Grey’s Anatomy Ableism: “How Insensitive”
Spoilers for Grey’s Anatomy, up and including to episode 6×21, How Insensitive.
Grey’s Anatomy, a sudsy USAn medical drama based around a Seattle surgical team, is one of those showers which I can love or hate. On the one hand, they have a cast of fabulous and complicated women – Miranda Bailey! Cristina Yang! Callie Torres! Arizona Robbins! It not only passes the Bechdel test in every episode, but the people of colour Bechdelesque test in most episodes – and, which is considerably more rare on popular television, the women of colour variant.
Disability, however, it’s not so good on. There’s a main character (Owen Hunt) with PTSD who is portrayed in fairly interesting and complex ways (though he’s a white man whose PTSD was acquired entirely “conventionally”, in battle), but as a show which is focused on experimental and heroic cures of ‘broken’ folk, there are also major issues. And the fat hate. Oh my, the fat hate.
The most recent episode swung wildly from a scene I absolutely loved, to a scene that was so full of ableism that I was barely able to get through it. So I thought I’d share.
Background: a disabled, very fat man, Bobby Corso, has been brought in to hospital with abdominal pain for investigation. Bailey has attempted to offer “sensitivity” training to the residents, who are pretty much failing across the board. The residents are sitting eating lunch together; the woman who comes in is Mrs Corso (do we even learn her first name?), who is pregnant.
Yang: Let’s say [picks up a skinny chip] this is the wife.
Meredith Grey (looking horrified): No! Don’t do that.
Yang: And this… is him! [picks up large hamburger, bursts out laughing]
Karev: So I won’t be eating that now.
Yang: She’s gotta be on top.
[Lexie Grey smiles.]
Karev: She’s gonna get altitude sickness. [bursts out laughing]
[Mrs Corso, a slim blonde white women, is walking past. She stops and looks at the gang.]
Lexie Grey: [notices, suddenly looks serious] Guys.
Yang [looks at Mrs Corso]: Uh. Sorry.
Mrs Corso: It’s alright. I get it. [approaches table] You’re trying to figure out how my husband and I managed to get a baby in here. [Gestures to abdomen, smiles.] There are some logistics involved. Do you want me to tell you?
[Lexie and Meredith look abashed.]
Mrs Corso: [still smiling] But first! How about you tell me how you like to do it with your husband? Or your girlfriend? Any favourite positions? Or kinks! [wide smile] Let’s talk about that! Because I know you all must have a freakshow of your own goin’ on! Who wants to go first?
[Yang and Karev look abashed.]
Mrs Corso: No. Nobody? OK. [more serious] Well it’s probably none of my damn business anyway. [long look. Walks away. All the residents look abashed.]
[Cut to Bobby Corso lying in a hospital bed. Ex-chief surgeon Dr Richard Webber is standing with Mirand Bailey by his bedside.]
Webber: The fat under your skin has become necrotic. Has – has died. And the infection is eating through your skin.
Corso: Huh [wry semi-laugh]. I suppose it had to come to that. I’ve eaten everything else.
Webber: The operation is extremely risky. You have a higher than normal chance that a surgical complication could kill you.
[Karev enters the room.]
Corso: If I don’t have the surgery – I die? [Webber and Bailey look serious.] How long will I have, do you think?
Webber: Mr Corso, you want the surgery. You want to try –
Corso: I’ve tried. Everything. High protein, low carbs, drugs, pills, hypnosis. I’ve tried everything.
Bailey: You have a baby on the way. Think about that.
Corso: Who do you think I’m thinking about? You dream of having a kid. [sentimental piano/strings music starts up in the background] You picture yourself playing ball with him. You picture her standing on your feet while you dance around with her, you know? You don’t picture them bringing you food and [disgusted look] cleaning you up. I can’t walk four steps to go to the bathroom. You tell me – who deserves that guy as a father?
[Bailey and Webber look at each other, as if to say, ‘He has a point.’]
Corso: I just wanna be gone before the kid has a chance to know who I am. Don’t – tell my wife about this, ok? Just tell her it’s too risky. Let me go home.
[Mrs Corso enters.]
Bobby Corso: Hey, peanut.
Mrs Corso: What’s going on?
This video clip starts off great. Someone is finally speaking up and telling this rude, obnoxious residents exactly what is and isn’t their business when it comes to their patients’ behaviour and bodies. She’s rocking my world!
But then, it all comes crashing down, with the treatment of Bobby Corso’s disability. I felt like his little speech reflected the ideas of the writers: If you can’t walk and dance, if you can’t independently wash your own body, no child ‘deserves’ you as a parent, and you don’t deserve to be a parent. Especially when your disability is, in society’s fucked-up opinion, your own damn fault. It’s only sensible to think that you’d be better off dead, that your children would be better off never knowing you. The tragedy is not your acute infection and your possible impending death, but your very existence. Doctors understand this, though they may go through the motions of challenging it (in paternalistic ways that include telling you what you ‘want’).
There’s a further rage-inducing scene where Mrs Corso scolds Karev, saying “You don’t know that inside all that is the same man I’ve always known”. I think the writers are making it clear, again, that like so many people in our culture, they don’t see fat people and disabled people as full humans at all. They want to believe that there’s a “real person inside”, meaning a thin abled person; while the actual person, the actual body, is a facade that can be dismissed and pushed aside in disgust. Disabled bodies are not real. Not authentic. They don’t really count, and we’d rather not think about them. The only way some people can value PWD as humans beings is to pretend that “beneath” their disability, there is some other person that doesn’t make the person with the abled gaze feel uncomfortable. With this cognitive sleight-of-hand, abled folk get to pretend that they’re oh-so-terribly accepting and magnanimous, while lovingly maintaining the care and feeding of their disgust and hatred of the disabled body.
Later in the show Karev abandons his sensitivity training and yells at Corso, calling him selfish for planning to “leave a 700-pound mess for your wife to clean up”. Corso has surgery and survives the operation, in which he is serendipitously found to have a perforated diverticular abscess on his bowel; his presenting abdominal pain had been misdiagnosed as being due to his subcutaneous infection. He pledges, with the badgering of his doctors, to diet. The take-home message? The only way someone who can’t walk or clean themselves could reasonably be a parent is if they go to strenuous efforts to cure themselves, and succeed, first.
An aside-ish sort of a question: Can anyone think of any TV shows or movies (or books, if you like) which pass a disability Bechdelesque test?
1. It has to have at least two people with disabilities in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides an abled person.
Or please feel free to discuss the clip and the issues raised in it.