The Good Doctor Lives Up to Expectations as Stereotypical Inspiration Porn

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 the new ABC drama The Good Doctor premiered. I have had my concerns about the show ever since I first saw the trailer in May. All of my concerns have now been validated.

The show’s portrayal of autism is deeply stereotypical and like so many portrayals of autism centres around an essentially magical autistic white man. It is particularly apt that today Disability Scoop published an article (which does not mention The Good Doctor) about a study which found that Hollywood routinely creates overly stereotyped and unrealistic autistic characters.

The Good Doctor’s Dr Shaun Murphy fits that description to a T. He is basically a walking, talking embodiment of the DSM diagnostic criteria. He like so many of the autistic characters before him has the characteristic Hollywood autism accent. He is sensitive to noise and is socially awkward which is played off as an endearing innocence but serves mainly to reinforce the idea that autistic adults are effectively children.

He is also a savant, because of course he is. Autistic characters cannot take centre stage in mainstream media unless they fit into either an over pitiful role or as in this case an essentially impossible level of exceptionalism.

And let’s be clear, the character is impossible. He isn’t just a savant (and how many times must I repeat that savantism is rare) his skills are inhuman. It’s not just his ability to visualize the entire human vascular system and apply it to the medical realities of different people (though I admit that’s a new one that I haven’t heard before), his awareness is absolute. He misses nothing. He identifies problems that are not only easy to miss but also that will likely be missed. He does this while not even appearing to be paying attention.

Clearly, Hollywood hasn’t gotten the memo that savants are humans and are fallible.

Despite this, Shaun is also perceptive. This is played out as great wisdom. He clocks and calls out his supervisor’s arrogance.

Show creator David Shore makes no secret of the fact that Shaun is explicitly intended as inspiration porn.

“He’s a catalyst for change among the other doctors. His different way of looking at the world will, I think, inspire them.”

Shaun, like so many disabled characters before him, does not exist for himself but rather for other people.

I remarked in my earlier piece on the show’s advertizing that “[t]he most believable part of the trailer is the scene where a room full of people try to justify discrimination”. What was true of the trailer was more or less true of the show. Much of the conflict was contrived and unbelievable.

Early in the episode, Shaun witnesses a child injured by falling glass in an airport and uses his magical powers, *cough* no I’m sorry I meant “savant” skills. to correctly identify major issues to save the child’s life.

Of course, it arises that Shaun must perform an emergency procedure and requires a knife. But he’s past security in an airport and no one seems to have one. Oddly despite it definitely being several minutes since the falling glass incident (which was spectacular and unlikely to go unnoticed) and a crowd has gathered to watch Shaun work, all airport staff seem completely unaware that it has happened and that there is a medical emergency.

Shaun is somehow able to figure out how to not only MacGyver medical equipment and plot out meticulously where he’s going to get everything but when it comes to asking a TSA agent for a knife, he can’t clearly articulate why he needs it. The TSA agent refuses (again how is literally no one affiliated with the airport aware that a child is dying?), Shaun decides to steal the knife and run. Of course, he’s chased and tackled, luckily within eyesight of the huge crowd–that again no one from the airport staff seems to have noticed–and the child’s distraught parents. Shaun is allowed up–having apparently suffered no particular anxiety from having been tackled–and saves the child.

Well, at least until they get to the hospital and he determines that the child needs an echocardiogram but can’t express why the child needs it so is ignored. He tries to make a run for the operating area and is kicked out of the hospital. He then futilely tries to regain entrance instead of calling the head of the hospital, who he knows and is the person championing the idea of giving him a job.

While it is true that autistic people can struggle with knowing what to do in situations of high stress, it is something we can learn. It is also something that a doctor needs to be able to do to be effective.

Quite frankly between Shaun’s inconsistent ability to basically be either BBC’s Sherlock–capable of complex multistep planning–or to try and run past security staff at the first roadblock (there is no in between) and people constantly ignoring him, I’m utterly shocked the kid didn’t die (I could I suppose have included a spoiler warning but does the outcome really surprise anyone?). That’s the magic of television folks. In real life that kid is dead six times over.

The only part of the character that I did identify with was his tendency to go silent for socially unacceptable amounts of time in response to questions he didn’t immediately know the answers to.

Frankly, that’s not enough of a consolation.

