bad TV, mental health

The tasteless dramatization of self-starvation…

A couple of days ago, I decided I couldn’t stand to watch any more old episodes of Snapped. I actually find Snapped very interesting, but I can barely stand to listen to the former narrator, Sharon Martin, who (to me) has an annoying, over-the-top, salaciousness about her that bugs. I read that Sharon Martin was replaced as the narrator on Snapped. Having looked her up online, I know I’m not the only one who finds her irritating. She must also have her fans, though, because she was the narrator for many years, and there was even a Change.org petition to bring her back.

Because I needed to break away from Snapped, I went on a downloading binge. I ended up buying the box set of Growing Pains, which was a popular show, starting when I was a pre-teen. That show famously starred the late Alan Thicke, Joanna Kerns, Kirk Cameron, Tracey Gold, and Jeremy Miller. I’ve just now started the second season and am unexpectedly delighted by how well written and funny the early seasons are. Kirk Cameron was legitimately cute and funny before he became a Christian evangelist nightmare. Jeremy Miller was seriously adorable when he was a little kid. And then there’s Tracey Gold.

I’ve always had kind of a love/hate fascination with Tracey Gold. I think she is a talented actress, although the roles she’s played have often annoyed me. I remember seeing her on shows like Trapper John, MD and any number of movies of the week. She truly has a gift for acting, especially the kind of acting required by shows of the 70s and 80s, which was the height of my childhood. I probably know her best from her time as Carol Seaver, though… and I remember all too well how she was often made fun of on the show for being fat, ugly, and nerdy. Then, when she was in her late teens/early 20s, she developed anorexia nervosa and had to leave Growing Pains for treatment.

In 1994, Tracey Gold even made a TV movie about her real life eating disorder. For the Love of Nancy is one of maybe a dozen or so television movies about the horrors of eating disorders. For all I know, Tracey has recovered from her illness. I haven’t seen her on TV lately, but then I also haven’t been in the United States since 2014.

Yesterday, as I was watching old episodes of Growing Pains, I started thinking about all of the eating disorder themed movies of the week and after school specials. Next thing I knew, I started searching Google and promptly fell down a rabbit hole. My search was prompted by a guest star on Growing Pains by an actress named April Lerman (now known as April Haney). She played an annoying, pretentious girl named Juliet on Growing Pains. In 1987, she also played a girl named Cindy Greco on an after school special called Little Miss Perfect. On that show, she was second banana to Mary Tanner, who played the lead role– a bulimic girl named Debbie Welker.

I remember watching that special and being a bit shocked by it. On that special, Debbie (Mary Tanner) was upset because her mother remarried and forced her to leave her old neighborhood. She finds herself in a new school, where she has to prove herself as a budding musical theater star and high school cheerleader. I distinctly remember the cheerleading coach making comments about how the high school cheerleaders needed to make the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders “jealous” of them.

The hourlong show culminated with a scene showing Debbie stuffing her face with tons of junk food and then throwing up. She ruptures her esophagus and ends up in the hospital, where her mother lectures her about her habits. Cindy Greco (April Lerman) is there doing a horrible Humphrey Bogart impression as Debbie’s mom promises her that they will “lick” (see what they did there?) this problem together.

I went looking to see if I could find that particular cringeworthy special on YouTube. I have seen it there before. Alas, it’s one of the lost episodes that isn’t currently on the popular video platform. I’m sure it will show up again at some point. What I did find, however, was a hilarious article about movies and shows about eating disorders. This snarky piece, written by Claudia Eve Beauchesne, makes the very astute observation about the the media’s portrayal of eating disorders. She writes:

Between 1981 and 2003, at least a dozen cookie-cutter movies and after- school specials about eating disorders were broadcast on North American television. Nearly all of those films had titles combining the words “Dying,” “Perfect” and “Body” (Little Miss Perfect, Perfect Body, Dying to be Perfect, etc.) or including the word “Secret” (Kate’s Secret, The Secret Life of Mary Margaret, A Secret Between Friends, etc.) Save for a few exceptions, they all followed the same recipe:

A white, upper-middle-class teenage girl with mommy issues and a name that ends in a “y” sound (Casey, Debbie, Nancy, Lexi, etc.) secretly begins to “scarf and barf,” or stops eating altogether, in an effort to excel at a performing art or competitive sport, to emulate a popular new friend, or to regain a sense of control after a move or her parents’ divorce. A few dramatic incidents later—often messy binges involving chocolate icing, desperate midnight workouts and/or laxative theft—her friends and family start to tell her that she looks too thin, yet fail to notice that she now also sports ghoulish purple eye shadow and beige lipstick.

