On Being Represented

I’ve always been a big believer in the idea that representation matters in the media, but as a straight white guy, I’ve never really lacked for representation, so it’s a concept I mostly view in the abstract.

Lana Beniko in Star Wars: The Old RepublicHowever, there is the one major way in which I’m not not like the average guy, so in that way I don’t get to feel represented. Autistic characters in the media tend to be pretty rare. It occurred to me it might be interesting to do an analysis of those characters I have encountered that are either canonically autistic or perceived that way by fans and see how well they represent me.

A few caveats:

This is hardly an exhaustive list of autistic/autistic-seeming characters in the media. They’re just the ones I know. I don’t generally go looking for them. I already live with autism every day; I don’t crave it in my entertainment.

Second, I can of course only speak for myself, and not everyone on the spectrum everywhere. My opinions may not be shared by others with my condition.

Finally, I do wish to state that I am not drawing a comparison between my situation and the challenges faced by women or ethnic or sexual minorities. I do not believe there is an equivalence. As a heterosexual cisgender white man who can pass for normal on a limited basis, I still enjoy a great deal of systemic privilege.

Sylvia Tilly (Star Trek: Discovery):

I don’t think Tilly is autistic?

Mary Wiseman as Sylvia Tilly on Star Trek: DiscoveryHonestly, I was very surprised when I stumbled across this fan theory. I never got that vibe from her at all. Yes, she’s a bit socially awkward, but so are lots of people who aren’t on the spectrum, and aside from that nothing at all about Tilly points me in that direction.

She’s a fun character, and I like her, but I never saw her as autistic. It’s also worth noting neither the writers nor the actress see the character that way, either.

Cole and Sera (Dragon Age: Inquisition):

It quickly became clear to me when playing Inquisition that Cole was a stand-in for an autistic person, and upon doing some Google research I learned that yes, this was something the writers did deliberately.

This might be my overly literal autistic mind talking, but I feel that the fantasy element of Cole — that he’s a magical spirit and not a human — rather undermines any relevance he might have to real world people. He doesn’t feel representative of me or my experiences. He’s an interesting character, but not because of any parallels to the real world.

The one thing I will give credit to is that I feel they did a very good job of being even-handed around the story of whether to make Cole more human or more spirit, which is clearly meant to echo the real world debate over whether a hypothetical cure for autism would be ethical. Both options in the game are treated as valid and lead to happy endings for Cole, which I think is a good way to handle things. The debate gets pretty heated in reality.

My inquisitor and Sera in Dragon Age: InquisitionInterestingly, while researching Cole, I discovered there’s a significant number of fans who also headcanon Sera as being on the spectrum. That thought had never occurred to me, but I can see the argument.

Personally, I would say that Sera is not autistic because I think her weirdness is more the result of her upbringing and mystical powers rather than any fundamental aspect of her nature. Autistic people are born odd, whereas Sera is odd because of the life she’s had. Nature versus nurture.

That said, I will say that as an autistic person I see myself in Sera far, far more than I ever did in Cole, to the point where I’ve adopted her as something of a personal hero.

Sheldon Cooper (The Big Bang Theory):

The Big Bang Theory is an absolutely despicable show.

Yes, I know the writers say Sheldon isn’t autistic, but he’s certainly coded as such, and it seems to be how most people see him. And regardless of any specific diagnosis, Sheldon and the series as a whole are pretty much entirely devoted to making a mockery of people with social impairments. It’s a monument to casual cruelty and punching down; it’s blackface for the neurodivergent.

Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang TheoryIt is not at all an exaggeration to say that Sheldon Cooper is one of the biggest reasons I’ve been afraid to tell people about my condition. I feel like he’s how people will see me, as some sad clown that’s only there to be mocked or pitied.

Now if you’re a fan of the show, you’re probably getting hackles up right now, but I will say that liking The Big Bang Theory doesn’t make you a bad person. I’ve known good people who enjoy it, and most all of us enjoy things that may have problematic elements (for me, Warcraft’s less than stellar treatment of many of its female characters comes to mind). It doesn’t necessarily reflect on you as a person. I would, however, ask that people acknowledge how hurtful and damaging stereotypes like this can be.

Now, writing for The Big Bang Theory? That probably does make you a bad person.

Gilhaelith, Ulii, and sensitives (Three Worlds Cycle):

Interestingly Ian Irvine has a number of characters in his Three Worlds books with some degree of autistic traits.

Most obvious is the mancer Gilhaelith, who fits the profile to a T (almost to the point of being too stereotypical, honestly). He’s intelligent but socially awkward, he has narrow obsessive interests, he’s a fussy eater with gut issues…

A map of the continent of Lauralin on the world of Santhenar, setting of Ian Irvine's Three Worlds novelsBut there are other examples, too. The sensory issues of Ulii — to whom a whisper is a scream and a dim light is blinding — are very reminiscent of those people on the spectrum tend to experience. For a long time I couldn’t wear jeans because the fabric was so coarse to me it felt like wearing sandpaper pants. Meanwhile the extreme emotional states and intense imaginations of sensitives like Karan also have some familiarity for people like me.

