In my last post, I shared the reactions of some disability activists to a new TV show called "The Undateables." You can decide for yourself whether or not the show is offensive by watching the segments that focus on Richard, a 37-year-old man who has Asperger's syndrome (video at the end of this piece).
It's a mixed bag. Richard's a handsome guy who is into amateur radios and, prior to the show, had only had one date in the last twenty years. It only lasted twenty minutes, and you'll understand why. He goes on two dates here. In one, he does not order dinner for himself, and the date leaves soon after he starts eating hers. In the other, he sits in a tea shop and flexes his very nice biceps for a very uncomfortably long time.
It's hard to know if Richard is actually as annoying as he seems or if the producers have come in with ideas about people with Asperger's ("they are inflexible") and looked for footage that supports it (Richard is nervous about driving and does not want to date anyone who lives far away.)
There are good ideas, like going for a dress rehearsal before a date, but there's a lot more of Richard being sad or frustrated.
What do you think about the idea of a TV dating show that focuses on disabled people?
What if it's called "The Dateables"?
One of the people she includes is Ari Ne'eman:
Whether it’s the title or the actual substance of the show, Ari Ne’eman, co-founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, says the most problematic aspect of the show is that it reinforces the stereotype that disabled people are loveless and sexless. That perception is “very damaging in very practical ways,” says Ne’eman, who has Asperger syndrome. For example, “it often means that disabled people tend do not have the same sex education curriculums that non-disabled people do,” which can make them “less aware of their reproductive rights and contraceptive options.”
It isn’t that disabilities can’t present unique challenges when it comes to the romantic arena, but Ne’eman says, “The existence of those challenges doesn’t mean that disabled people aren’t dating, aren’t having sex.”
I was also struck by what Lisa Egan said about the title:
Lisa Egan, a Brit who blogs about disability issues, says, “Most of the people who’ve claimed that the title is offensive are either non-disabled people or disabled people who are in long-term relationships; often relationships that were forged before acquiring their impairment.” She points to a Guardian survey finding that 70 percent of respondents would not consider having sex with a person with a disability. “The reality is that I am undateable,” she says, adding, “I am undateable because we live in a world where disablist prejudice is ubiquitous.”
The big premiere of Touch last night was much less offensive than the pilot, because there were no explicit references to autism and no trumpeting their hiring of an "autism expert" or working to "get the medicine right." It isn't claiming to be anything more than a fantasy with an "autistish" character. There also were no sequences where characters who should have known better were saying cruel things in front of a nonverbal person.
So it was better.
It was still awful.
Mostly, just because it's a terrible idea for a TV show. Bad writing is made up of stereotypes and convenient coincidences. Touch has not come up with any sort of coherent explanation for its "we're all connected" concept-- it is simply used as a pretext for incredibly unlikely and unmotivated things happening, over and over and over.
The stereotypes in the pilot were outrageously offensive (Japanese prostitutes who steal and dress like Sailor Moon, everyone in Baghdad is eventually a terrorist). In this episode, the characters were less nastily drawn: the Japanese Sailor Moon characters were just tourists, the Indian guy is carrying a Ganesh-shaped urn containing his father's ashes that does not turn out to be enriched uranium. But they are still dumb, boring stereotypes discovering their unlikely and uninteresting connections to each other.
And then there is Jake.
When Tory said this line on Community earlier in the evening on NBC, it was a joke:
Abed is a magical, elf-like man who makes us all more magical by being near us.
Actually, it was a brilliant joke, on how uncomfortably close Abed has often come on the show to playing the role of the "Magical Autistic." Both he and Brittany on Glee are indulged in ways that sometimes seem condescending (their beliefs in Batman and Santa Claus, for example) and make me uncomfortable.
But the ending of this episode, with Troy realizing he cannot continue to enable all of Abed's fantasy life, and that creating a real rift in their friendship, was sad and realistic about relationships between autistic people and neurotypicals, even though it included Abed's evil twin, goatee and all. It said something unpleasant and true: that sometimes NT friends really do need to tell autistic friends what to do, and that sometimes that makes it impossible for autistic people to really be friends with them. Abed even acknowledged to Evil Abed that they might be asking too much from the audience in asking them to see such a bleak and specific reality in such a fanciful way:
This is really crazy, and inaccessible, and maybe too dark.
Touch is working so hard to be accessible and not dark that Kiefer Sutherland's line readings sound like he is an awkward substitute teacher at a religious elementary school.
And Jake is a magical, elf-like boy who makes the whole world more magical by scribbling random numbers and handing them to people.
Why does this bother me?
Because autistic people, even nonverbal people with fictional conditions somewhat similar to autism, do not exist to make other people's lives better and richer. We are not here to inspire others or magically bring them together.
We are here to lead our own lives.
We are here to follow our own paths, not to point our parents down theirs.
We are people.
I was thinking of doing a parody of Touch, then I realized that Roseanne got there first, and did it way better than I could.
Watch the first forty-two seconds of this:
Related to this:
Why Fox's Touch is Dangerous to Autistic People and Their Parents
How Touch Encourages Negative Ideas about Autistic People
A Touch of History: Erasing Gay and Autistic People
Community Returns Tonight
If you are one of the people who was looking forward to the new Fox show Touch because you hoped it would offer a positive, if fanciful, depiction of a character on the autism spectrum, I've got good news for you. It does. For the first couple of minutes. So I recommend you watch the opening, in which 11-year-old Jake explains the complex mathematical and mystical connections he sees between all people, and reveals the fact that, despite his great intelligence and empathy, he is nonverbal. And then, when the credits begin, just turn it off. Because the good part is over.
Touch is dangerous, offensive, cowardly, stupid, and bad. It fails on nearly as many levels as its nonspeaking protagonist sees the world working on. I already posted Part One: Why Touch is dangerous to autistic children and their parents. And this is not yet the end. . .
Part Two: How "Touch" Encourages Negative Ideas About Autistic People
In addition to the opening, there are some details about Jake's autism that the show gets right. The sensory lights in his bedroom are good, and the way he subtly rocks while watching particles of dust dance in the air seems just right. That's about it.
One of the problems is the amount of uncertainty there has been about whether Jake has autism or not. Initially, Kiefer Sutherland said the show would rooted in facts about ASD:
That exploration of what autism is and could be was born of the fact that Kring has a son who lives with the condition; as such, he’s taking care to see that Touch‘s fictional aspects are founded in scientific fact.
“Tim feels very responsible to stay true to [autism] in that regard,” says Sutherland, “so we’re not go to be making stuff up to explain stuff. We’re going to deal with the medicine and what doctors know.”
Now producer Tim Kring insists the opposite is true:
Because the child has been diagnosed with autism, some parents of autistic children may wonder what exactly it is the show is saying about their kids. But Kring says the show is about the child's special "gift," and that this child has actually been misdiagnosed. "It's not a show about autism."
I want to deal more extensively with this issue in a later piece. Here I just want to point out that this uncertainty about the character's autism mirrors an uncertainty that some ignorant people have about whether or not the condition exists at all. The idea that autism is only a label that's somehow made up to fit kids who are just extraordinary is too popular, and too likely to result in people not getting needed services, for it to be okay with me for Kiefer Sutherland;s character to say things like this when the social worker played by mention's Jake's diagnosis of autism:
I never bought that label anyway. For eight years they've been trying to find something that worked. Nothing fit Jake. For all I know he doesn't speak because he's got nothing to say.
So, yeah. He's Mr. Ed.