So something kind of amazing happened the other week. I’ve been rather vocal on the twitters and what not about the portrayal of people with cancer.
Right. See? Cause the things is there are loads of movies I can point at where people with cancer cease to be human and instead are just the embodiment of their disease from which they succumb and everyone else learns to love and appreciate their life.
Sometimes the characters don’t even get their names in the title for pete’s sake.
And I get that it’s a really easy way to share the human condition and pain and fear and mortality. But as Dr. Roberta A. Clark says in this Huffington Post piece:
“Cancer can involve a lot of messy things — surgeries with colostomies and urinary bags and some kind of nasty things,” Clark said. “That’s not something that filmmakers typically want to portray. It’s probably also a little more emotionally compelling when you have a 30-year-old victim instead of a 75- or 80-year-old victim.”
“If you’re in the film business, part of which is selling sex, it’s hard to walk that line between breasts for titillation and breasts for disease,” Clark said.
So instead they romanticize cancer deaths, framing them as inevitable even as survival rates increase. But what happens when those of us tune in to see our experiences. Because as we all know, representation matters.
“The world looks different after you have spent time pinned to the mat by death. The gaps between reality and representation are no longer theoretical. They are contentious. Beautifully bald actors shorn to portray chemo patients betray reality with their thickly lashed eyes, much to the chagrin of those of us left lashless by the real medicine. Some of the most egregious side effects of treatment cannot be artfully depicted on film — mouthsores and constipation, anyone? — while vomiting, which has become more manageable thanks to newer side-effect medicines, continues its prominent role as a cancer-flick leitmotif.” – Ilana Horne
So yeah to say it pisses me off is an understatement. Whenever I watch one of these movies and it ends I rant for a solid 15 minutes straight as my husband prepares dinner about how much bullshit it is that people with disease cease to be people and just become their disease.
And then something cool happened.
I met Abbie from 20th Century Women.
When you watch that clip you learn a lot about Abbie – that she’s a photographer, that she loves punk music and dancing. You learn that she’s smart and funny and has a very good heart.
What you don’t learn is that Abbie is also a cancer survivor who, during the course of the film, has a scare.
But this is only one small part of Abbie. She’s a person first. She just also happened to have gotten cancer. She just had that same terrible luck as the rest of us.
I was left with so many feelings for days after this film I did the only thing I could think of: I said thank you to its creator.
Dear Mr. MillsI have no idea if you’ll actually get to read this or not. I hope that you do only because something truly amazing happened to me this weekend and it is thanks to you.I’m sure you have heard from many women about 20th Century Women, about it’s incredible feminism, about it’s strikingly honest portrayal of women, as people, something that is sadly lacking in films. I imagine many of them hinged on Ms. Bening’s fabulous performance and how, according to some interviews you conducted, the relationship that character has to your own mother – the overall autobiographical nature of the narrative.But I’m writing to talk to you about Abbie.I’m writing to thank you.As 20th Century Women came to a close and the characters talked about their lives and futures, I was nervous. When Greta Gerwig’s voice came on, telling me the rest of Abbie’s story, I held my breath. When she concluded and across the screen splashed the image of Abbie holding her two children, I burst into tears.I’m coming up on the third anniversary of my cancer diagnosis, cancerversary as we in the know, call it. I was 37 when I was diagnosed. As is the case with everyone, my life was turned upside down. I am still actively in treatment, three years out, but my prognosis is a good and I have on the whole managed to stitch the remnants of my old life to this new one and find my “new normal.”That said I have lost some things. Superficial things like music I can’t bear to hear again. Other more important things like feeling carefree and hopeful. I have also found things. Superficial things like jogging. Other more important things like constructive anger and the strange peace that comes from rubbing right up against your own mortality.Cancer is a powerful storytelling tool. For those on the outside it gives a peak into a world that we all fear as well as a vehicle to talk about some of the things that make humans truly beautiful creatures. For those of us on the inside, we watch these portrayals seeking representation. Seeking solace.I have read and seen a lot of characters that have had terminal diseases. In more than half of the cases, they die. So I want to thank you first off, for not killing off Abbie. It meant a lot to me.But more than the death thing there is something else that these characters all tend to share that I find even more troubling than their mortality (after all we’re all going to die, right?) and that is that their disease IS their life. They cease to be people and become instead patients. I believe it was Larry Kramer who detailed the difference between “AIDS patients” and “People with AIDS.” It seems that Hollywood has not learned this difference. Characters with cancer exist solely to die and teach everyone around them the importance of appreciating life. They are rarely angry about their diagnosis. They have no other interests. They are in fact, barely human. They are mirrors for the other characters to work through their own issues.And then came Abbie. Punky, artistic, sassy Abbie played beautifully by Greta Gerwig. I have been waiting three years to find a character that had a personality, a life, a love of music, dance and photography, dreams about her future; a character that still goes out, that drinks and laughs and tries to live her life as vividly as possible – who also just so happened to have this rotten disease sink it’s teeth into her.Abbie wasn’t a cancer patient, in the way that I am not a cancer patient.She was a young woman who also happened to have once had cancer..and lived.Just as I will be….one day.Best,Ally Malinenko