The Good Doctor Continues to Infantalize its Autistic Character

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.

After watching the second episode of the new ABC series The Good Doctor (you can read my thoughts on the pilot here), I am left wondering if Dr Shaun Murphy could possibly have gone to medical school. He has a vast understanding of certain aspects of medicine and biology but no real comprehension of practical application. It leaves me wondering how he could possibly have completed a medical degree without apparently ever having been in the same room as an actual human patient.

This episode really makes Shaun seem like an alien who has never encountered humans before. This is I expect partially an attempt to highlight Shaun’s social isolation. Social isolation is a common and real aspect of the autistic experience. The show, however, takes it to an unbelievable extreme. It’s not just that Shaun has difficulty connecting with other people and experiences marginalization as a result. It’s as if he never even been around people or consumed any sort of popular media.

This is worsened by the complete lack of other autistic people in not only the show but the fictional universe in which it inhabits. Other autistic people are purely hypothetical. The concept of an autistic community is entirely absent. This allows the show to constantly juxtapose Shaun with a definition of autism that they choose rather than show that Shaun’s humanity is not contingent upon overcoming a very limited and clinical understanding of autism is. So while the show acknowledges the existence of other autistic people, they are never seen. This only highlights Shaun’s isolation because simply by virtue of being seen he is different from other autistic people.

How is it that an adult who presumably went to medical school, an endeavour that requires contact with other people like fellow students, university administrators, professors and yes even patients is not only clueless about bedside manner but who is entirely unaware of sarcasm or its purpose in communication.

I am loathed to say it but even The Big Bang Theory does it better with Sheldon Cooper because at least he is aware of sarcasm even if he can’t always recognize it.

It is entirely possible and in fact likely that an autistic person be both aware of sarcasm, have a theoretical understanding of its usage and purpose, and still have difficulty recognizing it in conversation. It is rather unbelievable that a man in his twenties whose life experience clearly brought him into contact with other people would need to ask a colleague the purpose of sarcasm. It would almost certainly have already been used to belittle him before.

Shaun Murphy clearly cares about people. Making his empathy clear is one of the few positives of the show. Yet, somehow the show wants us to believe that this caring has always occurred at a distance.

In some ways this utter cluelessness about people, makes the concerns of the show’s villains (those doctors who don’t want Shaun practising) seem valid. This seems to be a decision that replaces the more common narrative device of having the autistic character be the butt of jokes (though that happens in this episode too) with just utterly cringe-inducing interactions.

Somehow, Shaun got all the way through medical school and not have been coached in any way on bedside manner. He makes most of his patients uncomfortable or outright distressed.

In a subplot pulled directly from show creator David Shore’s previous medical drama House, a patient brings in a baggie of their own vomit (though in House it was their own poop and no, no one had requested a stool sample). The nurse supervising Shaun (because of course, they are infantilizing him) is horrified but Shaun just wants to run unnecessary tests.

Apparently, no one ever explained to Shaun that it is not only unnecessary but also inadvisable to run every possible test. No one ever explained statistics (something I presume he would be very good at) or how they can be used to determine the likelihood if a given test outcome and indicate the level of risk to not performing the test.

Shaun seems to think that it is reasonable to perform tests if there is even the smallest chance that something might be found.

This suggests that Shaun is also despite being self-described as poor has never had medical insurance explained to him. Does no one in this universe have to pay the bills for the things he does? I mean maybe? It’s already clear that the ADA doesn’t exist in this universe so why would the rest of the infrastructure of the American healthcare system (which I’m sure gets discussed at some point during medical school) exist either?

There is really no reason for Shaun to be this clueless. He should have met checks and balances in med school and in interactions with fellow students, teachers and patients. I really need to see flashbacks to his medical school days. How were none of these concerns identified and addressed then?

It’s hard to believe they wouldn’t have been but that would require the character to be more complex. They would have to show the effort that autistic people expend to analyze and navigate personal interactions. Shaun is, however, not a complex character he is meant to be innocent and guileless.

Sarah Luterman, who has been doing episode breakdowns has twice described this infantilizing characterization to a T. First, by saying

“So far, The Good Doctor is basically House, if House was an adorable talking kitten instead of a pill-popping curmudgeon”

And in the second episode breakdown by saying,

“There is no adult human with a medical degree as naive as Dr. Sean Murphy. It’s ridiculously bad writing. Sean Murphy is not written like an autistic man, he’s written two autistic children standing on each other’s shoulders.”

