Steel Magnolias: Movie Still Hits a Diabetes Nerve 30 Years Later
It's the 1989 film in which Julia Roberts plays Shelby, a young woman with type 1 diabetes, who's dealing with family stresses alongside complications in the U.S. South. There's the famous scene in the beauty parlor, where Shelby has a low blood sugar while getting her hair prettied up before her wedding. Beads of sweat appear on her lip and brow, and she's trembling and being held down as she fights off the cup of orange juice that her mom — played by Sally Field — is trying to force down her throat.
And then there's everything else that happens in this movie that's influenced a generation of women — and some of us guys — on the topic of diabetes in a not-so-positive way. Shelby wants to have children, and struggles with a diabetic pregnancy. While it may have been "technically" accurate for some circumstances, many PWDs (people with diabetes) see the movie's approach as overly dramatic and focusing too much on the worst-case scenario rather than what living with diabetes is actually like in contemporary times.
Amazingly, 2019 marks the 30-year anniversary of the release of Steel Magnolias, and to honor that milestone it's being re-released in theaters across the country this weekend -- with special insights and commentary from Turner Classic Movies. And ICYMI from several years back: the Lifetime TV network did their own remake of the film in 2012 with an all-black cast and some minor modern revisions, but the storyline and the impact of diabetes remained mostly the same.
Reacting to How Diabetes is Portrayed in "Steel Magnolias"
We've heard many in the Diabetes Community say they refuse to watch the movie at all because of what they've heard about how diabetes is handled. Others have shrugged it off as "Hollywood fiction." Personally, while I can't talk much about the child-bearing aspect, I find the juice-drinking salon scene very powerful. Truth be told: I get a little choked up and emotional every time I watch that scene, because that's exactly how I've acted and felt during lows. You may not agree, but that scene really hits home for me. So that's a type 1 guy's POV on the original Steel Magnolias, which obviously isn't the same as a female's perspective.
D-peep Rachel Kerstetter offered some insights from her end, as a woman with T1D:
"I know Steel Magnolias brings up a lot of different opinions and feelings in many PWDs, especially among us ladies. It actually came out the year I was born, so I never saw the movie as a kid," she says, noting that she didn't watch it until after her diagnosis with type 1 diabetes at age 22 after seing blog posts about the movie and its diabetes storyline. "I mentioned to my best friend that I was going to watch it and she recommended very strongly that I shouldn't. But... of course I did."
Rachel says the "drink your juice" scene didn't affect her much, but other parts of the movie did.
"The part where Shelby's mom is telling the ladies that the doctor said Shelby shouldn't have children -- not that she can't -- got me a little, but not on the family planning side. It just made some comments from older family members from shortly after I was diagnosed make so much more sense. I was actually diagnosed with diabetes because of a pregnancy test, which was negative."
"The part of the move that really hit home with me was the dialysis and comments about Shelby ramming spikes into her arms. That all came back to me when I had to go see a nephrologist because of protein in my urine and really freaked me out."
The reality is that Steel Magnolias portrays a time when diabetes management was much different than today -- a time before continuous glucose monitors (CGMs) existed and even insulin pumps were really mainstream, before the A1C test was established as a "gold standard" for D-management and prior to faster-acting insulins and analogues being introduced. Today's reality thankfully different, even though economic and cultural gaps certainly exist that keep some PWDs from getting ideal treatment.
For that reason, I'm not particularly thrilled about Steel Magnolias being re-promoted for its 30th anniversary. And that's not even taking into account the reboot made several years ago.
Dissecting the "Steel Magnolias" Remake by Lifetime TV
The 2012 remake of the movie Steel Magnolias by Lifetime TV kept mostly to the original script: It's basically a film about female friendships, and the emotional crux here is the fact that Shelby is struggling with chronic kidney illness caused by her diabetes, which complicates family planning.
This modern television adaption of the film is complete with cell phones, iPads, and Beyonce and Facebook references. And the big change-up: an all-African-American cast. It was directed by Kenny Leon, with Queen Latifah as executive producer and starring as M'Lynn, the mom originally played by Sally Field. Shelby was played by Condola Rashad, and other cast members include Alfre Woodard, Phylicia Rashad, Jill Scott, and Adepero Oduye.
Diabetes isn't the focus of the movie, but it is a major plot point that ties everything together and makes the story what it is. As far as the D-aspect, I actually preferred this modern remake. Why? Because it addressed the shortcomings of the original, spelling out that the problem isn't that "diabetics can't have healthy babies" but rather that Shelby's chronic kidney disease — presumably the diabetes complication nephropathy, although I don't think it was specifically explained as a complication — was causing the pregnancy concern.
In this version, viewers get one glimpse of Shelby checking her blood sugar while sitting in the bathroom, and one of the mother-daughter conversations about pregnancy clue us in that Shelby was in "tight" control checking 10 times a day. Shelby also mentions consulting with a dietician and eye doc for her "high-risk" pregnancy.
The famous "juice scene" in the beauty parlor, where Shelby acts out dramatic hypo reaction, still exists with the recast Shelby, though we thought Julia Roberts did it better in the original than Condola Rashad in this remake. Rashad's demeanor is a bit of a problem overall, as she's bouncing around the movie looking ueber-healthy and energetic at all times, while everyone is so very concerned about her chronic condition. We thought there should have been moments where she at least looked a little less than perfect.
One tidbit that wasn't in the original was the "Oh, crap!" moment after Shelby's blood sugar starts rising and she sees the orange juice and crowd of ladies crouching over her. Instinctively, she apologies and that sense of guilt we PWDs know all too well is realistically portrayed.
There was also an interesting part where Shelby talks to her mom, M'Lynn (a very matriarchal Queen Latifah) about trying to adopt a child, and how it'd be nearly impossible to do so once she had to list type 1 diabetes on her medical forms -- an issue that is indeed a concern to real-life PWDs hoping to adopt.
But aside from that, viewers still don't get a very clear look at what it's really like to live with diabetes. In the movie, Shelby's mom knits her eyebrows a lot in concern, but there's never any mention of how tough it was for her to constantly monitor a type 1 child for all those years. And again, Rashad as Shelby prances through the movie looking fantastic, and aside from that cameo of testing in the bathroom, there's not a single nod to a syringe or any of the other stuff of daily D-life.
A couple of scenes seem to contradict each other in, in fact. There's mention of Mama M'Lynn being so worried about her daughter's diabetes that she hesitated in allowing Shelby to get a driver's license or go to camp. But later in the movie, Shelby reminds her mom that she always told her she could do anything she dreamed of... The two just don't seem to jibe.
So while it's good that there's a modern version of the movie out there, the diabetes side hasn't really changed.
And now 30 years later, we're faced with a new theatrical release of the original that could bring more misconception and fear among the general public about diabetes -- especially about healthy pregnancy possibilities.
Here's hoping that doesn't happen.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Originally published at DiabetesMine in 2019