Shout out to The Golden Girls: Shows and movies that “get” chronic illness

Posted 7 months ago by

‘Tis the season for binge-watching — but the media often flops in its portrayal of people with health conditions. So we’ve gathered patient perspectives on Hollywood depictions of illness and who’s gotten it right (thanks, Bea Arthur).

When doctors doubted Dorothy

A writer for The Mighty who has multiple health condition recently praised The Golden Girls for it’s portrayal of main character Dorothy navigating the healthcare system with a chronic condition. Over the course of a two-part episode (called “Sick and Tired”), Dorothy (played by Bea Arthur) starts feeling constant exhaustion and hops around to different doctors who don’t believe she has a real ailment.

“Maybe I am crazy — nobody believes me,” Dorothy laments to Rose (Betty White) after multiple appointments.

“Dorothy, you are not crazy, honey, you’re sick,” Rose replies. (Thank you for being a friend, Rose.)

Ultimately, Dorothy is relieved when a specialist finally diagnoses her with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). The show was ahead of it’s time in building credibility around CFS, which is just now gaining recognition as a serious longterm condition that shares many characteristics with some autoimmune conditions. Golden Girls creator Susan Harris based the episodes on her own experiences with CFS and doctors who didn’t understand the condition in the 1980s.

Other shows worthy of some applause

While no show does a perfect job, additional shows that The Mighty includes on a list of 7 TV Shows That Got Chronic Illness (Mostly) Right include:

  • The West Wing — Writers consulted with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society to depict President Josiah Bartlett (Martin Sheen) and his relapsing-remitting MS. Some have argued the show didn’t capture all the symptoms and severity of the condition, but it raised awareness of MS.
  • Brothers & Sisters — A young character named Paige (Kerris Dorsey) is diagnosed with type 1 diabetes after experiencing symptoms that real-world patients may experience, such as increased thirst and frequent urination. People with type 1 diabetes say the media often gets it wrong, so it’s refreshing that this show got it right.
  • The Good Wife — Before playing a person with Parkinson’s disease (PD) on The Michael J. Fox Show (2013-2014), Fox (who has PD in real life) played a character with a neurological disorder called tardive dyskinesia on The Good Wife in 2010. The show gets props for featuring an actor with an actual health condition, playing a character who’s an aggressive attorney and not “just” a patient.
  • Grey’s Anatomy — In general, hospital-based shows are known more for their romantic plot lines than their medical accuracy. But a 2016 episode called “Falling Slowly” captured some of what it’s like to get a rare diagnosis known as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (a group of disorders affecting connective tissues in the body).

Speaking of Grey’s Anatomy, one of its stars, Kate Walsh, who played Dr. Addison Montgomery from 2005-2012, recently opened up about being a patient in real life. Walsh revealed that she had surgery in 2015 to remove a lemon-size brain tumor, which turned out to be a non-cancerous meningioma.

“I played a real badass on TV, but when it comes to being a patient, it’s such a vulnerable experience,” Walsh said.

More and more shows and movies are also depicting mental illness — and doing a better job of it than before. For example, Stranger Things recently got good reviews for raising awareness of some aspects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The media’s increasing focus on mental illness — if done carefully and correctly — can be a positive thing overall, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

On PatientsLikeMe

Members have shared a lot about shows and movies portraying chronic conditions, mental illness and more.

In the Mental Health community, some members have given “thumbs up” for some TV shows, like A&E’s docuseries Obsessed and Hulu’s show Mental. “I think Obsessed is pretty good. It doesn’t seem to ridicule, exploit, or put down the patients like some shows I’ve seen on the topic. Many shows I’ve seen on OCD seem to portray the people with the disorder as sideshow attractions. I like that Obsessed keeps it on a more human level and is also focused on treatment,” one member said.

But members also recall how the media has propelled stereotypes in the past, such as the acclaimed 1975 movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest associating mental illness with violent crime. “I wish the stigma didn’t exist, but people unfortunately assume some pretty bad things based on what they have seen on tv,” a member noted, mentioning that film.

Members with ALS expressed frustration with the depiction of people diagnosed with ALS on TV shows (including ScrubsThree Rivers and Law and Order), as well as mixed reviews of the 2014 movie The Theory of Everything. But some members did like the film. “It’s a touching film that does a great job in humanizing Stephen Hawking. Although some have criticized the lack of science in the film, I think its purpose was to look more closely at his life and his relationship with his wife, Jane, which is fascinating and complex,” one member said.

Those living with MS have said that some shows (like Private Practice) have been so-so at portraying the condition — but they’re no West Wing. One member’s take? “West Wing did an excellent job of portraying ms. It showed that even the President of the US could run the country while in the middle of a relapse… it didn’t interfere with his ability to do his job.”

In your opinion, which shows and movies have done a good or bad job of portraying health conditions? Join PatientsLikeMe today to chat about what to watch (or avoid!).

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