The show has been confirmed for at least a complete first season and I do expect that there will be some personal growth for Dr Shaun Murphy in it. I however don’t expect them to ever answer the question of why none of that growth was possible prior to the events of the show?

 

 

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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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Open Letter to the Autism Society Regarding Your Decision to Honour Ben Affleck

AutFest

Image Description: Aut Fest Logo, the words Aut Fest appear in white on a black clap board (like they use to differentiate takes on film shoots)

 

Dear Autism Society and Organizers of Aut Fest

I am writing to you as an actually autistic person who is very concerned about the fact that you have chosen to honour Ben Affleck at Aut Fest. Beyond the fact that The Accountant is full of horrific stereotypes. Affleck’s opinion of the role and how autism should be portrayed is deeply problematic (see here and here). Affleck’s inclusion not only hurts autistic people it suggests that you as an organization are ok with that in order for the attention his name will bring.

As a woman, I am also concerned about celebrating Ben Affleck in light of the fact that he actively shielded his brother from accusations of sexual assault & harassment. I want to live in a world where that kind of behaviour is not tolerated and where people who exhibit that behaviour are not honoured in ways that suggest that they are humanitarians.

It is of course also utterly ridiculous to honour a neurotypical actor for playing an autistic character as though this is groundbreaking humanitarian work. It is not. It is not brave. It is not a sacrifice. He did an acting gig for which he was paid. An acting gig that as I’ve previously mentioned utterly threw autistic people under the bus. It was an acting gig that as a consequence of being performed by Ben Affleck was not performed by an autistic actor. This further normalizes the idea that Hollywood should not actively seek to employ autistic actors or disabled people in general. It also solidifies the idea that it is appropriate and beneficial to have neurotypical people at the helm of telling stories about autistic people.

So, what then are you honouring Affleck for?

Is it because he said nice things about autistic people while he did media appearances for the film?

You know that’s actually part of his job, right? It’s advertising, not activism. It would not have been helpful to the film’s bottom line if he didn’t mention the film’s gimmick plot point.
It wouldn’t have gone over well if he had said that autistic people were evil. Particularly, because they were trying to sell the lie that his performance was authentic. The research and visiting autistic people was part of the PR campaign. It’s just unfortunate that the content of the film undermined those public assertions but again it was advertising, not activism.

So, I’m generally just confused as to what you are honouring for as he is just someone who did a job for which he was paid. As a result of doing that job, he reinforced stereotypes about autism, took a job that should have gone to an autistic person and told a story about autism that wasn’t his to tell.

The fact that you would capitalize on Affleck’s star power despite these concerns suggests that you are more interested in donations than you are in actually helping autistic people. I hope that you will reconsider your decision but know that as long as you don’t that you are not only not helping me (an actually autistic person) and are actively misrepresenting me.

Sincerely,

Kim Sauder

PS: Further reading on this

How ‘The Accountant’ Victimizes The Autistic Community

Autism Society Celebrates … Ben Affleck?

From Amy Sequenzia

 

 

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People Are Scared of What’s Different & Other Revelations From The Accountant

The following will contain comprehensive spoilers of the new film The Accountant which opened today.

I am going to start with a brief synopsis of the film, followed by a review based solely on the plot. Then I will dig deeper into the portrayal of disability (specifically Autism but not exclusively). Bare with me the plot is convoluted.

Synopsis

The film is about Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) an Autistic mathematical savant who works as a forensic accountant for organized crime. Some of the promotional material for the film also describes him as either a hitman or assassin. This is less clear in the film though he is certainly very skilled at multiple forms of violence. He’s an unbeatable sniper, his hand to hand combat skills are unparalleled etc (you get the point).

When Wolff realizes that his less legal accounting activities have drawn law enforcement attention, he decides to let heat wear off while he takes more conventional legal accounting work.

He is hired to determine the source of millions of dollars which have gone missing from a robotic prosthetics company. He is paired with Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) the in house accountant who discovered the financial discrepancy.

As Wolff comes closer to discovering the source of the financial anomaly, the company’s CFO is murdered by being forced to overdose on insulin. It is seen as a suicide and the company’s president Lamar Black (John Lithgow) fires Wolff saying that the CFO’s suicide was an admission guilt.

Wolff can’t let it go. He can’t stand unfinished puzzles. He keeps digging and concludes that more is going on. His suspects keep turning up dead and he and dana Cummings are eventually targeted for assassination.

