Thursday, April 8, 2010

Asperger's on TV

I was watching Boston Legal last night and once again was shocked by how completely wrong, offensive, and irresponsible the portrayal of autistics is in mass media.

Even the kindest portrayal of people with Asperger's is concentrated on presenting us as some kind of eccentric geniuses who are smart but completely inept socially and as a result make everybody around them feel extremely uncomfortable.

On the one hand, ridiculizing autistics attracts viewers. Many people need the kind of entertainment that gets more and more extreme with every new episode, show, movie, etc. These people feel so benumbed by their sad daily existences that they need entertainment to tickle them into consciousness, albeit momentarily.

Another reason why we are portrayed as pathetic, unstable, and innately freaky is the pill-pushing agenda of pharmaceutical companies. In the episode of Boston Legal that I watched last night, it was suggested that there is medication for Asperger's and the character will "get better" as soon as he starts taking it. This, of course, is an egregious lie. Not only is there no "cure" for Asperger's, there can be none because it is not a disease.

Television shows are generally kinder towards female Aspies. Kinder, however, does not mean either truthful nor unwilling to generalize. Temperance Brennan, the main character of Bones, is portrayed as a lot more likebale and less "weird" that Boston Legal's "Hands" and Law & Order: CI's Wally Stevens. Still, every effort is made to highlight her almost unexistent personal life and innate "nerdiness."

Because of shows like these, it is often useless to try telling people that you have autism. "No, of course you don't!" they say in indignation. You are nothing like people with Asperger's that they show on television!" Well, my friends, do you know what the difference is between me and these characters? I'm real and they are not. They are fictional characters created for a specific purpose. Such shows might entertain you but they will never teach you anything useful or truthful about autism.

12 comments:

Kola Tubosun said...

Thank you for this wonderful take. I saw it coming. I must admit to having once been fooled by the Boston Legal portrayal of Asperger's and the exaggerated character Jerry. In one episode, he eventually meets a female Aspie who is equally (if not worse) portrayed.

It's a good thing that we don't get all our information from TV shows then.

Pagan Topologist said...

I have know people with Asperger's who made me very uncomfortable. And I suspect that I also make some people uncomfortable for the same reason. I don't watch enough television to have ever seen any characters I recognized as having Asperger's. Some other people with Asperger's are very dear friends and have never made me uncomfortable at all. Is it possible that the stereotype arose just because people were only aware of the people who made them uncomfortable?

Nadine said...

The new series Parenthood has a character who is diagnosed with asperger's (Max). I'm curious what your take on their portrayal would be. It does seem to be along the same lines: the kid doesn't really have friends, he wears a pirate costume to school, etc.

Nadine said...

(btw, found you via Dr. Amy's blog)

Clarissa said...

And I know many people without Asperger's who have made me feel uncomfortable. :-) Maybe it isn't AS that is making some people uncomfortable. maybe it's just some people. :-)

Clarissa said...

Nadine: I haven't had a chance to watch this show yet but now I have a reason to watch it. :-)

When I was little, there wasn't a greater punishment for me than to hear adults say "Go play with other kids!" God, I hated that. :-)

Izgad said...

I thought you would have a problem with Jerry. The problem with the show is that everyone there is over the top so Jerry has to be really over the top. In real life William Shatner's character would be a good candidate for being an Asperger. He is very smart, odd and lacks a feel for normal social conventions.

NancyP said...

Asperger's syndrome seems to be in the popular culture as "syndrome of the month". Naturally, TV gets it wrong. I daresay a significant percentage of self-diagnosed AS adults "get it wrong" or aren't familiar with diagnostic criteria. There must have been some article in a popular psychology magazine or a celebrity TV show or some other publicity that got the "syndrome-of-the-month" going. I doubt that public understanding will improve - the myths will multiply.

Clarissa said...

Izgad: I think you meant James Spader's character 'Alan Shore.' William Shatner's character has Alzheimer's.

Clarissa said...

NancyP: If people feel better and find their lives easier when identifying as AS, then who cares whether they are "right" or "wrong"?

Izgad said...

The show took William Shatner’s eccentric behavior and went with Alzheimer’s, but there is a lot there that could work for Asperger syndrome, particularly in how he relates to people and the trouble he creates for himself even as he is brilliant and charming in his own way. These are things that relate to Asperger syndrome in real life, but are not the things that television associates with it.
Have you seen the show Parenthood? There is an Asperger child in it and they are actually doing a good job of it.

Clarissa said...

Yeah, but "Denny Crane" is a Republican and Aspie people are supposed to be really really smart, no? :-) :-)