But You Haven’t Seen it Yet: Why Critiquing Marketing of Future Portrayals of Disability is Important

The Good Doctor

Image Description: Promotional poster for the upcoming ABC show The Good Doctor. The title appears in blue over a grainy black and white image of half of series star Freddie Highmore’s face (he is a young white man with dark hair). In contrast to the black and white, his eyes are a vibrant blue.

Yesterday, I saw promotional videos for two television shows that will be premiering next fall. Both shows deal with characters that are likely autistic (though only one will acknowledge that). They were the trailer for new ABC medical drama The Good Doctor

and a first look video of The Big Bang Theory (TBBT) spin-off Young Sheldon. That video has since been removed so I can’t link to it.

I am concerned about both. I’ve written about my issues with how TBBT theory deals with the character of Sheldon Cooper who is deeply coded as autistic but the creator and writers refuse to acknowledge that (see here). Creating a prequel series focusing entirely on a Young Sheldon Cooper is only going to exacerbate those issues and concerns.

Based on the first look video, the prequel series is unlikely to be faithful to TBBT cannon. Sheldon has had some personal growth on the show but references to his youth generally paint a static picture of a walking autism stereotype. He doesn’t like to be touched, he is rigid in his rule following, he is blunt to a point beyond rudeness crossing the line into cruelty and scientifically gifted to the point of probable savantism.

These aspects are present in Young Sheldon but it appears that the show intends for the young to experience some personal growth or the series will be filled with a child tattling on his much older classmates for dress code infractions (and that will get old really fast).

He is shown possibly cultivating a touching relationship with his father. A character who is wholly absent from TBBT (having died prior to the events of the series) and generally not referenced with much emotion by any of the characters who knew him.

It is unlikely that the series will be able to stay true to a character who would eventually grow up to be Dr. Sheldon Cooper of TBBT without the content getting dry but as a prequel, it is unlikely that the series will remedy any of the more problematic aspects that arise from the staunch refusal to acknowledge that Sheldon Cooper is neurodivergent.

The show is likely to largely ignore cannon but its primary source of humour is likely to be the same as that surrounding his older self, at the expense of his neurodivergent behaviour. We can likely look forward to a show packed with a young socially clueless Sheldon constantly putting his foot in his mouth. I can only hope that viewers get tired of it fast and the show dies a swift death.

In the series The Good Doctor, the character’s–Dr. Shaun Murphy–autism is front and centre. The show is from David Shore who previously created House MD. It looks like he’s trying to recreate the popularity of an emotionally unreachable disabled doctor with this American remake of the Korean drama Good Doctor.

The trailer sets up red flags for a problematic portrayal of autism from the word go. It hits on a number of tired Hollywood stereotypes about autism (many that are shared by Sheldon Cooper)

The character is a white man (ditto Cooper)

He is a savant level genius (ditto Cooper)

He is labeled as high-functioning (for more on why functioning labels are gross, see here)

He is played by a neurotypical actor (ditto Cooper)

To add insult to injury, the show’s summary on IMDB asks this question

can a person who doesn’t have the ability to relate to people actually save their lives?

This plays into the lie that autistic people lack empathy. A myth that is increasingly being debunked.

The trailer also sets the show up to be classic inspiration porn. A story of overcoming the prejudices of a hospital board that doesn’t want to hire him and potentially overcoming autism itself.

The most believable part of the trailer is the scene where a room full of people try to justify discrimination. Believable that is until an advocate for Dr. Murphy (because of course the autistic character isn’t advocating for themself) launches into an impassioned speech about how hiring Shaun will act as an inspiration to others.

We hire Shaun and we give hope to those people with limitations that those limitations are not what they think they are. THAT THEY DO HAVE A SHOT!!!”

*bursts into tears from being so moved*

I’m kidding. This shit makes me sick.

