millions of Americans and there’s money to be made by promoting healthy lifestyles for Type 2s, I’d lay money that Oprah and Dr. Oz are dealing with that type of diabetes.)

The next day, or two days later (I can’t recall), Kerri Morrone Sparling of Six Until Me wrote a letter-as-blog-entry to Oprah and Dr. Oz. In her letter, Kerri articulately expresses the frustration that so many people with diabetes felt while watching that Oprah episode. If you haven’t read Kerri’s blog, I highly recommend this entry, as well as adding Six Until Me to your list of blogs to follow.

Since December my wife and I have been paying attention to a TNT series titled Men of a Certain Age. We’re always on the lookout for a series to get wrapped up in, a series with good character development and a good storyline. We really like the show, too. But…

The problem with Men of a Certain Age is its portrayal of Type 2 diabetes in one of its main characters. Owen, played by Andre Braugher, has diabetes. I assume it’s Type 2 diabetes; I don’t know if it’s ever been officially revealed what type he has. (Maybe there should be a name for Hollywood diabetes and all its ambiguous, erroneous ways. That way we can refer to a drama-betes when writing about it. Suggestions for a good name?)

Much has been written about how this “stuck between a rock and a hard place” character Owen has been saddled with diabetes simply to complicate the character’s difficult life. I think some of the best writing on that subject comes from diabetes blogger Amy Tenderich in her entry “Diabetes Part of ‘Loser Life’ on ‘Men of a Certain Age’.”

Any other recent people-with-diabetes mistakes on stage or screen? I haven’t been Hollywood-diabetes-aware for much more than a couple of years, and besides the Steel Magnolias portrayal decades ago, never really paid much attention. Which is the problem, I think: people without diabetes as part of their lives (whether living with it themselves or with a family member or friends who have it) don’t pay much attention. Or they do, just enough to take in the negative, dangerous, misrepresented aspects of a diabetic lifestyle.

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  • Aaron

    I’m not much of a movie goer, especially these days, but I can think of a few Type 1s in the movies:

    1) Con Air: I only saw this once when it came out, but I remember that one of the convicts on the plane was Type 1. [backstory to the film in case you haven’t seen it: a group of convicts being flown from one prison to another hijack the plane. Chaos ensues.]. As I recall, this movie seems to get the issues wrong, as the type 1 falls sick (acting hypo and becoming increasingly less conscious as the drama unfolds and is in desperate need of his “medication”, which seems to be insulin, not glucagon. The implication seems to be that when the convicts took over the plane and chaos took hold, the diabetic didn’t have access to his insulin. He comes close to dying and then in the nick of time somebody gives him his shot and he’s almost instantly better. Typical Hollywood cheese.

    2) Panic Room: this one, in contrast, is a highly accurate depiction of a teenager with Type 1 diabetes. It is clear from the movie (well, clear to a diabetic anyways) that when she goes dangerously low and is without food, the “shot” that she needs is glucagon, not her insulin. It’s also clear from the movie that her sugar levels are dropping (via a glucometer watch she wears), as opposed to Con air where he’s just “getting sicker” (which could mean hyper or hypoglycemia). A minor quibble is that the girl in Panic Room drinks regular coke instead of diet for no particular reason in one scene. I can handle that.

    3)Species. Premise of movie: an alien lands on earth, needs to mate with a healthy human. It takes over a female body and seduces men until it finds a suitable one. A variety of men are killed for various reasons of being “unfit” or “unhealthy”, one of which is a type 1 diabetic.

    4) There was a sienfeld episode where a guest character was diabetic. I’m not sure if they even tried to distinguish type 1 from 2 on that one. I think she passed out on the couch and the main characters tried putting cookies in her mouth (yeah, while she was passed out). I don’t think that worked, but I don’t remember what they did next. I guess called a doctor? I don’t remember anything to do with injections of any kind.

    Looks like Amy Tenderich has covered this topic too:

    Another blog mentions “The witches” “Chocolat” “Soul Food”, “Godfather III” “Nothing in Common”. I haven’t seen any of those.

  • Jan Chait

    There is a very good article written about 8 or 9 years ago that explains why Hollywood handles diabetes like it does. It can be found at http://tinyurl.com/yk5yc7b. The writer, who has Type 1 diabetes, did an excellent job.


  • Carmen

    I think people in general just dont get it…often people will look at me when I tell them I have Diabetes and they say “so does my grandpa”. I that he probably has a different type of Diabetes than I. I have Type 1. They say “but you’re so young and slim…my grandpa is old and overweight”. I just give up then.

    I also appreciated that Panic Room got it right. I think that the Coke that was in the teenagers room was for her lows. (I personally keep juice boxes in my night stand!).

    Steel Magnolias was on target too. This movie was also one of the reasons I chose to only have one child. My pregnancy reeked havoc on my diabetes (went blind, had a vitrectomy).

    Great article Eric…hope you are doing well.


  • MJ

    I saw a great Hannah Montana episode a month back about one of Hannah’s friends who gets Type 1. It was EXTREMELY accurate and I kept thinking…where was this when I was a kid living completely alone with this disease??? It was very refreshing.

    The only reason I watched Panic Room was b/c of the type 1 diabetic and I was very pleased with the accurate portrayal.

    I hate when people come up to me and say, “Hey, if you eat cinammon your diabetes will go away.” (Or some other insane thing like that). They have no clue.

    Great article!