Men’s health is a joke on television

The mass media has a long history of covering medical dramas and rarely doing so with any realism.  We’ve gone from Marcus Welby, MD to a host of shows dedicated to portraying medical personnel in the most salacious ways possible.  But at least with all these dramas it is understood that they are fictional.  There are now though a host of shows which pretend to show real life medical stories which are even more perverse.

Some of the most egregious examples come from Untold Stories of the ER, a Discovery Health Channel production which is sporadically rebroadcast on The Learning Channel.  A prime example from this show is episode 4 from season 5, “Grandma’s Back.”  One of the incidents portrayed is that of a young man entering with priapism, an erection which won’t subside spontaneously.  This is a relatively rare occurrence as a side effect of Viagra.  But can also be associated with serious underlying clotting disorders and malignancies.  After an episode of priapism men are frequently left impotent.   In short, the condition is a serious one and anything but a joke.  It’s about as intrinsically funny as female infertility.

The vignette portrays a young man coming in the ER with a prominent bulge in his pants accompanied by his mistress.  His wife later shows up and the two women fight as neither was apparently aware of the other.  The patient is portrayed as being in great pain and whining for relief while trying to fend off the two women who turn against him.   The whole episode is one of comic relief in contrast to the other 2 episodes in this hour show.  The other two tales in this episode concern critically ill women, one young and attractive, the other elderly but well preserved, both of whom ultimately do well.   Needless to say, both are treated sensitively as if a miracle had taken place without a hint of mockery.

The doctor in the priapism story is identified and I was able to call him.  He said the season was filmed in Vancouver, in a defunct medical clinic, which the network rented out for the month.   Of course all the patients and likely most of the staff are actors, but the identified physicians are real.  The priapism tale is one the physician suggested based on a real experience from his residency.  In commenting on the filming, the doctor said that “sex sells.”

A further episode portrays a man who came in with testicular pain.  A testicular ultrasound is ordered, but a mix-up occurs and an orthopedic patient is sent instead.  The patient who underwent the mistaken testicular ultrasound by a woman technician of course is later shown to have thoroughly enjoyed the exam.   Two other episodes make a point of showing men being embarrassed to be treated by female physicians or nurses.  Needless to say, I’ve seen no episodes (though I haven’t seen them all) where women are portrayed in such a mocking disrespectful way.

The attitude taken on this show towards male health problems is reflected throughout society.  It is routine on TV and in movies for the portrayal of men being hit in the groin to be used as a comic event despite the fact that serious injuries occur.  The media treatment  of the John Wayne Bobbitt case is an extreme example.  There are many sites devoted to jokes about the incident.  It’s inconceivable that mutilation of a woman could be treated similarly by the media.

Men’s reluctance to obtain routine health care is also routinely treated as a joke.  Even physicians have done this.  An example is Dr. Sharon Orrange’s article  on the 10 reasons men don’t go to the doctor including “you are afraid we will put our finger in your butt” and “you are afraid we will examine your balls.”   This same physician has never treated woman’s issues with levity.

Even when the motives are unquestioned, the media frequently uses humor and sex to try and encourage men to receive medical care.   CBS has run a series of public service announcements to entice men to receive prostate exams.  Some are directed to women rather than men, a common strategy.  Some of these ads use a young alluring woman to give the message with a smile.   Can you imagine an ad to promote Pap smears using a young handsome man?  I don’t think you’ll ever see one.   Why not use an ad from a former athlete who may have had prostate cancer himself?  There are lots of them.  Johns Hopkins was featured in an ABC TV series in 2008 purportedly to show real life situations in medicine.   One episode featured a female urologist coaxing a minimally reluctant  older man to submit to an exam.  He is shown from the back lowering his pants for her.  There was no point to this episode except to introduce some sex and male embarrassment into the show.  There are many thousands of women physicians in this country who do thousands of exams on men every day.  Why feature men for embarrassment?  Women get just as embarrassed,  but that’s never a matter for humor.  That’s treated as a serious concern.

