Zoe Witt, in this op-ed, examines the problematic ways in which the Netflix film Purple Hearts uses diabetes healthcare and tropey romance to make a pro-military story. Warning: the plot will be spoiled.
I had my V for Vendetta moment when I was forced to ration insulin for nine months while working as a waiter. It’s unclear why, when the same thing happens to Cassie Salazar (played by Sofia Carson) in Purple Hearts, she suddenly becomes a political moderate (“purple”) after marrying a conservative Marine for health insurance and the chance to use an insulin pump and continuous glucose monitor. One of the most shocking revelations of Purple Hearts is that some women are willing to embrace a fascist government if they believe it will improve their lives.
Newly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, singer/songwriter Cassie must ration her insulin while juggling multiple employment commitments. Early on, we see Cassie taking a few blood sugar readings, using the last of her emergency vial of insulin, and exhibiting symptoms of dangerously high blood sugar. While the trip to the pharmacy is realistic, we don’t see Cassie again using insulin or checking her blood sugar until after the wedding, when she gets a pump and continuous glucose monitor. In light of the near-total absence of media depictions of rationing, the movie’s portrayal of diabetes is actually above average; however, as someone who has lived with diabetes for nearly 20 years, I was ultimately left disappointed and deeply confused by the role the chronic illness plays in the plot.
Her desperation is fueled by her limited access to healthcare, which is why she came up with the plan to marry into the military in order to qualify for better medical coverage. This is a very convoluted chain of events. Why was Cassie trying to fix her immediate problem with a long-term solution when she was in the midst of rationing and nearly dying in a bathroom stall? Rationing and impending death make it difficult to think clearly and plan ahead. However, full-insulin-dependent diabetics like Cassie can die within days without insulin, while the paperwork required to get married and receive insurance benefits can take weeks or even months.
Rather than focusing on the critical need for insulin, Purple Hearts tells an offbeat romance set in the military. “(When contacted by Teen Vogue, Netflix did not comment.) Never in all my years of rationing have both my long- and rapid-acting insulin supplies been depleted simultaneously. It’s puzzling that Cassie hasn’t mentioned needing new insulin in days, despite the fact that she seems fine. Unfortunately, we never learn the specifics of how Cassie handles her diabetes, and instead focus on her troubled love life.
When I first started watching Purple Hearts, I thought for sure that Cassie was actually a socialist like she claimed to be (played by Nicholas Galitzine). He’s an angry Marine who displays toxic masculinity, racism, and xenophobia from the get-go and continues to do so throughout the film.
Cassie’s Pride and Black Lives Matter bumper stickers on her beat-up Subaru Outback come off as hypocritical posturing by the end of the movie. She wears a “The Future Is Female” shirt while she makes a failed marriage proposal to her longtime friend and Marine Frankie (Chosen Jacobs) in exchange for health insurance. Frankie’s bunkmate Luke takes offense to the shirt because he feels it’s an attack on him. During one of their many fights, Luke accused Cassie of “scamming the government” to obtain the insulin she required for survival and also inquired as to whether or not Cassie’s mother was in the country “illegally.” It’s unclear why, but she’s decided to try talking to him again. As if on cue, after getting into yet another argument with Luke, Cassie completely changes her character, says she’s sorry, and agrees to a sham marriage that will benefit them both. Instead of looking for other diabetics or mutual aid groups that might be able to help her, or even just finding someone who isn’t in the military and has good insurance to marry, Cassie resorts to an elaborate plan for a faux marriage.
The night after Luke and Cassie’s wedding, the night before Luke’s deployment, another Marine advocates the targeted killing of Arabs; Cassie confronts him, while Luke remains silent before throwing a temper tantrum and storming out. Luke dismisses the Marine’s actions as “bullshit bravado,” focusing instead on his own anxiety about deployment to Iraq. Luke asks whether the country would be safe from terrorists “without guys like Armando.” Cassie begins to respond to that ridiculous question, but they have to stop talking about it so they don’t ruin their romantic pretensions. The film depicts this tension as a sexual drive… Later that night, before he leaves, they share a bed. Several difficult options presented themselves.
