I’m always talking up Private Practice as a great show that tends to cover issues pretty well; I’m particularly fond of the fact that, for example, the wheelchair user on the show is a full time wheelchair user in real life, and in an episode in a prior season involving an intersex child, Addison refused to surgically alter the child without consent. It seems like the show actually consults people in the groups it depicts and works to make depictions honest, interesting and engaging.
Which is why I was so horrified last night while I was watching ‘Short Cuts.’ There were two main medical storylines in the episode; one involving an autistic child, and one involving a trans woman getting ready for bottom surgery with Charlotte. Both were handled so atrociously that I was forced to radically reevaluate my position on the show. So, good work, Sonay Washington, you managed to flush three years of good work down the tubes.
When we are introduced to the autistic child, he is classic, stereotypic, TV autistic—he’s vocalising in grunts and squeaks and self injuring and everyone talks around and about him instead of to him. It transpires that his mother has been using her medical marijuana prescription to literally dope him up. Pete supports this, Cooper doesn’t, and we have a nice brisk argument about curing autism, culminating with a home visit by Pete where we are treated to a teary lecture from the mother on how awful it all is and how Pete has no idea how hard caregiving is. The takeaway here is that having an autistic child is soooooo hard and will give you The Crazy, as the show seems to be depicting the mother in a way that is suggestive of mental illness.
Cooper and Pete decide that marijuana is not an appropriate treatment for autism and this ‘forces’ the mother to get some weed on the street. Said weed, of course, happens to be paced with PCP, so we get a bathos-laden hospital scene with the kid reacting badly to the PCP and the mother being dragged away by police, screaming ‘but I’m his mooooother!’
There is so much wrong with this, I don’t even know where to begin. With ‘autism as life sentence for misery,’ perhaps? With ‘parenting a child with autism is impossible,’ maybe? With ‘single mothers just can’t handle autism’? With the grossly caricaturised depiction of autism? I don’t even know. It left me really unhappy and profoundly unimpressed, especially since the show has been really good on disability issues in the past. It was also yet another example of the really questionable depictions of parenting and motherhood on this show and I think some of the show’s creative team might want to choose another venue for processing their mother-hate.
The plotline with the trans woman could have been an honest depiction of how medical gatekeeping of transition harms members of the transgender community, but I suspect that’s not the takeaway viewers will be left with. What I saw, watching Jane try to clear psych so she could get approved for surgery, was a woman who couldn’t access the treatment she needed because of transphobia and bigotry on the part of the medical establishment, Sheldon high on his power. I suspect that what a lot of viewers saw was the old ‘but how can they really know their gender?’
And, of course, the episode culminates with Sheldon refusing to clear her for surgery, and a dramatic scene in her home where she mutilates her genitals to force Charlotte to operate on her. Then, touching recovery scene in the hospital where she realises she really needs counseling from Sheldon. See, she really was in pain and Sheldon was right to refuse to clear her for surgery! The end!
Seriously, Private Practice? Seriously? This is why I hate the vast majority of depictions of transgender people on television, because you use us like props for convenient plots. You really wanted to knock ‘the transgender episode’ off your bucket list and by gum, you did.
You’d better bring it next week, or you’re off my subscriptions and recommendation lists.