When People Use Diversity to Defend Sameness in Autism Narratives

“It’s just one story” or so people keep telling me when I protest the lack of diversity in both autism narratives and characters in the media. The thing is that’s exactly the problem.

Film and television have basically been writing fan fiction about the same autistic character in different scenarios for decades.

This character is invariably white

The Good Doctor

Image Description: Promotional poster for the upcoming ABC show The Good Doctor. The title appears in blue over a grainy black and white image of half of series star Freddie Highmore’s face (he is a young white man with dark hair). In contrast to the black and white, his eyes are a vibrant blue.

Male

Adam

Image description: a still from the film Adam where actress Rose Burne (a thin white woman with brown hair pulled up in a messy bun) sits on a bench facing and speaking to Hugh Dancy (a white man with wavy brown hair), the autistic character who is sitting faced forward rather than toward the person speaking to him

Have savant-like abilities

rain man

Image description: Cover art for the Rain Man soundtrack. Dustin Hoffman (a white man with dark hair) who plays the autistic savant walks down a path beside Tom Cruise (a white man with dark hair) who walks with his right hand in his pocket while he carries a bag in his left

There is generally very little deviation. Occasionally, overt savantism is replaced with a special skill or focus as in the case of the film Adam. These minor changes are however not meaningful.Savantism and special or focused skills are treated as almost interchangeable personality quirks.

You will very rarely see and autistic character who is not white and even more rarely see one who isn’t male. These characteristics extend beyond the acknowledged autistic character to those who are merely coded autistic. Those whose behaviour and traits are largely indistinguishable from those of the acknowledged autistic character. The only difference is a lack of stated diagnosis. Examples of such characters include Sheldon cooper on The Big Bang Theory and Spencer Reed on Criminal Minds.

Think I’m exaggerating? I made a chart

Title Character Diagnosed Coded Savant-like Abilities White Male
A Brilliant Young Mind Nathan Ellis Y Y Y Y
My Name is Khan Rizvan Khan Y Y
The Accountant Christian Wolff Y Y Y Y
Rain Man Raymond Babbit Y Y Y Y
Mercury Rising Simon Lynch Y Y Y Y
TBBT Sheldon Cooper Y Y Y Y
Adam Adam Y Y Y
Criminal Minds Spencer Reed Y Y Y Y
Elementary Fiona Y Y Y
Young Sheldon Sheldon Cooper Y Y Y Y
The Good Doctor Shaun Murphy Y Y Y Y

It’s not an exhaustive list but it is an informative one. Seriously, if you come across an autistic character in film or television plug them into this chart and see how many boxes get ticked. Another thing that all of the characters have in common. They were all played by neurotypical actors.

And yet, when I wrote yesterday about the continuation of this single white male autistic narrative in the new show The Good Doctor, I was met with this

one story

Image description: a screenshot of a tweet that reads “People with autism take many forms, faces, and stories. this is just one. Showing that capability isn’t exclusive is so important!” (link to original tweet)

I have a couple of problems with this sentiment. First, it is not just one story. It is pretty much the only story we are told. For this to be an accurate defence, there would need to be evidence that there were other narratives available. Where are they? Second, is it really an accurate story. Another common defence of tired repeated disability narratives is “well some people are really like that“. I am however sceptical about the existence of a man with ridiculous medical skills and genius level proficiency in several areas. I’ll wait while you find me a real life stand in for this imagined magical autistic white man.

It is true that Rain Man character Raymond Babbit (though not the story) was loosely based on actual savant Kim Peake (who was not himself autistic) but even then it was more a mishmash of diagnostic traits than a portrayal of the man.

These characters have a fictionalized kind of autism that focus on rare traits like savantism and then sprinkle in more common traits like sensitivity to noise and difficulty with eye contact so that people see enough recognizable autistic traits to get away with an authenticity defence to tell basically the same man’s story over and over. They just put him in different scenarios. The biggest change in autistic characters overall is that they’ve become cuter (if they’re children) or fuckable (if they’re men). Though actually having sex is rare for these characters. They’ve mostly just gotten hotter. This switch to a more appealing autistic male is generally to use their savantism or special skill as a consolation prize. Sure, he’s autistic but it makes him a fabulous doctor and he’ll save that kid’s life.

