'Turning Red' Provides Positive Depiction of Diabetes

Stacey Simms


June 01, 2022

Pixar's newest movie, Turning Red, is told through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl who turns into an adorable, very large red panda when she gets overly excited or emotional. What caught my eye, though, was something very much in the background.

There are two characters in Turning Red with visible diabetes technology. When the movie trailer was released, an eagle-eyed person in the diabetes community spotted what looked like an insulin pump site on a character's arm. A second trailer showed an even longer shot of a second character with similar technology.

They're not on screen long; the moments are easy to miss if you don't know to look for them. But the diabetes community reacted with delight just to be included. Social media was full of excitement!

My first reaction, though, was worry.

Often Inaccurate Images of Diabetes

My son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes just before he turned 2. He's 17 now and during those 15 years, we've seen way too many inaccurate images of type 1 diabetes in media. Some are silly, but others are hurtful. All of them contribute to the misunderstanding of a very serious and complicated disease.

I asked around to find out why these quick diabetes depictions were in Turning Red. That led me to the person who ultimately eased my fears: Susan Fong.

Fong has worked on some of the most popular animated movies of the past 20 years. Her credits include The Incredibles, Toy Story 3, WALL-E, The Good Dinosaur, and Finding Nemo. At Pixar for almost 20 years, Fong was the Dailies and Rendering Supervisor for Turning Red before leaving Pixar. She also lives with type 1 diabetes.

The rendering supervisor starts work on a movie very early on. That gave Fong the chance to make a personal request. At the beginning of production, she asked if were possible to depict a character with an insulin pump. The team in what's called the Characters and Crowds Department immediately said yes.

It's not the first time Pixar has done something like this. They've shown background characters with crutches and in wheelchairs; Toy Story 4 featured a background character with a cochlear implant. They have an entire division focused on representation and inclusion.

Fong was diagnosed with type 1 as a child and says that for her, this was a chance to show diabetes in a new light.

"I don't see representation of myself in that way," she says. "Even if it's not a central element of the story, to me, it still holds value. All kids look different. We all have something different about us. And this happens to represent how I'm different, at least visibly."

The Pixar team realized they'd have to be a bit careful with the diabetes technology used in the film because Turning Red takes place in the early 2000s. Although insulin pumps were in common use at that time, continuous glucose monitors (CGMs) were not.

When I saw the trailer, I assumed one of the characters had a CGM on her arm. Fong explained that although it does look a bit like a CGM, it's intended to be representative of an insulin pump of that era.

TV and Film Often Get Diabetes Wrong

Type 1 diabetes isn't part of the plot of the movie, but showing the technology in an accurate way is a big leap forward. There are dozens of examples of TV shows and movies that get diabetes wrong, either for laughs or out of laziness or general misunderstanding.

I remember watching an episode of The Flash on TV with my son, who was around 10 years old at the time. A character was shown wearing the same brand and type of insulin pump that Benny wore, which was exciting to see on screen! But a few minutes later, a villain who controlled electricity used his powers to manipulate the pump into dumping an overdose of insulin into the victim. That's silly, but the real issue was the speed at which the victim passed out and then was immediately revived. Sped up for the show's sake, it gave viewers a false idea of what a dangerous low blood sugar looks like.

That's important, because we absorb knowledge from media, even from fiction.

"We have to look at our television and our film, not just as sources of enjoyment but also as information that provides an understanding about certain people," says Dr Phyllisa Deroze, contributor to the book (Un)Doing Diabetes: Representation, Disability, Culture. She studied dozens of depictions of diabetes in TV and movies. "Unfortunately, in almost every instance, the characters' reactions tell us that diabetes is going to cause either a slow death or a quick death."

Dr Deroze cites other examples include NBC's 30 Rock, where a character is diagnosed with diabetes. "He does this skit where he replaces his foot with a skate. And he says, 'I'm practicing for when I lose my foot to diabetes,'" says Dr Deroze. "So there was a diabetes diagnosis and the next thing, he's already imagining himself with an amputation."

There's also Steel Magnolias, which is based on a true story, but one that took place more than 50 years ago. The facts about the danger that pregnancy and motherhood pose to a woman with diabetes have thankfully changed since then. The much-celebrated and star-studded movie has not and continues to misinform.

To me, possibly the most egregious example was in a children's movie. In Hotel Transylvania 2, a character named Kakie the Cake Monster joked, "The scariest monster of all is diabetes." (This sentence was removed for the streaming version after parents complained.)

Heading in the Right Direction

I'm optimistic things that are improving. Netflix's The Baby-Sitter's Club depicts a realistic main character with type 1. ABC's Blackish has done a good job of educating with humor around the real-life type 2 diabetes diagnosis of actor Anthony Anderson.

Dr Heather Walker, co-author of (Un)Doing Diabetes, agrees that "[w]e're headed in the right direction, but we need people in the writers' room with diabetes, and other health conditions and disabilities, to have a direct voice and call things out before they're produced."

That's exactly what happened with Turning Red; Fong's early involvement proved essential to the accurate inclusion of diabetes. And even though this Disney+ movie doesn't feature diabetes as a plot point, it does make a subtle point about inclusion. There's a very funny scene when Mei, the main character, turns into a panda in the middle-school bathroom. The girl who discovers her is one of the characters with type 1 diabetes, her insulin pump infusion set is visible on her arm.

"She's the popular friendly girl," says Fong. "She accepts Mei for who she is, despite all her differences. And she also happens to be a diabetic."

These positive points aren't lost on parents, who are excited to show their children with diabetes the movie.

"To me, it is a victory for my child," says Katrina Van Walterop. "My kid will probably say, 'Did you see Turning Red?' when someone asks [about his diabetes technology] next time we're at a pool."

"When he saw the trailer, he was jumping with excitement," says Monica Reynolds. "He can't wait to tell other kids and adults, 'See, I'm not the only one!'"

Stacey Simms is the host of Diabetes Connections, a long-running and award-winning podcast, and the author of The World's Worst Diabetes Mom: Real Life Stories of Parenting a Child With Type 1 Diabetes, winner of the American Book Fest Best New Non-Fiction 2021 prize.

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