Eventually, our heroine faints in public and wakes up in the hospital, her mother asks herself out loud, “What did I do wrong? What did I miss?!” and a doctor gives the worried parents a complete rundown of the possible causes and effects of eating disorders. After a failed attempt to run away from the hospital, our heroine learns that her enabler friend or sassy hospital roommate has died of heart failure or committed suicide. The news sends her on a downward spiral until she hits rock bottom and resolves to get better. Cue the tearful reconciliation with mom.

I sat there chuckling, because Claudia is so right. I’ve seen most of those movies. Some of them are better than others, but they all do follow that basic formula. And they all kind of make it out that the only real eating disorders are anorexia nervosa or bulimia, and they’re only “real” if someone winds up in the hospital on the brink of death. Also, one thing Claudia doesn’t mention, but I’ve noticed, is that they always show the heroines jogging through beautiful neighborhoods, as if they are so healthy and wholesome… but underneath, there’s a bucket of crazy!

The first movie about eating disorders. It’s loosely based on the novel by the same name.

The actors portraying the victims sometimes actually look the parts they play. Jennifer Jason Leigh portrayed Casey Powell in The Best Little Girl in the World, an ABC movie of the week loosely based on the book of the same name, written by famed eating disorder therapist Steven Levenkron. I read that Jennifer Jason Leigh lost about 22 pounds to play Casey. She’s also a legitimately good actress. But they still used an emaciated body double in a doctor’s office scene. You can tell, because Jennifer Jason Leigh had really beautiful, thick, natural hair, and in that scene, it’s obvious the body double is wearing a godawful wig. But the shot only lasts a few seconds.

In For the Love of Nancy, there’s a similarly revealing scene. Tracey Gold, who actually did have anorexia nervosa, comes into a Christmas party looking like death warmed over. In that scene, it really looks like they mostly used her real body, although she was reportedly in recovery when that film was made.

Like The Best Little Girl in the World, For the Love of Nancy starts with a jogging scene…

I’ve seen For the Love of Nancy a bunch of times. This is the first time I’ve actually stopped to look at this scene closely. It’s probably because this movie kind of grates. Even though it has a somewhat decent cast, there’s not a lot of chemistry among the actors. Jill Clayburgh and William Devane are not convincing as a couple and the siblings all look like they came from different gene pools. But now that I look at it this infamous scene in slow motion, I think they used body doubles for this film, too. Tracey Gold probably no longer had the super skinny body that would deliver the requisite shock value to viewers, since she had been in recovery. I’m sure this film was not easy for her to make. It was probably pretty triggering for her.

Nowadays, movies of the week aren’t as common as they used to be. We have so many outlets for entertainment now. All of the streaming services make their own content now– Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu all have their own shows, and there are so many dramatic subjects that can be tackled that shock even more than anorexia nervosa does. Personally, I think these kinds of movies, which entertain in a way akin to that of horror movies, do a disservice to people.

There are a lot of different kinds of eating disorders. They are all soul crushing and devastating in their own ways. But no one wants to see an obese woman with compulsive overeating disorder stuffing her face and not vomiting, even though compulsive overeating is, in fact, a dangerous eating disorder. Ditto to orthorexia, which is an obsession with “clean” or “healthy” eating. Even though it’s unhealthy and destructive, it’s not as dramatic or sexy a subject as is anorexia or even bulimia. Maybe a really gifted screenwriter and director could make a compelling film about the lesser acknowledged eating disorders, but they probably wouldn’t stir as much interest, even though informing the world about those problems would probably be a public service. At most, people with compulsive overeating or binge eating disorders will get spots on a “freak” show aired on The Learning Channel (TLC).

This movie is pretty obscure these days. I’m not sure I could “stomach” it today.

The one film that probably came closest to such an ideal was the 1990 comedy-drama film, Eating, which starred Mary Crosby. And that movie, which I have seen, is not that great. I remember there was another show– it was an actual series that quickly got axed– that was called Starved. It attempted to put a comic spin on eating disorders and, quite predictably, was deemed in poor taste.

Yes, the episodes of Starved are on YouTube. No, I haven’t watched all of them. Maybe I will, though.

I seem to remember Tracey Gold tried to do a series about eating disorders, too. Her show was more of a documentary/talk show format. I think I saw it once or twice before it was canceled. It didn’t have the best time slot.

Tracey’s show– Starving Secrets. Who came up with that name?

