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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When People Use Diversity to Defend Sameness in Autism Narratives

“It’s just one story” or so people keep telling me when I protest the lack of diversity in both autism narratives and characters in the media. The thing is that’s exactly the problem.

Film and television have basically been writing fan fiction about the same autistic character in different scenarios for decades.

This character is invariably white

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.

Male

Adam

Image description: a still from the film Adam where actress Rose Burne (a thin white woman with brown hair pulled up in a messy bun) sits on a bench facing and speaking to Hugh Dancy (a white man with wavy brown hair), the autistic character who is sitting faced forward rather than toward the person speaking to him

Have savant-like abilities

rain man

Image description: Cover art for the Rain Man soundtrack. Dustin Hoffman (a white man with dark hair) who plays the autistic savant walks down a path beside Tom Cruise (a white man with dark hair) who walks with his right hand in his pocket while he carries a bag in his left

There is generally very little deviation. Occasionally, overt savantism is replaced with a special skill or focus as in the case of the film Adam. These minor changes are however not meaningful.Savantism and special or focused skills are treated as almost interchangeable personality quirks.

You will very rarely see and autistic character who is not white and even more rarely see one who isn’t male. These characteristics extend beyond the acknowledged autistic character to those who are merely coded autistic. Those whose behaviour and traits are largely indistinguishable from those of the acknowledged autistic character. The only difference is a lack of stated diagnosis. Examples of such characters include Sheldon cooper on The Big Bang Theory and Spencer Reed on Criminal Minds.

Think I’m exaggerating? I made a chart

Title Character Diagnosed Coded Savant-like Abilities White Male
A Brilliant Young Mind Nathan Ellis Y Y Y Y
My Name is Khan Rizvan Khan Y Y
The Accountant Christian Wolff Y Y Y Y
Rain Man Raymond Babbit Y Y Y Y
Mercury Rising Simon Lynch Y Y Y Y
TBBT Sheldon Cooper Y Y Y Y
Adam Adam Y Y Y
Criminal Minds Spencer Reed Y Y Y Y
Elementary Fiona Y Y Y
Young Sheldon Sheldon Cooper Y Y Y Y
The Good Doctor Shaun Murphy Y Y Y Y

It’s not an exhaustive list but it is an informative one. Seriously, if you come across an autistic character in film or television plug them into this chart and see how many boxes get ticked. Another thing that all of the characters have in common. They were all played by neurotypical actors.

And yet, when I wrote yesterday about the continuation of this single white male autistic narrative in the new show The Good Doctor, I was met with this

one story

Image description: a screenshot of a tweet that reads “People with autism take many forms, faces, and stories. this is just one. Showing that capability isn’t exclusive is so important!” (link to original tweet)

I have a couple of problems with this sentiment. First, it is not just one story. It is pretty much the only story we are told. For this to be an accurate defence, there would need to be evidence that there were other narratives available. Where are they? Second, is it really an accurate story. Another common defence of tired repeated disability narratives is “well some people are really like that“. I am however sceptical about the existence of a man with ridiculous medical skills and genius level proficiency in several areas. I’ll wait while you find me a real life stand in for this imagined magical autistic white man.

It is true that Rain Man character Raymond Babbit (though not the story) was loosely based on actual savant Kim Peake (who was not himself autistic) but even then it was more a mishmash of diagnostic traits than a portrayal of the man.

These characters have a fictionalized kind of autism that focus on rare traits like savantism and then sprinkle in more common traits like sensitivity to noise and difficulty with eye contact so that people see enough recognizable autistic traits to get away with an authenticity defence to tell basically the same man’s story over and over. They just put him in different scenarios. The biggest change in autistic characters overall is that they’ve become cuter (if they’re children) or fuckable (if they’re men). Though actually having sex is rare for these characters. They’ve mostly just gotten hotter. This switch to a more appealing autistic male is generally to use their savantism or special skill as a consolation prize. Sure, he’s autistic but it makes him a fabulous doctor and he’ll save that kid’s life.

This leaves little room for autistic stories where savantism or special skills don’t counteract the perceived unpleasantness of the autism for a predominantly neurotypical audience.

Despite this, there is still the idea that stories about marginalized populations should be “authentic” which is where the “This is just one story” line gets pulled out like a weapon to defend these all too similar stories.

During the promotion phase prior to the release of The Accountant, actor, Anna Kendrick

admits she initially had concerns about whether the film would be able to represent autism in an accurate and nuanced way.

