“What are these scars?” the female lead, Emily, asks the guy she’s just slept with, Kumail, in an early scene in The Big Sick. I perk up in my seat when I hear the line. When the film first came out, I avoided it for weeks, afraid to see yet another slick Hollywood version of what illness supposedly looks like. But one of the most indelible memories I have—one that features prominently in my forthcoming book, Invisible: How Young Women with Serious Health Issues Navigate Work, Relationships, and the Pressure to Seem Just Fine—is a similar question posed to me on a first date.
In my case, the scar was a bright slash across my throat: the kind of mark that makes people nervous. And the reason for my scar—cancer surgery—was the kind of phrase that makes people downright scared. So I avoided answering. I avoided unloading the complex story of my body, at least for another few dates. In that moment, I wanted to seem like a buoyant young woman, not a medical calamity.
As I learned by interviewing all kinds of women whose stories now appear in my book, this tension between wanting to be yourself and yet not wanting to seem like a “downer” about your health is fairly common. Young women are already up against a lot in the realm of relationships, career, and generally being taken seriously. Sometimes even the most body-positive feminists don’t want to start talking about their bodies.
The scars in the film, we learn, aren’t harbingers of a taboo discussion of cancer, or anything as dramatic as what will soon befall Emily’s own health (the sudden illness and subsequent coma that constitute the “big sick”). In this case, the marks are simply from the smallpox vaccination that Kumail got while growing up in Pakistan. The opposite of a health issue, in a way.
Still, the question about scars is a nod to anyone who’s had to explain the particulars of their body to another person. (A nod to anyone with a body, really.) Especially those of us who worry that our skin or wig or foot or cane or insulin pump or crutch or brace will betray something we’re not yet ready to share with a date or a new friend.
More of these intimate body moments pop up in the true-story film, which was written by Emily V. Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan) and Kumail Nanjiani (who plays himself). Toward the beginning of the protagonists’ relationship, Emily sees a photo of Kumail when he was young and a “dweeb,” and she and Kumail share a laugh at his expense. Then she admits that in high school she was not how she appears today, either: she was a goth who had acne, and her classmates called her Beetlejuice.
On another date at Kumail’s place, Emily wakes up in the middle of the night. We watch as she frantically tries to get dressed. Kumail stirs.
“It’s three a.m.,” he says.
“Is that, uh, diner around the corner open?” Emily asks.
“It’s twenty-four hours—why, you want an old lemon meringue pie?” Kumail says. But Emily is clearly in a rush about something else.
“You’re so funny,” she says in a quick breath. “No, actually, um, I just, I really need to, uh, get a cup of coffee.”
“I can make you coffee,” Kumail says.
“I love diner coffee,” Emily says. “I just love that burnt taste.” When Kumail says he’ll come with her, she protests. “No no no no. No, why would you do that?” she asks. She says a few more things that sound somewhat out of character, until Kumail realizes something must be up.
“Why are you being so weird?” he asks.
After some more cursing and arguing, Emily seems on the brink of losing her cover.
“This is normal!” she says. “Girls go to get coffee in the middle of the night! Have you never had a girlfriend before? This is what it’s like!”
“Are you okay?” Kumail asks.
“Everything is not okay,” Emily says, and starts to sound even more upset.
“Hey hey hey, you can tell me anything, you know that, right?” Kumail says, until finally Emily admits what the problem is.
“I have to take a shit, okay?! I have to take a huge fucking dookie.”
Kumail laughs, perhaps relieved that it’s not something more serious. Meanwhile, Emily is so mortified that she’s practically in tears. “I can’t [go] in your bathroom because you don’t have any matches and you don’t have any air freshener! [. . . ] Please stop laughing,” she says. “Please, please, please.”
Here again, even though this scene takes place before Emily’s much more significant emergency begins, we have a moment that parallels what many young women with health issues experience. It’s both deeply funny and deeply sad to watch Emily feel so bad about her regular bodily functions, ones that are normal but that we tend to deem gross. Her diner-trip cover-up is an example of the way we often attempt to seem “fine”—to seem The Opposite Of Gross—even when our bodies are in need of something. And while being afraid to go to the bathroom at your partner’s house pales in comparison to the health issues that will strike just a few scenes later, the scene reminds the audience of the everyday fact of having a body, of being a body—and the fear of disclosing any “weirdness” to someone else.
