The Manic Pixie Sick Girl: The Toxic Representations of Chronic Illness in Film
Films glamorizing illness are downright dangerous because they put out a false projection of what people like me deal with on a daily basis.
By Jazmine Joyner
The “sick girl” genre of film is a name I gave to movies that feature stories around sick women and girls (predominantly white sick women and girls) and about how they flew into a male character’s life and within a short amount of time they teach him how to live, as they die. Movies like “A Fault in Our Stars” (this is the reverse, it’s a manic pixie dream boy, refreshing!) , “A Walk to Remember”, ” I Miss You Already”, “Now is Good”, “Me, Earl, and The Dying Girl”, and “Me Before You” are prime examples of films that use illness as an inspirational tool to serve white able-bodied people.
I am borrowing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, which is a term coined by film critic Nathan Rabin that is defined as “That bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” This definition fits these characters to a tee.
In “A Walk To Remember” Mandy Moore’s sick and soulful character Jamie Sullivan teaches Shane West’s bad boy going down the wrong tracks, Landon Carter, about love and being an upstanding human, even finding the time in-between chemotherapies to reunite Landon and his father. Jamie’s illness even inspires Landon to go into medicine. All while our girl Jamie is this stagnant character that solely lives to be loved by Landon. She needs nothing else, craves nothing, and then dies. She is a perfect manic pixie sick girl.
Films like “A Walk To Remember” are harmful because of how they represent sickness and those who are living with illnesses every day. Every film mentioned above is used not to show a real person dealing with chronic disease and having a good life despite their diagnosis. But make the sick person a prop to their abled counterpart. They are a life lesson or some inspirational figure there to only further the abled characters development. In these films you see glamorous frail white girls laying in bed pining for love. Because you know love can heal, naturally. These depictions not only are boring but are completely unoriginal.
When the new film “Everything, Everything” starring Amandla Stenberg was announced, it was refreshing to see a person of color being brought into this narrative. Because if POC (people of color) are featured in one of these films, they are often given the simple caregiver role. They become more disposable than the manic pixie sick girl is.
Like Audra McDonald in the film “Wit,” about a white female college professor battling and eventually losing to cancer, Audra McDonald’s character is a “simple” nurse who takes care of the woman. Or Jeffrey Wright, who also plays a nurse in the mini-series “Angels in America,” which is about 1980s New York and white people dealing with the Aids and the HIV virus. Jeffrey Wright is there to give the sick white characters care and some type of humanity. The POC characters are tools to better the ailing white characters as people before they depart this earth. But “Everything, Everything” might be able to shift this dynamic, a black woman even wrote the novel that the film is based on.
There was hope that this film could finally be an accurate depiction of POC with a chronic illness. But then came the trailer. The film is essentially about a girl who is chronically ill and locked in her home for her safety. She even states “this isn’t a life worth living” in the trailer. Then she meets a boy, and for love, she risks her life and goes outside. *SPOILERS* so I googled this book and found out that she isn’t even sick in the film, she is the victim of Munchausen Syndrome by proxy. Munchausen Syndrome is defined by the Mayo Clinic as, “[A] Factitious disorder imposed on another (previously called Munchausen syndrome by proxy) is when someone makes another person sick, requiring medical attention. Usually, this involves a parent harming a child. This form of child abuse can put a child in danger of injury or unnecessary medical care.” So not only is this not the film where we’ll be seeing chronic illness in a better light but a movie that is actively practicing full erasure of the validity of one’s life if they are chronically ill, aka a hot mess.
So I went to YouTube to gather some type of consensus on how other people with chronic illness feel about this film in particular. I found Annie Elainey’s Channel, she is a YouTuber who is diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and she often talks about her disabilities and issues within the disabled community. Her videos are not only entertaining but very informative and enlightening. She made a video titled “Chronically Ill & Homebound = Not Living?”, where she aptly states; “[this film, Everything, Everything] is inspiration porn with no intentions of being authentic, [but] to please and inspire the able [bodied] audience.”; she goes on to explain that this film not only erases the idea of living a happy life with chronic illness is possible, but it also puts forth the harmful “Faking Illness” narrative that many people with chronic illness (often the invisible ones) have to deal with.
Films like “Everything, Everything” are dangerous in so many ways. Not only does it perpetuate the “faking an illness” trope, which those with invisible illness deal with the stigma of not being outwardly disabled, and then are gas-lit constantly into believing they are lying about being ill or faking it for attention. But the film is also harmful to those who are living with chronic illnesses every day. Seeing a movie advertise that life isn’t worth living when you’re sick, negates all the people who have lived their whole lives with chronic illness, and have fought battles, and lived to tell about it. The movie is basically saying that all of that doesn’t matter and they would be better off dead. That a chronically ill life isn’t worth living. Is that a message you would want to hear from Hollywood?
We’ve been hearing it for years now. Every one of these Manic Pixie Sick Girls dies (or in the case of “Everything, Everything” was never even sick, to begin with). No one is ever depicted living with a chronic illness or chronic pain. I guess it’s too grim of reality to find out the protagonist doesn’t find relief from death or a cure, they just cope with the symptoms/pain and continue with their lives. These kinds of depictions are toxic because it puts real people living with this illness in a strange position. The film is essentially saying, if there’s no cure for your disease, you have no significant other, and you’re not dying, then what’s the point of you? Which isn’t fair. Representation matters and seeing this Manic Pixie Sick Girl, in every film over and over not only seems like a tried and tired idea but highly offensive to those it’s meant to represent.
Talking to actual people living with chronic illness can help bring a surprising point of view that it seems no one has actually seen yet. There is nothing profound about illness. There is nothing inspirational about living life-like everyone else does, just with added obstacles. Films glamorizing illness are downright dangerous because they put out a false projection of what people like me deal with on a daily basis. It’s a harmful narrative that can be easily remedied by just talking to actual disabled people, instead of using them as props and tools. Surprise Hollywood, disabled people are people too.
Author Bio: Jazmine Joyner is a black disabled femme writer who resides in Southern California. In her free time she likes to write, play video games, and read.
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