Thursday, June 25, 2009

Medicine’s Moving Pictures: Medicine, Health, and Bodies in American Film and Television

Edited by Leslie J. Reagan, Nancy Tomes, and Paula A. Treichler. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, reprinted December 2008. Paper: ISBN 978-1580463065, $34.95. 343 pages.

Review by Cara Kinzelman, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Medicine’s Moving Pictures is an interdisciplinary compilation of essays concerned with the relationship between medicine, mass media, and American culture. The American public embarked on a century-long love affair with media representations of medicine and its practices as early as 1905, when the first movie theater opened its doors in the United States. Over the next twenty years, over one thousand medical films were produced for mainstream consumption and quickly became one of the most popular box office genres. As the century progressed, the American appetite for medical-themed media expanded to include educational films, documentaries, and television series.
It is fair to suggest that a large percentage of Americans experience medicine through its portrayals in the media. Popular understandings of diseased conditions and perceptions of health-care providers are formed and reshaped by media representations. The manner in which health issues are depicted in the media and their impact on the viewing audience offers important glimpses into the evolution of disease-awareness programs, the changing cultural authority of the medical profession, and public-health controversies. The ability of media to contextualize the socio-cultural development of modern American medicine is staggering, yet it is an avenue of exploration previously ignored by scholars. Medicine’s Moving Pictures is simultaneously an attempt to illustrate the value of this scholarship and a plea for other scholars to engage in similar work.
The book is arranged in three sections. The first and shortest section is concerned with the emergence of medicine as a media genre. Martin Pernick focuses on an assortment of popular and educational films from the 1910s and 1920s to demonstrate that from their inception health films “sought not just to illustrate, but to shape history” by commenting on the causes (and blame) for disease contraction and the limits of professional power, and by categorizing disease into two classes: fit for public discussion, and banned for reasons of aesthetic censorship (for example, venereal disease and eugenics). These early categorizations helped to create new conventions regarding venue, audience, and topics that would remain unchallenged and unaltered until the 1960s.
The second section considers the duality of medicine’s role in the media to at once entertain and inform an audience. Paula Treichler presents an interesting commentary on the role of the soap opera General Hospital in transforming the perception of HIV/AIDS from a disease exclusive to the gay male to an equal opportunity disease with far-reaching effects in a small community, through the guise of an ill-fated love affair. Lisa Cartwright offers a similar methodological approach in her analysis of deafness and the 1952 film Mandy.
The final section explores the nature of accuracy in medical-themed media by exploring the veracity of popular representations of physicians and medical research. Vanessa Northington Gamble offers a compelling essay on the dissonance between the immediate post-World War Two Hollywood representation of black physicians and the reality of their roles and positions within the (still largely white) medical profession. Black physicians were presented as either passive or passing characters. Indeed, their representation is more accurately a depiction of how whites viewed African Americans than an accurate dramatization of their professional lives, which increasingly centered on agitating for professional equality and desegregating sites of medical training and healing. In a related essay, Naomi Rogers highlights the negotiations between the reality of Sister Kenny’s fight against polio and RKO Studio’s construction of her story that attempted to place Kenny more firmly within accepted gender and medical norms for their 1946 biopic. The essays in this section demonstrate well that accuracy in medical-themed media is a fluid term meant to imply either accuracy of popular perception or accuracy regarding the event, person, or technique portrayed, but seldom both.
Tasked with beginning a scholarly conversation, Medicine’s Moving Pictures offers a rich overview of the promise of such scholarship for highlighting the intricate relationship between popular culture, media, and medicine in the twentieth century and beyond. The essays are a prelude to what will surely become a burgeoning and exciting field of work in upcoming years.

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