By the time Luke leaves for deployment, Cassie is completely oblivious to the fact that her new husband is a part of the U.S. military agenda, and she is deeply in love with him despite having barely gotten to know him. After hearing Cassie perform her new song of the same name, Luke, Frankie, and a few of their fellow Marines unknowingly step on a landmine in the minds of many people in the countries where the United States maintains military bases.
As a result of the explosion, Frankie is killed and Luke is rendered helpless, fulfilling not one but two tropes. Take out the young Black Marine who seems the least committed to “MAGA” and disable the bad white guy to give him a reason to change his ways. And now, Cassie, who has recently become disabled, is assisting Luke in his rehabilitation? Instead of exploring a diabetic acquiring a service animal to detect low blood sugar, we’re watching Cassie acquire an emotional support animal for him. Luke’s “overcoming” his war injury is an ableist trope meant to symbolize his miraculous transformation into a better person. How much more I hate this is beyond me.
It’s almost as if insulin rationing was just a way to get to the movie’s real point, which is to promote a military that is experiencing unusually low levels of voluntary recruitment. I was already aware that the insulin pump used by the main character in the film was donated by the medical technology company Medtronic, and I was also aware that the film had connections to the United States military. When the producers of Purple Hearts approached Camp Pendleton about filming, they were initially denied permission until the film’s director, Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum, brought in a military advisor and reworked parts of the script. A more fair representation of the Marine Corps required some minor dialogue changes, as Rosenbaum explained. According to Rosenbaum, “everything went through him” (retired Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. James Dever) as the advisor. The world looked different through his eyes. (He has contributed to other films like American Sniper and the animated series WandaVision.)
Since it was released on July 29th, the film has continued to set streaming records while also receiving criticism. In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Carson addressed the criticism leveled at him. She explained that the film’s social and political message was conveyed through a love story. It’s safe to say that the last five years have been among the most divisive in American history, or at least in my lifetime. The story is about two hearts, one red and one blue, brought up to hate each other, but who, through the power of love, unite to create a beautiful shade of purple. That’s the message I was most committed to conveying, and I think it’s at the center of our film.
And what could be more American than assuming that two people from southern California come from “opposite ends of the world?” U.S. defense spending is set to reach $773 billion in 2023, a year in which that money could have been better allocated toward, among other things, universal access to closed-loop pump technology and unlimited analog insulin for all diabetics worldwide. To suggest these severe wrongs are unrelated is nave, and so is the film’s and Carson’s approach.
It’s risky to keep Luke around in the year 2022. Everyone here has met a Luke. The sort of guy who would say that “casual misogyny” is just a bunch of guys “blowing off some steam.” The type of person who will be relieved when “pronoun nonsense” like the provision of gender-affirming healthcare is outlawed. “They are flawed at the beginning and that was intentional,” Rosenbaum said in a statement to Variety after the criticism. The use of “they” seems calculated; his faults are being conflated with hers, a common internet cliche. One is a militarist, apolitical at best, and interested in stripping away the rights of the marginalized at worst; the other is an outspoken feminist who may spend too much time on Twitter. Not one “they” exists. We’d like to think that people can improve and be redeemed, but that’s not something that can be shown in a two-hour romantic drama aimed at the mass market. Another film that tries to make audiences feel bad about invading Iraq by showing scenes of American soldiers playing soccer with Iraqi children, but it all comes off as trite and manipulative.
I know what it’s like to be on the bathroom floor with only a few units left of insulin, like Cassie, and I can say with absolute certainty that I would have let myself die rather than give in to this godforsaken country and marry a Marine just to get insulin. The late Desmond Tutu said, “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality,” which may help Carson, Galitzine, and the Purple Hearts filmmakers understand the backlash to the film.
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