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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SWTOR: Catching Up

The Jedi Under Siege Update has brought me back to SWTOR for another brief visit. I know, I’m a bit behind the curve. Things kept coming up. I played through the new story initially on my agent, but the return of Nadia Grell made this a perfect opportunity to finally bring my Jedi consular up to date, and that’s where the real story is, so let’s talk about that.

The Jedi and Sith do battle on Ossus in Star Wars: The Old RepublicThis will contain spoilers for all of the story to date, including Jedi Under Siege.

The downward slide:

When I’d left off, my Jedi had been about halfway through Knights of the Fallen Empire. Getting him caught up meant finishing off that expansion, Eternal Throne, and the subsequent patches.

I’d forgotten how good Eternal Throne was. Fallen Empire is good, but Eternal Throne is close to the best the game has ever been, rivaling and in some ways exceeding the best of the original class stories.

It’s a shame they couldn’t keep up that momentum.

I didn’t really notice so much at the time with months of time in between each update, but when you play through it all in one go, the drop-off in quality after Eternal Throne is stark. The War for Iokath is entirely forgettable, and the Traitor arc had some interesting ideas but is far too rushed to properly flesh any of them out.

This is a bit of a tangent, but can we also take this moment to acknowledge the fact that the Republic is the evil faction now?

My consular, Senya Tirall, and Arcann in Star Wars: The Old RepublicSeriously, the Republic’s been showing a shady side since Shadow of Revan (and arguably earlier depending on what story arcs you’ve played), but as of Eternal Throne onwards, they’re just the bad guys. The Empire has proven itself the more honourable faction time and again.

While the Republic was plotting a power grab to twist the Odessen Alliance to its own ends, Empress Acina was bargaining in good faith. While the Sith were fighting and dying to save Voss and ultimately liberate the galaxy, the Jedi were planting potatoes on Ossus and washing their hands of all responsibility. The Republic were the ones to fire the first shots on Iokath. The coming war is their fault.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, the Imperial loyalist in me isn’t going to complain about this smear on my enemies. On the other, I wanted the factions to be more gray, not for which is black and which is white to flip. I mean, I’m not saying the Empire doesn’t still have a very pronounced dark side (no pun intended), but they are clearly and decisively the better faction now.

When it came time to choose sides on my Jedi, I only picked Republic out of a desire for completionism. I really wanted to go Empire, and not just because of my personal preference. It’s objectively the right choice. Siding with the Republic after Eternal Throne means betraying a loyal ally (Acina) for people who spent the last five years abandoning and backstabbing you.

And that brings us to the latest story.

To Ossus:

The battle over Ossus in Star Wars: The Old RepublicThe trouble with Ossus is that it’s clearly the first part of a new story arc, and therefore hard to judge in isolation. When viewed as part of the larger whole, it might take on a new light. With that in mind, I try not to be too harsh, but right now I’m not exactly thrilled.

Obviously the headline here is that the war between the Empire and Republic is taking centre stage again. I don’t have the knee-jerk negative reaction to this faction conflict that I do to the endlessly tedious Alliance/Horde war in WoW, but it’s not something that thrills me, either.

The trouble with any story like this is that, as I have said before, neither side can ever really win or lose. The structure of the game prevents it. So it’s a conflict that has no real drama.

It worked in the base game because the faction war was just a backdrop for our class stories. We each had our individual stories to give us personal motivation, whether it be unmasking the Children of the Emperor or fighting to earn a place on the Dark Council. We need a similar hook or twist now to make things interesting, and while that might be coming later, Ossus doesn’t provide that. It feels like a side quest at best.

I’m also concerned that this may be too much an attempt to reset the story. I’m okay with taking the focus away from Zakuul and back to the base factions, but we can’t totally ignore recent events. Lana, Theron, the Alliance, and the war with Zakuul have all been too much a part of the game for too long to be swept under the rug. I really hope that’s not how this is going to play out.

My consular alongside fellow Jedi on Ossus in Star Wars: The Old RepublicOn a related note, what I find perhaps most concerning about Ossus is that it’s introducing so many new characters. That might not seem like a big issue, but one of SWTOR’s biggest problems is that it has an overly bloated cast and nowhere near the resources to give all the characters their due. And now they want to add even more characters to juggle?

Why?

It just shows really poor judgment on the part of the developers. And doubly so when you consider that so far none of the new characters are at all memorable or interesting. I’ve already forgotten most of their names.

Ossus is not entirely a write-off. When it’s not wasting time with faceless newbies I have no reason to care about, it does reintroduce some very beloved characters, though even with them there are stumbles.

Firstly, as trumpeted from the rooftops by Bioware for some reason, Darth Malgus is back. This frankly reeks of a marketing ploy. It comes totally out of the blue with no good explanation of how he survived, and the whole thing feels pretty silly.

That being said, Malgus is still one of the best characters in the game. Like Lana, he’s an excellent example of how to make Sith interesting, nuanced characters rather than mindless brutes. He’s as ruthless as you’d expect a Sith lord to be, but he also obviously cares deeply for the welfare of the Empire, and he’s thoughtful and pragmatic. I’ve always regretted that I wasn’t able to take his side in False Emperor, and he’s a character I’m happy to once more follow into battle.

Darth Malgus returns to conquer Ossus in Star Wars: The Old RepublicSo no matter how poorly handled his return might be, it’s still probably a net win for the game.

On the other side of things, we finally have Nadia back. That was, after all, the whole point of bringing my Jedi up to speed. He and his wife are reunited.

This also was not handled well. Of all the companions in the game, Nadia’s probably the one who was most well-equipped to track down the player when they went missing. She’s Force-bonded to you, she’s exceptionally strong in the Force, and she commands a sizable army. Her letter in Fallen Empire talks about how she’s on the warpath to get you back, and she has everything she needs to achieve that goal.

Ossus 100% ignores all of this. The Rift Alliance has apparently vanished into the aether (it’s not even mentioned), and it appears that Nadia gave up on finding you almost immediately and just buggered off to Ossus to farm with the rest of Jedi.

If you romance her, that’s also mostly ignored but for a few lines that could be interpreted as vaguely romantic if you squint and tilt your head. I was wondering if I was bugged and the game wasn’t recognizing the romance tag or something. Only at the very end do you get a very brief patch of dialogue in which you can choose to reaffirm your relationship.

All that being said, there is still a fair bit of Nadia in this patch, and Nadia is still an absolute and utter delight. I particularly enjoyed her effusive delight over what the Alliance had accomplished, and her truly inspiring vision for peace after the war.

My consular reunited with his wife, Nadia Grell, in Star Wars: The Old RepublicMan, we all need a Nadia or two in our lives.

It’s a long way from everything I wanted, but it’s good to have her back all the same.

* * *

So it’s not all bad news, but I can’t say I’m feeling very good about the state of SWTOR right now. I really hope that once Anthem launches and more resources are freed up things will improve.