I was curious if any of this was intentional, and then I realized that in this wondrous modern age it’s easy to get an answer to such a question. I messaged Ian Irvine on Facebook to ask if any of these characters were modeled after real world autistic people.

He told me that while none of his characters are written as autistic per se, he had done some reading on autism — such as the works of Temple Grandin — due to a family member on the spectrum, and that Ulii’s issues did draw some inspiration from that. Gilhaelith, meanwhile, is inspired by many of the scientists Mr. Irvine has worked with, some of whom may have been on the spectrum.

As for how I feel about these characters… it’s hard to say. I loved them at the time, but I hadn’t been diagnosed back then, so I might feel differently now. I should probably reread those books at some point.

I don’t expect my opinion would change too much, though. Especially where Ulii is concerned. I remember her being a really excellent character.

Sentinel Brin (Anthem):

Sentinel Brin in the MMO shooter AnthemBrin is not explicitly flagged as autistic in-game (I’m not sure Bastion even has the concept), but between her social awkwardness, her confusion around humour, her need for rules and structure, and her obsessive Crimson Lancer fandom, it’s pretty obvious. Also that thing she’s always doing with her hands is definitely a stim.

Part of me feels Brin is too much of a stereotype — she’s a bit of a caricature — but she’s also fairly adorable, and the game is quite good at making clear she’s a truly good person despite her odd mannerisms, so I’ll count her as a win overall. Whatever flaws her portrayal might have, she’s still easily my favourite Anthem character and the one that really makes me wish the game had romances.

Abed Nadir (Community):

Somewhat to my own surprise, I’m mostly okay with Abed.

He’s not perfect. In contrast to Sheldon Cooper, Abed tends to go to the opposite extreme and tend towards the “autism as a blessing in disguise” narrative, which I also loathe, and on the whole he does present a fairly sugar-coated view of the condition.

But it’s a comedy. A sitcom probably isn’t the place to look for a gritty, realistic portrayal of what living with autism is like. For a mainstream sitcom character, Abed does an admirable job of poking fun at our foibles without seeming mean or disrespectful, and sometimes the portayal is spot-on. Danny Pudi really nails the mannerisms.

Danny Pudi as Abed Nadir in Community“Your faces are changing. Are you angry or hungry?”

Brilliant.

Lana Beniko (Star Wars: The Old Republic):

Lana Beniko is by far and away the best representation of an autistic person I have seen in the media.

This is despite — or more likely because of — the fact the writers don’t seem to have actually intended to write her as an autistic character. Certainly nothing in the game flags her as such. It’s not even hinted at. Nonetheless, she possesses a remarkable number of autistic traits.

I think most striking is her stoic manner. I’m no expert on Star Wars lore, but as I understand it power in the Dark Side comes from emotion. “Through passion, I gain strength.” Therefore to be as powerful of a Sith as Lana is, she’d have to be an intensely passionate person.

But you almost never see that. Only rarely do you get fleeting glimpses of the feeling underneath. Most of the time, she seems very cold, almost robotic.

This is something that’s very true of people on the spectrum. We struggle to express our feelings in appropriate ways, so we often come across as cold or emotionless, but our inner emotional landscapes are at least as varied as the general population. Personally I’m fairly convinced we actually experience emotions more intensely than the average person.

Lana Beniko in Star Wars: The Old RepublicThere’s other things, too. She has a very stiff, formal way of speaking and writing. Following the events on Iokath, we learn that she has a very regimented daily schedule that she never deviates from. If you romance her, her feelings for the player character are clearly very intense, but at times you almost have to remind her to be affectionate.

These are all classic autistic traits.

It’s funny because I took an instant liking to Lana the moment I encountered her, but for a long time I didn’t understand why. There are plenty of more likable or entertaining characters in SWTOR, after all. Eventually I realized that it was because I saw myself reflected in her, but even then it took longer than it should have for me to grasp why I saw myself in her.

She’s like me. Fictional or not, she’s still likely the closest thing to a real peer I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t say it makes me feel less alone per se, but there is something about adventuring alongside her that is very reassuring.

The other great thing about Lana is that — perhaps because she was probably not consciously written as autistic — she isn’t stereotyped as “the autistic character.” She’s allowed to be a three-dimensional person who is not defined by her condition.

Lana is one of the main reasons I’ve stayed as loyal to SWTOR as I have, despite its many, many flaws. It’s just about the only place I can go to see someone like myself represented as something other than a shallow stereotype or a cautionary tale.