It makes me sick because this character has been created specifically to be palatable to a neurotypical audience. He has been given special skills that exist entirely to make up for the less palatable autistic characteristics. Sure he’s socially awkward and might react strongly to loud noises but he’ll save your child when everyone else would fail. That but is the problem. We’re unlikely to see a medical drama where the doctor just happens to be autistic without the bells and whistles of a highly fictionalized savantism.

But neither show has been released yet, so why am I already concerned? I know I’ll get asked because I’ve criticized the marketing for media portrayals of disability before.

The simple answer is that the marketing is in and of itself worthy of critique. How companies choose to sell stories around disability can have as much impact as the stories themselves. I find it unlikely that CBS (Young Sheldon) and ABC (The Good Doctor) are catfishing their prospective audiences and that the shows will be drastically different from what their marketing says they will be.

In the case of Young Sheldon, get ready to laugh at an awkward child (who will be denied a diagnosis so you can pretend you’re not laughing at a disabled child) for his awkwardness.

In the case of The Good Doctor, prepare to be inspired by a highly stereotyped and false but comfortable version of autism that tells you that disabled people are valuable only if they can overcome their disabilities.

I want better stories. I’m sick of disability portrayals. I want actual representation but that would require actually hiring disabled people.


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5 thoughts on “But You Haven’t Seen it Yet: Why Critiquing Marketing of Future Portrayals of Disability is Important

  1. The big bang theory has always made me feel uncomfortable.I’ve never found it funny and I’m sad they’re making a spin off. I always cringe whenever anything says they have an autistic character in because I’m just expecting the portrayals to be like this. I just steer clear all together.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m an autistic, multiply disabled doctor who takes care of autistic and otherwise disabled children.

    My days are filled with trying to explain autism and disability to parents, teachers and my colleagues who constantly try to pathologize people like me and our patients, fighting with insurance companies and completing charts on an inadequate electronics medical records system. A big source of conflict is when I have to fill out a form rating a speaker, have all sorts of thing to say about their ableism, but can’t say it all because I don’t use a pen well enough to complete the paper form. Oh, then there’s the chairs in the meeting rooms I can’t sit in, so I bring my own, or the panic I feel when my schedule changes unexpectedly.

    I suppose this wouldn’t make exciting enough television. . . it’s too real.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Reblogged this on Erika Gisela Abad and commented:
    When I asked friends on Twitter how to feel about this show, they pointed me to this blog. Despite having autistic family members–blood and chosen–I learn how to interact with them slowly, listening to what their mothers and siblings tell me. I follow their lead. This blog speaks to the concerns/reservations I had regarding the show, despite being a fan of the main actors in the show. I also wonder if the African American characters are also ‘troped.’
    Nicholas Gonzalez’s recent ‘re-emergence’ decades after Resurrection Blvd, warrants ‘consumer activism’ in watching–despite our population latino actors represent 4% on screen–, however, not at the expense of ableist representation.
    Continuing to run into these problems on screen – representation, good storytelling – provide useful teaching tools (I have retweeted this article to share with students), though it begs the question that I’ve come across in disVisibility and neurodivergent twitter conversations, who tells, produces and invests in our multiple, complex stories?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. “The most believable part of the trailer is the scene where a room full of people try to justify discrimination”. Agreed. The cognitive dissonance shown in this scene is perfectly captured.
    Character – “And you thought this board wouldn’t have any doubts hiring a surgeon diagnosed with autism”.
    Why would you? Most people who watch any criminal themed t.v. nowadays knows that the “sociopath” occupation list includes ‘surgeons’ near the top and they are most likely to be described as ‘narcissistic’ and ‘egotistical’*. If hospitals are willing to hire people with those traits questioning the hiring of a person diagnosed with autism seems silly.
    (*side note: this is not to unfairly pathologize surgeons but to highlight the difference between that which we are willing to tolerate but would otherwise condemn and that which we condemn simply because we do not look at our world critically.)

    Liked by 1 person

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