Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Ableism Problem

I’m someone who re-watches shows for comfort and familiarity. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is one of the shows I love to put on when I need something sweet and positive in which the characters Sincerely Care About Each Other and are Trying To Do The Right Thing. But there are episodes that I have to skip every time I rewatch because the ableism of the plots and the jokes makes me very very very uncomfortable. And it should make you uncomfortable as well.

While Brooklyn Nine-Nine is doing amazing things with diversity, there is one issue they are horrifically bad at dealing with: disability.

There has not been one incident in which disability appears and is treated well.

From season one, where Terry Jeffords’ possible PTSD was magic-ed away by “Captain Holt need[ing him]”, to season five, where it turns out Jake is responsible for a man’s loss of sight in one eye. This is pitched as okay, because the character behaves farcically and is just there for the plot – to make Jake’s life more difficult. And, in a theme that is repeated throughout the season, his disability is:

  1. represented completely unrealistically (due to “messed up […] depth perception” he keeps walking into walls, bins, etc. in the very short amount of time he is on screen)
  2. only there so that we, the viewers, can laugh at him.

Every character that appears with a visible disability is either the butt of a joke or faking to get some kind of advantage.

In season one, there was a criminal who Jake figured out was “pretending to need a wheelchair” because there was dirt on the soles of his shoes (which ignores the fact that ambulatory wheelchair users exist and are constantly harassed  because  people think they’re “faking”.The fact that the only wheelchair user we’ve seen in five seasons was “faking” is bad enough, (though this is unfortunately a common trope), but Brooklyn Nine-Nine is consistently bad at representing disability. In a way that means it stands out as the most ableist show I watch.

Throughout Brooklyn, Charles Boyle is the butt of many jokes, but the writers seem to think ‘making Charles (briefly) disabled’ is simply a continuance of this. When this is done, they don’t write his conditions accurately, and the butt of the joke is ‘Charles thinks he can do things like an abled person can, but he can’t, how foolish!’. In season one, Charles returns to work too early after being shot, and an entire episode is focused around how his disability makes things difficult for his co-workers. His inability to use his new mobility devices properly is milked for physical comedy, Gina ends up doing physical therapy with him in the bull pen (which is bafflingly unrealistic), and everyone is annoyed and/or grossed out by Charles, in a way that should be cringe-worthy to watch for everyone, not just viewers with disabilities.

They recycle this joke with ‘Charles is temporarily blind’ in season three. Again, the joke is that Charles wants to be independent, but is in fact useless. But he is useless in a way that is completely unrealistic. The writers seem to think being blind means losing all perception of what is happening around you. At one point, Charles catches on fire from a space heater, and when told, “Charles’ pants are on fire!” and “Get away from the space heater!” replies, “I don’t know where it is!” This should be obvious, but: not being able to see doesn’t mean you can’t tell where heat is coming from, or don’t notice when your clothes are on fire. Charles gets lost, and Jake figures out where he is by sound via phone. Charles, whose ears work just as well as Jake’s, is presented as useless and unable to fend for himself. Later, when he, Jake, and Amy are searching for Cheddar (Holt’s dog) Charles appears holding a possum, proud of himself for ‘finding Cheddar’, announcing that “it’s a proud day for blind people everywhere” before discussing the amount of kisses he’s shared with the possum. This is simply not funny. In response to this Jake and Amy are shown as viewing Charles as not only useless, but as a hindrance. They order him to stay in the car while they search for Cheddar, and are angry when he ‘disobeys’. Throughout the episode they treat Charles like a demanding child they don’t have time to indulge.

Throughout the show, whenever disabled characters are shown as needing accommodations, the show frames these as “indulgences” that they shouldn’t be allowed. In season three, the squad end up sharing desks with the 98th precinct, and Amy has to sit near a man who has a service dog, which causes her allergies to flare up. Her response to this is to argue that he has it for “made up reasons”, and she is livid that the dog is allowed in the precinct. The show supports Amy’s reading, allowing the dog to be described as being there to help with “mild foot pain”, which is pitched as a lie. This episode could have run with all of these things if they’d decided to use it to help the characters grow, which is what they successfully do with most other issues. The lesson here should be that you should trust people when they say they need accommodations, and they don’t need to tell you why. Especially if you are just their co-worker rather than HR or a supervisor. They could have written an episode that shows Amy angry and with flaring allergies. The desk mate could still have claimed he had “mild foot pain”, and been shown to be lying. Amy’s concerns about her allergies could still have been taken seriously (she’s made reference to epi-pens before, her allergies do matter). But Amy should have been shown as ultimately in the wrong for accusing a fellow officer of faking a need for a service animal. Because he didn’t owe her the real reason.

