The Message in the Media

Steven R. Passmore, DC, MS, and Lorraine Kochanowski-Sutter, DC
January 02, 2008
Written by Steven R. Passmore, DC, MS, and Lorraine Kochanowski-Sutter, DC
Part 2: Chiropractic as portrayed in the situational comedy on television.
The media delivers the message. The question is, what kind of a message is being sent to the general public, what kind of an influence does it have on them and what are the ramifications?

As discussed in the previous article on this topic, any professional discipline with a presence in society is subject to the scrutiny of the media. Sitcoms magnify strengths and weaknesses in an attempt to pack as many punchlines as possible into 22 minutes.

The portrayal of the chiropractor in situational comedies provides a window into the public’s perception of the profession. This follow-up delves more deeply into elements that comedy writers exploit to convey humour through the vector of the chiropractic profession.

THE ‘SPINE-O-CYLINDER’
In addition to the health and physical risks, there are also legal ramifications to amateur joint adjustment. On The Simpsons,(1) this theme arises with “Dr.” Homer’s “spine-o-cylinder” that he uses to treat the “human vertebrains.” As Homer pushes people across his device, which is actually a dented trash can, he chants, “One, two, better not sue ….”  His chiropractor, Dr. Steve, further emphasizes to Homer the risks of practising without a licence. Another example is seen on Scrubs (2). The hospital janitor, who had apparently been encouraged to take a “course” as opposed to a degree in chiropractic, states he has practised on several mops, which are seen lying broken on the floor. He delivers a series of cervical adjustments to a medical doctor named Turk. Following each spinal manipulation, which never seems to be performed with consent, Turk screams and faints, and the janitor demands $500 for his amateur efforts that seem to cause more obvious harm than good.

There are two examples of chiropractors on sitcoms poking fun at themselves as they prescribe the duration of a course of care. When asked by a patient about how many more treatments will be required, Dr. Alan Harper on Two and a Half Men (3) thinks out loud. Since his son has many more years of school before graduation, the answer is “a lot.” Dr. Steve on The Simpsons (1) corroborates this stereotype when telling Homer that he will need to see him “three times a week for many years.”

To educated chiropractic patients, this is amusing, since they know chiropractic is not necessarily just a quick fix, especially in chronic conditions. People who suffer from chronic pain are well aware they can spend a fortune on over-the-counter and prescription pain medications that mask their symptoms, have potentially damaging side-effects, and may not ever address the cause of their ailments. These individuals understand the justification for routine chiropractic care, and they actively seek it out for natural pain relief and increased musculoskeletal function, and because it treats a problem at its potential source.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?
On most sitcoms, the medical doctor’s honorific is followed by their surname, as in “Dr. Jones.” This is not always the case for doctors of chiropractic. Often we see chiropractors’ first names following the honorific, as with Dr. Steve and Dr. Steffi from The Simpsons,(1) Dr. Don from That ’70s Show,(4) Dr. Mike from The New Adventures of Old Christine,(5) and Dr. Bobby from Friends.(6) On a Friends episode, they toy with this concept a bit more directly when Monica’s father is shocked that she refers to her chiropractor as Dr. Bobby. To put her father at ease, Monica quickly reveals that this is actually her doctor’s last name. However, Ross points out that the chiropractor’s first name is also Bobby, making the chiropractor (or at least his parents) seem absurd.

This begs the question of why a chiropractor would want to be introduced in such a way? Does it make one seem less pretentious and more approachable? Does it empower the patient to share the responsibility of his or her own health on a more personal level? Does it help bridge the gap in creating a more cordial doctor-patient relationship?  It does seem that many chiropractors in fact do tend to take pride in distinguishing themselves in this manner from the traditionally colder and aloof medical community.

THE VIEW WITHIN
It is not often on a sitcom that we see inside the chiropractic office, but when we do the findings are fairly consistent. The office itself is presented as tidy and well maintained, with a busy waiting area, and almost indistinguishable from any other health-care provider’s private practice. On Two and a Half Men,(7) this professional decorum was preserved until Dr. Harper’s brother, Charlie, offered to serve as receptionist for a day. To his brother’s absolute horror and disgust, Charlie tried to convert the office into a brothel.

