What TV Gets Right and Wrong About Drug Use.

by Alek M.

Drug abuse has proven to be a major problem for our society over the past decade (although it certainly didn’t start there). The rising rate of opioid abuse, along with other substances, is one of the premiere health issues of this particular time.

When we find ourselves in times like this, it is worth it to take a step back and examine how we react to it, as a society. Obviously, this means looking at the practical steps, possibly through legislation or funding, that we take to mitigate the rise of addiction, but it can also be valuable to examine the cultural ways that we view addiction.

Today, in terms of our media, one of the most relevant ways that we view the cultural zeitgeist is through serialized content, or television (although much serialized content is viewed through online sources, today, such as Netflix or Hulu). Because of this, it’s worth taking a look at the things that television has traditionally gotten right and wrong about drug abuse, and how the ways that portraying drug abuse affects our national conversation.

In fact, one of the most empowering things that the media can do sometimes is to humanize the struggle of addiction. One of the most harmful aspects of addiction is its power to isolate those struggling in its grasp. Isolation and shame fuel addiction, furthering our disconnect from the support network that can help us find recovery. But what’s the distinction between humanizing and endorsing?

Glamorization around drugs

The first problem that often gets thrown around in television portrayals of drug abuse is one of subtle glamorization. Cocaine is an excellent example of this, as it is a drug that is usually portrayed through a veneer of glamor; something that is to be used in extravagant hotel rooms and is exemplary of the high life. This sort of shine that we put around the lifestyle of drug abuse can stunt the real implications that many people who suffer from a dependence on these substances can have.

Oftentimes, in terms of negative depictions, there is a polar opposite type of anti glamorization that can be just as problematic, when it comes to showing drug abuse. These sorts of portrayals will show addicts as something whose lives are so horrible, that they are almost subhuman, at this point. The issue with this portrayal is that it dehumanizes the victims of addiction in a way that is highly alienating.

Many new shows depict the effects of drug use

There is a great middle ground that television shows can hit, if the makers have the skill and desire to achieve something a little more nuanced. To some degree, this can be accomplished just by making a good show. Scripts that do a great job of developing characters who use illicit substances already do a great deal to humanize the subjects of substance abuse.

However, going a step further involves showing how the effects of drug abuse ripple outwards, and how it truly affects people’s lives. The great news is that a lot of newer shows from the past several years have a greater ambition to do more with their platform and tell better stories, when it involves drug abuse. This includes shows like The Knick and Nurse Jackie, which shows characters that are functional and good at their jobs, yet have very real struggles with cocaine and opioids, respectively. Netflix’s highly popular series, Orange Is the New Black, also tackles the highly complex question of how the criminalization of drug use has had a negative impact on the addiction landscape. And the impressive show, Breaking Bad, was excellent at showing how the main character’s choice to make crystal meth rippled outwards throughout his community.

Portrayal of drug use doesn’t have to be a message

It’s important to note that a television show doesn’t have to have a message about substance abuse every time it comes up in a story. Sometimes a television show doesn’t have to moralize every little aspect, and if the story isn’t necessarily about substance abuse (whether in the main plot or in a subplot) then it seems silly to expect every show to demonstrate a highly positive depiction of drug abuse. However, as a society, it is certainly within the realm of reason to expect that our television shows don’t contain outwardly harmful depictions of addiction.

Comments for What TV Gets Right and Wrong About Drug Use.

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by: Thomas

I agree with you on the theory of glorifying drug culture on TV. But I also believe regardless, at some point the individual that's abusing drugs will make their own decisions based on whether they are satisfied with their quality of living or not.

If any external reason were totally responsible for our decision making, then how did some of use stop using and some are still using? Just like I'm the Director of a Behavioral Health Agency. Drugs were part of an accumulation of events in my life that lead me to where I am.

So if someone tells me how negative that lifestyle is, my reply is, "where would I be today had drug abuse not been part of my life's journey?" I wouldn't recommend anyone to travel the same path I took to obtain peace. But if they did, it shouldn't define who you are, unless you want it to. Because you can change.

Thank you.

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