Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Recap: The Fosters: 5x17 - 5x19 (Stef)

If you've followed our recaps for a while now, you might notice these final 3 differ from what we usually do.  We thought instead of doing line-by-line analyses, we'd answer a few questions for each of the characters we have featured here for our Fosters recaps.  Look for our thoughts on Grace and Jesus in the final three episodes in the coming weeks: 

Did you like Stef's anxiety / PTSD storyline?  Why or why not?

Tonia:  I both liked it and I didn't.

I liked it because it was much needed representation for the LGBTQ+ community and the specific anxiety and PTSD they go through.  I also liked seeing Stef touch base with Brandon finally about how it was not his responsibility to take care of her with regard to her panic attacks.  That was a much needed conversation.  I was also glad that in Stef's talk with her dad, he didn't tell her everything she wanted to hear from him.  I found that realistic.  I really liked seeing Stef and Lena finally talk to each other and connect.  I've missed that.

But I maintain that it hurt having Stef receive support she needed while Jesus, Grace and even Mariana never received support they needed.  It also bothered me seeing that the person who so supported Stef (her mom) was one of those who refused to accept her growing up.  Confusing mixed messages. And not a safe person to have a panic attack in front of IMO, even though Sharon knew what to do.  

And finally, it bothered me that Frank urged Stef that "when [you] truly believe that [there's nothing wrong with you] maybe the shitty things that I said and did won't matter so much.  And maybe you'll remember all the things I did right."

To me, though realistic, Frank is asking Stef to accept herself (even though he never did, which is so damaging for a child) and focus on the good things is harmful.  To me, this is an attempt to mitigate the legitimate trauma that Stef has endured - in large part - due to her father's lack of acceptance. It's unfair to her, and unlikely to "cure" any of her anxiety issues.  It will likely give her more.

Tara:  I did like that the show chose to portray the realities of living with anxiety.  We got to see many different facets of anxiety - even different presentations of panic attacks.  I liked that, through Brandon, we learned that Stef has been living with anxiety and/or PTSD for years.  It's not necessarily something easily overcome or forgotten.

However, I did notice that Stef was only shown as living with anxiety when it was convenient to the storyline.  It was not something that was ever able to be successfully integrated into the character.  Instead, on the retreat, we are led to believe that Stef cures herself of her anxiety and / or PTSD through confronting the ghost of her father (and largely, letting him off the hook for his harmful behavior).  Those parts were disappointing to me.

Did you notice any harmful disability tropes, inspiration porn themes or other stereotypes in Stef's portrayal in 5x17 - 5x19?  If so, which ones?

Tonia:  Yes!  I noticed EPIPHANY THERAPY - the epiphany can be seen in this scene below:  

Though Stef did have therapy - we saw one session in an earlier episode - it seems like the root of all of he anxiety and trauma is fixed or cured by talking to the ghost of her dad and being able to say she loves herself.  

In reality, PTSD is complex and one conversation / realization is likely not going to fix the issues Stef has going on.  It is realistically one of the first steps on a long (sometimes lifelong) journey to recovery.  

It can absolutely feel like it comes on suddenly, but I feel like - from a writing standpoint - the inclination was to tie up the Stef/anxiety storyline with a bow.  And poof, now she can magically communicate with Lena and do what she needs to do at work and quit her job.

So that by the end?  There is no trace of her anxiety.

Tara:  The main trope I noticed was EPIPHANY THERAPY.  Through Stef's talk with the ghost of her father, her mental health issues are all but cured in 5x18. This trope supports the idea that Love Cures Disability.  It does not let people with these conditions and / or disabilities know that it is not only okay but normal to have them for an extended period of time - maybe even a lifetime.  This trope contributes to shame around mental health issues.

Would you have done anything differently with Stef's anxiety / PTSD storyline?

Tonia:  I think a lot was done very right.  I think it's obvious that there were authentic voices in the writer's room for this aspect.  Because the majority of the way it was portrayed felt realistic and respectful.  Anxiety / PTSD was one aspect of Stef's character that gradually grew bigger and bigger until it was tough to control.

The one thing I would have done differently is attempt to "fix" everything about this storyline in one fell swoop.  It can send a dangerous message if people think that one conversation or realization should fix their anxiety or trauma issues.  (Often other symptoms accompany these like self harm or eating disorders that require a lifetime of vigilence to maintain recovery.)

I would have liked to see Stef learning to cope with her anxiety and panic after the fact.  Maybe see her able to talk to Lena about it and Lena able to support Stef in whatever next step Stef needed to take.  Seeing family support (by peers, not the children) is vitally important, and we saw very little of this.  So I would like to have seen Stef and Lena communicating and Stef being supported by Lena (and any other peer she might choose) because a lifetime's worth of trauma is not just going to vanish.

Tara:  I would emphasize that mental health issues are often lifelong - so seeing Stef doing things like going to therapy, taking medication and discussing her feelings with Lena would be more evenly sprinkled throughout the season.  If the Ghost Dad conversation needed to be had, it could be used more as a jumping-off point to begin to identify and work through pain, rather than an insinuation that the conversation itself cured her.  Ultimately, I would have liked to show that Stef was able to accept that mental health issues are part of her life, and to show that she was able to take steps toward managing that part of her life in a more balanced way.

What did you think about Stef's storyline in the last three episodes?  Did you notice any disability tropes?  Would you have done anything differently?  Let us know in the comments.


  1. I think a lot of what you mentioned in the episodes with Stef is happening because its the last season. They may not feel they have the screen time to show long term adaptation, though they probably could. Looking forward to the Jesus part of this format for reviews.

    1. Well they skipped forward years into the future so they could have shown something. I just am frustrated that they felt so compelled to "fix" it all...and not, instead, shown something of Stef adapting or Lena supporting her with her anxiety (which we almost never got to see.)

      I guess there is still the final three episodes this summer, but I am not holding my breath.