On The Simpsons,(1) we see a dreamcatcher on the wall behind Dr. Steve as he treats Homer. This strategically placed decoration could suggest that the chiropractor is in touch with native and/or natural healing, or it could be a jab at the field’s more esoteric practitioners.

Chiropractors are usually presented on sitcoms as well-groomed, competent and articulate, consistently observed wearing a traditional white laboratory jacket in their clinics.

POSITIVE ROLE MODELS
Two examples can be found of chiropractors as positive role models. On Two and a Half Men, (7) Alan prides himself on the publication of his case report in a peer-reviewed journal, and on being the recipient of an award from his community.
Everybody Hates Chris (8) is the narrated self-portrait of childhood recently brought to television by comedian and Saturday Night Live alumnus Chris Rock. Chris’s Uncle Louis (actor Wayne Brady) is portrayed as educated, relatively sophisticated and successful with a thriving practice, expensive car, and his preference for red wine over beer. He also comes across as genuine and likeable. When Thanksgiving gets boring, it turns out he can sing and dance to entertain everyone. Having brought an organic bean dish cooked in olive oil that he pressed by hand makes him appear to be a virtual Renaissance man.

GIVE IT TO ME BABY!
When one relative complains of onging back pain that medical doctors dismissed and called chronic, Louis proclaims, “Oh, they don’t know what they’re talking about,” and proceeds to adjust the man. The man indicates immediate relief and that he is no longer in pain. Faces in the room light up and suddenly we see an adjusting montage of Uncle Louis treating everyone in the family set to the Rick James’ classic “Give It to Me  Baby.” We see lumbar, thoracic, cervical, shoulder, and even wrist adjustments.

The chiropractor’s perspective is deemed important in an episode of The Simpsons (9) that was given to an animated parody of the television classic Cheers. The character in the bar representing Woody the bartender apologizes to an inebriated Norm and states, “My chiropractor says I can’t carry you home anymore.”

CHEATING DEATH
On another episode of The Simpsons, (10) sycophant Waylon Smithers reveals that chiropractic intervention is one of a series of procedures Mr. Burns routinely undergoes to “cheat death for another week.” The episode shows Mr. Burns receiving integrated treatment from four chiropractors, and then moving along a conveyor belt to be treated by other members of his personal health-care team.

Seinfeld’s Kramer starts a trend of swimming in the East River because the pool he used to swim in is too crowded, and swimming makes his back feel better.(11) Elaine’s friend Hal tells his chiropractor, who then recommends that all of his patients swim in the river. Soon the river is too crowded for Kramer, but the chiropractor’s patients are happy in the affordable pursuit of low-impact exercise.

Sitcoms are about exaggerated realities and humour in misunderstandings. Satire tends to focus on and amplify the negatives of a topic, and jokes poke fun at our perceptions. The perceptions presented about the medical and chiropractic communities may be merely the interpretations of individual writers. But occasionally they strike at our insecurities, putting us on the defence – at times rightfully so. On television, and especially the sitcom, no one is immune. Sometimes people are laughing with us, sometimes they are laughing at us and sometimes we are laughing at them. The networks feel okay about this as long as people are watching, laughing, and becoming interested in the products highlighted during the eight minutes of commercials.

All professions receive their fair share of mockery, torment and teasing on sitcoms. To be a recognized legally accredited profession is to be a worthy topic for discussion, debate and analysis. This is preferable to being so obscure that no one knows you exist. With laughter being described as “the best medicine,” our profession has to collectively roll with the punches.

In our daily clinical lives, we must do our best to present ourselves as the competent professionals we were trained to be. Accordingly, the stereotypes of the future cannot help but reflect the best elements of the chiropractic profession.•

Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for more about chiropractic in popular culture in upcoming issues of Canadian Chiropractor magazine. To view the references accompanying this article, please visit us at www.canadianchiropractor.ca.

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