Diabetes in Film: Steel Magnolias

The other evening while taking refuge from the early-November snowstorm in NYC, I watched Steel Magnolias (the 1989 Julia Roberts version, available on Netflix). I had heard the name of the play and film(s) in a usually positive context, but never heard the plot details of the story.

I was shocked, then, when it was revealed that Roberts’ character, Shelby, has type 1 diabetes. Quickly, my shock changed into confusion and diasspointment (and maybe a little anger, too). Shelby’s experience with Type 1 diabetes was not only completely different from my own, but completely different from the average woman’s experience with Type 1 diabetes.

[SPOILER ALERT] For those unfamiliar with the film, Shelby is a type 1 diabetic who, due in part to her disease, has very weak kidney function. She has been advised by her doctor not to have children, but wants a child so decides to have one anyway. The strain of pregnancy and childbirth puts her into kidney failure. Her mother donates a kidney, however, Shelby unfortunately rejects the donated kidney and dies at the end of the film.

The film is adopted from a play that the playwright based on the experience his sister faced, who died from a similar series of events. While I do not mean to discredit the authenticity of his personal tragedy, I found this depiction of Type 1 diabetes extremely frustrating. Like the few other movies that feature diabetes prominently, Steel Magnolias leaves “the impression that diabetes draws the people who suffer from it into an uncontrollable tailspin toward death.” It is important to note that death resulting from kidney failure is not by any means a likely outcome for a diabetic (even less so now than in 1989). It is also important to note that while all diabetic pregnancies are considered “high risk” this comes from a higher chance of complications such as miscarriages and birth defects. Diabetic women in general, however, are perfectly capable of having a safe pregnancy (and DO). Yet Steel Magnolias doesn’t draw clear lines of distinction between Shelby’s specific medical case of poor kidney function and  the more general implications of diabetes for women who want to have children. With the exception of one scene, we never see Shelby’s struggle with the day-to-day realities of living with diabetes: checking her blood sugar, injecting insulin. Instead, we only see the dramatic, life-threatening and RARE complications that result from her diabetes.

The exception is a scene early on in the movie where Shelby has an incident of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). However, this event too, is overdramatized; while many elements of Shelby’s “low” are factually true and possible – it comes on quickly, leaves Shelby somewhat incoherent, and her mother treats it with orange juice – Roberts’ behavior as Shelby resembles an epileptic seizure more closely than someone with low blood sugar.  This is not to say that this couldn’t happen (and I should note that diabetes do experience hypoglycemia differently to some extent), but again, this is an EXTREME example.

So what’s the big deal? Well, seeing these extreme examples in mainstream cinema perpetuates myths and stereotypes about diabetes. What we need is a mainstream movie with a diabetic character who just LIVES with the disease, like most of the millions of diabetics in this country do every day. My problems with Steel Magnolias were especially frustrating because I wanted to like this female-centered and female-driven story – a rarity in entertainment. But unfortunately, the depiction of diabetes just fell way too short.

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About Kaitlyn O'Hagan

Kaitlyn is a Macaulay Honors student at Hunter College, where she studies History and Public Policy.