Wolff Thwarts these assassination attempts and takes Dana somewhere safe before returning to get to the bottom of the fraud.

In the meantime law enforcement is closing in and the film is interspersed with flashbacks of Wolff’s childhood. His father refusing conventional treatment in favour of immersive martial arts training for Wolff and his brother.

Wolff eventually determines that Lamar Black is behind the whole scheme and goes after him. Black is protected by his hired assassin & various goons. Wolff makes short work of the goons, realizes that the assassin is his brother (hey, I warned you that the spoilers would be comprehensive), they have a half-hearted sibling fight, reconcile and Wolff kills Black.

Review

There is to much going on in the movie. It would be better is the law enforcement angle had been cut altogether. It seems to be there only for the sole purpose of giving an excuse for unnecessary exposition and to set up the possibility of a sequel.

It turns out that the lead agent knew who Wolff was all along but set the junior agent on him anyway so that she could see how he functioned and realize that he’s really a criminal with a heart of gold (he’s been tipping the older agent off on some of his employers more nefarious dealings). The older agent is retiring and was the younger agent to continue taking the tips (she does).

Without that the movie would just be a cat and mouse plot, Wolff chases Black’s assassin who in turn chases Wolff right back.

The law enforcement angle just adds a dog into the mix, a dog that really just wants to play with the cat anyway so it’s kind of redundant.

The action sequences are underwhelming. Mostly because Wolff is set up to be such a good fighter that they lack any tension. There is no moment where you genuinely think he might be in mortal peril.

I also managed to figure out the twist before the reveal. That the opposing assassin was his brother so I wasn’t remotely surprised by the outcome.

So, from a purely plot based review it was convoluted and predictable.

Portrayal of Autism & other Disability References

The movie couldn’t really figure out if it wanted to have progressive message of accommodation and inclusion or an Autistic superhero who overcame his Autism through brute force. For some reason they tried to do both which was mostly just confusing.

The film opens with Christian Wolff as a child (in the 1980s). The family is visiting a treatment centre for children with developmental disabilities. Christian is sitting at a table doing a puzzle at extraordinary speed. His parents are talking to the proprietor  who refuses to diagnose Christian because “I don’t like labels”. He recommends leaving Christian there for the summer so that he can learn to adapt in an environment designed to accommodate his needs.

Aside from the cringe worthy remark about not liking labels labels this is actually pretty decent. Particularly if you consider it was supposed to have happened in the 1980s. The emphasis was absolutely on Christian’s comfort and he made a point of saying that stimming ( a common self-soothing technique involving repetitive motion) was completely normal and nothing to worry about.

Meanwhile, Christian has misplaced the final piece of his puzzle and begins to have a meltdown (it’s a common theme throughout the movie that he doesn’t like not being able to finish things). Another child locates the piece for him and the camera pans to an overhead shot of the completed puzzle. It is completely grey. It is the first visual indication that Christian is really good at puzzles.

Christian’s father interprets accommodation as coddling and determines that if over stimulation is stressful for Christian than the best treatment is to subject him to as much over stimulation as possible (don’t do this, no seriously don’t do this).

So instead of giving Christian individualized care that recognized both his needs and his humanity, Christian’s father made him live a transient existence (he tells Dana that they moved over 30 times in 17 years) full of martial arts training. Even the martial arts masters think the father was taking it overboard but he just says they’re my kids (Christian’s brother was subjected to this too) I’ll decide when they’ve had enough.

This approach is infuriating for  several reasons. Not least of all that it’s actually abuse. There’s also the fact that a lot of harmful things have been done to disabled children because parents exert total dominion over their children (even if they’re not having martial arts masters pummel their children for hours). The most damaging thing of all though is that in the movie, this treatment works (again, seriously don’t do this).

Not only does christian grow up to be an unbeatable fighter, he also regularly overstimulates himself with audio and visual input. He turns off the lights, turns on loud music which is clearly stylistically different from the music that he likes while also using a strobe light.

The message appears to be that overcoming the issue beats “coddling” and yet the final scene is back at that treatment centre. That same proprietor is talking to parents. He no linger shies away from the word Autism and continues to advocate for individualized care and not placing unnecessary restrictions or expectations on an Autistic child.

Basically, it’s like the opening and closing scenes should be on a different movie and very likely a better movie. It’s like the writer really wanted a “and the moral of the story is…” ending but the content of the film simply does not lead to the final scene. In fact it utterly contradicts it. So any good that might come from what is really set up as preachy exposition is hollow because nothing that is said is modeled in the film. The entire body of the film actually serves as an active rebuttal. The film mostly just tells you that you can mold an Autistic child’s behaviour through violent regimented force.