On an opposite but analogous theme, a play called, “Midlife Crisis, the Musical” has one scene showing men sitting reluctantly in a doctor’s office waiting for their appointment.  But they are then told that the provider has been changed to a young pretty female physician, and the men now jump up with eagerness to get their exam.  So men are either reluctant to have an exam or eager, depending on what seems more humorous in the setting.

In short, the media has always portrayed medical situations in sitcoms and dramas in a way to sexualize and dramatize the entire episode.  It is highly variable whether any pains are taken to get medical facts correct; often they are totally inaccurate.    But at least it’s apparent that these dramas are fiction.  The so called reality shows are worse in that viewers are more likely to believe that they are actually witnessing valid portrayals of modern medicine.  Male patients are usually not shown as being capable of making intelligent choices about their health care.  They either need their wives to push them into it or the medical encounter needs a pretty provider to attract them.  Frequently they are embarrassed to seek help.

Now these characterizations do fit some segment of the male population, but why are they the only segment shown?  No humor is portrayed when women  need to be pushed into obtaining needed medical care.   The majority of men who need chronic health care, predominately middle aged and older men, would be better served by intelligent and factual reminders of what is needed.  Some professional organizations like the American Cancer Society do provide this, and there are serious health segments, especially on cable news, but in general the popular mass media fails miserably.  I see no organized protest about this.  Groups such as the AMA could improve the situation if they tried.

Joel Sherman is a cardiologist who blogs at Patient Modesty & Privacy Concerns.

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  • Maurice Bernstein MD

    but in general the popular mass media fails miserably.” So why do these shows with “straight faced” names stress sex and an incomplete or distorted or even humorous image of male patients? I think, unfortunately not to be fair and realistic but just to be “popular”,  Are there any TV show critics taking a stand on the issue presented by Dr. Sherman? ..Maurice.

    • Joel Sherman

       The mass media overwhelmingly treats everything as entertainment.  That’s true not only for ‘reality’ shows but for so called straight news shows as well.  It wasn’t always that way.  Read Dan Rather’s recent book “Rather Unspoken’ for the famous newscaster’s opinion as to what has happened to American TV.

  • Hexanchus t


    Short answer, the mass media has two overriding principles:

    Sex sells!
    If it bleeds, it leads! 

  • Ed

    There are many medical
    “professionals” who perpetuate the same attitude by embarrassing or
    ridiculing male patients who are reluctant to submit to opposite gender
    intimate care.  Female patients would never be treated with the same
    disdain and disrespect.

  • Mary Alice Miller

    I hate to say this but, so what? Male politicians all over the country dismiss and erroneously LEGISLATE women’s very real reproductive needs, even protecting doctors who actually lie to women about the true nature of our pregnancies. Doctors stood back as over the years legislators separated women’s reproductive needs from “mainstream” medicine, even going so far as to banish women’s services from hospital grounds altogether. With women’s clinics safely off hospital grounds, women’s clinics can be targeted by all manner of misogyny. The average male doesn’t know how a female’s reproductive system works, and couldn’t care less. Yet, they also remain silent as women’s health needs are ridiculed by absurd legislation. Males are lucky we females are not demanding the very same restrictions on ED drugs (such as making several appointments and having a nurse or doctor witness ingestion of the pills or injections), which as you well know kill more men in this country than women’s reproductive medicines. Men want their reproductive issues taken seriously? Take women’s reproductive issues seriously. Simple.

    • Bill98

      Mary, first, you seem to have missed the point of Dr. Sherman’s article.  He was discussing the disrespectful treatment that men’s health needs receive in the media.  He was not discussing health care issues facing women.  Indeed, these are important, but not relevant to this discussion.

      Second, your post seems to ask “who cares” about how men are treated.  The simple answer is that you should care, since it impacts the men in your life.  If they are mistreated, especially with regard to their health, you should stand up for them, every bit as much as they should defend you and your concerns.

      Third, you seem to blame male politicians, exclusively, for laws that negatively impact women’s health.  I would remind you that some of those voting for this legislation were women, and some voting against were men.  Also, women constitute over half of the electorate.  Many must have voted for the politicians who are crafting and voting for this legislation, or else they would not hold office.