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7 thoughts on “On Being Represented

  1. I’m glad that you’ve said this about Sheldon Cooper. My sister was diagnosed with aspergers syndrome around the time Big Bang Theory was a couple of seasons in. I used to watch on and off. As I started to learn more about autism and aspergers I started to see so much of my sister in Sheldon, their mannerisms, the way they talk, their social interactions are just so incredibly similar. I’d never been a fan of the show, more just watching it if it was on but that really tilted me over the edge into disliking it. The way the other characters treat Sheldon in the show made me feel almost like it was attacks on my sister as well because I could imagine almost exactly the same situations happening to her. When I tell other people this though they don’t tend to see it and sort of wave it away as me being a bit over-sensitive about it, but I guess they don’t know her as well as I do so it’s more difficult for them to see. It just frustrates me that no one seems to see the show as problematic.

  2. Thanks for this! I love Brin so much and also cannot stand The Big Bang Theory for the exact reasons you gave. I hadn’t considered Cole and Sera before, so you’ve given me some new perspectives too!

  3. As someone who isn’t in any way directly affected by the representations therein, I have always been somewhat puzzled at the antipathy towards The Big Bang Theory in general and Sheldon in particular. I liked the show a lot in the first three seasons – can’t say after that because that’s a s far as I’ve watched it – and one of the main reasons I enjoyed it was how extremely likeable all the lead characters were, especially Sheldon.

    Sheldon seemed to me to be a complex, nuanced and intriguing character. He seemed to be good-hearted, genuine and loyal. In tv character terms he appeared to be the kind of person you’d want as a friend. Yes, he might have some annoying habits and quirks (don’t we all?) but you’d trust him to do the right thing when it counted. Since I find him so appealing and admirable it’s quite a surprise to learn that his character is so reviled.

    On the wider topic of representation of autistic spectrum characters in the media, while it may be true that there aren’t many in visual media, they have been an absolute go-to in novels pretty much ever since the huge success of Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime”. I have long since lost count of the novels I’ve read since then that feature a protagonist who exhibits an over-elaborate, unnuanced or literalist interpretation of social norms and/or conventional person-to-person communication. It’s a convenient trope for authors who want to highlight particular behaviors by means of irony and it’s so commonly used these days that I would call it a cliche.

    Some of those characters are very well-drawn. Some really aren’t. I hadn’t really thought about it before but it’s certainly true that I encounter them far less frequently in movies and tv than in prose. I’m not at all sure that that’s a bad thing.

    • I’ve only seen occasional episodes of TBBT, and I have no idea what season they’re from, but in my experience I’ve only seen Sheldon displayed as behaving like a child, and a very dysfunctional one at that. He always struck me as self-centered, unpardonably rude, and unstable, to the point where you wonder how he can possibly have a job or friends. On a bigger level, TBBT always struck me as a show where the social dysfunctions of the characters (Raj’s social anxiety also comes to mind) was something to be mocked rather than sympathized with. “Let’s all laugh at what losers these people are.”

      Contrast this to Abed from Community. They poke fun at his eccentricities often enough, but on the rarer occasions they address the more serious ways his disorder has affected him (his bullied youth, for instance), it’s never played for laughs.

      • Just as a general point, nothing to do with the main topic, I’d very strongly contend that no tv shows, dramatic or comedic, if they have a cast of continuing characters and a fixed setting (which, by definition, includes all sitcoms) can be meaningfully interpreted or assessed from randomly viewed episodes. They are always accretive and incremental, with character and backstory revealed in fragments over time.

        I’ve always watched a lot of sitcoms – I’m a huge fan of the form – and these days I watch them in runs on DVD or YouTube, meaning I see the entire arc of the show in a matter of weeks. Days, sometimes. At that accelerated pace the underlying personality of the characters (as well as the deeper themes and messages of the show) reveal themselves much more clearly than they did back when i watched them as they were broadcast, over a period of many years, with huge gaps lasting months. It’s very often evident that the writers take several seasons to get to grips with the characters and there are often inconsistencies and contradictions.

        It’s also the case that different Seasons can sometimes veer wildly off course due to different writing teams or directors. More often than not that means a deterioration towards the latter part of the run, although sometimes it’s the opposite. That, from what I’ve read, is what happened to The Big Bang Theory, in that the unexpectedly huge success of the show led to the middle seasons becoming much broader and coarser, something that is much more in line with the negative opinions I’ve read than the earlier seasons which I watched.

        In fact, the reason I have only seen the first three (or possibly four – I’d have to go back and check) seasons is that the first couple of episodes of the following season were so much coarser (and unfunny) than I expected that I stopped watching. It’s quite unusual for me to drop a sitcom I like in that way – usually I stick it out to the end even if there are diminishing returns, so it must have gotten pretty bad at that point. I can’t really remember those episodes but the earlier ones I still recall pretty well.

  4. I’m interested what you’d have to say about the show starring Kiefer Sutherland where his son (I believe) is autistic. I forgot the name. (Looked it up, it’s called Touch).
    I didn’t like it much, but I’m curious if you’d describe the depiction of the boy as somewhat realistic.

    • I haven’t seen it, and as I said, I don’t tend to seek out stories where autism is a major plot point. They rarely get it right, and either way it’s uncomfortable reminder of the painful reality of my life.

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