As with the “fake wheelchair user” plot of season one, such an episode does actual harm to real disabled people. Disabled people who use service animals are often harassed. It would be one thing if the constant stories about fake service animals were eclipsed by narratives in which they do good work, but right now the prevailing narrative, to which Brooklyn Nine-Nine is adding, is: ‘everyone who asks for accommodations or claims to have a disability is lying for personal gain’.

The representation of mental health issues is also woefully inadequate. In Season one Terry is plagued with anxiety about losing his life and leaving his children and wife in a bad situation. He has been removed from active duty and needs a department psychologist to sign off on his return to the field. The assessment goes terribly. The psychologist does not sign off. Terry is shown to be still obsessing over his own death, and is anxious enough to burst a pillow. When he takes away the psychologist’s stamp and stamps his own form, before running into the field, the only scolding he gets is from his wife because he “didn’t even take the time to stop and gear up”, which, honestly, is another marker that he shouldn’t be back in the field. Regardless, from this point onwards, the show treats Terry’s difficulties as resolved, and no consequences follow.

This disregard for mental illness is shown again by the portrayal of Adrian Pimento, who appears in Season three, clearly extremely traumatised by being undercover in the mob for 12 years. The first episode acknowledges that the squad “have no idea what [he’s] going through” and that he has, and should have, the support of the squad. Nevertheless, the only mention of getting psychiatric help is dismissed. However, unlike with Terry and his debilitating preoccupation with death, Adrian’s symptoms remain. He loses his job in the police force for “disappear[ing] from [his] job for seven months”. His job as a PI gets tanked because his clients write bad reviews, citing his “weird energy”, because they find him “somewhat threatening and erratic”. He can’t hold down a job or a place to live for long. Every time we see him again he has a new job or a new home or both. He is extremely paranoid, which is played for laughs. The squad responses to this are either “keep your mind open” (from Jake) or refusing to hang out or work with him because of his behaviour (from Terry). He has very little emotional or behavioural control, which is making his life hell, but the show treats these things as ‘just how Adrian is’, rather than as a result of his PTSD that could potentially be managed. This just comes across as very strange writing to me. They have established a real reason for Adrian’s PTSD, they constantly portray it disrupting his life: at a couple of points Adrian ends up homeless, he cannot keep down a job, he is constantly doing things that drive his friends away. They’re on their way to quite an interesting portrayal of mental illness. But they pull back from ever dealing with it as a real issue, assumedly because Adrian’s behaviour is more useful as the butt of the joke.

This attitude can be seen in other mental illnesses that appear within the squad. Terry’s issues with food are given a strong grounding in his memories of being bullied for being fat in his childhood, and his need to be a strong father to his daughters. The

catastrophic effect of his bad relationship with food is shown over and over again: he gains a bunch of weight very quickly as soon as he allows himself to have one chocolate-based indulgence; he goes on a diet with Amy and Gina, which seems to allow a maximum of 100 calories per meal; his body image is surprisingly poor, and he knows it – telling Boyle off for mentioning his weight because “clearly I’m going through something”. But his disordered eating useful to the writers as a joke, so the tone which they use to portray these destructive behaviours is uncomfortably light.

Even Holt, usually the moral compass of the squad, ends up using Amy’s anxiety against her to win the yearly Halloween Heist competition. He manipulates her into fearing he is angry with her so that she will leave her desk to have a “shame cigarette”. The fact they allow the moral heart of the show to do this without addressing it says to me the writers innately don’t understand why this, and the rest of the ways they address mental illness and disability, is wrong. 

In every other issue, Brooklyn Nine-Nine started strong and has fought to improve their politics and representation. They tied up Charles’ weird crush on Rosa, and had Charles apologise for his behaviour (though his apology is possibly not good enough). They made Rosa bisexual in response to the fans and the actress asking for it. More recently, they’ve explored the racism in the police force with sensitivity and nuance. I have hoped, with the start of each new season, the writers would have finally wised up in regard to disability. But they remain remarkably tone-deaf and seem unwilling to do any research. The result is a show in which mental illness isn’t dealt with – despite clearly being present – and physical disability is either a burden on the able-bodied people nearby, or the result of someone faking for personal advantage.

The writers clearly can’t deal with disability in any form, and, frankly, should hire either a disabled writer or a disabled sensitivity reader (or more than one!), and defer to them on everything to do with this, because they have shown themselves to be incapable of making the correct call on their own.

 

Thank you to @chr0nicallycute, @annieelainey, @painandcats_, and @msfridayology for granting me permission to link to their tweets.

If you are on twitter and not following and learning from any disabled activists I would recommend going out and finding some to follow.

Angharad is an autistic, non-binary, bisexual, Welsh Londoner. They have Crohns disease, depression, anxiety, and four family cats (also a budding friendship with some crows). They can be found on twitter at @angharad_esq.

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