I've emailed many of you who commented, but I wanted to share some of my thoughts about this issue. I presented an example of a character in a children's television show who was portrayed in a rather stereotyped fashion and asked, essentially, if it was better than nothing.
Some of you said yes--at least the writers tried to include a character with a developmental disorder like Asperger's, and it's better than pretending individuals with such disorders don't exist. The assumption here is that it's important to include diverse characters (and obviously, I'm talking about stuff way beyond racial/ethnic diversity) in children's television. I agree with this assumption. Our world is diverse. Religiously, sexually, ethnically, neurologically ... people are enormously complex--and in each of our dimensions, we vary tremendously, and that's really cool. It ain't just heterosexual-neurotypical-white folk watching the telly, right? Right. So we should have television characters that reflect that diversity.
Some of you said no--this type of stereotypical portrayal is not good at all. It's insulting and potentially harmful. Aaaaand ... I agree. Let me tell you a story (and by that, I mean a mash-up of an experience I've had way too many times): I'm sitting with the parents of a five-year-old, and I'm telling them that I'm diagnosing their child with autistic disorder. You know what they say? "But he acts NOTHING LIKE RAIN MAN!" I can almost see their thoughts--they are picturing their adorable child as an adult living in an institution and counting matchsticks.
That alone is heartbreaking. But you know what's worse? Sometimes, a parent has had concerns for a few years. Maybe they even worked up the courage to speak it aloud to a grandmother-aunt-neighbor-friend-stranger. And that person said, "Pshah. He acts nothing like Rain Man. You don't need to have him evaluated."
I've worked with people who put evaluations off for a year or two in part because of this very thing--media portrayals that are extreme or very stereotyped. Sometimes it means that the child has missed one or two years of treatment.
In that case, I would say that stereotyped portrayals have done some damage. The problem is, when we only see the extreme or the stereotyped, it's easy to be blinded to the complete continuum.
This is the late Kim Peek. Dustin Hoffman's character in Rain Man was based on him. He was what is known as a "savant" and memorized about 9000 books before his death in 2009. He also couldn't button his clothes. His presentation was NOT typical of individuals with autism spectrum disorders. He was an extreme. I'm not saying it was wrong to make that movie--by all accounts the portrayal was accurate. But if it's one of the few out there, it leaves viewers thinking "this is what people with autism spectrum disorders are like."
Usually, my first response to controversial stuff on TV is to say "if parents are going to let their kids watch it, they should watch it with their kids and talk about it." I feel that way about this issue, but it doesn't get rid of my concerns. Because what if the parent doesn't know much more about autism spectrum disorders than the kid? That parent is dependent upon the writers and creators of those shows to present an accurate picture of an individual with one of these diagnoses. I happen to think this is ESPECIALLY TRUE of children's television shows where the clear goal of the portrayal is to raise awareness and sensitivity, as was the case with that episode of Dino Squad. The things is, so often the symptoms of this disorder (and many others) are subtle and not easily recognized unless you know exactly what to look for.
I won't go on and on. This is a tricky issue--both in adult and children's television. We need diversity, but it needs to be nuanced and sensitive, well-researched and informed by real-world experience. I'm pretty sure we can all agree on that.
On the Sisterhood of the Traveling Blog front, check out Deb's post on "In my writing, I always/never ___"!