The new season of “Hannah Montana,” the popular Disney Channel show starring Miley Cyrus, debuted Nov. 9 with a substitute for its previously planned episode about diabetes.
The originally planned season opener, titled “No Sugar, Sugar,” was scheduled to air Sunday, Nov. 2. In it, Hannah’s friend Oliver finds out that he has diabetes. Parents of children with diabetes and other viewers who watched the show ahead of time on Video On Demand issued complaints to Disney that resulted in the episode being pulled for further evaluation.
“During the script writing stage … the matter of depicting a character with diabetes was reviewed by our Standards and Practices executives who consulted with medical experts to inform the story and ensure that it was told responsibly,” says Disney Channel spokesperson Patti McTeague.
Katie Clark, a volunteer for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation who is the mother of a child with type 1 diabetes and has type 1 herself, says that she saw a version of the episode on YouTube. Most of the episode, Clark says, did a good job of portraying diabetes in a positive way—until the end.
“The last 10 minutes were about [Oliver] trying not to fall into the temptation to have sugar,” says Clark. She describes a birthday party scene filled with cotton candy, candy bars, and other sweets that Oliver is trying to avoid. “His friends say, ‘We know you can’t have sugar. You’re not supposed to have that.’” [The character] acts like all he wants is sugar. They went over the top in saying that he couldn’t have it.”
Kerri Marrone Sparling, author of the popular diabetes blog “Six Until Me,” wrote in her blog that it was dangerous for uninformed viewers to take the episode too seriously. “So what if Oliver gets low at school? And needs sugar? Is the lesson here that diabetics can’t ever have sugar?” writes Sparling. Additionally, she points to other incidents in the episode that upset viewers—including the character with diabetes being called “sugar boy,” and his exaggerated actions that included jumping into a trash can in pursuit of a candy bar.
Another viewer with type 1 diabetes, Angela Chiffy, says that certain themes were portrayed well, including the importance of sharing a diabetes diagnosis without feeling ashamed, and the need for support and acceptance for someone who has been diagnosed, she says. Inaccuracies, however, could have diminished the impact of the show. “The Hannah Montana episode is likely to have been some kids’ first exposure to diabetes, which would have given them an inappropriate view of diabetes that could last a lifetime,” Chiffy says.
The Disney Channel replaced the Hannah Montana episode with an episode of “Jonas Brothers: Living the Dream,” about the popular band. Nick Jonas of the Jonas Brothers was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in November 2005. A Disney spokesperson says the episode delves into how Nick manages his diabetes at home and while touring and performing.
Disney is currently revising “No Sugar, Sugar” in light of the complaints, in particular re-assessing scenes like the birthday party, which may or may not remain.
“There is great interest, especially from parents, in seeing the subject of living with diabetes somehow incorporated into our storytelling for kids and families,” says McTeague, “so we’re hopeful we’ll do so in the future.”
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