Autism In Media Part Two: To Label or not to Label

A few months ago I wrote an article about how important it is to have Autistic actors portray Autistic characters in media. Now I am back with a follow-up article where instead of discussing the actors behind Autistic characters, I want to discuss the characters themselves and how often when characters are labelled as Autistic, they somehow become less relatable. I hope I am not becoming too repetitive with this blog, yet I have always wanted to keep these articles Autism-focused and for some reason media studies is really interesting to me right now, this article also feels like a more polite rebuttal to the family member watching The Good Doctor as I write this.

I have often been told that I focus too much on my label as an Autistic person, people tell me that I allow it to define me too much. Let me explain what a label has meant from my perspective. Imagine always feeling like a total weirdo, like you were never meant to “fit in” to use an over-used term. Imagine having zero understanding of it. Then imagine someone tells you this “weirdness” has a label, Forget-me-not, for the sake of using something more universal. Calling this weirdness Forget-me-not does not make the weirdness go away. Instead it makes you feel less “weird”, because it has a label and that means that other people must understand, all of a sudden you have proof that you are not alone. Although you may be feel a million and one emotions, relief is perhaps the most dominant. That was what my diagnoses was like for me.

For the sake of fairness as I have actually dedicated time to watching these shows at some point or another, I am going to focus on two specific portrayals of Autistic characters, Shaun Murphy, from The Good Doctor and Sam Gardner, from Atypical and I would like to compare them to two neurotypical characters who I have found infinitely more relatable, Gregory House, from House and Rebecca Bunch from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

When The Good Doctor first aired in 2017, I was hopeful as I always am whenever I hear about a tv-show or movie about an Autistic person. Of course from the outset it has a few glaring problems, one, the actor playing Shaun Murphy, Freddie Highmore is neurotypical, a problem I have already discussed. The character is also a straight-white-man. I do not mean to be a liberal-snowflake complaining about straight-white-men in media but come on, if all you all knew about Autism came from portrayals in the media, it would be easy to believe that Autism does not effect any other group in society. The last problem I had was that Shaun Murphy is also depicted as having Savant-Syndrome which makes him such a genius doctor. While it is true that many people with Savant-Syndrome are Autistic, thanks to films like Rain Man, when it comes to Autism, characters also having this incredibly genius-like quality are largely over-represented. Many of the opinions I have about Atypical are similar to those that I have about The Good Doctor. Once again, a neurotypical actor is playing a straight-white-male Autistic character. One thing which I will compliment the writers of Atypical for, is that after criticism in the show’s first season about issues surrounding representation, they added Autistic actors into the second season as minor characters.

If there is one particular criticism I have about these shows is that neither Shaun Murphy or Sam Gardner are in any way relatable. The drama and entertaining aspects of the series come either the storylines involving supporting characters or how those supporting characters interact with the main one. The Autistic characters don’t feel like real people. Both shows fail to communicate the real and intense pain and emotion that an Autistic person can feel. Both characters can sometimes lack a certain self-awareness that many Autistic people have. We know that we are different and we know that our behaviour can sometimes make us a huge pain to be around and we know that mainstream society rejects us. While I do think that both shows try and convey this inner trauma but I think they really struggle to portray it in a way that is human. This is when I refer to the title of this article and say that sometimes I feel as if that when a character is labelled as Autistic, the writers and actor can become so focused on portraying the textbook-definition of Autism with a list of various symptoms that they can forget to portray the most important part, our humanity.

House is a show with plenty of things in common with The Good Doctor. David Shore was involved in the development of both shows, which are also both medical shows. A few actors from House have also had minor roles on The Good Doctor. The central characters of both shows are also brilliant doctors. If there was one thing I liked in particular about Gregory House is that he is not meant to be a redeemable character. He is a selfish, misanthropic drug-addict who is terrible to both his colleagues and his friends. He has numerous characteristics that are common in Autism, a lack of understanding when it comes to social rules and a resistance to change and yet it is stated out rightly that he is not Autistic. In some ways, this allowed the character freedom to be defined by an accurate portrayal and despite his many negative characteristics, he is still sympathetic as the viewer is given access to the pain he suffers. He is still irredeemable but unlike a lot of Autistic characters, he is certainly three-dimensional.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a perfect show and everyone needs to watch it on Netflix once they have finished reading this. It is an incredibly clever TV show that makes a perfect comment on tropes so common in TV, while not being so satirical that you cannot route for the characters. I love it so much, this article started life as basically being me just writing about how perfect it is. The main character, Rebecca Bunch is extremely relatable to everyone. Although in later seasons she is given a diagnoses that is not Autism, I include her in this article as she engages in behaviour that as an Autistic girl trying to navigate a difficult social climate, I can really understand. In many ways she represents most people at some point in their lives when they are vulnerable socially and need help that they are not getting. The show also has wonderful musical numbers that give insight into what the characters are feeling at that moment in time in a way that makes the show almost feel like a Broadway musical. One song in particular, A Diagnoses struck a chord with me. Although the diagnoses that Rebecca receives is not the same as mine, the song perfectly speaks to relief I wrote about earlier in this article. If a television writer wanted to make a show with a more human portrayal of Autism, they could learn a lot from Rachel Bloom who co-created Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and stars as Rebecca.

Well it is coming to the end of my article. I must apologise for the length. This is a topic I could happily write a whole book about but for now I really like using this blog to explore my opinions and ideas. I would like to add a sort of disclaimer and say that I am aware that I only used two particular portrayals of Autism. They were the ones that I felt best demonstrated my arguments and were best representative of portrayals of Autism as a whole. Now that you have hiked to the top of the mountain that is this article, I recommend abseiling down by getting on Netflix and binging Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I promise you will not regret it.

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