Where are Hollywood’s UTIs?
My first ever UTI was last year. I woke up around 2 AM in agonizing pain and started peeing blood (I wasn’t on my period and it was enough blood to freak me out). I had never had a UTI and didn’t realize the blood was coming out of my urethra.
In my hallucinatory, partial dream-state, I was convinced that I was having a miscarriage. And, for some reason, I thought that it was imperative to drive to a 24-hour pharmacy and purchase two boxes of pregnancy tests…at two in the morning. I took three tests when I came home. All negative. And I passed out again. I woke up in a daze and thought…What in the hell just happened? I took my tired ass to urgent care, and lo-and-behold, it was a bad UTI.
UTIs are unfortunately an exceptionally routine experience for so many people with both penises and vaginas. Although in regards to young people, vagina-having folks are far more susceptible. When I’m not writing for The Cheeky I spend most of my waking hours focusing on short stories and screenplays, and my whole surreal experience really got me thinking about the drama of UTIs. For something so ordinary and universal (yet intense), it's interesting how rarely it is represented in narrative media. There’s plenty of periods, sex, unplanned pregnancies, and abortions, albiet, not often depicted with realistic accuracy. UTIs are just as common as all of these, so why do they feel so absent from the cultural landscape? Where are Hollywood’s UTIs?
I hopped on the phone with, Nona Willis Aronowitz, Teen Vogue sex advice columinst and author of the forthcoming, Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure and an Unfinished Revolution, to discuss the matter.
“The first thing that comes to mind is all the vaginal stuff in Girls, which was a few years ago. The Lena Dunham character had so many issues. She was always getting UTIs, she had HPV. And there’s a couple of different episodes where the whole plot line is about a UTI.” Nona says.
In Season 6, episode 4 of Girls, Hannah (Lena Dunham) has a UTI for the entire episode. She ends up going to the ER where she’s treated by a doctor who she once had a dalliance with in another episode. She inadvertently finds out she’s pregnant, he gives her a hug that is inappropriate for the moment, and she leaves without getting antibiotics. Ultimately, the UTI plotline is in service of a pregnancy plotline, but that aside, the depiction of the UTI itself felt right to Nona.
“As somebody who gets UTIs all the time, I felt pretty represented by that. I think the thing that resonated for me was just how painful and extreme they can feel. You do feel like you’re dying. You do feel like you can’t leave the toilet because it’s so bad. And I don’t think that’s often represented. Except, at the end of the day, she didn’t actually get the care that she needed, and she didn't actually need to go to the ER. I was screaming at the screen, like, go to urgent care!”
We both acknowledged that of course TV is TV, it's not real life, and so things are going to be dramatized, things are going to be plot-oriented. It would be very cool though to see a UTI or yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis represented cinematically in a way that is not necessarily in service of plot or in relation to sex. In the same way that we bear witness to people eating in movies and TV. They are seated at a restaurant eating while having a conversation, but the story isn’t about eating. Eating is just something humans do, so naturally, it is represented.
“When it comes to vaginal health that doesn’t have to do with a penis in the vagina, I think it gets kind of ignored in terms of TV and movies.” Nona says. “There’s a lot of things that can happen to your vagina that have nothing to do with penetrative sex.”
This concept resonated heavy for me (re: representations of sex, unplanned pregnancy, abortion as primary representations of vaginal health). In the Girls episode Hannah says at one point, “I didn’t even get this one from sex. I just walked around in wet underwear for a couple of days.” However, the ultimate climax of the plot is still a surprise pregnancy.
Nona mentioned Pen15 too. While there’s no direct reference to UTIs, it’s an amazing well of comedy and tenderness around vaginas, vaginal health, and periods. There’s an episode that stood out to me where the protagonists join the school’s wrestling team and learn that the boys are calling them BSBs (“Big hairy bushes and vaginas that smell like fish”). This opens the floodgates on a whole discourse around shame and vaginal scent. A sort of round about representation of the stigma of bacterial vaginosis which causes a fishy scent.
Nona and I both racked our brains for more examples of UTIs, and, honestly we were coming up short. But that’s when we remembered that one episode of Succession, the smash hit family drama about a power-hungry media dynasty.
While it is true that young people with vaginas get UTIs far more frequently, people over fifty who have penises are another population prone to infection. And the Succession episode (season 3, episode 5) in question revolves around the eighty-three year old family patriarch, Logan, literally tripping balls because of a UTI during an important shareholder meeting.
“It’s not that fucking serious, right?” One of Logan’s sons says.
“At his age, that can make you crazy.” Someone else replies. “Reagan had one at his age and nearly nuked Belgium.”
At one point Logan is hallucinating so severely that he thinks there’s a dead cat under his chair. An aid has to remove this imaginary cat to appease him while Logan’s children continue to battle ruthlessly for control over his company. It seems out there, but is this level of disorientation a realistic depiction of a UTI? The answer is absolutely, yes, especially in older adults. Makes me feel slightly better about my own delusional UTI experience.
Admittedly, because this is a blog about vaginas, I was more interested in finding representations of vaginal health and UTIs. However, what is so fascinating to me about Succession’s UTI is how debilitating it is to this all-powerful male figure. UTIs, vaginal infections, menstrual bleeding, pain, pregnancy. Under capitalism, there are not many concessions made for vaginal health. Severe period symptoms are typically not treated as a reason to take time off from work. The burden of breadwinner or caregiver doesn’t ease just because of an irritating yeast infection, mild but still uncomfortable UTI, or intense cramps. Women are expected to perform through pain. This is commonplace in our society, so commonplace in fact, that it feels completely glossed over in our media, not seen as dramatic fodder.
Now, for the grand finale, good ol’ Tom pulled through with an ultra-dramatic, fantastical UTI depiction in his 1999 prison drama, The Green Mile. In fact, his character’s UTI is what kicks off the entire plot of the film. Tom Hanks plays Paul, a death row prison guard during the Great Depression. He discovers the supernatural powers of an inmate named John after John miraculously heals his UTI and then expels the illness out of his own body by releasing a swarm of flies from his mouth…vibes. At the end of this seminal scene, a sweaty, disoriented Paul finally takes a satisfying, pain-free pee.
While surreal in nature, the entire, melodramatic sequence is one of my favorite examples of a UTI that I’ve come across. In all its otherworldliness it manages to capture the true intensity of this very everyday affliction. It captures not the reality of a UTI, but the feeling, the internal experience. Clearly, Stephen King - who wrote the original novel that the film is based on - agrees that a UTI is bad enough to warrant the attention of a miraculous healer.
So, look, I was certainly not able to find every example of a UTI in film/TV ever, probably not even close. And you may have noticed that Sex Education which traffics heavily in vaginal and sexually health has been entirely left out. I challenged myself to really try and focus on UTIs and vaginal infections, and, well, that specific representation is few and far between. But I genuinely don’t think it will be that way forever. Shows like Sex Education are doing a lot of hard work in the way of moving the needle on conversations around everyday health and reflecting our bodies and experiences more as they actually are.