During World War II, residents on the islands in the southern Pacific Ocean saw heavy activity by US planes, bringing in goods and supplies for the soldiers. In many cases, this was the islanders’ first exposure to 20th century goods and technology. After the war, when the cargo shipments stopped, some of the islanders built imitation air-strips. These incorporated wooden control towers, bamboo radio antennae, and fire torches instead of landing-lights. They apparently believed that that this would attract more US planes and their precious cargo. This behaviour, it turns out, is not a singular occurrence. Anthropologists have found examples of similar behaviour at different times in history, albeit in island populations. In a commencement speech at the California Institute of Technology in 1974, the physicist Richard Feynman used the concept to coin the phrase “cargo-cult science”. The cargo cult’s air-strips had the appearance of the real thing, but they were not functional. Likewise, Feynman used the term “cargo-cult science” to mean something that has the appearance of science, but is actually missing key elements. The phrase has since been used to refer to various pseudo-scientific fields such as phrenology, neuro-linguistic programming, and the various kinds of alternative therapies. Practitioners of these disciplines may use scientific terms, and may even perform research, but their thinking and conclusions are nonetheless fundamentally scientifically flawed.
On the topic of sick people in media, can we get rid of the hypochondriac trope forever? I feel like it causes so much harm because people assume that like one in every ten people in a hospital is actually faking.
I saw an advert for a new show, the red band society, today. It’s being sold as “the breakfast club but in the paediatric wing of a hospital”. I haven’t seen the pilot yet, so I’m reserving judgement on the show. It might just end up being my new favorite for accurately portraying what it’s like to be a young person with an illness. But what I’m afraid of is that it’s going to be another instalment of this developing genre of fiction that discusses teenagers with illnesses but largely relies on tropes to do it.
I’m actually not, on principal, against sick-lit (which is how I’m going to refer to this genre of media). I think it’s really great that there’s slowly becoming representation of people with illnesses or disabilities. And I understand that the process of developing fully shaded characters that belong to a minority group is a long process to get right.
But that said, I think a lot of the traditional sick-lit type media relies on tropes that are harmful and doesn’t fully flesh out all of the complicated things that happen when you’re being diagnosed with an illness or once you’ve been diagnosed.
In reality, getting a diagnosis is complicated. If you go to a PCP, they’ll test for the few things they can think of and send you to a specialist. That specialist will either find something in their area (i.e. an podiatrist will tell you all your problems are because you have flat feet) which isn’t actually the cause of the problem. If they can’t find anything, they might assume you need psychiatric help instead of a different specialist (yes, really). If you’re lucky enough to get the right kind of doctor, you might get a few false diagnoses. Multiply this by a hundred if your condition happens to be rare and by six thousand if it’s rare and also not commonly seen in your age group or demographic. It doesn’t show the family and friends that don’t believe you, that think you’re being lazy, that tell you to take vitamin c or do some yoga. It doesn’t show the part where there isn’t a test for what they’re looking for. But on TV, it’s always simple. You go in for a problem, the doctor runs some tests, it comes back cancer. (And I’ve already talked about how much I hate that cancer is the only illness that exists, apparently). And then you tell your friends and family, and they feel badly for you and fawn over you. It almost never shows the part where your friends and family want more proof, where they still don’t believe anything is wrong, where they accept it but then get tired of you being sick all the time and then leave. It doesn’t show the complex range of emotions the people in your life will have about an illness, which affects them as well as affecting you.
It doesn’t show having to learn to live with it. And it especially doesn’t show how things stop being dramatic and start being normal. If a character has a bad reaction to a drug, it’s shown as a huge dramatic event. In reality, if your medication makes you throw up, you go do it, choke down another pill, and go back to whatever you were doing. And there’s never talk about there not being a pill to take unless the condition is lethal. Either it’s curable or it’s not. There’s no in between. Not being able to do things you used to be able to do is a shock the first time, but after the second or third you get used to it. I had to quit playing the tuba because I got sick and that was a shock, completely. I wasn’t as invincible as I thought. But now I can’t hold a boom to record sound, and I don’t even feel anything about it. It’s not dramatic anymore. It just is.
And then you never see the people living their entire lives being sick. In TV, you either get treated for your cancer and are better in six months, or you die. There’s no in between of “fine for now” or “in remission” or “chronically ill” because that’s not captivating. What drama is there in learning to just live with it and do what you can? But to the people living with conditions that end up being “just live with it” conditions, seeing people do that is so important. And I wish that, at least on TV shows and in books where this is the theme, people like that would be represented too.
And then there’s the whole reason people like this type of media, which is that it’s simultaneously inspirational and a way to feel like at least your life is better than these characters’.
And so the characters themselves can’t go through the complicated process of coming to terms with their diagnosis. They either have to straight to coming to accept it- this is the unbelievably cherry sick person who inspires those around her to live their lives to the fullest- or they’re angry about it and someone has to teach them to appreciate the final years of their lives because being angry is wasting that precious time. There’s none of this sometimes having days of being angry and other days being cheery. There’s no being desperate to do whatever you can to fix it, whether it works or not (for example, going to a faith healer). And frequently, there’s no room for personal exploration at all, because the main purpose of this character is really to inspire other people, whether is be another character or the reader/viewer, to live their lives to the fullest, because if this character can be HAPPY IN THE FACE OF DEATH, you can be happy with your own shitty life.
And the problem with all of this is that these tropes trickle into real life for people that do need to deal with these things every day, and the tropes surrounding them are damaging. It’s hard feeling like you have to be something you’re not, especially when the expectation is based on something very personal like an illness. We’re not all cheery and we’re not here to inspire you. We’re just trying to live our lives. And that’s okay.
But it would be great to see that side of things represented in media too, instead of just casting sick or disabled people as a pawn in your media.
You know what I hear in my head whenever people talk about Blue Ivy’s hair: “Beyoncé has all the money to make Blue look more white but she just let’s her walk around looking so black. Cause that’s essentially what your hatin’ asses are saying.
Why would anyone even say that? Her hair is so cute! Like blue ivy needs no help looking adorable.