Disclosure: I haven’t seen the show I’m writing about, “The Red Band Society” a drama on Fox about chronically ill teenagers who apparently live the life of…not chronically ill teenagers. I’m skipping right over that seemingly important part because what has interested me is the reaction it is causing. This September 12th piece entitled, “Hollywood has it wrong: I’m a teenager with an illness, and it’s not glamorous at all” in The Washington Post written by Yale University student Lillie Lainoff is an impressive opinion piece that illustrates the many ways the show is absurdly unrealistic. Ms. Lainoff has been dealing with the autonomic nervous system disorder POTS since her very early teen years and, understandably, is insulted by how the show makes chronic illness seem like a glamorous experience. She writes:
“Red Band Society” is being lauded as a departure from the idealization of teen chronic illness and death in recent young-adult books and movies such as “The Fault in Our Stars” and “If I Stay.” Merrill Barr writes in Forbes that “what audiences will immediately take notice of in Red Band Society is its willingness to not sugarcoat the reality of the patients’ various situations.” But based on the pilot, nothing in how the patients are portrayed is realistic. The viewer never sees a character taking medication, going through a treatment or doing anything that a typical patient does in a hospital.
The New Yorker reviewed the show in its September 15th issue and didn’t have anything kind to say about it either. Along with pointing out some of the most painful lines of the first episode, (“Everyone thinks that when you go to the hospital life stops. But it’s just the opposite: life starts,”) the review shares the view of Ms. Lainoff that it was a “commercial gambit” designed to play off recent and very popular young adult fiction and the resulting movies:
The show mines a primal adolescent fantasy: that sickness might be a form of glamour, making a person special and deeper than other humans.
While it sounds like the writers of the show have never had an illness lasting more than 5 days and were most inspired by marketing projections, I can be at peace with that. First because Hollywood glamorizes everything. Hell, if they can glamorize prostitution in Pretty Woman (how many women have told themselves that Julia Robert’s week with Richard Gere didn’t count as whoring because they ended up as a legitimate couple together in the end?), of course they can figure out how to glamorize chronically ill teenagers. Second, would pieces like Ms. Lainoff’s – a young person sharing their experience of chronic illness – have gained so much attention without the insipid “Red Band Society”? Discussion is occurring about chronic illness from college dorm rooms to national newspapers and magazines. That’s a good thing.