No, Bad TV Portrayals of Disability are Not Good Learning Opportunities.

Atypical Poster

Image Description: Promotional poster for Netflix series Atypical. The Main cast is lined up on the bottom of the screen Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine), then only the top of Sam’s (Keir Gilchrist), Doug (Michael Rapaport), and Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) a cartoon thought bubble surrounded by penguins is coming out of Sam’s head featuring the show title and release date (Aug. 11)

“Hey everyone, you should totally watch Atypical  it’s super informative about autism except for the pathologizing of misogyny, the uncritical look at the cult of compliance, the portrayal of autistic people as one dimensional more uncritical takes on using disabled family members as props for personal gain, serious misrepresentation of effective therapy and interventions but yeah, you should totally watch it anyway”

I wrote the previous paragraph on Twitter yesterday in response to someone who suggested that despite Atypical’s extremely problematic portrayal of autism that it was still a tool for learning.

teaching tool

Image Description: A screenshot of a tweet with the tweeter redacted. It reads “Us NTs could use a little awareness. No show will ever completely encompass such huge important topics. But they plant curiosity to learn +”

The problem with Atypical isn’t that it’s merely imperfect. It’s loaded with stereotypes and misinformation. This tweet positions autistic people’s concerns about Atypical as merely whining and an unreasonable demand for perfection rather than the actual protest that it is against the genuinely harmful messages of the show.

I am however going to focus on the last assertion of her tweet, that the show and shows like it create genuine curiosity to discover the truth about the marginalized peoples being misrepresented.

This is patently false. The actions of this person actually exemplify that. This tweet only came about because autistic people had pushed back against their uncritical demand for a second season. It also came after their original rebuttal of “If you don’t like it you don’t have to watch it”.

This latter argument entirely ignores the harm that can occur if people watch harmful portrayals of disability and believe and internalize those messages. Disabled people don’t have the luxury of just ignoring harmful representation. We need to know what happened so we can challenge it.

The fact that they originally wanted me to just check out is entirely indicative of someone who didn’t want to engage with the show in a critical way. The later suggestion that people might use it as a jumping off point to learn about autism was just a last ditch effort to try and deflect uncomfortable criticisms about something they enjoy. They didn’t want to have to potentially feel uncomfortable about the implications of the media they consume.

I have yet to see op-eds about individuals who have watched Atypical or any other awful portrayals of disability that talk about how the show inspired them to take a deep dive into the autistic community and then truly learned something.

The critical pieces I see come from disabled people themselves or from writers who have seen the backlash and are reporting on it and this is by design.

In the last five years or so, disabled people pushing back against awful portrayals has been getting more mainstream attention. (see the pushback against the film Me Before You as the perfect example). This hasn’t resulted in better disability portrayals but it has changed how disability portrayals are marketed.

Now it is almost inevitable that presenting a disability portrayal as accurate and authentic will make up in some part of the marketing of that film or television show. This is certainly true of Atypical where show creator and writer Robia Rashid gave an interview which hinted at a personal connection to someone with autism and where she talked about all of the consultants and parents of children with autism that will present on the sets. She talked about how neurotypical actor Keir Gilchrist had previously worked with autistic children.

We saw the same phenomenon with the film The Accountant. A film, I will remind you whose entire plot revolves around an autistic accountant who was also a skilled and dispassionate killer (he is often described as a hitman, however, at no point in the show or in his back story is he actually ever explicitly paid to kill somebody). Even this ridiculous character whose description is so unbelievable was treated to the veneer of authenticity by their marketing department.

The people making the shows and films are already controlling for the off chance someone will become curious about the genuine authenticity of the portrayal. They are building in safeguards to actually mitigate curiosity. The goal of these portrayals is that they be accepted at face value and they are.

true representation

Image Description: A screenshot of a tweet that reads “@Atypical is such a true representation of autism, I really hope it raises awareness and gives people a better understanding” it closes with a clapping emoji

The person who wrote this tweet later told me in a tweet which they quickly deleted that they had an artistic brother and that’s how they knew how “authentic” it was. considering that the tweet was deleted so quickly that I couldn’t get a screenshot of it I remain sceptical of this claim, though it is far from impossible. The family members of disabled people can, unfortunately, be a major source of misinformation and misunderstanding of disability.

people first

Image Description: A screenshot of two tweets with the original author’s information redacted by images of a tennis ball and of floppy disks (I got the screen shot off of Twitter). The first tweet reads “the “people first” language in this show!!! @Atypical this is so awesome! person then diagnosis! “Child with autism”, not “autistic child”. Second week which is a response from the same author to the first rates “such a huge step forward in the normalization of the importance of mental health! and representation!!”

it is not hard to find autistic people who prefer identity first language. It is widely held to be the predominant preference of the autistic community. So the fact that this individual was celebrating people first language which is contrary to that fact that only shows that they don’t know better but that they will use the show to validate their preconceived notions around language and identity in ways that invalidate autistic people and their preferences.

These are pretty representative of the sorts of comments that portrayals of disability will receive from nondisabled people. They are their internalization’s of that media’s messaging or they will use that media to validate their preconceived ideas. As Twitter user @sorrysorryetc pointed out, the show was so poorly written that it was  often unclear what the intended message was particularly as it pertains to language usage so people are just going to end up taking what they want from the show and not actually interrogating whether or not they have interpreted it correctly or whether the show was wrong entirely.

The mere existence of bad portrayals of disability are not learning opportunities. Watching these shows can be educational if it is done with a critical eye and if it is being fact checked with the people being presented.

For the shows to be truly educational they would need to be accompanied by a comprehensive syllabus and lessons learned would likely not be about disability itself but rather how media helps to construct oppressive systems around disability by misrepresenting them to an audience that is assumed to be nondisabled.

 

 

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6 responses to “No, Bad TV Portrayals of Disability are Not Good Learning Opportunities.

  1. “The family members of disabled people can, unfortunately, be a major source of misinformation and misunderstanding of disability.”

    This is so true. Able bodied people trust the perceptions of able bodied family members of disabled people instead of caring what actual disabled people have to say about their lives and experiences. They need to start seeking the input of disabled people and not consulting a bunch of able bodied family members and thinking their perspective which is still privileged and outsider is enough to make for a proper consult with the community. Absurd.

    PS- I think your spellcheck changed autistic to artistic.

    Like

  2. Kim and Euphonia [and I saw that artistic/autistic finger slip!]

    Two good fact checks seem to be

    Bygones which is about the late Jerry Lewis and the effects the Telethon had on so many

    and A Knife Wound to the Gut – which Cal suggests “Go to the links” – and I would recommend HOPE IS NOT A PLAN which is about the Canadian system in British Columbia.

    If nothing else A Knife Wound shows that these bad TV portrayals have history and form – and did Tommy Westphal dream all this up? He has been known to dream up various series. [I refer to St Elsewhere which was in the 1980s].

    “This tweet positions autistic people’s concerns about Atypical as merely whining and an unreasonable demand for perfection rather than the actual protest that it is against the genuinely harmful messages of the show.” argh! no!

    Like

  3. Pingback: Atypical and Autism Representation – Ryan Boren

  4. Pingback: Twitter Celebs who are Ableist and don’t even realise it – Effervescent Thoughts

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