This leaves little room for autistic stories where savantism or special skills don’t counteract the perceived unpleasantness of the autism for a predominantly neurotypical audience.

Despite this, there is still the idea that stories about marginalized populations should be “authentic” which is where the “This is just one story” line gets pulled out like a weapon to defend these all too similar stories.

During the promotion phase prior to the release of The Accountant, actor, Anna Kendrick

admits she initially had concerns about whether the film would be able to represent autism in an accurate and nuanced way.

“A friend of mine has an autistic child, and I was so worried about telling her I was going to do a movie with this subject matter and potentially getting it wrong,” she said. “She was like, ‘I’m going to tell you something that somebody told me when my son was diagnosed: When you’ve met one autistic child, you’ve met one autistic child. To have an expectation that he should act this way or you should act that way — don’t even worry about that. Everyone is different.’”

It is both unfortunate that this line is being used by people in the entertainment industry as a promotion tactic. It is also unfortunate that a parent with an autistic child helped her do it.

The phrase “if you’ve met one autistic child, you’ve met one autistic child” was meant to indicate the true diversity of the autistic experience. Not be used as a blunt object to defend a film about yet another magical white autistic man. It does not mean “Do whatever, you want. Autism is basically whatever you want it to be”. Though that is how the entertainment industry interprets it.

Seriously, the next time someone defends a fictional autistic narrative through the diversity of autism. It had better actually be a story I haven’t seen before.

And can we just please put a moratorium on putting white men in those stories because the real diversity of autism goes well beyond diagnostic traits.

 

 

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Inspiration Porn is Not Progress, It’s a New Kind of Oppression

We’ve all seen the images. Those pictures of disabled people succeeding. They tend to fall into two general categories.

Disabled people particularly children doing everyday activities. This is often accompanied by quotes like “the only disability in life is a bad attitude”

The other uses images of disabled people doing something noteworthy like reaching a high level of athletic ability or physical fitness, with taglines like “your excuse is invalid” or “What was your excuse again”

The point of these images is to ostensibly put a positive spin on disability. Josephine Fairley argues that inspiration porn must be progress because it takes a topic which has most often been viewed negatively and puts a positive spin on it. The positivity then outweighs the patronizing tone that so often comes along with these images.

The problem is that positivity does not actually equal progress. Particularly for a group that has so often been viewed through a lens of charity. First though, let’s look at the actual messages that are most often put forward.

1. The only disability in life is a bad attitude

Here I will defer to the amazing Stella Young

Stella Young quote

“The reason that’s bullshit is… No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. No amount of standing in the middle of a bookshelf and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books to braille”

While it is true that the disabled experience has often been perceived as an existance of unending suffering and that it is important to challenge that stereotype. Framing the disabled experience as being defined only by the attitude of the disabled person lets the nondisabled majority off the hook. How disability is experienced is not just a physical experience but a socially constructed one. This line of thinking allows the oppressor to be comfortable about not challenging the fact the the world is fundamentally not built for disabled people, even where adaptations exist, they are often not available. Braille has existed for over a century and yet materials in Braille are not widely or readily available. Often they must be requested.

We essentially went from a worldview where it was acceptable to segregate and neglect disabled people, which then supported our current inaccessible society to one where segregation is less acceptable but the world remains inaccessible. Making disability about attitude allows people to ignore the existing and new physical and social structures that continue to exclude disabled people. It simply maintains the old exclusionary society but blames it on the oppressed group for not figuring out how to be included.

2. “Your excuse in invalid” or What’s your excuse again?”

These slogans are often with images of disabled people achieving noteworthy things like becoming paralympians or gaining an above average level of fitness. It is certainly true that there need to be success stories for disabled people in the media. They have the dual benefit of showing other disabled people what is possible and breaking down stereotypes. These stories however need to have context. Acheiving athleticism as a disabled person is not as simple as wanting it and then going for it. There are often major barriers so in answer to the second question, there are no excuses but some very good reasons.

