Diabetes in pop culture: like finding a needle in a haystack?
Here’s a trivia question for you: What do Nick Jonas, Halle Berry, and Tom Hanks have in common? Sure, they’re famous celebrities, but they also live with diabetes. Some of them have made it the life-long target of their philanthropy to spread awareness and support the cause, such as actress Mary Tyler Moore and rock ‘n’ roller, Bret Michaels.
Diabetes is a fact of life for more than 9 percent of the U.S. population, with 1.4 million Americans being diagnosed every year. Despite its prevalence in our society, there’s not a lot of true-to-life depictions of the disorder in pop culture. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering, “What’s a good movie/book that involves a relatable character with diabetes? What about athletes? Where are all my fellow Type 1/Type 2 folks?” we’ve got you covered. Here’s a few notable books, movies and sports fun-facts that shed a more realistic light on the condition that 29 million Americans live with.
Diabetes in film and TV
Steel Magnolias (1989) might be the most well-known (and dramatic) depiction of Type 1 diabetes in film. Alongside Sally Fields, Daryl Hannah, and Dolly Parton, Julia Roberts plays Shelby, a Southern woman who struggles with severe complications from her diabetes when she has a baby against her doctor’s advice.
Mad Money (2008) is a comedy film about three female employees of the Federal Reserve and their plot to steal money before it’s destroyed. One of the main characters, Jackie (Katie Holmes) uses her diabetes as way to appear more “edgy” in her social circle, leading to comical results.
Scrubs (2001 – 2010) was a TV comedy series about life, love and friendship between a group of zany medical interns at Sacred Heart Hospital. Dr. “Turk” (Donald Faison) is diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in the show’s fourth season, bringing some comedic relief to this often-dramatized disorder.
Diabetes in literature
The Baby-sitter’s Club (Anne M. Martin) is a popular children’s book series about a group of girls in the business of—you guess it—baby-sitting. One of the main characters, Stacey, is affected by Type 1 diabetes. She often faces the challenges of maintaining a healthy lifestyle while trying to keep up with her friends (and fellow candy-lovers).
True Believers (Kurt Andersen) is a coming-of-age novel depicting Karen, a woman who has managed and maintained her Type 1 diabetes for most of her life. This novel is one of the first to include a protagonist not defined by her disorder, but who learns to live with it in positive ways throughout her lifespan.
The Wallander series (Henning Mankell) features one of the most popular fictional detectives, Kurt Wallander, as he navigates the world of solving crime and managing his Type 2 diabetes.
Diabetes in sports
Ryan Reed was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes during the height of his NASCAR racing career in 2011. After being told he’d never be able to race again, he was fueled to not only prove he could manage his chronic illness while being a top racer, but also to give back to the community by starting Ryan’s Mission, a nonprofit focusing on awareness and education of all types of diabetes.
Gary Hall, Jr. was in his early twenties when he was told he should stop focusing on winning Olympic gold medals for swimming and instead focus on his new life as a Type 1 diabetic. After winning two silver medals and two gold medals at the 1996 Atlanta Games, Hall was diagnosed with the chronic illness. However, he did not let it keep him from his Olympic aspirations—he won 10 Olympic medals over his career and was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 2012. He has since become an advocate for the Diabetes Research Institute.
Zippora Karz danced on the stage of the New York City Ballet for 16 years, where she devoted her time not only to the art of ballet, but also to the art of managing Type 1 diabetes. Karz was initially diagnosed as a Type 2 diabetic and spent years of her career struggling to get healthy. Once she was accurately diagnosed as a Type 1 diabetic, Karz was determined to get herself on track. Now in her 40s, she has become a spokesperson, educator, and author hoping to inspire anyone struggling with a chronic illness to not give up on their dreams.
While diabetes is a part of life for many Americans, it’s not always easy to find relatable characters or scenarios that reflect this in the pop culture universe. Oftentimes portrayed as an overly dramatized plot point, it would be nice to see more realistic depictions of diabetes in the media—where characters are not defined by their disorder, but instead find meaning in having it be part of their lives. Because let’s face it, the best heroes are the ones who overcome adversity instead of succumbing to it—those are the stories worth watching. Now, let’s get Pixar and Spielberg on the phone…