Dr Shaun Murphy is fundamentally the quintessential supercrip. He does not resemble any actual autistic people even if as a result of him being a walking DSM entry, people find tics in common. He entirely reinforces the idea that to be both disabled and acceptable you must also be exceptional.

I fully expect the show to continue in this vein, with Shaun’s coworkers and patients gaining life-changing insights from their very own magical white autistic man.

I’m still waiting for stories with disabled characters who are both more realistic and whose lives exist for themselves and not for the Hallmark card insights that they offer others.

But since this is what people actually seem to think passes as positive portrayal* I fully expect to be waiting a long time.

Here’s hoping for early cancellation and that this doesn’t get eight season’s like David Shore’s previous foray into supercrip doctor drama, House MD.

*I refuse to consider anything that does not actually involve the group being portrayed representation

 

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6 responses to “The Good Doctor Lives Up to Expectations as Stereotypical Inspiration Porn

  1. I feel kind of inclined to disagree. (I’m autistic btw.) We get Shaun’s POV and I can’t say I’ve really seen that anywhere. We see how he thinks. He has his own motivations. He wants to help people so they don’t die like his bunny and brother did. He’s there because he wants to be. He may be a catalyst for change and he can do that while still being his own person.

    I’ve never seen myself portrayed accurately onscreen before until this show. He’s a guy and I’m a girl, but that’s beside the point. My parents got to understand things from my POV that they couldn’t before.

    It’s annoying that he’s not played by an autistic actor, however I can see that he did his research. I had to look up whether or not he’s autistic IRL because it was good.

    We’re both entitled to our opinions. I’m just sad to see the first halfway decent autism portrayal on TV being frowned on. I feel like people are trying and we keep shooting them down for not being perfect.

    One has to wonder how much untapped potential autistic people have…potential that never gets tapped because people write them off as unteachable or too disabled to learn. I feel like Shaun is the guy who got lucky and got heard, and he happens to be good at this one thing.

    My biggest fear is the show will gradually siphon his autistic traits away until they’re almost unnoticeable by the end of the season or series.

    I’m going to keep giving this show a shot. I feel like it’s a really sincere try towards edging away from “autism is tragic”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. While I agree overall. I do think the creators are – albeit misguidedly – trying to shed light on people with Autism being capable and deserving of chances. The problem is the stereotypical way they are handling it all – both in characterization (which I think Highmore is great and the reason I’ll give it a few episodes) and plot. My problem is the show’s proximity to Netflix’s ‘Atypical,’ which – in my opinion – created a far more believable, less stereotypical character in the normal world trying to figure life out alongside his family trying to figure life out with him on their radar. MUCH stronger than ‘The Good Doctor.’

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  3. Frustrating. As I was reading this I immediately thought of House as well, a show I enjoyed in the past, but I definitely does have all of the traits of inspiration porn as does Sherlock *sigh* With this latest iteration, they’re not ever trying to hide what they’re doing.

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  4. Since finding your blog after an exhaustive search for fan fiction written on this new show, I’ve read and enjoyed it – and learned from it. However, I think you overlook one vital aspect. This is television. These are television writers. This is entertainment; escapism. It does not have to be textbook perfect. I think television has become so ingrained in our lives that we now demand its perfection; its total accuracy. While I myself would appreciate such accuracy to a degree, I still want to come home from work and indulge myself with what captures my fancy on TV. Usually, that which intrigues me as much as ‘The Good Doctor,’ inspires me to write, and to my knowledge I have the first ‘The Good Doctor’ fan fiction on the net. I’ve seen only four stories; two are mine and predate the others. It’s just simply pure escapism and enjoyment to both see the show and write it. While I truly appreciate your very intelligent comments, I hope you can just relax and enjoy it as well.

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  5. Hi! Great write up! As a member of the disabled community, but not necessarily of the autistic community I wanted to see how people in the community felt about the show before giving it any time. I agree with all your points. Have you heard of a new movie coming out called Jeremy The Dud? It’s an Australian movie, and the producer will be releasing it for free on YouTube on novemeber 2nd. It’s a satire that for the first time truly feels like it’s FOR a disabled audience, not an abled one. In addition, they use actors who actually HAVE disabilities. I’ve only seen the trailer, but I have high hopes! Check it out!

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