Context Matters: On Labels and Responsibility

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“[Character] isn’t autistic. They’re just a person.”

I find decontextualizing autistically coded characters both offensive and fallacious.

Let’s take The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper as an example many people will be familiar with, although bear in mind that this phenomenon is applicable to any autistically coded character in any medium and genre. (If you’re not familiar with TBBT, a quick YouTube search can provide a handful of Sheldon-centric clips from the show, complete with a stale laugh track to illustrate just how funny his personality is intended to be.)

Here is a character who is obviously coded as autistic, so much so that his behaviors often tip over into autistic caricature. And therein lies the rub. When the question of Sheldon’s possible autism came up, producer Bill Prady made it clear he feels that Sheldon…

“…certainly has traits in common with people with Asperger’s, [but Prady]would feel uncomfortable labeling Sheldon as such. In the writers’ minds, calling it Asperger’s creates too much of a burden to get the details right. There’s also the danger that the other characters’ insults about Sheldon’s behavior–in other words, 90 percent of the show’s comedy–would seem mean if they were mocking a medical condition as opposed to generic eccentricity. In general, it’s more responsibility than they feel a relatively light comedy can handle.” –Alan Sepinwall

So, yes. Caricature it is, stripped of context. In this case, it’s all in the name of comedy, but it can and does happen in the name of entertainment of any stripe. Sidelining the issue does not erase it.

In the case of our Sheldon example, the creators want us to believe that humor should not be undermined by weightier issues, but comedy is no more immune to critique and context than any other genre, nor should it be. Besides, why is autism even seen as a grave, weighty issue rather than a normal aspect of life? Wanting to depict a character as “just a person” without labeling their neuroatypicality does not strip authors or their stories of responsibility.

Fictional characters exist to be consumed by real people, and real people live on the autism spectrum. Characterization, regardless of label or lack thereof, regardless of genre, has a real impact on these real people, myself included. Content creators must understand that they can be answerable for that impact. When they render a character into their world wearing an entire suit of autistic behaviors, reactions, and needs, responsibility-dodging only serves to hurt the population they’re representing, whether they wanted their work to be representative of that population or not.

The difference between “generic eccentricity” and a formal diagnosis is just that–formal diagnosis. It seems absurd that it bears stating, but a person on the autism spectrum is on the spectrum even before they are diagnosed. Similarly, bullying is bullying regardless of when diagnosis/identification occurs–and, yes, even if it never occurs.

I was diagnosed on the spectrum as an adult, but the nature of being on the spectrum is that I always was. And I can see that when I look back at my adolescence. I was not less autistic when I was a child because I hadn’t yet been diagnosed. If I had never been diagnosed, I would not be less autistic.

Yes, I am “just a person.” But being “just a person” is not separate from my being autistic. I am who I am, in part, because of my autism. I would not be the same person if I were neurotypical. I would not be the same person if I’d been raised elsewhere. I would not be the same person if I were not biracial. I would not be the same person if I hadn’t been taught the value of science, or visited Disney World as a child, or watched Star Trek, or thumbed through picture books of dogs.

Aspects of a person’s being can’t be swept under the rug by denying labels with a shrug and a saccharine smile. Eschewing labels does not equate dodging responsibility, and mistreatment done in ignorance is still mistreatment. That goes for the actions of fictional characters and writers’ intentions alike. When autistically coded characters are dismissed as eccentric and worthy of disdain, it reinforces the idea that we are just being difficult. When the people around autistically coded characters are portrayed as Atlas-like martyrs for enduring such a burden, that is doing real harm to real autistic people. Media matters. Media influences, shapes, and deepens perspectives on real issues.

In the Sheldon example, it’s clear he isn’t being difficult because he can’t be bothered to conform. He is struggling to exist in a culture that is poorly suited to the way he functions. The tension between individual need and cultural context can result in the kind of abrasive temperament we see in Sheldon and many other autistically coded characters across genres. What I see in these abrasive character reactions isn’t a difficult narcissist, but a person who is distressed and receiving very little support from the people around them. Whether we’re talking about a comedy or contemporary kidlit or science fiction, these portrayals hit close to home, even when they’re attempted caricatures. People like me–like so many real individuals–are being laughed at, not laughed with, and our behaviors are ballooned into extremes all the while.

Sheldon is clearly neuroatypical, regardless of whether he is specifically autistic. Taken in this context–a context that is provided by the show–his friends’ open mockery and disdain of his “quirks” is cruelty masked as humor. I can think of few things less hilarious than watching someone verbally abused by their friends. He is a tiresome thing to be dealt with (and aren’t his friends such saints for doing so?) more often than he is a human being worthy of respect and compassion. It is possible to treat autistic characters with respect without divesting media of humor; this is not the insurmountable creative hurdle the show’s creators have suggested it to be.

Mistreating a person for their autistic “eccentricities” hardly seems like the pinnacle of comedy. Nor is it, say, “just quirky” to give a Manic Pixie Dream Girl other neuroatypical behaviors and refuse to address the reality of the conditions authors may be drawing from. Shirking responsibility in an attempt to avoid potential blame for getting things wrong is a gross denial of the ethical weight of representation in the media. That ethical weight is there, regardless of whether authors want to ignore it. It’s also blatant erasure to deny the nature of their character’s neuroatypicality.

Be better than those authors. Be someone who wants to do right by the very real human beings who are being represented by the way you frame your characters. Be someone who does not reject the possibility of overtly labeling your characters’ mental illnesses, disorders, and syndromes out of a desire to avoid responsibility.

If you want to create content for public consumption, you are responsible.



About Author

Jacqueline Koyanagi

Jacqueline Koyanagi is a science fiction and fantasy author who lives in a landscape made of pages and ink and words, howling with her dog between chapters, chewing the sky and picking stars from between her teeth. Her debut science-fantasy novel, Ascension, is available in stores and online booksellers, and she also has a piece in Haikasoru's Phantasm Japan.

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8 Comments

  1. Thank you for posting this. My son and I are both on the autistic spectrum, and we both suffer from co-morbid conditions that are, in large part, triggered by the behaviour of non sympathetic neurotypicals. My son suffers from social anxiety, I suffer from depression and anxiety. These things, more than our autism, make life hard to navigate. We were both bullied at school, I was bullied at university, at work, by ‘friends’ (who I now realise were taking advantage of me) and by family (who though I was just putting it on and should try harder not to be ‘weird’)

    My son goes to a college with strong support for people on the spectrum, and his learning has flourished in a more sympathetic environment. He has managed to make friends, including some neurotypicals, who are better educated than their parents are. He still endures bullying and mockery on a daily basis (while taking the bus to college, when eating out with his friends, when walking down the street) and that is still impacting on him. Bullying is bullying, no matter how funny people think it is.

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  3. This was really well written, thank you for sharing it. TBBT has made me uncomfortable…since the beginning, really.

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