“A friend of mine has an autistic child, and I was so worried about telling her I was going to do a movie with this subject matter and potentially getting it wrong,” she said. “She was like, ‘I’m going to tell you something that somebody told me when my son was diagnosed: When you’ve met one autistic child, you’ve met one autistic child. To have an expectation that he should act this way or you should act that way — don’t even worry about that. Everyone is different.’”

It is both unfortunate that this line is being used by people in the entertainment industry as a promotion tactic. It is also unfortunate that a parent with an autistic child helped her do it.

The phrase “if you’ve met one autistic child, you’ve met one autistic child” was meant to indicate the true diversity of the autistic experience. Not be used as a blunt object to defend a film about yet another magical white autistic man. It does not mean “Do whatever, you want. Autism is basically whatever you want it to be”. Though that is how the entertainment industry interprets it.

Seriously, the next time someone defends a fictional autistic narrative through the diversity of autism. It had better actually be a story I haven’t seen before.

And can we just please put a moratorium on putting white men in those stories because the real diversity of autism goes well beyond diagnostic traits.

 

 

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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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The Media and the Imaginary Disabled Person

img-kylie-jenner_174241584205

I get it, as far as popular culture and the media are concerned disability doesn’t exist. Disability isn’t real, it’s just a metaphor. You know how I know this? The complete lack of actual disabled people in the media. Yet the media doesn’t ignore disability. They make movies about “disability”, they have “disabled” characters in TV shows. All without using actual disabled people. I mean there might be a couple behind the scenes consulting but we rarely if ever get to see them.

I disabled in quotation marks above because those stories are almost never (with some rare and debatable exceptions) accurate. Not only are they not accurate in representation (using actual disabled people), they are wrong in presentation (the stories don’t accurately portray the disabled experience. Disability is far to often reduced to a few recognizable physical identifiers (wheelchairs, white canes, etc.) and stereotypes (the charity case, the supercrip, the embittered cripple and the mad villain, etc.).

Neither the physical presentation or the stories told around them are in any way an accurate presentation of the diverse experience of disability. I mean there are over a billion people on the planet so they probably represent a few people but certainly not all or even close to most.

The biggest problem here is that people don’t understand that they’re being lied to. They don’t understand that disability is more diverse and more nuanced. These stereotypes are perceived to be true.

Just consider the recent pictures of reality TV star Kylie Jenner in Interview Magazine. Two of the images show Jenner in a wheelchair even though she is not disabled. One image (shown above) shows Jenner seated in a golden wheelchair in a corset and high heels. Her face is passive and her hands are on the wheels. One leg is lifted as though she is either about to get up or perhaps fall backward. The second below

img-kylie-jenner_174227203447

shows Jenner in the same outfit and wheelchair looking for all intents and purposes like a lifeless doll.

The thing that makes this situation so relevant is how Interview Magazine responded to the inevitable backlash saying

“At Interview, we are proud of our tradition of working with great artists and empowering them to realize their distinct and often bold visions. The Kylie Jenner cover by Steven Klein, which references the British artist Allen Jones, is a part of this tradition, placing Kylie in a variety of positions of power and control and exploring her image as an object of vast media scrutiny.”

The wheelchair was used as literal metaphor and a metaphor about limitation. If anything proves that as far as the media is concerned that disability is an imaginary construct to be used however they see fit it’s this.

The problem is that disability isn’t imaginary. This metaphor of limitation doesn’t work in the real world unless you’re talking about inaccessibility (at which point I promise you the chair isn’t the problem).

As people have been eloquently pointing out wheelchairs aren’t inherently limiting. As Ophelia Brown points out

My wheelchair is not a limitation — it is my wings. It lets me go to school, go out with friends and live life like a “normal person.”

She also addresses the problem that relying on and defending those media stereotypes causes

Do you know what that lack of representation means? It means that 9 year-old Ophelia is embarrassed about having to sit out from gym class. It means that 12 year-old Ophelia would rather die than go to school in a wheelchair. It means that 17 year-old Ophelia has been told too many damn times that her disability makes her ugly. I want you to know how much power that wheelchair gives you, and how, honestly, you don’t deserve that power.

An able-bodied media figure has more power to define the disabled experience than actual disabled people. It is a power they should absolutely not have because they are using it to harm (even if they can’t seem to understand that).

All aspects of the media need to realize that disability is real and that we deserve better than the lies they are telling. Lies they have told for so long and so often that they actually believe them.

Hey DC Comics and The Flash, Diversity Covers Disability Too!

