The Rise of Cool-Girl Cancer TV
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because having cancer and getting your makeup right can sometimes be equally important in a teen’s life.
By Zara Stone
Teens Alexa and Katie are nervous about their first day of high school. Will they be stylish enough? Will the guys be cute? And, oh, yeah, will Alexa be able to handle high school and chemo? With an aesthetic that combines That’s So Raven with Gossip Girl, Alexa & Katie, a laugh-track-backed Netflix comedy (released in 2018), addresses a problem that many school-age kids deal with — while emphasizing that cancer is what happens to people, but people aren’t their cancer.
As a rule, TV shows have never shied away from cancer — just look at Walt in Breaking Bad — but they rarely show the teen side of life in a way where the disease isn’t center stage. A number of recent shows challenge that stereotype. In Life Sentence, released on the CW in 2018, Pretty Little Liars star Lucy Hale finds out her terminal cancer is cured, and she now has to deal with a life put on hold. Then there’s Chasing Life, a two-season (2014-15) ABC comedy where a writer on the verge has to juggle cancer, her career and looking stylish. These might seem like shallow problems when the big picture is about death, but that’s precisely why shows like these are so valuable. Remember being a teen? Everything felt like life and death — and just because that’s real for some kids doesn’t make their hormonal existence any easier.
I love that these shows demonstrate how you can have cancer and still care about dating and getting your makeup right.
Sarah Miller, 24, currently in remission for Hodgkin’s lymphoma
“This storytelling approach in TV shows reflects the lessening of the stigmas around having cancer and the more open dialogue that we’ve been experiencing lately culturally,” says pop culture writer Katherine Brodsky. “The key difference is that they are not victims, but rather survivors who are strong, funny, complicated and sometimes even cool.”
Sarah Miller, a 24-year-old currently in remission for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, appreciates the new programming — and lack of sappy music. “I love that these shows demonstrate how you can have cancer and still care about dating and getting your makeup right,” she says. Miller’s cancer has an 86 percent survival rate, and she notes that people with other cancers might feel differently. “For me, [Alexa & Katie] was like watching a regular teen-style TV show … except that the main character had cancer. And she doesn’t look or act sick most of the time, which was really normalizing for me.” Alexa & Katie series creator Heather Wordham told IndieWire that she purposefully picked a very survivable cancer to use for her Emmy-nominated show — and had Alexa run around like a normal teenage girl so that a younger audience would be more engaged.
But Rethink Breast Cancer blogger Emily Piercell isn’t so sure. Diagnosed with cancer at 27 years old, she’s struggled with isolation, and feels TV shows could do more to highlight the disease’s intricacies. “Cancer story lines are a good start to normalizing cancer, but they must be done right,” she says, noting that in Alexa & Katie you don’t learn the type of cancer Alexa has (leukemia) until the second episode, and chemo’s side effects are minimized. “Viewers won’t truly understand the struggles that come with cancer if you put a Band-Aid over the symptoms or use the improper language,” she says — and she sees no reason why including those details would affect the show’s popularity.
Problems notwithstanding, the plethora of cool cancer shows have found an audience. The second season of Alexa & Katie dropped on Netflix in December, with rumors of a third in the works. These shows sure aren’t perfect, but the investment into creating more episodes — and story lines — indicates that network involvement is about more than ticking the diversity programming card, and responding to the actual needs of their tween and teen audience.