Grey’s Anatomy and Casual Ableism

Last season of Grey’s Anatomy featured a storyline rife with casual ableism, a not unusual thing for the show but still a frustrating thing. A pregnant intern, Morgan, delivered her baby prematurely, and her boyfriend left her in the lurch. Morgan’s baby had a number of health conditions, a not uncommon issue for preemies, and consequently, a series of episodes featured the baby in distress and characters discussing the situation while interacting with Morgan. Along the way, of course, Alex Karev and Morgan got involved in a strange dynamic as he spent a lot of time with her and the baby in the NICU; Grey’s can’t resist an opportunity for soap.

Initially, I thought this storyline had a lot of potential. There are some great scenes at the beginning where Morgan’s boyfriend is resorting to cold clinical statistics in an attempt to get Morgan to stop treatment for the baby, and she refuses. She cleaves to the baby, arguing that she wants him very much and is focused on helping him survive with the best quality of life. She becomes a ferocious advocate for him and refuses to allow other characters to dictate how his life should go. She argues that everyone around her is being too cold, and is devaluing the baby’s own life and capacity for survival by treating him like an object or a problem to be solved, rather than a human being.

But there was a shift as the season went on, especially at the turning point when Arizona recommended allowing natural death, given the baby’s significant health problems. Morgan began leaning heavily on Alex, turning to him for the answers to her problems. Alex turned on her, demanding that she make her own choices, and she opted for an aggressive surgery; not, in other words, allowing natural death but continuing with treatment.

In that episode, Arizona presented the potential horrors of surgery, arguing that the baby might develop blindness, deafness, cognitive disabilities, and other medical complications as a result of surgery. Morgan fired right back, asking why people were treating disability as a horrible fate and not acknowledging the fundamental humanity of her son. She stood her ground as a disability advocate, but something about the story still made me uncomfortable, so I sat down to probe it a little more deeply.

It’s telling that no adults with disabilities were actually seen during this storyline; Morgan didn’t get a chance, for example, to interact with someone who is blind as a result of surgical complications. She advocated for her baby, but viewers didn’t see people with disabilities advocating for themselves and talking about their own quality of life. The Grey’s creators could have done this artfully with a disabled character in the hospital for a treatment, but chose not to, which is striking; they apparently feel that ‘nothing about us without us’ doesn’t apply to them, and chose to centre a parent’s narrative rather than that of an actual disabled person.

Instead of giving disabled people our own voices, the show chose to highlight the people around us. Arizona, for example, focuses on how difficult life would be for Morgan if she persists in ignoring medical advice and pursues treatment for her son. Others pity Morgan because her baby is disabled; few people seem to want to address what life would be like for him. The lack of disabled representation on the show means that there are no examples of life with disability and there are no characters to counteract the messages being sent. Instead, Morgan becomes the authority on disability.

Furthermore, there’s something a bit troubling about the framing of the relationship between Morgan and her son. Arizona stresses that now she is alone, isolating Morgan and suggesting that disability deprives people of community. In some senses, Morgan seems to be clinging desperately to her son as the last person in the world she’s connected to, which is deeply troubling and rather gross. He becomes an object all over again rather than a human being, a source of comfort to his mother rather than his own person. This sends a dangerous message about disability and parenting, suggesting that the parents of disabled children have strangely dependent relationships with their kids and refuse to see reason like the nice sensible people around them.

This storyline was clearly meant to send Very Special Messages to viewers, and it certainly did, but not, I think, the ones that the show intended. The creators seemed to be aiming for a subtext suggesting that disability is not inherently bad and terrible and that disabled people are human beings with rights and autonomy. However, what it actually did was imply that people with disabilities aren’t authorities on their own existence, and indicate that parents are the ultimate arbiters of disability. It also depicted disability as inherently isolating instead of probing into why that is and looking at the circumstances that create isolation for people with disabilities; Morgan isn’t alone because her son is disabled, but because she lives in an ableist world.

This kind of casual ableism does a greater disservice than it does a service, and it’s par for the course with Grey’s Anatomy, which often flounders when it comes to engaging with disability issues. One might legitimately wonder if the show has a disability consultant, and whether that person is actually listened to in the course of story and project development.