Christian Wolff’s character is the ultimate supercrip. He’s only Autistic in the sense that he maintains a number of physical behaviours of a fake Hollywood Autistic. He has the movie monotone that is almost universally present in fictional portrayals of Autism but never present in any of the many real life Autistic people that I know. His only stimming is a pretty innocuous tapping of his fingers. He does have an eating ritual in which he must blow on his fingers before commencing. These things are really just an actor trying to physically act something that you can’t actually see and the effect falls pretty flat.

The two big stereotypes are that he’s socially awkward–the movie even includes an “I’m Autistic and have difficulty connecting with others but totally want to” speech–and he is of course a mathematical savant. He and pretty much every other movie and TV Autistic are sitting over there with their ridiculous math skills and I’m sitting over here in the social sciences cringing at my pretty solid D- high school math grades (I got a B in math once but it was an anomaly) and happily never taking math ever again.

Why does my sad history with math matter? Because even in the Autistic population savants are rare and I’m willing to bet my story is more common than the math geniuses we Autistics inevitably become when we end up on screen.

When I wrote about my concerns on how the film was being promoted, I mentioned my frustration with Ben Affleck’s excitement over having a role where his character didn’t get the girl. Admittedly the chemistry was lacking between Affleck and Kendrick but it confirmed my fear that the romance would be aborted as a direct result of Christian’s Autism. He decides to leave her right after a flashback in which his father forces him to use his exceptional fighting skills to beat some bullies who had broken his glasses. His father told him that he was being bullied because he was different and that difference always becomes frightening. To which the logical solution is to prove to them just how scary you can actually be and beat the ever loving shit out of them or something, I guess.

It is not his capacity for violence that makes him leave Dana but his father’s words that people always come to fear what is different ringing in his head.

This is just one more in a long line of movies dealing with disability where the character’s sexuality is acknowledged but ultimately unsatisfied as a direct result of their disability. So Fuck That.

It’s hard to determine how he feels about killing people. He does it so dispassionately that he appears unfeeling and yet he supposedly has a very strong though poorly defined moral code. Is it that he only kills bullies? or criminals? I mean he’s technically a criminal so I’m confused. All I know is that you know that he’s never going to kill any of the people that the film has set you up to like. So that nice elderly couple who hired him to do his taxes. They’re safe even though they watch him kill at least two people. So there are people that he’s clearly fond of and willing to protect but beyond that all bets are off, there’s no restraint or remorse until it comes to fighting with his brother. He also doesn’t seem to have a problem with the fact that his brother is a mercenary commanding assassin who tried to kill him and the girl he has a crush on? is kind of fond of? (I really don’t know).

I know movie ethics are different than real world ethics but this takes it a bit far.

Interestingly, the film moves somewhat beyond Autism with the villain. No, thankfully Lamar Black is not disabled but his company makes robotic prosthetics. So in the climactic scene when Christian faces Lamar, Lamar gives a “I did the crime for the greater good speech” pointing out all the people who are helped by his technology. While he’s far from the first villain to try the “for the greater good” defense, there was something satisfying in Christian not falling for it. People being portrayed as saints for being nice to disabled people is something of an insidious real world trend.

Conclusions

So, I clearly think this movie is objectively bad (a lot of critics agree with me), so why does any of this matter.

Even if this movie completely bombs at the box office (it’s to early to tell) this film did something different, not in its content but in how it marketed the film. Disabled people have become much more vocal about calling out Hollywood for harmful stereotypes and demanding better stories and more meaningful representation.

The marketing of this film was an obvious response to that. They emphasized how much research went into the role, they emphasized how honest it was. They spent a lot of time saying that the story was original and that the portrayal was honest. This authenticity trolling was not only inaccurate but it shows that instead of working to better incorporate disabled community into the film industry that they would rather build discrediting it as a part of the the promotion process.

The fact that they did this with an action movie which would normally be defended on the grounds of it’s general unbelievability –hey shouldn’t the protagonist have died seven times already?–actually co-opted a lot of activist language to try and preemptively absolve it  from accusations of stereotyping. Then they went on their merry way and stereotyped & regurgitated hackneyed story lines to their hearts content.

And that is why it is important to care about how bad the portrayal of Autism is in this movie even though the movie isn’t even good.