Disability representation: Do it right (Or The Case of John Watson’s disappearing PTSD)

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking and reading about disability in media.  A part of this is inspired by a post I read on tumblr coupled with a post by Alyssa of Yes, That Too, which you can read here.

I’ve been considering why sometimes disabilities are erased in media, and sometimes it appears to me that it’s for a really ridiculous reason like “it’s inconvenient”.  That seems to be the case with Clint Barton (Hawkeye) of the Marvel movieverse, as he is deaf in several versions of the comics.  It’s also the case for Peeta in The Hunger Games, who is an amputee after the first book, and who walks with a prosthetic leg.  I presume that for the most part, it’s inconvenient for writers to work that into the storyline, and in my personal opinion, that’s a really crappy reason when so many of us are starving for the crumbs of representation of people like us.

Other times, it seems like maybe the writers aren’t aware of the fact that they’re writing a disabled character.  With all the horribly written disability narratives out there (“House Rules” by Jodi Picoult comes to mind), this seems surprising, but it’s not, really, not when you really consider disability as a part of the human experience.  Many (presumably abled) people work and socialize and hang out with a variety of disabled people, and don’t necessarily pinpoint certain traits as symptoms or characteristics of a disability. It’s probably part of the reason why we have such a difficult time convincing abled folks that we need supports and accommodations.  It isn’t necessarily because they don’t think disabled people deserve accommodations (well, some do, I’m not denying that).  It’s because they don’t see us as disabled.  They just think we’re lazy or annoying or quirky.

So I’ve been reading and watching various things (mostly watching), and seeing where show runners and film producers and writers got it right, and where they got it wrong.


[image description: Series of four tweets, indicating that I have retweeted them.  The author is India Valentin @valentin_india and all are dated July 23.

In essence, Moffat is saying that psychological conditions caused by PTSD aren’t real, go away easily, and ultimately are just fakery.

He doesn’t want to deal with a disabled Watson, with Watson who carries the war with him.  It’s easier to have a Watson cured by adrenaline.

The Sherlock Watson who has disappearing psychosomatic PTSD-induced injuries is a magic cure.  It’s inconvenient for Moffat, so it vanishes.

For the love of God, people, never present a character as disabled, magically make the disabililty go away, and pretend that’s totally fine.]

A friend of mine retweeted the previous tweets, and it just finally hit me what I’ve had an issue with regarding BBC Sherlock’s presentation of John Watson.  I realize that symptoms of disability vary from day to day, absolutely. But the reasoning given for why this is happening to John Watson is “fire your therapist”, “you’re not haunted by the war, you miss it” and “you’ve missed this”, and any number of things that the Holmes brothers have said to him.

That particular example is a huge issue for me, because Dr. Watson is one of my favorite literary characters of all time.  I’ve appreciated him in many different versions of Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved stories.  What I’ve appreciated about most versions, however, is that while they don’t necessarily focus on the trauma that he experiences, they don’t hand wave it away, either.  BBC Sherlock absolutely handwaves it away.  It’s acknowledged, and then it’s “cured” at least while John’s life revolves around Sherlock.  Once Sherlock is removed from the picture, it re-emerges, which indicates a co-dependence or possible addiction issue, which is a whole other issue.  I wish that John’s PTSD was given the necessary and responsible treatment that it should have been.

Speaking of PTSD, though, I’ve been in the midst of a rewatch of Grey’s Anatomy, and I absolutely have to give a huge kudos to Shonda Rimes for her multilayered, multifaceted, respectful and realistic treatment of PTSD.  She gives us a variety of characters from different backgrounds, from different traumatic experiences.  You have people who come from loving homes, people who come from emotionally distant and abusive homes, people for whom their fellow doctors are their only family, and Shonda Rimes throws them into these horrific, traumatic experiences – a shooting, a plane crash, having to operate on the spouse of someone you know and love.  The PTSD induced nightmares are realistic and frightening, and she gracefully explores the dynamics of relationships and how they’re impacted and how outsiders may not understand, and may never understand.  The aftereffects of trauma are explored and handled extremely well.  There are mental health professionals present to help these characters work through their trauma, to acknowledge it and to give them tools to move forward with their lives.

I cannot praise that show enough.  It is difficult to watch precisely because it is so well written.

I can think of a few examples like Grey’s Anatomy where disability is addressed and addressed well.  Jessica Jones and How to Get Away with Murder both deal with PTSD as well and do a fairly good job of it.  Switched at Birth, despite its rocky start, explores D/deaf issues with grace and integrity.

We still have a long way to go.  There are so many examples of disabled characters being treated and/or written terribly (*cough* The Big Bang Theory *cough*).  There certainly aren’t even close to enough disabled actors being hired to portray disabled characters.  About 95% of the actors hired for these roles are abled.  That’s a problem that must be addressed.  There are still very few of us disabled folks telling our own stories.

But it seems like the tide is turning a little bit.  Non-disabled authors/writers/show runners/etc.? Listen to us.  Let us tell our own stories when possible.  If we tell you something is offensive or wrong, listen and make an effort to change.



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I am a 35 year old parent of two multiply neurodivergent preteens. I am Autistic and queer.

2 thoughts on “Disability representation: Do it right (Or The Case of John Watson’s disappearing PTSD)”

  1. I’ve got to agree with you that the ‘erasing’ of John’s PTSD in Sherlock really annoys me. If anything because that could have been such an interesting part of his character and experiences to explore throughout the different series.

    And I’m certainly with you in the view that ‘House Rules’ is one of the worst examples of ‘disability literature’ out there. It’s hard to praise a book that’s carries a supposed message of ‘autism isn’t linked to violence’, but whose entire plot revolves around a mother who believes her son is guilty of murder BECAUSE he has autism.


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