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Is Netflix’ Afflicted A ‘Freak Show?’

September 19, 2018

An open letter to Netflix was published on Tuesday criticising its recent docu-series, Afflicted, which chronicles the lives of seven people with chronic illnesses. The letter highlighted what it called the show’s “stigmatising portrayal of disability” and was signed by a Nobel laureate as well as film-makers, writers and activists including Monica Lewinsky and Lena Dunham.

Billed as portraying “baffling symptoms and controversial diagnoses”, the show follows patients as they search for treatments and some relief. But it was alleged in an article in the LA Times that producers used “unethical practices”, editing footage to suggest participants’ medical conditions were psychosomatic disorders, using few expert doctors and focusing on sceptical medics who cast doubt on whether the individuals were ill at all (that science doesn’t understand many health conditions doesn’t make their symptoms less real).

The article points out that Dan Partland, the executive producer of the series, said the aim “was to give the world a compassionate window into the difficulties of patients and families struggling with elusive and misunderstood illnesses”. Yet the participants themselves are at the forefront of the criticism. Last month, several of those included in the series wrote a joint post on Medium titled The Truth Behind Netflix’s Afflicted. Participants in the show have been harassed online and have written that they have even been physically threatened or received death threats.

These are people who trusted the programme-makers to help spread understanding of their conditions to the public, and say they were rewarded by having their lives mocked to peddle prejudice. As Jill Maxi Edelstein, who has multiple chemical sensitivity, wrote in her essay criticising the show: “I trusted you with my heart and my story, and now you are using it against me and my people.”

But this isn’t simply about hurt feelings. As the letter says, Netflix reaches 300 million viewers worldwide and its programmes have the power to “reinforce barriers to appropriate medical care or disability benefits, dampen the support of vital research, and add to the stigma and social isolation of an already profoundly marginalised group of people”. There is a long history of disability being used as entertainment, from TV following rare medical conditions to dwarf wrestling – modern-day Victorian freak shows.

When groups are stereotyped on TV, it does not just reflect the prejudices of the time but can be key in perpetuating them. Distorted depictions can be particularly damaging for people with chronic illnesses – who are typically disbelieved and told: “‘It’s all in your head,” but this goes for many minorities whose lives are used as entertainment fodder for the majority.

The residents on Benefits Street, the Channel 4 documentary centred on a deprived Birmingham community, became synonymous with the “scrounger” rhetoric in the early years of cuts to the welfare budget. White Dee, one of the central figures in the show, later said the way she and her neighbours were portrayed “ripped us apart”, although a senior Channel 4 executive insisted that it was important to tell the stories of “distressed parts of our society”.

Shows that purport to do good can fall into this trap. My Week As a Muslim, in which a white woman went “undercover” to understand Islamophobia, was criticised for using “brown-face” and centring the story on white people. If you want to understand racism, perhaps just listen to its victims.

Controversy sells and programme-makers can create hate figures or a “freak” for added revenue. This gets more worrying in the age of social media. When television comes with hashtags, producers may whip up a crowd and then let them loose on their target.

Ultimately, it is not simply bad publicity caused by an open letter that is going to talk companies such as Netflix into being responsible – it is viewers who can send the loudest message by switching off. Besides, who wants to watch ill people’s lives being exploited?


2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 19, 2018 3:15 pm

    Just more “IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT” ‘Biopsychosocial’ Pseudoscience Quackery.

    Why target Netflix when the NHS is completely infested with UNQUALIFIED Pseudoscience Quacks…

    From Here –

    “Dr Rhiannon Buck (PhD) is a health psychologist currently working in the University of Bath.”

    ZERO medical qualifications.
    I’ll say that again… ZERO medical qualifications.
    NOT on the GMC Register.

    Medical Act 1983 –
    Penalty for pretending to be registered –
    Penalty for pretending to hold a licence to practise –

    Misconduct in Public Office –

    Well… paying QUACK FRAUDSTERS to tell people “YOU’RE IMAGINING IT” and “IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT” is cheaper than actually having to do any real work. (more cash for their pies and cake too).

  2. Robert Joyce permalink
    July 14, 2019 5:06 am

    I have 4 autoimmune diseases documented and allergic to over 100 allergens which I medicate daily for an use cortisone nasal spay and avoid animals and food allergies. I have never heard of electromagnetic sensitivity. ive heard of multichemical sensitivity but damn im poor and on disability my son is 26 and nonverbal autistic mmr. hes sensitive to mold dogs cats and foods and I keep him away from them we would die from nontreatment if we didn’t have insurance medicare and Medicaid. some of the treatments mentioned that were expnsive seem like a carefully invisioned bullshit treatment for the rich and misinformed patients im sorry but that’s my opinion. I took allergy shots for 20 years and nearly died 3 times from allergic anaphylaxis from the shots me and mikey both so I said the hell with it if the treatment is more likely to kill us quicker than the disease.

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