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Thursday, January 20, 2022

Are “sick-lit” movies romanticizing life-threatening illnesses?

<p>Cole Sprouse as Will in "Five Feet Apart."</p>

Cole Sprouse as Will in "Five Feet Apart."

“Five Feet Apart” is a movie that follows cystic fibrosis patients Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) and Will’s (Cole Sprouse) relationship, as they must stay six feet apart to keep from catching each other’s bacteria. Walking out of the movie, I wondered how someone with cystic fibrosis would feel after watching “Five Feet Apart.” It also made me think about why sick characters are often used in books and movies targeted at younger audiences.

“The Fault in Our Stars,” “My Sister’s Keeper” and “13 Reasons Why” belong to a sub-genre of young adult novels called “sick-lit.” As the name suggests, the stories revolve around a character who is ill either mentally or physically, or, for example, suffering from CF like in “Five Feet Apart.” Critics of the sub-genre argue it romanticizes diseases. As I watched the film, I hoped no one would be dumb enough to think CF was a disease that came with the love story of your dreams. However, that is a fear associated with these films, especially when young, love-obsessed watchers are the target audience. They may forget that, although the ill characters' stories are told through a romantic lens, these diseases are serious problems that affect people’s lives and not in an idealized way.

On the other hand, it may be unfair to assume teens are too naïve to understand this concept. With the target audience of these films being young adults, maybe critics of “sick-lit” assume younger audiences cannot pull knowledge and understanding from the meaningful lessons being taught about these life-threatening diseases. John Green, author of “The Fault in Our Stars,” said, “I’m tired of adults telling teenagers that they aren’t smart, that they can’t read critically, that they aren’t thoughtful,” in response to a Daily Mail critic who expressed the sub-genre as “distasteful” and that the plot of “The Fault in Our Stars” was “exploitative at worst.”

With “Five Feet Apart,” there are similar concerns that have popped up. There are worries that a romantic story with CF characters would not accurately describe the life-threatening aspects of the disease. Also, there is the fear that another “sick-flick” movie would bring about the wrong message. As CF activist and blogger Elsie Tellier wrote: “Terminally ill people are not alive just to make healthy people ‘appreciate their lives’ more.”

The goal of “sick-lit” movies are usually to bring awareness to a disease or give representation to a group of people who don’t often see their stories told.

CF YouTuber Morgan Grindstaff, or Cystik1, posts videos about his fight with the disease and attempts to bring awareness through his videos. He posts videos ranging from “Port Dressing Change” to “My Daily Cystic Fibrosis Routine.” In a video of him reacting to the “Five Feet Apart” trailer, Grindstaff explains that in other media depictions of CF, a lot of the details CF patients have to deal with were left out. For example, the g-tubes and ports in the movie’s trailer made the YouTuber excited and hopeful the movie would bring awareness to the rare disease. As one might expect, Grindstaff did address the fact that the movie might be romanticizing CF through its Hollywood tropes of one patient (Stella) who follows protocol and ends up helping another patient (Will) who likes to break all the rules. “There’s really nothing romantic about it, it’s a killer disease that wrecks your body but obviously it’s a Hollywood movie, so I’m not gonna pick it apart for that reason. Anything that drives awareness to Cystic Fibrosis is awesome in my book,” Grindstaff said in his “Five Feet Apart” reaction video.

After watching “Five Feet Apart,” I was confused as to how I should feel. But after watching Grindstaff’s videos and reading other people’s comments expressing how his videos and the movie pushed them to research the disease, I realized any movie or book that brings awareness to a disease is beneficial. It is up to us as consumers to not romanticize life-threatening diseases when they involve storylines that might make it easier to forget just how detrimental an illness is.

Jackie DeFreitas is a UF journalism junior. Her column appears on Wednesdays.

Cole Sprouse as Will in "Five Feet Apart."

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