The Danger of Popular Media’s Seemingly Innocuous Portrayal of Asthma

Remember how the world laughed when Disney’s Winnie The Pooh used to give himself insulin injections to keep his diabetes in check? Or how we would smile when Frasier Crane had trouble speaking due to his Multiple Sclerosis? Or what about when we wondered why Charlie’s Angels just didn’t get over their cancer?

I don’t remember either. Obviously, these scenarios are fictitious and they serve to shed some perspective on the portrayal of serious illness in popular culture. Notice how the emotional response to the image of Winnie the Pooh giving himself an injection is quite different than imagining Jimmy Neutron’s best friend Carl Wheezer using an inhaler. Both instances involve a character using medicine to control the symptoms of a chronic disease, yet the former example seems absurd and the latter all too familiar. This comparison alone proves that we are somewhat desensitized to the seriousness of asthma, and this is a result of the prevalence of inaccurate depictions of the disease and its symptoms in popular media.

But we know already that the nerdy asthmatic is a common trope often used for comedic effect in film, television and other media. In fact, the stigmatization of asthma by popular media has been a hot-button issue in recent years. This aspect has been well analyzed and documented by people with asthma, members of the medical community, and family members of asthmatics. What is less considered, and perhaps more important to acknowledge, is how the inaccurate representation of asthma symptoms and treatment in popular media effectively misinform the public, thereby increasing the risk involved in an asthma attack.

A severe asthma attack can render a person virtually helpless; incapable of driving, moving, speaking, or even using their cell phone, because all of these tasks require breathing oxygen first. Imagine this person is hanging out with friends that have no knowledge of asthma other than what they have “learned” from popular media. In this case, the friends might not take the attack seriously at first. If they recognize the severity of the problem, they might not know how to help. And at best, there would be a delay in appropriate treatment that could save their friend’s life.

In order to raise awareness about this issue, it is necessary to examine and analyze how accurately asthma treatment is depicted in popular media. Using guidelines from the West Virginia Asthma Education and Prevention Program (WVAEPP), I will compare the recommended medical treatment versus popular culture’s treatment of asthma in a commercial advertisement, feature film, and television network series.

In the summer of 2012, Virgin America Airlines came out with a series of televised advertisements, one of which involved asthma. The scene begins in an airplane cabin, with dim lighting and an attractive man and woman sitting next to each other. She drops something, and he turns the light on to bend over and pick it up. However, when he turns the light on, he changes from the “attractive” man into a “nerd” who smiles and takes a short puff from his inhaler. The woman then turns the lights off again, and the man changes back to his former self.

From a medical perspective, there was absolutely no reason for the man to use an inhaler. He did not show any signs of breathing trouble or coughing, nor did he seem distressed. It seems the inhaler was used as a prop to emphasize the character’s “nerdiness”. The utter lack of symptoms demonstrated by the actor only trivializes the medicinal significance of the inhaler. Furthermore, he doesn’t demonstrate correct use of the inhaler. According to the WVAEPP guidelines, one must hold their breath for 10 seconds after inhaling the medicine, in order for it to be effective. Also, it is necessary to shake the inhaler before use, and tilt the head back when inhaling, but this was not shown.

In 1985 Warner Bros. released a feature film called The Goonies. This movie became a cult classic, though it indeed contains some controversial asthmatic scenes. One of the protagonists, Mikey, is shown to have asthma. He uses an inhaler throughout the film. Technically, it appears that he is using the inhaler correctly, even holding his breath after each use. The problem with Mikey’s asthma in The Goonies, is that is seems to be completely stress-induced, which is not unheard of. There are individuals who tend to develop asthmatic symptoms when they experience sudden stress, but it remains a physical, medical disease. At the end of the film, Mikey’s character becomes mentally stronger, and as a result Mikey throws his inhaler away, demonstrating that with the right attitude, you can cure asthma. This idea is a complete fallacy. If a non-asthmatic were to infer from this movie that asthma can be cured by attitude alone, then they definitely misunderstand just how serious asthma can be, and this could possibly be a dangerous thing.

From 2007 to 2013, the USA network produced a television series called Burn Notice. It explored the saga of an ex-spy who uses his skills to help ordinary people in desperate situations. In one of these situations, the spy creates a disguise as a nerd in order to appear weak in front of an enemy. While acting as a nerd, he uses an inhaler to support the role. The actor does a great job of wheezing realistically, however his use of the inhaler is not so realistic. The biggest problem with this instance is that he uses the inhaler numerous times throughout each scene, when in reality it only takes a maximum of two inhalations for the inhaler to work. In more severe cases, when two puffs is not enough, then more advanced medicine is required, such as a nebulizer. So again, this is another example that illustrates exactly how not to use an inhaler. It reaffirms the suggestion that asthma isn’t serious, nor is the medication.

As an asthmatic myself, I have always been aware of the stigma around the disease. The feeling of not being able to breathe can be quite scary, yet even in moments of fear; I’m hesitant to use my inhaler for fear of being ridiculed. What most asthmatics won’t tell you, and you don’t see in the movies, is that doctors recommend using inhalers with an item called a spacer. A spacer is essentially a plastic chamber that you put between your mouth and the inhaler. Once the inhaler releases the medicine into the chamber, the medicine has the opportunity to full aerate before entering the lungs, resulting in maximum effectiveness. Without a spacer, much of the medicine is lost as it is simply projected into the back of the throat. It’s not glamorous, but when I’m at home and I need my inhaler, I always use it because there’s such a difference in terms of effect.

During asthma attacks I have been told such things as “Relax, just breathe” or “Suck it up.” I think these comments are a testament to the degree of triviality with which popular culture treats asthma. People who have never experienced it themselves don’t understand what it means, but they think that have an idea because they see so many inhalers being used in the media, in comical circumstances. And it’s this negligence by media companies that perpetuates the ignorance of the disease and contributes to the risk by neglecting to acknowledge the danger involved. It can be argued that the nerdy asthmatic trope is harmful in terms of how asthmatics see themselves, and how they are treated as people, but it is even more important to accurately portray the treatment of asthma so as to help non-asthmatics realize the severity of a respiratory emergency.





Goonies [Motion picture]. (1985). USA: Warner Bros.

Burn Notice [Television series]. (2007-2013). 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Virgin America Airlines Commercial #1 [Commercial advertisement]. (2012). USA: Https://

What Do You Do During an Asthma Attack? (2006, February 4). Retrieved March 8, 2015, from do you do during an asthma attack.pdf



3 thoughts on “The Danger of Popular Media’s Seemingly Innocuous Portrayal of Asthma

  1. I love your beginning of your paper, it really got me interested in it and wanted me to keep reading. Your paper had some really good points and I loved your use of artifacts, especially the goonies. I am not really sure which are your primary and secondary sources, i feel as if the movies are the primary, if they are, just wondering if you may not have finished the last one. Keep it up.

  2. Yes I noticed the nerdy type needing an inhaler i.e. big bang theory, it does make you feel like u must be weak or nerdy for having the illness and I truly don’t think people realise how serious it is x

  3. I really liked your essay. I too am a life long asthmatic and it sucks. I can completely relate to all of your associations, especially the relax and just breath comment. You did a wonderful job highlighting the media examples. When I first read the title of your essay Goonies popped into my head. Great job.

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