I love TV. I watch way too much of it. I was raised sitting in front of the television, often by myself, watching extremely age-inappropriate media (Twin Peaks at 8 years old? Sure! A Clockwork Orange at age 10 – a suggestion by my also inappropriate father- why not?!). Calculating the number of hours I’ve spent glued to the screen would be… embarrassing. I’m also disabled. Sometimes this makes my relationship to TV and film complicated.
I recently started watching the TV show Catastrophe. I was enjoying it until I got to episode 4 aka what I’ll call “the disability episode” or, more accurately, the “disability scare episode.” [Spoilers ahead]. For those who haven’t seen it, Sharon Horgan plays a woman in her 40s who unintentionally gets pregnant by Rob Delaney, a man she hasn’t known too long. So far so good. I like both actors, like the premise, and there’s been plenty of cringeworthy moments that made me laugh. And then along came episode 4, something I wasn’t emotionally prepared for.
I often avoid watching media that touches on disability because I find it so demoralizing and insulting. Because they always get it wrong. It’s the same old same old, stigma and stereotypes, and I don’t have the patience for it. It’s also emotionally draining to constantly be reminded that my identity, community and culture are so devalued by the majority. Whether TV or film, mainstream or indie, it’s almost always the same predictable, ableist perspectives and fear mongering tactics. Disability is not natural, but something to be frightened and ashamed of- a reflection of how we view disability in the real world. This unfortunately seems to be the case with Catastrophe.
The 4th episode explores the possibility that Sharon might be carrying a child with Down Syndrome. Sharon is terrified at the idea, wonders if she’s up for it, and recalls seeing a mom and child with Down Syndrome frequently in the grocery store. The mom “always looked tired,” she says. I’m not a mother, but I think that could be said of a lot of parents, regardless of their child’s disability status. There’s a brief reprieve when Rob brings up having a family member with Down Syndrome, and for a moment I was hopeful things would turn around, but this scene is about Sharon, and her trepidation. As the AV Club put it, “Sharon’s fear is entirely based around her, and how she pictures her life.” In other words, she has just adjusted to the reality of being pregnant in her forties and is now faced with what it might mean to be pregnant with a disabled child. Of course, the idea of having a disabled kid is presented only as Very Bad News.
My disappointment and frustration with this episode came from a couple of places: a nondisabled woman expressing terror over mothering a disabled child, (which, I think given our ableist society and particularly how disability is presented to pregnant women by the medical industry is very realistic but extremely painful on a personal level for me to watch), and the “Phew! Dodged a bullet” ending when they find out the baby does not have Down Syndrome. Because it’s TV, and of course they wouldn’t end up being parents to a disabled kid. It’s much easier to just employ the “threat” of disability as a plot device, without ever dealing with actual disabled people. It’s proof that disability is still considered abnormal, unnatural and very very sad. If it weren’t, we’d be seeing a lot more disabled characters onscreen sans the ableist panicking and hoopla. We’d just be there without fanfare, like other normal people.
I would love to see disability presented as something to be celebrated and welcomed, not feared. I would love to see a show featuring anything that disrupts the ubiquitous ableist narrative that disability = tragedy. Why is that so impossible to find? Answer: nondisabled people are writing for other nondisabled people. We as disabled people are not included in the intended audience.
The final scene in Catastrophe shows an emotional Sharon happening upon a young, happy girl with Down Syndrome and her mother. The smiling mom catches Sharon staring and she quickly apologizes saying, “Sorry, she’s gorgeous.” Sharon’s face reveals a complex set of emotions, which is up to the viewer’s interpretation. I read it as a mixture of terror, guilt and relief. By this point I was over it. I felt so alienated and raw that I just turned off the TV- something I wish I’d done sooner.
Have you watched Catastrophe? Please comment with your opinions and interpretations of this episode.