The media we consume has always been a product of the culture and collective opinion of our time. However exaggerated and stylized, the messaging that we see in movies, on TV and in other media usually, in some way, reflects some level of reality within our society. There often comes a tipping point, however, when media falls behind and it is no longer reflective of the reality it’s trying to portray. In the meantime, it often unwittingly perpetuates a stigma and stereotype that further damages the image of the population it’s trying to represent. Simply put, people believe what they see on TV because they think the image comes from somewhere. Throughout the history of TV and modern media, this reality has been especially apparent in drug and alcohol addiction.
For decades it was often acceptable and encouraged to demonize addicts rather than addiction in movies and on television. While there were a few examples of a more enlightened representation of addiction as a disease rather than a moral failing, they were buried in a media avalanche of judgment and dismissal. Only recently has the addict become more of a victim and less of an opportunistic villain who is out to lie, cheat, steal and ruin everyone’s life for the sake of their next fix. Representations like Nurse Jackie and even The Wire are showing addicts as deeply troubled yet inherently good people; this is a stark departure from the one-sided representations of yesteryear.
Recent movies like “Moonlight” and “Adrift” have, in their own way, attempted to show a fuller context of drug addiction and its impact in a way few films within this genre have bothered. This is not to say that these representations always tell the whole story, but most of them are making more of an effort than their forerunners. While it is important to represent the negative realities of drug and alcohol abuse (the crime, the death, the indignity, etc.), it’s also important to represent what conditions give birth to substance abuse and the complicated nature of chemical dependency. It’s time to start seeing addicts as humans and not merely a composite of bad “choices”.
Why is it important the media does its part in telling the truth about addiction? Because it is more influential than anyone may realize on institutional policy. Despite current mixed feelings about our system of government, our legislature is made up of elected people who listen to voters that watch TV, see movies and listen to music. While the pendulum seems to be swinging away from judgment and more toward genuine understanding, it’s up to all of us (in the legislative chamber, in the movie studio and in the general community) to keep it there.