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.

28 thoughts on “Grey’s Anatomy Ableism: “How Insensitive”

  1. Hmm. In the last few seasons of Life Goes On, Corky, the main character who had Down Syndrome, had a girlfriend who also had Down Syndrome, and I definitely remember a bunch of scenes with the two of them talking to each other about all the usual teenage relationship stuff.

    (I now realize that I don’t think I’ve ever seen that show in syndication, and it looks like only the first season is available on DVD, even though the show ran for four seasons. I wonder why.)

  2. Battlestar Galactica? Tigh and Gaeta were both disabled in the final season and interacted a fair amount, IIRC.

  3. Hmm. The only possibility I could think of is if Toph (who is blind) and Teo (a “wheelchair” user) from Avatar: The Last Airbender, but I don’t remember if they talked to each other or not. :/

  4. I’m trying to decide whether “A Swiftly Tilting Planet” should count or not. One of the (many) subplots in that book involves twin brothers living in the mid nineteenth century. One of them Matthew, had some kind of accident as a small child (thrown from a horse or something like that) and he had been paralyzed since then. The other one, Bran, grew up able-bodied, then goes off to fight in the Civil War, where he’s injured and his leg has to be amputated. (Or, something like that. It’s been a while since I’ve read it.) The two of them do have some conversations (and psychic twin communication) that aren’t about disability, but Bran’s entire character after the war is defined by his reaction to his injury and to the horrors of war that he witnessed, so there’s really nothing that he says or doesn’t that isn’t actually about disability on some level.

    Now that I think about it, Madeleine L’Engel’s books have a lot of characters with disabilities. I can’t really remember enough details to do much analysis, though — maybe I’ll reread some of them this weekend.

  5. I agree amandaw, I wanted to say something like that but wasn’t sure how to put it.
    I mean, I think there are some ways of two PWDs talking about disability that would be really cool, but some that wouldn’t. Like it would be cool if they were talking in a non-educational way.

    Remember when they had the character with “Asperger’s” on Grey’s Anatomy? Vomit central.

  6. On ER, Kerry Weaver was a disabled doctor who had non-disability related conversations with several other disabled characters over the run of the show. She interacted with a disabled medical student who was a recurring guest character over several episodes and taught him and evaluated his performance. She also interacted with Robert Romano, another physician who acquired a disability during the series. They communicated about civil rights, sexuality, patient care philosophy, the financial running of the hospital and many other topics. Of course, none of these characters were portrayed by an actor with a disability. . .

  7. Many of the drama set in psych hospitals or treatment centers (Girl Interrupted comes to mind) pass the test, though most FAIL in other ways.


  8. Friday Night Lights would fit. The show has multiple wheelchair users who talk to each other about everything from their injury to sports to girls.

    But I agree with amandaw’s revised Disability Benchdel.

  9. I just finished Kristin Cashore’s “Fire” (YA novel), and it maybe squeaks a pass–towards the end of the book, the main character, Fire has a conversation with her foster father, who uses a wheelchair. She had other conversations with him earlier in the book, but I’m not sure she’s exactly disabled until the last few chapters. It’s complicated.

  10. What about this for the PWD Bechdel test – they don’t talk or exist to be inspiring.

    Malcolm in the Middle’s Stevie was not inspiring, though he didn’t talk to any other visibly disabled students. The “emotionally disturbed” class Dewey was later put in does pass the test though – they acted like kids for the most part… kids in the MitM universe, but still.

    [mod note: please take Glee talk to a Glee thread or current Chatterday. Thanks. ~L]

  11. “Of course, none of these characters were portrayed by an actor with a disability. . .”

    Which would be a real interesting twist on the test, wouldn’t it?

    Life Goes On would pass, as noted above; so would Secret Life of the American Teenager (a man with Down Syndrome is in a relationship with a woman with an intellectual disability).

  12. So, the patient’s condition was blamed on his fat when in fact he was ill from something else entirely? Well, at least something about the episode was true to life…

  13. Despite being a problematic show in many [many many many] respects, South Park actually passes – Timmy and Jimmy often talk to each other, not about able-bodied people or their own disabilities.

  14. The Venture Brothers has quite a few disabled characters, although they’re treated with varying amounts of respect. Colonel Gentleman is diabetic, Billy Quizboy and Jonas Venture Jr. are both dwarfs with prosthetic limbs and Billy is hydrocephalic, Pete White is albino, although I’m not sure whether that’s a disability or not, Baron Ünderbheit uses a jaw prothesis, Cody Impossible needs to stay in an airtight container, Ned Impossible is cognitively impaired and insensitive to pain, Dr. Venture has an anxiety disorder, and both he and Johnny Quest suffer from drug addictions.

  15. I’m currently halfway through Ted Williams’ Otherland books, and there’s a pretty good variety of characters, including two with disabilities (okay, one gets the ‘disability superpower’ thing in the online world, but both go through a period of being disabled online because of their offline disabilities). They haven’t actually spent much time together yet, but as there’s more pressing issues to deal with–they can’t log off–I’d be surprised if the books didn’t pass the test.

  16. I know I’ve mentioned Carnivale on other threads as a show that has some problems, but also an incredibly huge number of PWD characters. It definitely would pass the test. There’s a lot of scenes Samson (a dwarf) and Jonesy (who uses a leg brace due to a knee injury; the actor is able-bodied) talking about the operations of the carnival, the show’s Big Important Mystical Metaplot, and so forth. And I know there are others I’m forgetting.

