It’s easy to believe a lot of what you see on TV and in the movie theater until you come across something with which you have personal experience and say, “what the….” I first remember one of these instances sitting in the living room watching who knows what when a woman on TV was giving birth and my mother thought it was ridiculous. There was probably a lot of unnecessary sweat, screaming and flailing going on there. I just remember my mom thinking it was over-dramatized. I think the same can be said for asthma. At least 25 million Americans are diagnosed with asthma (“Asthma at a Glance,” National Center for Environmental Health, U.S. CDC, 1999) and COPD is currently the 4th leading cause of death in the US (Mannino and Kin, 2006). You’d think people would be more informed about lung disease and what it looks like. This also makes me wonder who is consulting with these writers, directors and producers as to exactly how actors should act in these scenes. To be fair, some portrayals are supposed to be over the top and exaggerated, but how is the average, free-breathing, entertainment-connoisseur supposed to know that?
Portrayals I find inaccurate, annoying, and what have you:
I have often seen asthma exaggerated, blown out of proportion, and not treated seriously in films and on TV. Children with asthma are often picked on, made fun of, ridiculed and seen as less than normal. They can’t go outside, participate in gym class, breathe normally, talk normally or do what they want in life. Their disease, condition, symptoms or even medication are used at plot points or MacGuffins, instead of just being a part of who they are. Even in the show Lost, the character Shannon has pretty convincing asthma, but it’s really just a ploy to find her medicine than anything else.
- Mikey in The Goonies (1985) – way too many puffs on an OTC inhaler and later tosses it when he no longer wants it. Apparently I’m not the only one who recognizes this:
- Uncle Junior in The Sopranos (1999) – OSA and his CPAP, can no one help him get his mask on properly?
- Bobby Elvis in Sons of Anarchy (2008) – constantly trying to buy those “crazy expensive” albuterol inhalers, not to mention your average rescue inhaler has roughly 200 puffs in it.
Bobby – That dealer, she got that albuterol?
Piney – Probably.
Bobby – Tiki’s going through three inhalers a week…
- Stevie on Malcolm in the Middle (2000) – overplayed wheezing and shortness of breath. Sorry about the poor quality of videos here. The first is a scene from an episode and the second is the actor, Craig Traylor, leaving a phone message as “Stevie.”
- Wheezy Joe in Intolerable Cruelty (2003) – that’s one physically active hitman, not to mention a professional who easily mistakes a pistol for medication and blows his own head off.
- Albert in Hitch (2005) – “cures” himself of asthma to kiss the girl
Portrayals I find closer to what asthma really looks like:
These examples may not be perfect either, but they’re much more closer to what I’ve personally experienced and witnessed.
- Che in The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) – suffers from severe attacks, but is not completely debilitated from his condition
- Regular Sized Rudy in Bob’s Burgers (2011) – young kid who lives life to its fullest even though he has to take his asthma medicine every 2 hours or he could die
- Morgan in Signs (2002) – suffers from an asthma attack without medicine while his father tries to help him through it.
- Thomas in Black Hawk Down (2001) – soldier uses his inhaler before heading out on a mission, and yes I know there are questions to be asked about his active duty status.
- Bob from Up in the Air (2009) – man loses his job and wants to know how he’ll care for his daughter without insurance. I really dig J.K. Simmons’ righteous anger here.
- Barry in Sidekicks (1992) – teen with severe asthma manages his symptoms through a regulated exercise program.
So what’s wrong with asthma in pop culture?
I’m fairly certain there is no lack of education and information available about asthma. The problem is people seeking it out or stumbling across it. Unfortunately the main way people learn about things that aren’t in their face is through TV and film where asthmatics are generally depicted as:
- Social outcasts
This leaves both children and adults ashamed of a very common condition not wanting to admit they are ill and embarrassed to use their rescue medications in public. In response to the animated film Jimmy Neutron, Nancy Sander, head of the organization Allergy and Asthma Network Mothers of Asthmatics wrote the following to Nickelodeon:
Why asthma? Why did you select any life-threatening condition or the character, Carl Wheezer? Is asthma funnier than heart disease, diabetes, epilepsy, or AIDS?
There is nothing funny about growing up with asthma, a condition that robs children of oxygen, limits physical activity, and requires responsible use of inhaled medications and avoidance of allergens and irritants.
Was the character intended to educate children and the public about asthma?
If so, your efforts backfired.
Jimmy Neutron perpetuates the painful myth that children with asthma are emotional wimps that tend to overuse inhaled medications when faced with excitement.
It may not seem like a big deal, but these cartoons are both educating children on their limits and expected lifestyle AS WELL AS educating non-asthmatics on the appropriate response and treatment of those suffering with the disease. This includes other children, parents, teachers, family members and anyone else an asthmatic might deal with on a daily basis or run into only once. If this still doesn’t seem like a big deal, I’d like to point out several articles where two children and an adult find themselves in need of emergency care.
- Teen having a severe asthma attack in a Tim Horton’s restaurant attempts to seek help from staff but is completely ignored. Fortunately another customer recognized there was a problem and called 911.
