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Diabetic Representation in the Media, A Type 1 Diabetic Watches: Panic Room

Updated: Mar 29, 2020

Although Diabetic characters do exist in the media, movies and TV shows alike, they are a rarity, and often serve only two types of purposes: be the butt of an inaccurate and offensive joke at the expense of diabetics, or revolve around a story about death, dying or nearly dying.

I have very rarely seen Diabetes portrayed correctly within media when it is portrayed at all. Written, obviously, largely by non-diabetics with little to no knowledge whatsoever about the disease, Diabetes is often a sugar-caused disease caused by irrationality, a lack of responsibility, a lot of sugar, and often leads to grossly offensive fat-shaming. But when a storyline chooses to go the other route, Diabetic characters within a story rarely ever get the chance to exist outside of their illnesses, they are their illness, they are diabetes or whatever type of diabetes was created to instill enough suspense and drama into a story. Often reduced to a character in need of saving, suddenly on the verge of dying, or dying from years of illness and suffering, with very occasionally any information on the many complications of being Diabetic on the long run. In movies and TV shows, diabetics die or try not to die, that is what we do and who we are.

This being said, Diabetic representation remains very rare, and I have been wanting to sit down and take a look at the movies and TV shows in which we do exist, and how our lives and experiences are shown to the grand public, how our stories are written and how accurate the disease is described and/or shown. I hope to receive many recommendations. In this very first review, I’ll watch and talk about the 2002 thriller by David Fincher featuring gay queen Jodie Foster and everyone’s guilty gay crush, Kristen Steward; Panic Room.

The Plot

Panic Room focuses on Meg and Sarah, mother and daughter, who are moving into a new house after Meg’s separation from Sarah’s father (who I guess cheated on her or left her for another woman) Meg and Sarah are moving into a 3 floor massive apartment in Manhattan, where the previous owner, a disabled man, had a panic room built for more or less no particular reasons. On what seems to be their very first night into their new house, Meg and Sarah’s house is broken into by three men; Junior, Raoul and Burnham. The three men are coming for a large sum of money hidden into the floor of the panic room, but are shocked to discover that the house is already moved into and occupied, which was not according to plan. Junior convinces a reluctant Burnham to stick with the plan, but Meg, realizing that there are people in her house, locks herself and her daughter into the panic room.

The movie focuses on the three men trying to either get Meg out of the room or break into it, which Burnham, who works for the company who makes them, says is impossible. Halfway through the movie, Sarah begins a Hypoglycemic episode, has a seizure and require a Glucagon shot to stop her from going into a hypoglycemic coma, and possibly die. But her Glucagon is outside the panic room. Eventually, Meg gets out of the room, she and the men have a back and forth and they eventually end up in the room in her sted, with the glucagon that she is able to slide into the room just in time. Meg begs the men to allow her to give Sarah her injection, or do it themselves, which Burnham ends up doing, saving Sarah’s life. The movie is a decent watch, it has clearly aged and contains a lot of tropes, cinematography and dialogue that we often had in early 2000s movies, but I enjoyed myself. In terms of Diabetic representation and accuracy, Panic Room does okay but does have a lot of issues, let’s break it down.

They don't know how a Glucometer works

Sarah, Meg’s daughter, is a Type 1 diabetic, shown through her usage of a Glucometer and the insulin in the mini-fridge by her bed. There are a few scenes throughout the movie where we see Meg keep a close eye on Sarah as well as the readings from her Glucometer. Multiple writers and critics see the close attention given to the glucometer as a metaphor or a sign of Meg’s need for control, which shows, again, a lack of understanding of what caring for Diabetes really is like or what it means. Kevin L. Ferguson has said “Panic Room’s emphasis on vision and technology necessitates a paternalistic monitoring attitude towards the diabetic character” and that “the glucometer parallels the overarching surveillance system in the film in being read as excessive” which I find ridiculous. For diabetics, knowing your blood glucose levels is imperative, and in Panic Room, Meg, the parent, is the person responsible for her daughter’s safety, including her daughter’s diabetes, as Sarah is 10 years old in the movie.

Another odd element in the movie is Sarah’s Glucometer “watch” that doesn’t seem to require any blood to take, track and alert us of Sarah’s blood glucose levels. The “watch” simply seems to sit on her wrist and shows us Sarah’s readings occasionally throughout the movie without the need for blood. As a matter of fact, Sarah’s blood plays no part in the movie, we never see her pricking her fingers to check her numbers, nor do we ever see her take any injections. Her Glucometer “watch” not only is a complete invention but also dismisses and simplifies what Diabetics have to go through throughout the day to remain in control of their health, it is unknown to me why they did not write Sarah’s character as having a pump.

