From Very Special Episodes to ‘Girls’ to Can We Make Pop Culture a Trusted Source of Health Information

Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, raised an important point in a recent speech when she talked about the disparity between the amount of sex we portray in our culture, and the amount of accurate information about sexual health that’s conveyed along with it. “I don’t have to talk about sex for young people to think about it,” she said. “I think of my own kids who grew up watching Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill, let’s just go down the list. And yet somehow we don’t want to teach sex education or provide access to good information.” Her point is more about formal health education, but it raises an interesting question: can we make pop culture a source of health information that’s both verified and credible to viewers?

The non-profit group Hollywood, Health and Society has done a good job of getting accurate health and scientific information to the folks who are making narrative fiction for film and television—if they know to ask. It’s not as if fact-checking your science or medicine is a routine step in the production process for most television shows and movies. And a show like Fox’s House, its long-running medical procedural, probably depends on viewers not probing the science behind Dr. House’s tests and diagnoses. We accept that we’re here to be entertained, rather than informed, lest a show fall into the vale of the Very Special Episode.

But that raises an interesting question. Are we psychologically preconditioned to dismiss accurate information when it shows up on television, just as we do so many fictional conditions, miraculous cures, and half-assed lupus diagnoses? One of the great virtues of the early episodes of Girls, HBO’s marvelous show about the lives of 20-something New York women from Tiny Furniture director Lena Dunham which premieres on April 15, is an arc of the show where a character is diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease. Dunham told me she took great care to make sure the medical information in the story was accurate, and the story hinges on the characters’ misconceptions about the disease in question. In other words, it’s a perfectly-constructed educational tool, and the kind of writing that Dunham ought to get a lot of credit for: accurate, engaging, funny, and emotionally involved. The question is whether folks are conditioned to recognize what she’s pulling off for what it is.

I hope they do. If more people could build drama for the facts like Dunham does, maybe Very Special Episodes wouldn’t have a bad name. And maybe our television would be broadly engaged in a way such that we don’t need Very Special Episodes at all.