Ever since I met Stephen Wallem—this issue's cover subject, who portrays a nurse with diabetes on Showtime's wickedly funny drama Nurse Jackie—I've been wondering why there is so little diabetes on-screen, given that there's so much of it everywhere else.
It's not a trifling matter. For kids, in particular, media depictions of people they identify with can be crucial, which is why the Hannah Montana episode about diabetes got so much scrutiny a couple of years back.
Putting more diabetes on TV and in the movies could also be a powerful way to educate the nation. Of course, diabetes is so complex and so widely misunderstood that it would take an entire Hollywood studio years to get the general public up to speed. But a few choice storylines here and there could do a lot to dispel the most pernicious myths—it's not just about how much sugar you eat!—and maybe even persuade some of the millions of people who are at risk for diabetes to do something about it.
Currently, Nurse Jackie is one of the few places you can see a character with diabetes. While Tracy Morgan (who, like Wallem, has diabetes in real life) sometimes jokes about diabetes in the persona of Tracy Jordan on 30 Rock, it's a brand of gallows humor that by definition deals only in stereotypes about the disease. That's where the laughs come from. You wouldn't be looking to Tracy Jordan for sound information on anything.
But elsewhere, you'd hope the information would be sound. The classic example of screen diabetes done wrong, which Wallem cites in Carolyn Butler's interview, is the 1989 film Steel Magnolias. Julia Roberts supposedly has type 1, but to me it seems more like she's suffering from some 19th-century affliction of the lower humors. Then again, the mainstream media hardly ever gets diabetes right. If policy makers and voters know only what they see of diabetes on TV and in movies, they're not going to make very good decisions.
Wallem is stepping in the right direction. His character, Thor, is witty and kind, but also sometimes embarrassed and deflated and perhaps not terribly smart. I don't think anyone's saying "I'm a Thor" in the way fans of Sex and the City used to proclaim "I'm a Charlotte" or "I'm a Samantha." Those characters are exaggerations of what some people want to be; Thor is a realistic portrait of a friend you want on your side.
When I met Wallem, at a kickoff event for his gig as a spokesman for the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, he was already putting on a public face, answering my nosy reporter questions about his extraordinarily realistic prosthetic eye. But he was also frank about the ways in which he is not the "perfect" representative for the disease, since he has not been a "perfect" patient. This, in my mind, actually makes him better for the job. Portraying people with diabetes accurately means showing not just our resilience but our imperfections as well. Anything else is just a sitcom.