Cough and Wheeze
Mouth Breather. Wheeze Bag. Sickly. These are just a few of the nicknames that get thrown around for people with asthma. And mass media portrayals of people who suffer from asthmatic conditions aren’t much better. Goofy sidekicks and unathletic side characters – people with asthma on TV aren’t usually the hero. But how accurate is this imagery?
We surveyed over 2,000 participants to see what they thought of people with asthma and compared our findings with real-life historical figures, sports players, and other famous people who succeeded despite their condition.
Don't waste your breath
We wanted to find out our survey participants’ perceptions of asthma. To do so, we asked each of them to give three words describing the characteristics of asthmatics. From there, the responses were processed through a tool that determines how positive or negative the words are, and subsequently averaged them based on demographics.
Overall, the results were quite negative. However, women seemed to be the least negative toward people with asthma, followed very closely by men. Surprisingly, asthmatic participants weren’t the kindest. As our results show, the most negative groups were nonasthmatic and young respondents.
It’s also apparent that participants’ most frequent descriptors align with Hollywood’s standard asthmatic character. The most commonly used words for asthmatic people were “weak” and “tired”. These are definitely not adjectives people with a physical condition want to be labelled as.
The next most frequently used descriptors are “cautious,” “slow,” and “careful”. Continuing to support Hollywood’s version of what asthmatic people are like, these characters might also be seen as scaredy cats, and are shamed by others for their lack of “can-do” attitude, and bullied by larger individuals due to their lack of physical prowess. Very few, if any, Hollywood depictions exclude the use of an inhaler as a comedy prop.
Interestingly, the eighth most frequently used word is “normal.” While this may go against pervasive asthmatic stereotypes, none of the other terms were neutral in sentiment.
More Than Walking Inhalers
Hollywood depictions of asthmatic individuals often rely on prop comedy, turning the standard inhaler into a joke or plot device. In the movie “Hitch,” an inhaler and asthma are used to accentuate the character Albert’s social discomfort around women. In a pivotal scene, Albert tosses the inhaler away as if he’s shedding shackles that preventing him from pursuing a meaningful relationship.
Even worse is how pop culture trains children to see asthma as a weakness, whether intentional or not. Asthma is typically associated with nerdy characters. Carl from “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius” and Milhouse from “The Simpsons” are portrayed as weak and timid individuals who rely on an inhaler. Instead of defining characters by their actions and deeds, they’ve crafted characters who truly can’t stand apart from their maladies.
No Air, No Care?
The reality is that asthma doesn’t have to limit you from pursuing your dreams. Take it from the dreamy David Beckham who, before becoming an H&M spokesmodel, delighted soccer fans across the globe playing for some of the largest teams. Beckham didn’t allow asthma to prevent him from winning multiple championships. (Paul Scholes, a fellow former Manchester United player, also played with asthma.)
Beyond sports, historical figures with asthma have been successfully paving the way for years. Both Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, despite being diagnosed with asthma, were U.S. presidents. Whether they were leading Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War or making negotiations during the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis, these men made sure they were labelled for their actions and not their condition.
They, in addition to many other athletes, celebrities, and world leaders, prove that asthma doesn’t need to limit true potential.
Clear the Air
While it’s still unclear why some people get asthma and some don’t, history has shown us that it is possible to live and flourish with this condition, even if pop culture doesn’t seem to reflect that. Olympic figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi, famous singer and songwriter Billy Joel, and even 17th century Russian Czar Peter the Great are just a few of the immensely talented people who have lived with asthma. Maybe it’s time for Hollywood to think differently.
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Public perception terms were gathered by surveying 2,035 individuals on their opinions on asthma characteristics.
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