Later, a short, moving scene hints again at the way we all carry shame about our physical selves. Emily’s mother (a hilarious Holly Hunter) asks if it’s okay to get into bed next to her husband, who has been sleeping separately from her because of relationship issues. After she gets in, her husband (played with quiet pathos by Ray Romano) is immediately worried.
“See, I should have brushed my teeth,” he says in a small voice. He’s self-conscious about not being perfectly ready for the woman he loves to be this near to the animal of him. But instead of being grossed out by her husband’s un-brushed teeth or his breath, Holly Hunter’s character stays close.
“I like it,” she says.
Scenes like this charm me because I constantly worry about my body’s medical weirdness and what it signifies to others—and because I constantly try to stop worrying about it around the people I love.
There is, however, one scene concerning bodies that falls flat. Throughout the film, Kumail’s mother orchestrates meetings between her family and a stream of Pakistani-Muslim women she’s trying to get Kumail to marry. In one such scene, we watch the family react with boredom and annoyance. Why? The woman auditioning on this particular night is drily listing all the foods that she can’t eat. The message is clear: we’re supposed to think this woman sucks.
Yes, the filmmakers are right about one thing: making others listen to you list every single food you can’t eat while you speak in a dull voice isn’t the most exciting of dinner conversations. But out of infinite comedic possibilities that the writers could have chosen, I don’t know why they chose something health-related to show that this woman is a drag. In doing so, they leaned on a tired trope: Woman Listing Foods She Can’t Eat For Medical Reasons is often used in movies and on television as a lazy shorthand for “this chick’s no fun / don’t hang out with her.” So it surprised me to see it in an otherwise thoughtful film about how health issues can strike anyone out of nowhere. The character could have, say, drily listed all seventeen dog accounts that she follows on Twitter, or presumptuously listed the many cardstock varieties she wants to consider for her wedding invitations. There were many other subjects she could have been annoying about.
Still, in its honesty about acne, giant shits, and un-brushed teeth, not to mention the “big sick” itself, the film succeeds at capturing the everyday grit of being a body. The things that, if we all shifted our thinking a little, we might not need to be as embarrassed about.
Various scenes showing the main elements of the film—that Kumail loves Emily, that Emily is in the intensive care unit, and that both Emily’s and Kumail’s families have strong personalities with their own cultures to contend with—made me guffaw at some points and tear up at others. I left feeling that I’d watched something much more substantive about illness than I’d expected. And it was the small moments that resonated with me—and with stories from the women I’ve interviewed—the most.
After Emily has (spoiler alert) emerged from her coma and is just starting to venture outside on her own, she says something uncannily similar to a passage in my book:
“When something like this happens, there’s this sort of expectation that you’re gonna have this completely, like, new lease on life, and feel totally different about everything, and, like, cherish every sunrise,” she tells Kumail. “And like, for the most part I just feel like, ‘Ooouugh, I can’t get up that early,’ you know?”
Emily delivers the line slowly, as if just starting to come to terms with her post-coma life—and how surprisingly mundane that life can be. Her words closely echo a section of Invisible in which someone asks how I feel after a near-death medical experience. Like Emily, I became acutely aware that life doesn’t necessarily feel epic every moment just because you almost lost it. I didn’t need to go climb every mountain and start everything in my life over again. For many of us, that “new lease on life” feeling can illuminate some things, certainly. But at other times, we simply feel like we’re people trying to get through the day.
The real story of Emily’s health, and the film version she and her husband have created, may at first seem epic to viewers: a sudden illness, a medically-induced coma, hanging on by a thread; love, family, existential drama, realizing what matters to you. But as the film accurately shows, dealing with a major illness isn’t always a grand or sweeping tale. Sometimes, like teenage acne or the way you smell to your partner, it’s just part of being a body in the world.
About the Author
Michele Lent Hirsch is a writer and editor whose work has appeared online in the Atlantic, the Guardian, Smithsonian magazine, where she is a former weekly contributor, and Women Under Siege, where she is a former editor, as well as in print in Psychology Today, Natural Health, and the Bellevue Literary Review. She has also published poetry in a number of journals, and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. With a specialty in science, gender, and health, she has been an adjunct professor of journalism at Manhattanville College, a guest lecturer at the New School, and a writer-in-residence at the New York Public Library. She is a member of Columbia University’s Neuwrite program, a selective group of writers and scientists. A native New Yorker, she lives in Brooklyn, NY. Follow her on Twitter at @Lent_Hirsch.