They're confused about carbs

There are contractions in Panic Room in terms of what diabetes is or the tools diabetics have. In a scene at the beginning of the movie, Meg and Sarah are having Pizza, a food particularly high in carb & sugar, but something to be noted is that Sarah is having a regular coca-cola. For a split second, it seems as if Meg stops Sarah from having too much of it, stopping her from filling her glass more than halfway. On many occasions, Diabetics may choose to make an exemption and have a non-diet version of a drink, but those decisions always need to be followed with a corrective injection of insulin, as sodas are very high in carb and fast sugars, yet, we never see Sarah inject insulin at any time in the movie whether it be prior to the meal or after. The scene ends with Meg filling her daughter’s glass entirely with coke - something very odd to do with a diabetic child at dinner.

They're confused about Hypoglycemia

As the movie enters its final arc, Sarah becomes Hypoglycemic, which means that her blood sugar is too low. It should be noted that we are shown Sarah’s readings a few times in the movie. The first time being when she is put to bed, and her blood glucose seems to be 70mg/dl or 3.9 mmol/L, which is borderline at the beginning of a Hypoglycemic episode. When it comes to blood glucose levels, a diabetic wants to be between 80-85mg/dl to 135mg/dl or 4.5mmol/L to 7.5mmol/L, I would personally prefer to go to bed at no lower than 106mg/dl, it almost seemed as no surprise to me that Sarah would eventually become Hypoglycemic (with all that coke) but also, in instances of large amount of stress, diabetics’ blood glucose levels rise, rather than drop, and the way Sarah’s hypoglycemia is written and demonstrated is very off. As her Glucometer “watch” beeps and shows that she is at 42mg/dl or 2.3mmol/L, Sarah seems perfectly able to communicate that she is having a Hypoglycemic episode and remains rather calm and conscious as her mother attempts to find anything with sugar in the Panic Room. 2.3 is a dangerously low number, at risk of losing consciousness and going into a Hypoglycemic coma, and dying. In cases of a low, a diabetic will have a various series of symptoms (everyone is different) such as cold sweats, sudden hunger, sleepiness etc. but Sarah remains conscious, even eventually ditching the blanket her mother gave her. Throughout her episode, she is able to remain so self-aware that she is able to answer questions and even give directions on how to give her the Glucagon shot, she never loses consciousness - that is not reality. Sarah’s seizure, although sometimes something that happens during a Hypoglycemic episode, is usually rare.

Sarah seems perfectly able to communicate that she is having a Hypoglycemic episode and remains rather calm and conscious as her mother attempts to find anything with sugar in the Panic Room

The Glucagon shot in the movie was very so-so, the character of Burnham doesn’t know what he is doing and says just that, but as he grabs the dose and prepares it, he seems to ignore the instructions within the containers. Burnham correctly injects the liquid into the dry powder bottle but holds it in the opposite angle. He also gives Sarah her shot into her stomach, when a Glucagon shot should be given into a much larger and deeper portion of fat, like the mid-thigh. As the shot takes action, her Glucometer doesn’t seem to detect any change in Sarah’s blood glucose level, actually, it never does a single thing ever again in the movie.

There are some other little things here and there in Panic Room that are out of place, inaccurate or just plain weird. In one instance Sarah grabs what seems to be some of her insulin shots (although I couldn’t tell if they were short term or long term insulins) and attempts to inject them into one of the assailants, which confused me. What exactly are these shots supposed to do? Rapid-acting insulin still takes about 15 to 30 minutes to start working in someone’s body. All in all, Panic Room was an okay movie that used diabetes as a plot point to make Jodie Foster get out of the room, but showed a very limited understanding of what diabetes is, how it works etc. but also showed a clear lack of interest in it as well. Diabetes is left unexplained and unclear to the viewer, and as many people have pointed out, most people believed the Glucagon injection to have been insulin at first, and there are instances of people believing that Hypoglycemia is treated with a shot of insulin, which would actually mean ~ death. There could have been better ways to introduce Sarah’s diabetes, or better ways to educate people on what diabetes is or what hypoglycemic episodes are, the differences between insulin and glucagon etc. but Panic Room uses diabetes as a shallow plot device. When Panic Room doesn't simplify, it invents fake technology that requires no blood or pain (both part of a diabetic’s daily life) or they dramatize the rest.

Accurate: More or less Offensive: No Blood showed: No Injection showed: No

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