      There are many other points that I could make, with regard to your post, but that would continue this conversation away from the topic at hand. 

  • MynameisPT


    I think you missed the point on the subject matter. It’s about how male patients are
    portrayed as patients in healthcare. Female politicians attempting to pass laws requiring men to
    receive a rectal exam prior to obtaining a script for Viagra.
    95 percent of all nurses are female, over 5000 hospitals in the US, not to mention outpatient
    surgical clinics, etc. Can you really say that men get a fair and respectful shake in healthcare. If you
    hated to say it,then why say it at all!

  • Steven Reznick

    I had the distinct privilege of hearing the executive producer and creator of the TV series ” ER” and the TV series ” Law and Order SVU” speak to a group of physicians and health professionals at a convention. He is a pediatrician who wrote many of the ER episodes while serving a fourth year clerkship in an Emergency Department. He talked about setting up YouTube short synopses of the topics he wished to cover  public health current issues.  He outlined the problems in presenting the information in a fair and non exploiting nature. He additionally showed how the educational aspects of the discussion of the topics used as part of the plot and story line were able to reach a wide and broad number of individuals faster and in far greater numbers than any traditional pubic health educational campaign. This caring creative physician showed how the media can be used for educational and informative purposes without being sensational or demeaning. 
    TV is about making money and hawking products to the 18-29 year old age group. Nothing else counts to the TV execs today. That doesnt mean there are not wise responsible members of the media and creative community who present material appropriately and in all our best interests.

  • Bill98

    Dr. Sherman, this is an excellent article. I had made similar observations, but some of yours are new to me. Further, it is instructive to see these brought together in one article, instead of noting them in isolation.

    When you consider these items, collectively, you note that each item is part of a pattern.  One that is so pervasive, I have trouble finding counter-examples.  That is, I cannot think of one example that treats men’s sexual health seriously. 

    Nor can I think of one that treats the embarrassment that men feel over some of the examinations and treatments that they must endure, with regard to health care in general, and sexual health in particular, as anything but a joke.  Typically, that embarrassment is made worse when some of the caregivers are of the opposite sex, as is almost always the case (a situation that women can avoid).  But, the media sees the man’s discomfort at exposing himself to, or discussing intimate details with, a woman as enhancing the humor of the situation. 

    This is unfortunate, because, as has been noted in other articles, embarrassment is one of the factors that causes men to avoid health care.  A continuous message from the media, which treats such concerns as a joke, and that belittles men who have them, can only exacerbate the situation.

  • Ronald Yap

    Great article, Joel. As a urologist who deals with the conditions you referenced, I can relate to the lack of respect for male health at times in the media.  There needs to be more constructive awareness of men’s health concerns from reputable medical professionals, not just charicatures and off colored jokes.
    Here is a challenge…..When is Men’s Health Week?  Answer – The week up to an including Father’s Day (June 11 – June 17, 2012). I doubt that most in the blogosphere knew of such a celebration. 
    It is up to us in medicine to get out there and increase advocacy for male health concerns!
    Ron Yap, MD
    Prostate Pals Urology and Men’s Health Blog –

  • Ailan Medici

    It’s interesting that the culprits behind mass media exploition of male embarrassment in the medical setting are almost exclusively men.  The creative people, whether writers of medical dramas, or jokes meisters on late night tv, are mostly men.  What’s the saying, “I’ve met the enemy and he is us.”

    • Alice Robertson

      There is some truth to what you say, but hasn’t the mainstream media (Newsweek recently and TIME) shown that women are sorta ruling the world (and according to Shades of Grey they like to rule the boardroom, but like to be conquered in the bedroom.  Who would have thunk:) To add to your comment….to make it more precise… it’s that men let this happen. Whether it be from the reason you let your health go (tis’ true a married man with a nagging wife is often healthier), or your slip of irresponsibility is showing the consequences go waaaay beyond your health.

