Popular culture is often responsible for promoting ideas about attractiveness and desirability that are out of touch with how human beings really experience their bodies. When the focus is on having glowing skin, perfectly aligned teeth, well-toned abs and an hourglass figure, the hard realities of illness, ageing and death are deliberately blocked out of the narrative.
It is, therefore, refreshing to have Robia Rashid’s comedy-drama series Atypical on Netflix talk about testicular cancer in Season 4, which released in July 2021. The topic is introduced when Zahid Raja (played by Nik Dodani) tells his friend Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist), “The doctor called and said I have markers in my blood. An enzyme or something. It might be cancer.”
These young men are barely out of their teenage years. They are best friends, colleagues at a store called Techtropolis, and they share an apartment. Unlike many others of their age group and gender, they are comfortable talking about how they feel. However, disease is something they are unprepared for. It is a struggle to find the appropriate language.
Genuine care for each other makes up for it. Previous seasons in this series show how supportive Zahid is towards Sam, who is on the autism spectrum. Zahid does not treat Sam with kid gloves. He treats him with respect, as an equal, just the way things should be. This is what gives Sam the confidence to move in with Zahid when he leaves his parents’ home.
When Sam asks Zahid, “You’re scared you’re gonna die?” Zahid says, “If I’m going to be a sad boy, I’d prefer to be in the arms of a buxom, middle-aged nurse.” The series invites viewers to respond with empathy but Zahid’s suffering is never fetishised. His bawdy humour, hardwired into his character sketch, is not toned down when he falls sick. What is happening to him is only one part of his experience. It does not eclipse other aspects of his personality.
Zahid starts dating his ex-fiancé Gretchen (played by Allie Rae Treharne) in order to cope. Sam fears that she might break Zahid’s heart. Zahid does not want to hear this, so he establishes boundaries. He tells Sam, “If that’s going to be your attitude, then maybe I don’t want you coming to my ultrasound or any appointment.” As predicted, Gretchen does break up with Zahid. Sam takes driving lessons so that he can give Zahid a ride after the surgery.
The doctor has told them that Zahid does not need chemotherapy or radiation. His condition is treatable. It is beautiful to watch how Sam looks after Zahid in this season. In previous seasons, Zahid was the caregiver. Zahid says, “What if losing a testicle makes me less of a dude?” Sam reassures him, citing research which shows that “when one testicle is removed, the other one usually makes up for it in terms of testosterone and sperm production.”
It is common for men to boast about sexual escapades but talking about testicular health with one’s peers is quite rare. For someone like Zahid, who is proud of his virility, a diagnosis of testicular cancer must be extremely tough to process. Instead of putting him in a spot where he is teased and bullied by other men, Atypical offers a picture of what support can look like. The series does this without coming across as a public health advertisement.
Sarah Watson’s comedy-drama series The Bold Type, which has been broadcast on Amazon Prime Video, Netflix and other streaming platforms since 2017, has addressed the topic of breast cancer in a remarkably honest and mature way. While the series has completed five seasons, the fact that journalist Jane Sloan (played by Katie Stevens) is at risk of getting breast cancer is mentioned at the outset when she is assigned a story about breast health.
Jane is uncomfortable about taking on this assignment but Jacqueline (played by Melora Hardin) — who does not know that Jane’s mother died of breast cancer — is insistent. Jane is sent to interview a doctor, who tells her, “If one of your parents has a BRCA mutation, you have a 50 per cent chance of having it. If you have the mutation, your lifetime chance of getting cancer jumps from 13 per cent to as high as 80 per cent.”
Jane feels angry that a preventive double mastectomy is being recommended to women like her in their twenties. She comes back to the office, and has a meltdown in front of her boss. Jacqueline encourages Jane to take control of her life by getting a medical test done. Eventually, Jane does opt for the surgery. She, like Zahid, makes harmful relationship choices but she survives with support from her friends.
Both Atypical and The Bold Type show that human bodies are unpredictable. What they require is not self-hatred but tenderness.