  17. Yes on Carnivale, gamerchick, good catch.

    Been thinking about books, and the ones that come first to mind are set in places where such conversations can be expected: Andrea Barrett’s “The Air We Breathe” is set in a TB sanatorium in the 1910s, most of the characters have TB in some degree, and they talk about all kinds of things together (some of the characters are in a study group specifically to talk about something besides their illness/treatment). There are scenes in Majgull Axelsson’s “April Witch” set in a hospital room shared by four disabled girls, and I think they have conversations, but again, the setting… hmmm.

    I think Salander in “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” has scenes with her hacker friend who is similar to her in many ways (in the context of the story, her character has been variously diagnosed and labeled and treated, and maybe so has he, not sure if that’s spelled out or just implied).

  18. The movie Benny & Joon? I guess it depends on whether Sam is considered disabled.

  19. IIRC Joan of Arcadia passes; the brother is paraplegic and has conversations with other people in wheelchairs.

    Also, according to essays I’ve read, the Percy Jackson series passes. According to one, you can tell who is the kid of a God because they have some kind of mental disability. (Never read it so I don’t know how well this is portrayed or much beyond that.)

  20. House. No, seriously. House has permanent nerve and muscle damage in his leg, limps, and uses a cane–he is clearly portrayed as disabled. The past couple of seasons have also included Thirteen, who has early-stage Huntingtons, which is beginning to obviously affect her motor control. As the main and one of the more important supporting characters, they have many conversations about a variety of topics.

    Mel, I would definitely say Fire counts. I read the concept of “monsters” to be a metaphor for disability. I think it works better as a concept in the first book, Graceling, as the only visible marker of “disability” in that case is the eyes. Most “invisible” disabilities aren’t totally invisible–you might not be able to tell I’m autistic just by looking at me, but if you watched me in a social situation you’d know. Then again, I don’t know if that was how Cashore meant the books to be read.

  21. Sorry, didn’t finish reading the comments before adding my own. ohands, the kids in that series are noted to be dyslexic (because their brains are made to read Anciet Greek!) and adhd (because they have super awesome god reflexes/need for activity). Seriously. I couldn’t make it more than 1/3 through the first one.

  22. ReGenesis had Bob Melnikov and Mayko Tran talking to each other often. Bob had Aperger’s and Mayko had a prosthetic leg, and they were buddies who mostly talked about work and stuff.

  23. Wow. I already knew that disability is handled poorly in the media, but nothing brings it home like spending half an hour trying to think of television series that actually feature multiple disabled characters in anything other than a “very special episode” role.

    I’ll second Avatar: The Last Airbender, for Zuko and Toph’s (admittedly limited) interactions, if nothing else, and also Carnivale, which featured multiple disabled characters, several of whom were also played by disabled actors.

    You might be able to include “Quantum Leap” for Sam’s amnesia and Al’s depression and alcoholism.

    “Night Court” had multiple recurring characters with disabilities, but I don’t remember if any of them ever actually talked to each other.

  24. One movie suggestion is Inside I’m Dancing, released in the USA as Rory O’Shea Was Here. I saw this movie years ago so I don’t remember all the details but thought it was a pretty good story. See for details (check out some of the quotes to get an idea of the movie –

    I can’t think of any disabled characters on TV that have been done very well, let alone multiple characters who talk with each other, but maybe I just watch the wrong shows.

  25. More wonderful books which pass the extended-Bechdel test re: multiple people with disabilities interacting.

    Accidents of Nature by Harriet McBride Johnson. Mainstreamed teenager with CP goes to a “special” camp, reexamines her internalized disablism, learns how to bridge the gaps between “normal” and “abnormal.” YA.

    Skallagrigg by William Horwood. Teenager with CP moves out of institution to live with PC geek father; teaches herself to be alpha geek; creates thrilling adventure game based in part on the horror stories passed down orally in the institutions. SF

    Of Such Small Differences by Joanne Greenberg. Deaf-blind teenager battles with staff in group home, moves out on his own, challenged by deaf-blind community for moving in with sighted woman, drama ensues. Adult “literary”

    Getting Life
    by Julie Shaw Cole. Institutionalized woman with CP, trapped by inadequate resources, absent tech, and hostile staff, meets crusading “independent living” advocates from local ILC. Working together she breaks out of the institution and into the multiplicities of self-directed living. While it sounds like a political tract, it’s also a very lovely story.

    Published by the same folks who brought us the Disability Rag/Ragged Edge: Advocado Press

  26. Just ran across mention of another novel that must fit: Bruce Marshall’s To Every Man a Penny (1949), in which both main characters, Father Gaston and Louis-Philippe Bessier, are amputees, friends both wounded in World War I. The plot is about their families and work between the wars; Gaston is a disillusioned priest, Bessier works for the French Communist Party. The Scottish author was also a WWI disabled veteran (leg amputated in 1918).

  27. I hope nobody minds me resurrecting an old thread. I was reading this one and thought that this it could use some webcomic examples. Sadly even though I’m an avid webcomic fan I could only find two reasonably unambiguous examples.
    Riot Nrrd
    Beyond the Veil
    The first one is a really across the board progressive comic and I don’t [b]remember[/b] it having anything that would require a TW.
    The second comic is a new (military) science fiction series that is great as webcomic in terms of art interesting characters etc. and has the potential to be very very good(or a complete frame wreck) from a Feminist POV. The main character of the second storyline is gendernonconforming, disabled, and lives with an adopted family of “mutants”(his brother seems to have Kyphosis and damage to one eye). The main character of the first storyline inadvertently regenerated in a female body. As I said lots of potential to go either way. It also warrants a ton of trigger warnings, the characters face significant transphobia and ableism. Meanwhile the setting/premise involves large amounts of violence and verbal descriptions(so far nothing on screen) of (war)crime including but not limited to rape. I hope this is useful I’m pretty pants at this kind of analysis and disappointed I found so few examples.

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