Invisible Disabilities on TV: Why Can’t They Get It Right?

Character Scott Malkinson from South Park

Character Scott Malkinson from South Park

Almost every TV show has at least one episode with a character who has a condition like Asthma, Diabetes, Asperger’s, etc. Nowadays, there are even entire TV series with leading characters who have so-called invisible disabilities, but how many of them manage to come even close to portraying them accurately? The short answer is, almost none of them get it right – or even close. Even if Hollywood refuses to hire people with invisible disabilities, they could at least hire people who might know a little about a given condition, or be willing to do the research, right? How messed up are things, really? Let’s take a look.

A show that, at least for one episode, surprisingly managed to do a pretty decent job was South Park. The premise of the episode “Basic Cable” was that diabetic character Scott Malkinson got his own spinoff show and this episode was the pilot. While there was of course plenty of humorous exaggeration, the writers did a nice job of not only paying attention to certain diabetic in-jokes, but also showing differences in how insulin pump users’ lifestyles differ from those giving shots with syringes. More importantly, this is the ONLY popular show I’ve ever seen that showed a diabetic with an insulin pump – which is honestly ludicrous in modern times. In all fairness, I should probably mention the same characters appearance in the Game of Thrones themed episodes, wherein he’s hypoglycemic for several hours while waiting for pizzas that never come and never goes unconscious. The believability of this is arguable though, because if he was inactive and had stabilized at a low sugar level he actually could stay that way for hours. Now, there are innumerable instances of genuinely bad writing for diabetic characters, but let’s look at just a couple truly terrible examples of storylines with diabetics for comparison.

The most cartoonishly bad example that comes to mind is an episode of Night Court called “The Constitution: Part 1.” In this episode, diabetic character Roz takes too much insulin and as a result of severe low blood sugar wanders around four hours acting delirious and  uninhibited as if she’s drunk or drugged. In reality, she’d act very sluggish and probably go unconscious in less than an hour. In the almost as goofy episode “It’s a Wonderful Death” of the show Medium, there’s a short scene in which the main character’s diabetic boss says “Time for this old diabetic to take his insulin” and then cheerfully trots into his office. Seconds later, he full-body smacks against the glass wall in a violent seizure and slides down as if killed by nerve poison. Too fast, too violent, and just too silly.  A minor instance that comes to mind is  In episode “Stockholm” of the show Battle Creek, one of the main characters is kidnapped and convinces his captor that he’s diabetic and needs insulin. His captor states he worked in the prison pharmacy where he treated diabetic prisoners, so he should know what he’s doing, right? Nope. He brings back the wrong kind, draws a large and totally random dose, and injects it – also causing the protagonist to unrealistically faint from low blood sugar within seconds of the injection and then wake up hours later just fine without having received any help.

There are also many examples of flawed portrayals of people on the autism spectrum, but the most recent, and most annoying in my opinion, is The Good Doctor. In just the first episode alone, they show an astounding lack of effort to do service to people on the spectrum in a number of ways. The most eye-rollingly bad is the very end, wherein the protagonist convinces a review board to hire him by making an impromptu, completely emotional appeal to them during a speech in which he uses vocal variation and eye-contact to sell his point (without any indication to the audience that doing so was an unfamiliar technique or that it required study or practice to carry it off). This is a complete break from who the character is supposed to be, and turns a blind eye to real people on the spectrum because the writers couldn’t find a way to let the character win while still being even remotely realistic. I skipped a few episodes ahead hoping the pilot was just a fluke and that the show would do a better job later, but that’s when I came upon a social overload scene. The protagonist steps into a casino night event and the filmmakers portray the experience for him as if he merely has social anxiety and embarrassment that can easily be overcome. Uh, nope. That’s not how it really works for people with Asperger’s and related conditions. It’s not fear or a trippy experience with blurry vision. It’s being overwhelmed with too much. Too much sound, too much people, too much noise, etc. There are ways that techniques of cinematic grammar have been successfully been used to portray that in the past. This was not that.

Perhaps most ironic is that the best modern portrayal I’ve seen of a character with Asperger’s is claimed by all involved not to have Asperger’s at all. Namely, the character Sheldon Cooper on the show The Big Bang Theory. The writers and actor behind the character have repeatedly claimed he’s not meant to be on the spectrum. But on the other hand he clearly displays just about every common behavior and symptom, from talking in a monotone and avoiding eye-contact to obsession with memorizing details of a special interest and difficulty discerning the feelings of others to preoccupation with certain sets of objects and repetitive behaviors, etc. But even that’s interesting because it can be very difficult to diagnose, so some people on the spectrum refuse to acknowledge the fact that they are, or even that it exists at all. My guess is that the writers avoid diagnosing the character just so they can avoid accusations of improper research when they have him do something that doesn’t fit. They can practice CYA all they want, but the viewers clearly still know what’s going on, so it seems more lazy than anything else. Or, who knows, maybe one or more of the writers is on the spectrum and is genuinely in denial. Anything’s possible.

Given that TV shows and movies do an almost universally poor job of portraying people with such conditions, people who represent a little over 10% of the population, I still have to ask the question: why doesn’t Hollywood just hire writers who have the conditions mentioned above (and others) to write, or at least act as script consultants, on these shows? Or even hire them in the actual writers rooms on certain shows? What a radical idea, right!?! It shouldn’t be. This should be perfectly normal. And it’s not like there aren’t a ton of writers good enough who happen to have disabilities. That’s as weak an argument as all the rooms claiming it’s impossible to find enough good ethnic minority writers (the U.S. population is 5% Asian, 12% Black and 17% Hispanic) or good female writers to hire (51% of the U.S. population is female). It also has a lot to do with the now impenetrable practice of ignoring union regulations that state every show must hire outside writers once in a while. Nearly all shows cheat by giving the occasional script to a coordinator or assistant in the same room instead of hiring outside writers, and there aren’t any shows that have an open submission policy anymore (Star Trek: TNG, a great show, was one of the last to accept outside scripts). But the union-busting practices of current showrunners is its own topic. The important thing is that discrimination is based on the personal prejudices and excessively incestuous hiring practices of the showrunners and executives, not on actual facts, numbers, and availability of viable talent – network “diversity fellowships” aside. In short, people with hiring power need to do a better job of countering discriminatory practices, and staffed writers who are ill equipped to write about a given topic need to do better research. And, no, fobbing research off on an already overworked and underqualified writers PA doesn’t count.

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