Freddie Highmore as Dr. Shaun Murphy in The Good Doctor

‘The Good Doctor’s Transphobic Past Has Resurfaced on Social Media

A 2018 episode of The Good Doctor has resurfaced, sparking discussion about the show’s handling of autistic and transgender characters. While the episode—season 1, episode 14, “She”—premiered five years ago, the show has been experiencing a resurgence on social media due to the viral “I am a surgeon” meme, taken from a scene in a 2019 episode. This renewed attention means that some of the more controversial aspects of the show are also receiving additional scrutiny, particularly regarding the show’s portrayal of autism and its alleged depiction of transphobia.

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For those unfamiliar with the series, The Good Doctor is a medical drama that premiered in 2017 and follows the career of Dr. Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore), a young autistic surgeon working at San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital. Dr. Murphy also has savant syndrome, which occurs when an individual with a developmental condition, such as autism, demonstrates extraordinary skills and talents. In Dr. Murphy’s case, he is a medical genius who boasts unique capabilities, including a photographic memory. The show delves into the struggles he faced in childhood and his medical career, as well as the discrimination he experiences due to his autism, despite being very capable and exceptionally skilled.

While gifted, The Good Doctor also tries to portray Dr. Murphy’s neurodivergence accurately. As a result, he still struggles with things like emotional intelligence and social cues, as well as with managing sensory overload. At times, his autism does impact how he interacts with patients and can lead to him asking questions that may be inappropriate or invasive without realizing it. This is because he’s always hyperfocused on finding a diagnosis and approaching everything in plain and logical terms. However, some feel that The Good Doctor may have taken this point a little too far when it depicted Dr. Murphy’s interactions with a transgender patient.

Why people are accusing The Good Doctor of transphobia

https://www.tiktok.com/@content.robot/video/7227081116224621851

The scene that sparked controversy occurs in the episode titled “She,” when a young transgender girl, Quinn (Sophie Giannamore), is admitted to the hospital for abdominal pain. When the topic of gender comes up, Quinn quickly explains to Dr. Murphy, Dr. Audrey Lim (Christina Chang), and Dr. Jared Kalu (Chuku Modu) that she identifies as a girl, which Dr. Lim and Dr. Kalu accept. However, Dr. Murphy interjects that she can’t be a girl because she has XY chromosomes. He concludes, “Science says he’s male.” When Dr. Kalu explains gender dysphoria to Dr. Murphy, he continues to insist that Quinn can’t be a girl. He even uses himself as an example, saying, “I’m not supposed to be anything. I am a boy. Biologically, that’s it.”

For the entirety of the two-minute scene, he continues to repeatedly misgender Quinn. He also begins interrogating Quinn about her enjoyment of girly things, saying that he wants to understand why Quinn “thinks he’s a girl.” When Dr. Kalu reprimands Dr. Murphy for disrespecting Quinn’s pronouns and asking her inappropriate questions, Murphy reveals that transgender patient care wasn’t a part of his medical curriculum. Still, it seems odd that a surgeon wouldn’t be familiar with the very concept of being transgender. Fortunately, by the end of the episode, Dr. Murphy has corrected his views on gender identity and accepted Quinn as a girl. Despite this conclusion, many still felt the original scene was distasteful.

Is The Good Doctor transphobic?

Sophie Giannamore as Quinn in The Good Doctor
(ABC)

As the scene circulated on social media, many accused The Good Doctor of being transphobic. Even if it is meant to merely depict the difficulty that Dr. Murphy has in understanding his transgender patient, the scene does repeat very tired transphobic arguments about biology and science. Having someone who is considered a genius deny the possibility of being transgender and repeat an ideology often expressed by transphobic bigots is very problematic.

Plus, aside from some light reprimands, there aren’t consequences for Dr. Murphy’s blatant disrespect of a patient’s pronouns. Some users on social media erroneously claimed that the “I am a surgeon” meme is related to the “She” episode and depicts Murphy being fired for his transphobia. However, the meme is wholly unrelated to “She,” and Murphy was not fired or disciplined at all for his unprofessional behavior—an aspect some viewed as The Good Doctor saying that neurodivergence is an excuse for being transphobic, or that those who don’t understand gender identity aren’t required to educate themselves or be respectful. Others also mentioned that conservatives are already using the scene completely out of context to try to back up their own discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community.

https://twitter.com/ghostsatelier/status/1655899922171039744

Social media users also slammed The Good Doctor for just assuming that this is how an autistic individual would respond to a transgender individual. First of all, there’s no way to really determine how autistic individuals would respond to the idea of gender identity. No two individuals on the spectrum are the same, so trying to imply that Dr. Murphy’s transphobia is a direct result of being autistic is very inaccurate. This ties into wider concerns that viewers have about the show’s depiction of autism. After all, The Good Doctor centers on an autistic individual, but he’s portrayed by a neurotypical actor. All of the writers, directors, and producers on the series are neurotypical (though, as Slate noted in 2017, some of the show’s visual effects crew were enrolled in a training program for young adults with autism). Suggesting that Dr. Murphy wouldn’t understand gender identity is just one example of the ways the show decides how neurodivergent individuals think, feel, and respond to the world without even consulting them.

Others didn’t find the scene to be problematic since Dr. Murphy changes in the end, but some pointed out that this wasn’t the most sensitive way to depict a redemption arc. The consensus seems to be that The Good Doctor’s depiction of Dr. Murphy’s interactions with a transgender patient was very poorly handled, both because the blatant transphobia is difficult to watch and because of how inaccurate and potentially harmful its portrayal of autism is in that scene. However, there’s little indication that Dr. Murphy’s statements actually represent the views of the writers and creators behind the show. After all, Dr. Murphy’s co-workers and the patient are all very quick to correct him, and the episode makes it clear that his views are wrong.

Saying that The Good Doctor as a whole is transphobic may be inaccurate, but its decision to make an autistic doctor transphobic shows quite plainly why neurotypical individuals shouldn’t be writing about and portraying those on the spectrum.

(featured image: ABC)


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Rachel Ulatowski
Rachel Ulatowski is a Staff Writer for The Mary Sue, who frequently covers DC, Marvel, Star Wars, literature, and celebrity news. She has over three years of experience in the digital media and entertainment industry, and her works can also be found on Screen Rant, JustWatch, and Tell-Tale TV. She enjoys running, reading, snarking on YouTube personalities, and working on her future novel when she's not writing professionally. You can find more of her writing on Twitter at @RachelUlatowski.