The Glamorization of Drugs in the Media
Accurate representation of the harmful effects of drugs is improving, but drug addiction is still often glamorized in the media. Which type of media glamorizes alcohol use? They all can, and they all do.
The “media” refers to anybody involved in broadcasting or publishing written, verbal, or visual content to be consumed by the masses. It also refers to the various means of mass communication.
This could run the gamut from printed newspapers to television, to movie studios, and to the internet. Of specific concern for this piece is the role that TV shows and movies play in shaping the popular discourse around health concerns like drug addiction.
For media involving high-school characters, alcohol use can be rampant. It is popularly seen as an important milestone in a coming-of-age story. Drinking alcohol, particularly drinking in excess is seen as a “rite of passage”– something that can (and should) be experienced by teenagers.
If being a “stupid teenager” is a right of passage, then bad decisions made while intoxicated are portrayed as permissible. For media involving adult characters, harder drugs like cocaine, benzos, and heroin are used.
Drug use is often prevalent in depictions of musicians who rock hard and party harder, only to get up and do it all over again. Drug use is often seen as a measure of success, obtained when the access to life-altering resources (including drugs) exceeds the common sense to not use them in the first place.
Even if the media aren’t glamorizing it, sometimes they only cast drug addiction in a negative light rather than talking positively about treatment. A recent research study found that 60% of a sampling of news articles portrayed substance abuse negatively, and only 5% of the articles talked positively about treatment.
This skewing could affect how people perceive seeking drug rehab treatment.
This love-letter-to-the-80s Netflix show received record viewership and critical reviews. It’s set in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, during the Cold War, where a portal to an alternate, hostile dimension was opened by the government in their efforts to spy on the Soviet Union.
Season 2 of Stranger Things highlights the popular discourse on drug usage. Billy Hargrove is the stepbrother to Max, a friend of the main character “Eleven.” He is a California transplant, drives a Camaro, and often is seen shirtless. He reeks of sex, and the depiction of his drug use is very much tied up in his sexual charisma.
At a Halloween party, Billy is seen doing a beer kegger and smoking a cigarette while “Shout at the Devil” by Motley Crue blasts in the background. Another main character, Steve Harrington, is at the party with his girlfriend Nancy Wheeler. They act very modestly as if they don’t belong at the drug-fueled party until Nancy asks a teenager what’s in a punch bowl on the counter: “Pure fuel. Pure fuel!” he drunkenly shouts.
Without hesitating, she dunks a red solo cup into the mixture and throws it back. She repeats. She justifies her behavior to her boyfriend by saying, “Let’s just be stupid teenagers for the night. Wasn’t that the plan?” This TV show typifies the cinematic representation of alcohol and teenagers.
Wolf of Wall Street
“Wolf of Wall Street” was a Martin-Scorsese-directed film that chronicled the story of the rise and fall of a stockbroker on Wall Street. It featured gratuitous sex scenes, drug binges, and the most cursing of any movie ever made.
Once the main character, Jordan Belfort, makes millions of dollars in a manipulative stock buying and selling scheme called “pump and dump,” he engages in an outlandishly decadent lifestyle featuring abundant cocaine usage. He encourages everyone around him to use it as well.
Rather than framing cocaine as contributing to his eventual spiral and arrest, cocaine is portrayed as the companion to his material success. It allows him to sustain a lifestyle that is a tasteless exaggeration of the American Dream.
One of the main characters was “Donnie Azoff” played by Jonah Hill. He indulged in this newfound revelry with Jordan Belfort. Over the seven months of shooting, actor Jonah Hill snorted so much fake cocaine (vitamin D powder) that he developed real-life bronchitis. Even fake drugs have effects in real life.
Baz Luhrmann’s biopic “Elvis” won international acclaim for accurately depicting the real man behind the musical legend. It represents Elvis as a product of the times he lived in: He was a white man who got paid for singing like a black man.
While the movie is very accurate in almost every way, it does not accurately depict Elvis’ drug addiction. The movie ends the way Elvis would have wanted it to end: On a stage in front of his adoring fans. He’s the culmination of his own wildest hopes and dreams.
But, in real life, Elvis died alone on the toilet. He had been constipated for so long (months, possibly) that he had a heart attack while trying to have a bowel movement. He kept his room as cold and dark as possible and sometimes refused to bathe. These symptoms of self-isolating paranoia are experienced by people suffering from opioid use disorder.
Starting in 1967 and continuing until his death in 1977, Elvis’ doctor over-prescribed him countless prescription medications. He took benzos, barbiturates, and opioids in lethal doses. What the movie doesn’t show is Elvis looking bloated, tired, and visibly transformed from the sex symbol he began his career looking like.
Requiem For A Dream
If there is one movie that does not glamorize drug usage and perhaps exaggerates its negative effects, it’s “Requiem for a Dream.” Requiem for a Dream is hands-down the most brutal anti-drug movie ever made.
Director Darren Aronofsky likely wanted to frame this movie as a counter-narrative to the prevailing cultural sentiment towards drug usage in the late 1990s. This movie is set in the same time period as “Wolf of Wall Street,” yet its attitudes towards drugs could not possibly be more different.
Whereas “Wolf of Wall Street” portrays cocaine as a companion to success, “Requiem for a Dream” portrays heroin as a nightmarish descent into the seven levels of hell. Indeed, all the main characters (Sara, Harry, Marion, and Tyrone) are utterly devastated by their drug use.
While the characters initially buy into the cultural narrative that they can use drugs to build the life they want for themselves, they quickly succumb to drugs’ addictive properties and spend the rest of the movie unraveling their own lives.
Unless you don’t already know taking heroin is bad, there’s not much to be learned from watching this movie. You will never be able to forget it, and you’ll want to hide in a small, cold, dark room every time you remember it.
While not every drug user endures the same kind of nightmarish brutality as seen in “Requiem for a Dream,” it is nice to have a movie exist as part of our shared cultural conversation on drug addiction that underscores its negative, life-altering effects.
Despite masterful acting and filming that bends reality, movies and TV are just that – fake portrayals of someone’s creative dream. They are not prescriptions for how to live your life. If you or a loved one struggle with substance use, help is available. Reach out today.
-  Ghosh A;Naskar C;Sharma N;Fazl-E-Roub None;Choudhury S;Basu A;Pillai RR;Basu D;Mattoo SK; (n.d.). Does online newsmedia portrayal of substance use and persons with Substance Misuse Endorse Stigma? A qualitative study from India. International journal of mental health and addiction. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35789814/
-  Thorne, D. (2014, January 16). How the wolf of wall street broke movie swearing record. Guinness World Records. https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/news/2014/1/how-the-wolf-of-wall-street-broke-movie-swearing-record-54478
-  Opioid use disorder – statpearls – NCBI bookshelf. (n.d.). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK553166/
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