Opportunities for disabled people to participate in sports or other athletics (dancing, skating, etc) are not plentiful. We can’t just show up at our local gym and expect to have comprehensive training tailored to our individual needs for two reasons. First, tailor made training is expensive, coincidentally being disabled is often exensive. Add to that, that disabled people are disproportionately likely to live in poverty. Second, assuming the first isn’t an issue, you need a trainer who will work with your specific needs and limitations. These people are hard to find. A disabled person is more likely to be refused access to a training facility outright even if they only want to use it recreationally. Classes designed specifically for disabled people are often in groups so getting individual attention is hard. Also these courses are often thinly veiled physio therapy sessions that are more concerned with getting us moving than getting us to succeed at whatever the class is. If we manage to get in the classes for nondisabled people we are often left to flounder with no individual support or even become victims of abuse if we fail to participate at the same level.

So success stories are important but so to is the context. How did they pay for training? Where did they find a coach? What barriers did they face and how were they dealt with?

Yes I know, inspiration porn is more for the nondisabled consumer than the disabled one so many of the barriers don’t exist for the intended audience but the lack of context raises expectations for disabled people who don’t live up to that standard. It creates a value based binary of those who succeed and those who don’t without looking at why some people can’t succeed. The message for those who don’t is “You didn’t try hard enough” not “let’s make it easier for you to succeed”.

Coming back to Fairley’s argument that anything positive is progress. This argument is pretty weak because good intentions don’t equal good outcomes. The battle for human rights cannot be boiled down to “It’s the thought that counts”. In the fight for equality it is not the thought that count, it’s the results that count. Positive feelings that reinforce old oppressions are nothing but a new face for an old wrong.

Disability rights activists are not the only marginalized group to take aim at this lie. We currently live in a society where rights are discussed more freely and allies from outside the marginalized group are lining up to help. Unfortunately sometimes their good intentions do more harm then good. This has led to a lot of discussion of how to be a good ally and addressing the common problems that voices of privilege brings to discussions of oppression.

So this is not a new problem or one that is unique to disability rights activism but it is one that is slightly more complicated in the realm of disability. We don’t just have allies, we are also stuck with advocates. People who don’t even pretend to stand with us but instead position themselves to speak for us. This is because of the long history of disability charities. It has long been and continues to be considered acceptable for charities to dictate how disability should be perceived and dealt with. Often without the input of disabled people either in the design or implementation of these organizations (Autism Speaks, Neil Squire Society to name a couple). We are still very deeply contained in a social mentality that we need to be saved by the well meaning who then get tax rebates for donations. Charities always frame what they do as positive and helpful even when the people who are the intended recipients disagree. Consider the newly cancelled MDA telethon that provoked protests for years but only began to lose sway after Jerry Lewis stopped hosting the event. Former MDA poster child Emily Wolinsky even helped found a competing organization that addressed issues ignored by MDA.

The false positivity of inspiration porn is just another tool to keep disabled people in a place that is controlled and defined by nondisabled people. It does nothing but reinforce old stereotypes of laziness and robs disabled people of accurate representation in the media by coopting our stories for the consumption of others.

Hey DC Comics and The Flash, Diversity Covers Disability Too!

The following post contains spoilers for the CW show The Flash

Television shows based on DC Comics generally do pretty well in representing women and people of colour. In fact cast members and the creative team of The Flash recently patted themselves on the back for this. But the Flash has a problem with disability and it’s not because they’re ignoring it. In the show there are two kinds of disabled people. Those who have mental illnesses and those who are faking it. Both cases leaves much to be desired in terms of accurate portrayal.

In the case of mental illness, the problem is that all those characters are villains and their madness contributes to their crimes. In the episode Tricksters, the two criminals are a father son team, who blow things up and poison masses of people. They do the first simply to sow fear and the second to extort money. Greed however is not their driving motive. The motive really boils down to “they’re crazy”. This plot device requires that people accept mental illness as a source of danger to others. It also requires mental illness to exist in a vacuum where actions are driven only by illness and no other social forces. In reality people with mental illnesses are far more likely to be the victims of crime than the perpetrators of it. When they do commit crimes, it is rarely for so simple a reason as their illness. The Flash is far from the only show on television that does this.