One of my favorite movies about eating disorders remains the totally horrifying Karen Carpenter Story. Premiering on CBS on New Year’s Day 1989, this film starred Cynthia Gibb as Karen Carpenter and Mitchell Anderson as Richard Carpenter. Neither actor looked much like the person he or she was portraying, which meant there were really awful wigs used. There was also lip synching aplenty. I read that Cynthia Gibb actually had to wear Karen’s clothes, per Richard Carpenter’s insistence. Later, I read that Richard hated the movie and was sorry he’d had anything to do with making it. It’s a pretty campy movie and I’m not sure it holds up well against the test of time, however I will always love it for the music. I am an unabashed Karen Carpenter fan.

The Karen Carpenter Story…

Cynthia Gibb also portrayed an anorexic on the old TV show, Fame. Her character on that show, Holly Laird, becomes anorexic when her parents divorce. Of course, since it was 80s TV, Holly gets sick and is completely recovered by the end of the show, even after a hospital stay. It’s never mentioned again. Naturally, this is a pretty unrealistic characterization of eating disorders. They don’t magically go away.

Cynthia Gibb plays Holly Laird, anorexic for exactly one episode. This episode totally follows the “cookie cutter” plot line Claudia Eve Beauchesne refers to in her article, right down to a heroine with a name that ends in “y”.

Below are a few screenshots from the dramatic fainting scene… these are supposed to be high school students!

Perhaps the best portrayal of anorexia nervosa I’ve seen yet– and perhaps as much because of accuracy as sheer entertainment value– was that of Emma Rigby’s portrayal of anorexic teen, Hannah Ashworth on the British soap, Hollyoaks. I enjoy British TV anyway, but these scenes are so over the top compelling. And as an American, I find the concept of “sectioning” someone kind of fascinating. Yes, one can be committed in the United States, but Brits make it sound so much more caring when they do it. That kind of warms the cockles of any drama queen’s heart.

You could spend hours watching this shit… Fans of this particular genre have uploaded every scene.

Emma Rigby is also a good actress and the writers seem to have really done their homework about the most dramatic aspects of anorexia nervosa. They even mention the putrid breath one gets when one is in ketoacidosis from eating nothing but protein with no carbs. I was impressed by that. It’s not a very sexy aspect of anorexia and I have never seen it mentioned on any other dramatized program about eating disorders. It looks like Hollyoaks has gone there again more recently with a character named Cleo. I haven’t actually watched Cleo’s story, so I can’t comment too much about it yet…

Oh dear!

I could continue writing about this, but it would take all day. I haven’t even scratched the surface. However, just to bring this back to the original topic that caused me to fall down this rabbit hole, I will mention the dreaded Cameron family again. Remember, I got on this subject because of Tracey Gold, who famously starred with Kirk Cameron on Growing Pains? Well, his real life sister, Candace Cameron Bure, is also an actress. And she also portrayed someone with an eating disorder on the family friendly show, Full House. Her character, D.J., diets compulsively for one episode in which she decides to lose weight for a pool party at Kimmy Gibbler’s house.

You can find clips on YouTube, but I prefer this Funny or Die video… They do a good job summing things up. I like it when Jesse (John Stamos) tries to lay down the law.

Anyway… I figure I’ve prattled on long enough about this subject today. Maybe I should write about politics again, but to be honest, I never enjoyed writing about politics that much. I only felt like doing it when Trump was in charge. My original blog was less about politics, anyway, and I’d kind of like to get back to that content… which is less depressing.

Is watching old episodes of Growing Pains better than watching “murder porn” shows like Snapped? Especially when it leads me to looking up movies and TV shows about eating disorders? I don’t know. I used to be pretty obsessive about dieting when I was young, which is why I know about this genre in the first place. I am less obsessive about this subject now, although it’s not something that ever totally goes away. I know I’m not alone, though, which is why I’m writing about this now.

Time to practice guitar before I completely lose my motivation and watch more bad TV from the 80s.

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2 thoughts on “The tasteless dramatization of self-starvation…

  1. My cousin had the boxed set of “Growing pains” and watched it frequently, so i used to watch it with her. she identified with the Tracey Gold character, as she was smart and nerdy (and ended up with an eating disorder).

    I met Joanna Kerns’ sister Donna DeVarona at a combination swimming /diving meet when I was in high school. She looked a lot like Joanna but wasn’t quite as pretty in my opinion. She was very nice, though. I still have her autograph somewhere.

    • I remember reading about Tracey Gold having anorexia when I was in 8th grade. There was an article about it in some magazine we got at school. It s before her very public slide back into it.

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