Terminally Ill Romances Make Me Sick (Part I)

Movies can fetishize a lot of things that in real life are less fun: klutzes, jumbotrons, romantic stalking, etc, but by far one of the most horrific fetishized tropes is sick people.

There’s a huge market for romances where someone dies of cancer, a bad (see “broken”) heart, or perhaps a terribly obscure incurable disease. The common storyline is that our sick person is eccentric, well-loved, and coming to terms with death (in an offbeat, adorable way). Their healthy love interest is at a loss, perhaps listless, uncertain of the future, and timid. Alternatively, they could be wealthy, preoccupied with status and their own self-importance achieved through busyness and technology. Through loving each other they are able to blah, blah, blah, (s)he dies at the end.

Rarely, if ever does this trope really work in a way that brings dignity to those who suffer with chronic illness without making them a strict moralizing influence for the sake of the bored and healthy.

For film story structure, it’s the equivalent of a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks who meets a wealthy snob. The poverty-stricken is the unblemished sacrifice so the wealthy can gain a soul. In a cancer movie, it’s just more mortally revolting.

There’s a good deal of adventure to be had along the way as the healthy person assists in last wishes of the sick and falls in love with their life, their spirit while simultaneously feeling jealous because they just can’t manage to live their own life to the full.

Also at several points along the way our sick hero(ine) will have any number of profound phrases to bestow on our life-novice who’s just now figured out that perhaps it’s time to take living seriously. But how could anyone be expected to figure that out without the assistance of the dying?

Equally disgusting is the way we’ve glamorized visuals of cancer with fashionable baldness that never seems to stunt the eyelashes nor make a dint in the eyebrows. Similarly, they may be wasting away to nothing, but in an enviable way. Is cancer all it takes to get thin? Who said that anorexia isn’t a fetching in the right environment. Cancer pale is the new heroin chic, too. The sick look just sick enough to appear otherworldly and enlightened but never sick enough to dull the romance of their mission to rescue the healthy.

Watching these movies gives the watcher a kind of feeling that they wish they too could suffer in an important way  and through their sacrifice bring some (wo)man to redemption. But suffering isn’t a romantic prop, and it’s not a ministry to the well. The healthy should perhaps expend a little more of their own energy on discovering how to live life to the full and stop leaning the full weight of the importance of life on the already weakened.

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