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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If You Care about Autistic People Don’t Just Perform Solidarity

So April is upon us and along with it Autism Bewareness Month (I stand by that word choice). Tomorrow is World Autism Awareness Day and I am already feeling suffocated by all of the faux awareness.

Awareness would be great if it actually meant that people were actually educating themselves about the realities of autistic people. If it meant promoting the voices of actually autistic people. I would be ecstatic if that real awareness translated into acceptance and action. Action, that meant fighting for the rights of autistic people. Unfortunately, more often than not we get shallow shoutouts.

The danger of those shoutouts is not only in their inefficacy and often patronizing messaging, it is also in that they benefit problematic organizations.

Yesterday, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when I noticed that a friend had added a border to their profile picture. The following image is my own photo with the border as illustration (don’t worry it never made it onto my profile).

autism speaks frame facebook

Image description: A woman with short blond hair, blue eyes and dark blue lipstick, looks directly at the camera. On the bottom is s white border with the Autism Speaks logo (a blue puzzle piece over the words Autism Speaks) and followed by the words “different not less”

First, let’s deal with the messaging. On its face, it’s a positive message but it also doesn’t really tell you anything about me or my experiences as an autistic person. It’s also so basic that it merely pays lip service to my humanity rather than actually affirming it. It exists in the same vein as the empty “special needs” memes that promote “acceptance” through pity.

10940999_769959393059095_6633527766282533542_n

Image description: Black text on a pink background the text reads “anyone willing to post this and leave it on their status for 1 hour? It is Special Education Week & Autism and ADHD Awareness month–This is in honor of all children who struggle everyday”

Images like this often position themselves as dares, the suggestion is do you dare? are you brave enough? The message that those who don’t are morally suspect. Then the images don’t share any actual information but reaffirm the preconceived notion that to be disabled is to suffer.

Not only is this not true awareness it is active misinformation that spreads pity.

Returning to the Autism Speaks Facebook border. While is isn’t as aggressive in its approach to getting people to use it, the end game is the same. You can feel good about the fact that you’ve done something. You’ve helped raise awareness. Admittedly an awareness that consists largely of an acknowledgement that autistic people exist and a general sentiment that it’s probably best to be nice to autistic people.

It doesn’t tell you why you need to be reminded of these facts. It doesn’t tell you about the real risks of violence and bullying that autistic people face. It doesn’t tear down stereotypes about autism. Which means that people are likely going to continue to comfortably believe the misinformation they may have internalized.

This kind of solidarity is predominantly a performance. It may come with good intentions but it ultimately does little or nothing to actually help autistic people. It does make people who add that border to their profile picture feel warm & fuzzy though.

One thing that the widespread adoption of performance solidarity like that border is that it gives a lot of publicity to the organization that created it and that’s a problem.

Autism Speaks is an organization that has a long history of speaking for autistic people with little or no input from actually autistic people. It has spread dangerous narratives about autistic people. It has supported anti-vaccination narratives.

While there have been changes in the organization and it no longer promotes a cure narrative and is no longer overtly anti-vaccination. It still widely benefits from it’s history peddling those dangerous narratives.

consider how the White House is going to “Light it Up Blue” (a practice created by Autism Speaks) tomorrow for the first time in years after the Obama administration halted the practice, in large part because of feedback from the autistic community. Donald Trump is friends with Bob Wright, one of the founders of Autism Speaks and the source of many of the dangerous narratives that the organization no longer officially supports. Trump is also sceptical of vaccines.

So regardless of their official position change. Autism Speaks is still largely associated with those narratives and they crop up in very visible ways. Autism Speaks is almost certainly going to financially benefit from this connection.

Despite their official change of heart, Autism Speaks is still widely disliked by actual autistic people who remember the years of demonization from the organization. It is also far too early to tell whether the official changes in policy will translate into real change in the actions the organization takes.

So, I would ask you not to change your profile picture to include that border this April. I would ask that you not support Autism Speaks.

If you really want to support autistic people this April and hopefully beyond it, you can support organizations that are run by autistic people like the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and the Autism Women’s Network. You can read the work of actually autistic people. You can promote and amplify their voices and work. You can financially support them (shameless plug for my tip jar).

These are things that can actually create a more nuanced understanding of autism and a positive kind of awareness. An awareness that leads to acceptance and action on the right of autistic people.

 

 

If you liked this post and want to support my continued writing please consider buying me a metaphorical coffee (or two or more). Donations help me keep this blog going and support my ongoing efforts to obtain a PhD.

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