Fighting with the Sky

'Bones' and Invisible Disability

Posted on: October 27, 2009

This cross-post comes from the Feminist Scribbler.  Feminist Scribbler is a woman with multiple invisible disabilities.  She lives in Washington, DC with her hyper border collie mix.  Her creativity flows best when she is painting watercolors or setting off on adventurous walks with her dog.  You can reach her on Twitter @FeministScriblr or by emailing

bones-museum-emily_dlInspired by Ouyang Dan’s post at FWD/Forward on the TV character, Dr. House and his interactions with his co-workers regarding his disability, I decided to take a closer look at the TV show, Bones, and the character of Dr. Temperance Brennan, a brilliant forensic anthropologist, who has a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome.

To be clear, Brennan’s Asperger’s is never directly mentioned by her co-workers.  Her social awkwardness, typical of the syndrome, is frequently the punchline of jokes or leads to the reptition of one of Brennan’s favorite phrases, “I don’t know what that means.”  However in interviews, Emily Deschanel, the talented actress who plays Brennan, often states that her character does have a mild form of Asperger’s.

The lack of awareness Brennan’s co-workers show about her Asperger’s leads me to believe it could be considered an invisible disability.  At first glance, Brennan appears “normal” and the only way her co-workers would know about her Asperger’s is if she tells them and then proceeds to advocate for her unique needs.  In fact, she has made steps towards self-advocation already, at one point last season asking her psychologist, Dr. Lance Sweets, to help her understand social cues and to read facial expressions.

However, her other co-workers’ understanding of her disability – especially FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth’s – still remains rather murky.  For example, after being asked by Brennan to be the father of her child – Booth confides to a co-worker that a child would be good for Brennan because it would help her to become more ‘personable.’  Now, if Booth had a true understanding of Brennan’s Asperger’s, he would know that a child would not be a ‘cure’ for all her struggles with social awkwardness and personability.  (Also, I think this statement harks back to the Victorian era thinking that for women – children are the solution to many ailments i.e. hysteria, depression – but that’s a post for another day.)

Yes, all characters need to grow and change – but instead of pushing Brennan toward the marriage/baby route – a plot twist I never liked, preferring the Brennan non-marriage/childfree, feminist stance portrayed so wonderfully in the seasons 1-3 – why not show Brennan becoming more vocal about her invisible disability – why not mention it by name!  And in turn, have her co-workers display true compassion and understanding rather than always cracking jokes about it.

Perhaps my expectations are too high – as Allie from Epic-Fail rightly points out in her recent post – the show’s writers aren’t exactly known for putting forth Emmy caliber material, so asking them to explore the suble nuances and struggle of a woman and her invisible disability experience may be asking a bit much for this lighthearted (and sometimes corny) dramedy.  But, one can always hope, right?

17 Responses to "'Bones' and Invisible Disability"

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Laura, Fairand Feminist. Fairand Feminist said: I love bones, never realized this! RT @YFemAdventures ‘Bones’ and Invisible Disability […]

I suppose mild is the right word. They don’t show Brennan having problems processing sensory information (aside from the mentioned facial/kinesic cues) or being dysphasic or responding to difficulties with withdrawal or self-harm or rage. It’s a nice autism.

Mine’s not nice right now. It’s not letting me speak much. When my compulsions are frustrated I panic. I’m angry and unhappy and I feel very alone. So, bitter. Distrustful.

I’m so annoyed by how Asperger’s is portrayed on televisions. We either see this “nice autism” version that you discuss, or the freaky let’s-make-fun-of-the-poor-loser version (a prime example is the Wally Stevens character who appeared a couple of times on Law & Order: CI).

It would make sense for any one who wants to talk about us, people with Asperger’s, to educate themselves about what we are, what we do, and how we feel. I cringe every time the word Asperger’s is said on television because I know that soem uneducated garbage is forthcoming.

It’s so nice to hear from someone else who is kicking and screaming about the baby/love plot.

kaninchenzero makes an important part about “nice autism,” too. I always have to wonder on shows like this…are the writers seriously just making stuff up? They can’t have actually consulted any people with disabilities…right?

You make a good point too about bringing up her disability and actually addressing it. As it is, I think that most viewers don’t actually realize what’s going on, and it reinforces the idea that it’s A-OK to make fun of people who process information/emotions/situations differently. Maybe if they showed Brennan talking about her disability and requesting accommodation and respect, viewers would be getting a better takeaway message from the show.

As it is, this show has really been pissing me off lately.

As much as I dislike the diagnosis-makes-it-real centering of conversations on disability, acknowledging that Brennan has a known cognitive variation might be a good start. Sweets — he’s a psychologist for fuck’s sake — could be a good way to get the information into the conversation among the other characters especially Booth.

Without that and the corollary that the variation itself is not something that needs to be cured (though parts of it that are distressing to the person with that variant* can be mitigated with therapies and training and coping mechanisms ((and, yes, sometimes drugs))) the portrayal stays at Brennan is just weird and awkward and the onus for change — to become normal (and especially to become ‘softer’ and more feminine-performative and romantic and open to Booth’s advances) — remains on her.

Which is where I’ve spent most of my life and it sucks and I hate it. I’m not an unbiased observer. (I wonder, sometimes, how one could get a diagnosis as an adult. The system is flawed and damaging to the people in it but it’s still the system that exists and while we’re trying to change it we still need to get what we can from what there is. Meh.)