The CW’s other DC comics inspired Arrow has done it too. Carrie Cutter AKA Cupid, has an unhealthy obsession with the Arrow and begins killing people to get his attention. Even after she is caught, no one seems to think treatment is necessary. She is instead placed in a covert group of villains turned weapons of the state, her obsession continues unchecked. It is not just super hero franchises that exploit these fallacies. Lazy police procedurals often throw in a mentally ill perpetrator when they need a convenient motive.

I know that film and television based on comic books are supposed to be fantastical and are not meant to mimic reality. I know that madness creates a convenient excuse for elaborate logic defying situations which add tension and are visually interesting. That does not excuse how problematic it is to equate mental illness with danger. The other issue of the Flash is the complete lack of disabled characters with the exception of Eobard Thawne who is impersonating the deceased Harrison Wells and faking his need to use a wheelchair. First off gotta give the creators ability to think outside the box by using a white dude in a wheelchair. That’s very unique.

Prof Xlink

Artie  link

04-raymond-burr-ironsidelink

The idea that disability is diverse both in physical presentation, race and gender is often lost on creators of television. All those actors are also able-bodied. Disabled people tend to have their stories told. They don’t get to tell their own stories.

Yes, yes, I know Eobard Thawne isn’t really paralyzed and could not actually be played by a wheelchair user. The fakeness of the disability is its own problem. Disability in film and television is rarely complicated. The characters usually embody very specific stereotypes that fit into the following general descriptions; victim, saint or villain. Disability is often the driving factor in these characterizations. In media, fictitious portrayals of disability rarely get more complicated. Put another way, if you removed the disability, the character would cease to have a point in the story. These stereotypes are rarely indicators of real life experiences of disability and usually are used as metaphors. For the purpose of critiquing the Flash, it is important to understand the idea of disability as villainous. Disability and evil are closely connected in film. Villains in the James Bond franchise are so frequently disabled or disfigured that the producers unapologeticly refer to it as a plot device. If a disabled person shows up, you know they’re bad.

This trend predates Bond. It was used extensively in the Frankenstein film franchise. In the first film in 1931, the character Fritz is introduced. He is an obviously disabled man (described as a dwarf in Bride of Frankenstein). Though in reality is played by an able-bodied man walking around bent at the waist. He is the monster’s first victim. He is killed in retaliation for his unnecessary and gleeful abuse of the creature. In the next two films he is replaced by Igor who has a visibly broken neck, having survived a hanging attempt after being sentenced for grave robbery. He is as inexplicably evil as Fritz was. In more recent films, consider Elijah Price/ Mr. Glass in Unbreakable. His disability is literally the inspiration for his crimes. The fact that there is such a clear and continued history of disability=evil in film is problematic at best. It tells people that it is ok or even rational to be scared of physical and mental difference.

By having Eobard Thawne’s paralysis be fake, the Flash is taking it one step further. Disability isn’t real it’s a metaphor for hidden evil. Thawne also capitalizes on the stereotype of disability as victimhood to achieve his nefarious goals. He counts on people underestimating him or accepting that his paralysis is a just punishment for the explosion at Star Labs that killed many people. For a show that so publicly prides itself on nuanced portrayals of people of colour, sexuality and gender, they are more than willing to throw disabled people under the bus.

The thing is, they don’t even need to change the existing framework of the show to improve. They just have to add nuance. They could add characters with real disabilities  (preferably played by actual disabled people) who just exist. Iris could have a coworker or coworkers at the paper with disability. There could be disabled extras in the background at Jitters just to show that disabled people exist outside the dichotomy of victim or villain. By just adding non fake or non stereotyped characters with disabilities they would not only challenge the stereotypes so common to the media, they could also use it to highlight just how awful Eobard Thawne really is.