Chronic Illness in Film: Steel Magnolias
by Briana Livelsberger
Note: This review contains spoilers of the film’s plot.
Whenever I watch a film that has a focus on chronic illness, I often wonder if the film will be accurate or if I will be seething by how poorly portrayed the illness was. However, Steel Magnolias is a film that takes its representation of diabetes seriously.
Steel Magnolias (1989 version) follows six women in a small town in Louisiana as they live their lives. One of these women, Shelby, has diabetes. Diabetes is a disease caused by high blood sugar. High blood sugar can occur if one’s body doesn’t produce enough insulin (a hormone that regulates blood sugar) or if one’s body doesn’t effectively use the insulin it makes (NIDDK). In Type 1 diabetes, insulin producing cells in the pancreas are destroyed and thus keep the body from making its own insulin (Basina). In Type 2 diabetes, the body doesn’t make enough insulin or use it effectively in combination with other dietary problems (NIDDK). The movie never states which kind of diabetes Shelby has but I’m guessing it is Type 1, due to the fact that while diet and exercise are helpful, Shelby’s diabetes requires more to be controlled. Over time, diabetes can result in kidney failure, nerve damage, blindness, etc. Pregnancy can be difficult for someone who has diabetes because of the strain it causes on the body, sometimes speeding up organ damage (Mayo Clinic).
Steel Magnolias shows the effects of Shelby’s diabetes in a matter-of-fact sort of way due to most of the women knowing about her disease already. The first time we see any sign of Shelby’s diabetes is at Truvy’s hair salon before her wedding. Shelby starts reaching for her neck a couple times, her face showing signs of anxiety. Suddenly, her body erupts into tremors and she starts fighting her mother (M’Lynn) - as M’Lyn tries to get her to eat a piece of candy and drink orange juice. Shelby isn’t thinking clearly, all she wants to do is leave but, with the tremors, is unable to move. After M’Lynn is able to force Shelby to drink some orange juice, Shelby’s tremors calm down and she’s able to think clearly again. This scene accurately depicts what is called diabetic hypoglycemia. According to the Mayo Clinic, this occurs when one’s blood sugar drops (such as when someone skips meals or receives too much insulin) and can cause symptoms such as anxiety, tremors, and confusion. Due to stress, it is possible that Shelby forgot to eat something, causing her blood sugar to drop.
Shelby is warned by doctors that she shouldn’t have kids as it would be extremely dangerous for her, even life threatening. In Shelby’s case, this is true. After having her son, we find out that her kidneys are not working properly since she is on dialysis. The dialysis causes awful bruises on her right arm. Since she is getting treatment through blood vessels, she is undergoing blood dialysis where blood is removed from the body, filtered through a machine, and returned back to the body (NHS).
Luckily for Shelby, M’Lynn gives her one of her kidneys and Shelby has a kidney transplant. Unfortunately, the transplant does not last long. Towards the end of the movie, Shelby struggles to stand or walk and becomes shaky at times. It’s clear she can tell that something is off but she doesn’t say or do anything about it. Most likely, her body rejected the kidney since she recently had the transplant and one of the symptoms of rejection is fatigue (Kidney Fund). Shelby ends up in a coma on life support. However, after a certain period of time, all hope of her getting better is lost. Immediately after being taken off of life support, she dies.
The scene before Shelby ends up in a coma is a little hard to believe because she’s a nurse. These symptoms started while she was finishing her shift at the hospital so she could have easily gone to the ER, possibly preventing her symptoms from worsening to the point of being in a coma. Or she probably would’ve called 911 earlier. Either way, as a nurse she probably would have been able to figure out that these symptoms were problematic a lot earlier. However, these things do happen in real life so I can’t judge this choice too harshly. Aside from this, I’d say that this movie is accurate in its representation of diabetes.
By the end of the film, I was in tears. Steel Magnolias captures the wins and struggles of those who have diseases and the effects on those around them. It captures the fears people have about the future and how rewarding it can be to do something despite those fears. Shelby’s life was meaningful and the meaning in her life wasn’t brushed away when she died (like how some people do when individuals with chronic illness die). She was always Shelby.