      I guess if men get sissified enough they will take better care of themselves!  Ha!  Oh just being dramatic to make a point….hmmm…..:)

      • Bill98

        No, men did not let this happen, society did, and women are a large part of that.  Men are supposed to look after the health and welfare of their family first, right?  So, is it any wonder that they don’t seek medical treatment themselves?  Men are supposed to be strong, isn’t that what you like?  So, can they then show weakness by seeking treatment of their healh issues, let alone by complaining about how their gender is represented in the media? 

        Ask yourself what you and your friends would say about any guy who didn’t behave as I have just described, and then ask if you aren’t also part of the problem.

        • Alice Robertson

          Bill….this won’t fly…I am a stay-at-home mom of six kids who gave up a good career to homeschool for the last 24 years.  I am into gender roles…but I am into personal accountability.  I believe history bears out guys liked a better standard of living and didn’t mind the wife working to obtain it….things went awry…the breakdown of the family.  But that still means men have to accept accountability for their health and responsiblity the role of fatherhood which would include taking care of themselves with exercise and eating well and not blaming women.

          And just incase you don’t have a wife to tell you…get your blood pressure checked!  Ha!

          • Bill98

            After re-reading my original post, I’d say that it not only flies, it positively soars. Nothing of what you said does anything to bring it back to earth. Men are part of society, and, therefore, bear their share of responsibility. However, my response was to your claim that “it’s that men let this happen”, which would absolve women of any responsibility. My comments show otherwise, and nothing that you said refutes them.
            By the way, I agree with you that any married man should carefully monitor his blood pressure, since wives are a leading cause of hypertension!

    • Bill98

      “It’s interesting that the culprits behind mass media exploition of male embarrassment in the medical setting are almost exclusively men”

      Exclusively men?  Not likely.  The entertainment industry has a very large female presence.  Also, much of the focus of that industry, known as the “target audience”, is female.  So, while I agree that some men are culpable in this, so, too, are some women. 

      • Ailan Medici

        Bill,  you’re misinformed about which gender controls the creative content of what the public sees on the screen.  If you go to the movie/tv database and search by title of shows, then click on ‘full cast and crew’  you can bring up all the writers connected with any show.

        Some sample searches of comedy shows that usually have irreverent material targeting both men and women:

        Family Guy writers – 42 men (1 woman)

        Seinfeld writers – 32 men (4 women)

        Late Night with David Lettermen writers – 64 men (5 women)

        Do your own search of whatever program you find offensive.  Let us know what you find.

  • Elizabeth Belle

    It’s assumed that male sexuality is primitive, and men cannot be hurt by sex. The majority of men I have encountered view sex differently than women, but they take it seriously and have emotions tied into it. Having areas that are only touched by oneself or a sexual partner touched by a stranger is uncomfortable for anyone. I’ve had many years of pelvic exams, and I’m still not used to the idea of someone inserting an object into my vagina so as to scrape cells off of my cervix.

    What irks me most is making light of pedophiles who molest young boys (Family Guy is a show that plays on this trope). Sexual abuse is not good for anyone’s mental health, and it’s sickening that people assume molestation is no big deal. Argh.

  • Suzy Furno-Maricle

    I have to say that some of the comments made by my fellow females are
    rather disturbing. Most importantly is the notion that if it’s not MY issue..not
    MY problem..not something I want to talk about..(in short:not about ME) Then “So

    Is this the level of concern we have for our fathers, brothers, husbands,
    and sons? We certainly expectthem ( and every single person in the entire sea
    of society) to take our bodies/modesty/morality seriously. Why are we not “women
    enough” to do the same.

    Turn around and look at the men in your life. Do you care that they are not
    seeking medical attention? Then: do you care enough to ask why? If the answer is
    yes, then get off that opinionated pedestal and work with those men to help get
    them the respect they deserve.

    • Bill98

      Well said, Suzy.  It’s easy to blame men for not standing up for themselve, and changing things.  What a great way to absolve oneself of any responsibility.  

      But, what support has anyone in society, including the women who are supposed to care for these men, ever given when men complain?  Typically, these guys are shamed into silence, being called “whiners” or told to “man up”.  Others get the point and keep their mouths shut.

      The simple truth is, men are raised to suffer in silence, and it isn’t just other men who send this message.

  • Ailan Medici

    Can you add to the list?

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