Born This Way
TV Series Review
When I was a kid growing up in New Mexico, my classmates and I sometimes saw children with Down syndrome being led across the campus to their own, isolated school.
We'd stop to watch the slow procession, staring. We never talked to them. It never occurred to any of us that we could or should. They were different than us. We pitied them. Feared them a little, as if their condition was contagious.
Those were less sensitive times. We know better now. But sometimes, I don't think we react much better. Perhaps the prejudice isn't as overt as it once was, but it's still there. Many people, when meeting someone with Down syndrome, don't know what to say or do. They're confused, maybe a little frightened. You're not like me.
Except that that's not true. Not really.
That's the beautiful, inspirational message at the center of Born This Way, a reality show on A&E.
The program focuses on seven young adults with Down syndrome and their parents, most of whom live in California. They're a diverse bunch: Steven is a movie aficionado. Best friend Sean calls himself a "ladies' man." Megan has her own tie-dye business and attends college in Colorado. Rachel works at an insurance company. Cristina's engaged to be married. John likes to rap. Elena enjoys cooking. Really, the main thing they share with each other is that they each have extra chromosomes in their bodies—chromosome 21.
Well, that and their mutual affection for each other. They have their spats, of course: This is a reality show, after all. But while most other reality programs are predicated on interpersonal tension—everything from Survivor and The Amazing Race to The Real Housewives shows—Born This Way is far more about friendship than friction.
In fact, the remarkable thing about this show is how unremarkable it is. No one gets drunk and passes out on the beach. No car windshields are smashed, no chairs are thrown out windows. The main players are just determined to do what we all do: They go to school. They look for jobs. They flirt. They watch movies. They strive for independence. They struggle with insecurities and heartache. They look for someone they can spend the rest of their lives with. The folks featured in Born This Way are, in most respects, very much like anyone else.
And sometimes, that's where the show can run into problems. Because naturally, they have many of the same flaws and run into the same temptations that we do.
Not All Great
On a recent episode, Steven said he typically didn't like dating women with Down syndrome much because they're preoccupied with love and marriage. "I think more about sex than marriage," he admits. His wasn't a one-off moment, either: Characters with Down syndrome and their parents contemplate the role that sex might play in their lives with, if not regularity, at least with enough frequency to be noticeable . Some of our protagonists swear. And even when the show's central characters don't stray from the straight-and-narrow, there's no guarantee that those around them won't. (Rachel's brother, for instance, encourages Rachel to twerk at an upcoming formal dance. Rachel says that the dance is no place for twerking: She'll save that, she says, for her wedding.)
But while the edges of Born This Way can be rough, the heart is good. Indeed, this may be the most pro-life show on the air.
These Lives Matter
It's difficult to say how many babies are aborted because they have Down syndrome. A recent study suggested the rate in the United States was about 30%. Others allege the rate could be as high as 90%. But there's no question that, when an expectant mother learns that the child in her womb might be disabled, there's a greater chance that the child will never be born. And even while we might not agree with that decision, I think most of us understand, at least, the struggle behind it. It's a shock to contemplate raising a disabled child—one who might be dependent on you for the rest of your life. So many unexpected challenges must be faced. So many dreams you might've had for your child vanish with just that one diagnosis.
"But guess what?" says one of the moms in Born This Way. "There can be different dreams."
Mothers and fathers talk on the show about what a joy their children are. How they, the parents, have become much better people because of their kids. And when we see the dignity, humor and flat-out joy these young adults live out their lives, we understand. We smile. We might even call their parents lucky.