COMM 407

People with Disabilities Represented on Television

Research Question.

How are characters with disabilities portrayed in television shows?

Abstract.

My twin sister has autism, and my whole life I have been constantly torn between being inspired and comforted by seeing characters with similar disabilities on television shows, and also being discouraged and upset by these characters. There is a fine line when developing ANY sort of character between developing them in a solid and incredible way, or making them a walking stereotype for their "in-group". I decided to use this project as a way to truly sit down and look into this form of media and to back up my pre-conceived beliefs on the subject with research!

Context and Background.

For decades people with disabilities were seen as “freaks”, “outsiders”, “less than”, and the worst label of them all “retards”. People didn’t know what caused disabilities such as Autism and Asperger’s syndrome. They believed people with these social and neurological disorders were schizophrenic or that their mothers had done something wrong to cause them to be this way. (Baker, 2013) A huge factor playing into these skewed views was the lack of exposure to true information about people living with these disabilities. Exposure through television shows is one way to help people better understand people “different” than themselves, if the show does a decent job of portraying the information through it’s characters

Literature Review.

In an article by MacLeod, he discusses how people with disabilities view themselves. The title of the article "Why Should I Be like Bloody Rain Man?!" points to how certain media portrayals are extremely negative and weight poorly on those who have disabilities. Though the article itself is not a review of the movie Rain Man, it does go to show that the way people see a character supposedly similar to them, or representing a piece of them truly does effect how they view themselves. (MacLeod, 2013) Samsel in Support for Learning discussed an aspect of this topic I hadn’t originally thought about when brainstorming the idea for this paper: How portrayal of children with disabilities in the media affects how teachers see and understand children with those same disabilities in their own classes. The results were shocking. One of my favorite quotes from the article, “But that doesn't give you anything, because no two autistic kids are the same” really goes to show how dangerous stereotyping can be. (Samsel, 2013) Just because a teacher sees a child with Autism behave one way in a movie, doesn’t mean the students they have in their classroom with Autism are a cookie cutter copy of the character from the movie. This is a gross mistake we all tend to make with stereotypes, we forget individuality. Though I mentioned before that one of my main arguments for this topic is the problematic one-dimensional aspect typically portrayed, there are instances where television shows create characters with a disability, but their disability is more on the back burner compared to all of their other qualities. In an article on the online blog Flavorwire it discusses “The Best and Worst depictions of Asperger’s on Television” it points out that the main character on the popular show Bones, Dr. Brennan, is shown to have “almost Asperger’s”. What they mean by this is that she shows many typical symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome, though it is never explicitly stated in the show. This is a beautiful way of tying in someone with a social disorder, but not creating a box and limiting them based on their disorder. The article also points out that symptoms can be harder to pin down in women compared to men with Asperger’s, which is important to know when discussing different characters on different shows. This same article discusses the character of Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory and how he, like Dr. Brennan on Bones, shows many signs pointing to Asperger’s though the writers never explicitly state this diagnoses. In contrast to the positive light given to Bones though, the article claims some people find Sheldon offensive with “his over-the-top lack of social skills, problems with sarcasm, vanity, and rigidity are a cruel and reductive parody of people with Asperger’s.” Controversial articles like this show how important it is that the media find a good balance, because people with disabilities deserve to be represented correctly and in a positive light! (Kurchak, 2013) Beth Arky in an article for Child Mind Institute takes a look at a character from the hit teen show Glee, who from day one of her appearance on the show claimed, “I have Asperger’s, I can say whatever I want.” Her character caused HUGE amounts of controversy with viewers. Many people, including parents of children with Asperger’s, considered the character, “gross and hurtful misrepresentation of Asperger's Syndrome.” (Arky) As we can see, there are many different ways representation can go wrong or right when involving sensitive subjects such as a social/neurological disability.

Theoretical Framework: Parasocial Contact and Framing

Parasocial Contact involves how we learn to treat people different than ourselves by basing our feelings off of television. If we become attached to a character on our favorite show who belongs to a minority that we do not belong to, the theory claims that this causes us to become more open to others in that same minority in real life. If media portrayals of people with disabilities are lacking dimension and lacking truth and positive aspects, we can only imagine how they causes people to view and blocks their open mindedness to people with disabilities in the real world around them. For Parasocial Contact to work in a positive way, we need to become concerned with how characters with Autism and Asperger’s are being shown in the shows creeping into our homes every single day. This is a growing issue, and with media slowly taking over more of our lives bit by bit this is important.


Framing is the way the media chooses to convey certain things to the public. Common examples are how newspapers and television news tend to frame things either conservatively or liberally. Framing also applies to the way people are framed through media. As far as characters with disabilities, they can tend to be put in a sort of pitiful frame. The way they are written into the show is as misunderstood or trying to "work through" their disability. Though these two frames can typically be true, they can really put people with disabilities into a box. It should definitely be monitored.

Methods.

My main focus was on characters from television shows. The inspiration for my paper was based on a character from the show "Parenthood", Max Braverman. I began my research with an article on "Parenthood" that described Max's character and development. Through looking into this article, it led me to other articles similar. I viewed many episodes across many seasons of Parenthood and watched interviews of cast members discuss the character of Max. There are so many magazine articles and blog posts about characters with disabilities that analyze and discuss the positives and negatives of the character's portrayal. Scholarly articles, blogs, videos, television shows, and journals really helped me gain a solid foundation of research to help answer my original research question.

Findings.

There are so many pros and cons to the way characters with disabilities such as autism and Asperger's Syndrome are portrayed. As mentioned with Parasocial contact, it helps people gain a sort of comfort and familiarity with others different than themselves. But, if they aren't being portrayed correctly it can be damaging, or produce damaging stereotypes.
Max Burkholder | Playing a Character not a Condition | Parenthood Series Finale
Actor who plays Max on Parenthood admits that as time has gone on, he is "portraying more of a character and less of portraying a disability" admitting that at the start he was focused on the disability.

Discussion.

This was a very interesting project throughout the semester! I'm glad I was able to explore and learn more about a subject that truly interested me. And as we learned more during lectures and discussions, I was able to apply new concepts to the research I had never considered before. My research paper still has a little left before it is completed, and I know once I have finished I will have even more knowledge of this subject, and will be able to carry all I have learned with me after this class!