The opportunities for the entertainment media to enlighten the public on complex issues are endless. They come in the form of movies, songs, poetry, plays, and television shows. Thanks to improved technology and accessibility, entertainment media is ambient, and thus so are its opportunities to deconstruct the misunderstood. When Parenthood first aired in 2010, we were introduced to the Bravermans. We were led to believe they were pretty much your average American family with a few exceptions here and there. One of those exceptions was Max, a gaunt boy with unruly curls and a penchant for pirate costumes and collecting bugs. He was weird from the outset, cast out by his peers and misunderstood by his teachers.
Diagnosed with Asperger’s early in Parenthood’s thus-far 90-episode run, Max has been portrayed as an isolated individual who needs to be medically treated for his cognitive differences and who can only be empowered through emotionally charged and overtly atypical hero moments. The accompanying clip shows one such moment, clarifying for the audience that Max is both strange and able to overcome his oddity only through the acceptance of his classmates. This moment crystallizes what disabilities studies scholars have called the portrayal of individuals with Asperger’s or other conditions as “supercrips.” They may be disabled or labeled as such, but they have extraordinary gifts.
In this clip, Max owns his condition and its label and at the same time notes that he is “smart” and “remembers almost everything.” This cues a positive reaction from his peers, who seem to suddenly respect him more for his Asperger’s. While the clip is no doubt emotional, it assumes Asperger’s is a condition that needs to be diagnosed, treated, and overcome. The latter, as the clip would have it, can only be achieved through the approval of one’s peers — acceptance that comes at extraordinary measure. The writers of Parenthood, none of whom have Asperger’s, have based their interpretations of the diagnosis on secondary experiences. They have failed to accurately look through the eyes of Asperger’s, instead relying on the emotional stigmatization of the diagnosis to continue a worrisome trend in entertainment media. For it is far easier to promote a false discourse if it aligns with what the public expects and what ratings call for, even if it risks the continued alienation of individuals.