And yeah I hated the baby plot too. Which I believe I’ve mentioned in other comments here and elsewhere so I’ll skip that rant.

* Parts of it that are distressing to other people I don’t care so much about. If the person with the cognitive variant wants to do something about them, fine, but I don’t think they should be forced to do anything for someone else’s comfort.

I agree with you, kaninchenzero – it really annoys me how the show’s writers portray Brennan as the one needing to change. In my mind, her character (at least in season’s 1-3) was great as is – and it’s her co-workers who need to do the growing.

Thank you for posting this! It helped me learn a little about Asperger’s and also become more intrigued about Bones. I have so far resisted the temptation to watch the show but I think I will have to succumb.

I do have a question, though: Did you watch any of the Lily storyline on All My Children and did you think it was accurate?


Danine, no – I never saw the Lily story line on All My Children. I did find the wikipedia link to it: The description seemed like it was a “nice autism” portrayal similar to what kaninchenzero mentioned above…

While Brennan appears to have mild Asperger’s, it does take a trained clinician to differentiate between mild Asperger’s and a patient who suffers from severe psychological trauma.

Brennan’s childhood, as revealed over the last four seasons, is indicative of having experienced severe trauma (ie, being locked in a car for 2 days because she broke a dish).

Consequently, IMO, “the jury’s out” as to whether or not Brennan suffers from mild AS or trauma. I suspect the show’s writers haven’t made the “diagnosis” as yet, either.

Good on them, because, having worked with people who have either AS or have suffered from psychological trauma, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference!

I love Temperance Brennan just the way she is. Whatever her “diagnosis” is supposed to be, she’s a great character, absolutely does not need a baby nor should have one, and her quirks are no better or worse than Quincy’s slobbery. Let her be!!!! Sure, she’s not perfectly smooth. Good for her!! How many people are?? Just because every other godammned character on that show and on every other show on TV has perfect skin and figure and plays well with others (except for House, and he gets a pass, mysteriously, because what – he’s a good diagnostician? No excuse for how he treats Cuddy!!) does not mean the occasional difference is some kind of problem, let alone freak show.

Why so quick to say that it must be Aspergers. She is just a little different, and has faced many traumas in her life. There are plenty of people out there who are just introverted that doesn’t mean they are disabled.

This is really reaching trying to make this a disability issue while there is more than plenty of evidence to the contrary in the show.

I for one am hesitant to consider that she has Asperger’s because I do not like assumption that if a woman is not very social and is awkward, she must have been traumatized or has a mental disability. Booth jokes that Brennan isn’t really female, because her personality does not neatly fit the gender stereotype. If she was a man, people would not suspect that Brennan has Asberger’s.

I rejoiced when I first discovered Bones because when TV depicts intelligent women, they tend to make them very emotional, like Angela. Yes, Brennan misses some cues and is brusque at times, but I firmly believe that if her character was male, Brennan would be considered just very logical, honest, and practical (if negative, Brennan would be considered a stereotypical insensitive man). If a female character is not warm, caring, nurturing, etc. people believe that it must be a psychological issue.

Because people who have suffered trauma are normal people; bad things happened to them through no fault of theirs. Normal people can imagine bad things happening to them. And since they’re fundamentally normal they’re potentially fixable — Brennan could be made more personable, more feminine-performative, more interested romantically/sexually in Booth.

Autism isn’t fixable and is objectively very, very bad with no positive aspects. It’s an excuse for bad behavior. Just ask all the people agitating against mainstreaming, for cures, against vaccination policies.

Just don’t ask people with autism spectrum disorders. The people who can tell you an answer aren’t really autistic; parents and caregivers speak for those who can’t.

@RJ8888 – is that necessarily true, that a male Bones wouldn’t be considered someone with Asperger’s? Because Zack Addy was essentially a male Bones, and I always got the sense that he, too, was considered as something other than merely “logical, honest, and practical.” It’s been so long since I’ve seen an episode that Zack was in that I’m having a hard time coming up with examples.

Frankly, Brennan’s character as a socially awkward person is so fake I’ve never even seriously considered autism. Why? A woman who doesn’t know what freaking club music is…somehow manages to wear meticulously put together outfits, perfect makeup, perfect hair, cutting-edge fashionista. There’s nothing wrong with being a fashionista… but fashion is a social cue observance.

Sometimes I feel like Brennan is kind of an asshole, who gets away with saying the things she does because she’s smart. She likes to invaludate people by pointing out personal flaws about them. She deeply hurts people and often refuses to admit she’s wrong because she’s “right”. On the other hand, no one ever turns around and throws in her face how disfunctional she is because of her past. Brennan is something of an intellectual bully and it sickens me the way she’s allowed to get away with this behavior.

I agree, the show’s writers never clearly spelled out the reasons for Brennan’s social awkwardness. (Is it mild Asperger’s/neuroatypicality/childhood trauma?)- it’s all debatable. My intent was not to focus on labeling Brennan with a diagnosis, but rather to highlight Brennan’s co-workers’ insensitivity to her needs as an individual. In Season 4,when Brennan asked Sweets for help in understanding facial expressions/social cues – one hopes this would have been met by her co-workers with increased acceptance/compassion for Brennan as an individual- not continued ridicule or increased pressure from her co-workers (particularly Booth) to make efforts to “adapt” and become more “normal”.

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