- A Georgian woman died from an asthma attack after being abandoned on a lawn by her “friends.”
- A seven-year-old boy dies from asthma after transferred between three different hospitals during an exacerbation.
Fortunately it’s not all storm clouds and tornadoes. A new asthma treatment clinic is being opened in Contra Costa County, California in an effort to treat and educate their large number of asthmatics, and keep them out of the Emergency Room. While asthma never really goes away for those who suffer from it, the main goal is to maintain and manage the symptoms which is the purpose of this clinic. There are many educational opportunities for both adults and children out there like Tim & Moby Explain Asthma, and the recurring character on Sesame Street who helps children understand asthma action plans and the need for them.
Personally I think we need to encourage children to make goals and support them in achieving those goals. I was told as a child I could do whatever I wanted and played football even though I suffer from severe asthma and severe summer/fall allergies. Instead of creating ridiculous, debilitating characters why not celebrate our fellow asthmatics who have proved they accomplish their goals. Asthma obviously didn’t keep Martin Scorsese from winning 111 film awards including an Oscar for Best Director on Hugo (2011). Here’s a short list of a few other famous people you might recognize.
- Alice Cooper
- Bill Clinton
- Billy Joel
- Bob Hope
- Charles Dickens
- Che Guevara
- David Beckham
- Dennis Rodman
- Diane Keaton
- Elizabeth Taylor
- Emmitt Smith
- Greg Louganis
- Jackie Joyner-Kersee
- Jason Alexander
- Jerome Bettis
- John F Kennedy
- John Updike
- Joseph Pulitzer
- Kenny G
- Leonard Bernstein
- Louis “Studs” Terkel
- Ludwig von Beethoven
- Marcel Proust
- Mark Spitz
- Martin Scorsese
- Mike Tyson
- Orson Welles
- Paul Sorvino
- Peter the Great
- Rev Jesse Jackson
- Ricki Lake
- Sharon Stone
- Steve Allen
- Theodore Roosevelt
- Walter Mondale
- William Tecumseh Sherman
So what can we do? I’ve decided to start blogging more to share my story and experiences. In just the past few weeks I’ve already been contacted by friends, family and strangers saying they’ve benefited from or learned something from things I’ve shared. I’m committed to be on the lookout for fellow asthmatics in need of assistance out in the world and taking action when necessary. I’m also looking to point out and share good examples of asthma in pop culture that will further asthma education around the world. In fact, there’s some buzz about a new movie, Asthma (????), directed by Jake Hoffman and starring Krysten Ritter from Breaking Bad.
American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. Tim & Moby Explain Asthma. Retrieved September 6, 2013 from http://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/just-for-kids/tim—moby-explain-asthma.aspx
Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Asthma Facts and Figures. Retrieved September 5, 2013 from http://www.aafa.org/display.cfm?id=9&sub=42
Asthma Institute of Michigan. Famous People with Asthma. Retrieved September 6, 2013, from http://www.getasthmahelp.org/famous-people.aspx
Brown, Mark (2012, January 8). Time to take asthma more seriously. Retrieved September 6, 2013 from the Chicago Sun-Times website: http://www.suntimes.com/news/brown/7892555-452/time-to-take-asthma-moreseriously.html
Donovan, Cathy (2012, June 12). Children with asthma marginalized in movies, says Rutgers-Camden researcher. Retrieved September 5, 2013, from Eureka Alert website: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-06/ru-cwa061212.php
Huffington Post (2013, September 3). Taylor Smith, Georgian Woman, Abandoned Near Mobile Home After Apparently Fatal Asthma Attack. Retrieved September 6, 2013, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/03/taylor-smith-asthma-dead_n_3861638.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000003
Jouret, Jill (2012). Asthma on Screen. Retrieved September 5, 2013, from The Lancet website: http://download.thelancet.com/flatcontentassets/lanres/edch3no2.pdf
Malcolm, Marshall (2013, September 1). In Asthma-Plagued County, a Move Toward Prevention. Retrieved September 6, 2013 from The New American Media website: http://newamericamedia.org/2013/09/in-asthma-plagued-county-a-move-toward-prevention.php
Mannino, David M and Kin, Victor A (2006, September). Changing the burden of COPD mortality. International Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, 1(3): 219-233. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2707151/
Onespot Allergy (2013, March 6). Teen Having Severe Asthma Attack Denied Help And Ignored By Staff At Tim Hortons. Retrieved September 6, 2013, from the Onespot Allergy website: http://blog.onespotallergy.com/2013/03/teen-having-severe-asthma-attack-denied-help-and-ignored-by-staff-at-tim-hortons/
Sesame Street (2007). A Guide for Parents of Young Children with Asthma. Retrieved September 6, 2013 from http://www.sesamestreet.org/cms_services/services?action=download&uid=250b1bca-8fbd-4727-a595-f03be19c0320
Wu, Ann, MD, MPH (2013, June 10). Hollywood’s role in the stigmatization of asthma. Retrieved September 6, 2013, from the Asth.ma website: http://asth.ma/post/52673422110/hollywoods-role-in-the-stigmatization-of-asthma