The following post contains spoilers for the CW show The Flash

Television shows based on DC Comics generally do pretty well in representing women and people of colour. In fact cast members and the creative team of The Flash recently patted themselves on the back for this. But the Flash has a problem with disability and it’s not because they’re ignoring it. In the show there are two kinds of disabled people. Those who have mental illnesses and those who are faking it. Both cases leaves much to be desired in terms of accurate portrayal.

In the case of mental illness, the problem is that all those characters are villains and their madness contributes to their crimes. In the episode Tricksters, the two criminals are a father son team, who blow things up and poison masses of people. They do the first simply to sow fear and the second to extort money. Greed however is not their driving motive. The motive really boils down to “they’re crazy”. This plot device requires that people accept mental illness as a source of danger to others. It also requires mental illness to exist in a vacuum where actions are driven only by illness and no other social forces. In reality people with mental illnesses are far more likely to be the victims of crime than the perpetrators of it. When they do commit crimes, it is rarely for so simple a reason as their illness. The Flash is far from the only show on television that does this.

The CW’s other DC comics inspired Arrow has done it too. Carrie Cutter AKA Cupid, has an unhealthy obsession with the Arrow and begins killing people to get his attention. Even after she is caught, no one seems to think treatment is necessary. She is instead placed in a covert group of villains turned weapons of the state, her obsession continues unchecked. It is not just super hero franchises that exploit these fallacies. Lazy police procedurals often throw in a mentally ill perpetrator when they need a convenient motive.

I know that film and television based on comic books are supposed to be fantastical and are not meant to mimic reality. I know that madness creates a convenient excuse for elaborate logic defying situations which add tension and are visually interesting. That does not excuse how problematic it is to equate mental illness with danger. The other issue of the Flash is the complete lack of disabled characters with the exception of Eobard Thawne who is impersonating the deceased Harrison Wells and faking his need to use a wheelchair. First off gotta give the creators ability to think outside the box by using a white dude in a wheelchair. That’s very unique.

Prof Xlink

Artie  link

04-raymond-burr-ironsidelink

The idea that disability is diverse both in physical presentation, race and gender is often lost on creators of television. All those actors are also able-bodied. Disabled people tend to have their stories told. They don’t get to tell their own stories.

Yes, yes, I know Eobard Thawne isn’t really paralyzed and could not actually be played by a wheelchair user. The fakeness of the disability is its own problem. Disability in film and television is rarely complicated. The characters usually embody very specific stereotypes that fit into the following general descriptions; victim, saint or villain. Disability is often the driving factor in these characterizations. In media, fictitious portrayals of disability rarely get more complicated. Put another way, if you removed the disability, the character would cease to have a point in the story. These stereotypes are rarely indicators of real life experiences of disability and usually are used as metaphors. For the purpose of critiquing the Flash, it is important to understand the idea of disability as villainous. Disability and evil are closely connected in film. Villains in the James Bond franchise are so frequently disabled or disfigured that the producers unapologeticly refer to it as a plot device. If a disabled person shows up, you know they’re bad.

This trend predates Bond. It was used extensively in the Frankenstein film franchise. In the first film in 1931, the character Fritz is introduced. He is an obviously disabled man (described as a dwarf in Bride of Frankenstein). Though in reality is played by an able-bodied man walking around bent at the waist. He is the monster’s first victim. He is killed in retaliation for his unnecessary and gleeful abuse of the creature. In the next two films he is replaced by Igor who has a visibly broken neck, having survived a hanging attempt after being sentenced for grave robbery. He is as inexplicably evil as Fritz was. In more recent films, consider Elijah Price/ Mr. Glass in Unbreakable. His disability is literally the inspiration for his crimes. The fact that there is such a clear and continued history of disability=evil in film is problematic at best. It tells people that it is ok or even rational to be scared of physical and mental difference.

By having Eobard Thawne’s paralysis be fake, the Flash is taking it one step further. Disability isn’t real it’s a metaphor for hidden evil. Thawne also capitalizes on the stereotype of disability as victimhood to achieve his nefarious goals. He counts on people underestimating him or accepting that his paralysis is a just punishment for the explosion at Star Labs that killed many people. For a show that so publicly prides itself on nuanced portrayals of people of colour, sexuality and gender, they are more than willing to throw disabled people under the bus.

The thing is, they don’t even need to change the existing framework of the show to improve. They just have to add nuance. They could add characters with real disabilities  (preferably played by actual disabled people) who just exist. Iris could have a coworker or coworkers at the paper with disability. There could be disabled extras in the background at Jitters just to show that disabled people exist outside the dichotomy of victim or villain. By just adding non fake or non stereotyped characters with disabilities they would not only challenge the stereotypes so common to the media, they could also use it to highlight just how awful Eobard Thawne really is.