April Post 11: Autism Portrayals in Media 

Much of the Autism Awareness talk has died down by now. Even the store displays are showing the leftovers from puzzle piece junk, like keychains and stuff.  

I’ve decided to talk about an issue that seems to plague the portrayals of autistic people in the media. The fact is, nobody is listening to anybody else about how people really are. I know for a fact that it plagues all portrayals, but I am focusing on autism here. I have struggled to find a similar portrayal that falls far short – and needs somebody to explain to these people how – and I found it in Japanese Engrish.  

I’m only giving you this link to the site because it is very offensive, not only to English speakers, but it makes the Japanese look like morons, just because they don’t know the ins and outs that native English speakers do. Now, it’s kind of like this Japanese Engrish unlearnedness that plagues portrayals of autism in the media. Many of us autistic people find most portrayals offensive. So far, the best portrayal I can find is Billy Cranston in the new Power Rangers movie. Otherwise, even little Julia from Sesame Street has some traits that offend autistic people. This comes from people not listening to those of us with autism. 

Now, tell me: would you rather have a portrayal of autism that is accurate and tasteful, or an autism portrayal that is like Japanese Engrish?

April Post 2: Calming Down 

I must admit, that last post was mostly reactionary. It’s terrifying to know you’re the worst-case scenario for a lot of people. Well, maybe they don’t quite know about me. I don’t want to be all hate and vitriol. It’s really dragging my blog down into a negative space. Perhaps we need a new and more accurate version of autism; not one that’s all doom and gloom. That is just why I have decided to mention the new, for 2017, Blue Power Ranger. Billy does a LOT of good things for autistic people, and I haven’t even seen the movie yet! First of all, Billy is a Power Ranger. He is a member of a superhero team. I hear he even contributes to the team’s success. If we can contribute something to the success of humanity, please, let us know. Oh, and another thing: Billy is the Blue Power Ranger. I must admit, I was a little scared that Autism Speaks might take that as a clue to hijack him, but Billy is too positive an image for Autism Speaks’ anti-autistic rhetoric. I mean, Billy contributes to the Power Rangers’ success! That, according to Autism Speaks, that cannot be. To them, autism is the enemy. So, unless Autism Speaks gets itself together and accepts autistic people as they are, then Billy is taking the color blue back from them. And that is the upside of the blue Power Ranger.

Getting the Portrayal Wrong 

I’m remembering a really bad movie I saw last year: Zoolander 2. More importantly, I’m remembering the Razzie award-nominated portrayal of All, the supposedly gender fluid model in an earlier portion of the movie. This is in no way a defense of the portrayal. This is an explanation of what actually is wrong with the portrayals that come up with marginalized people, especially if those specific people are not involved. The problem is this: the portrayal that does not involve actual research, involving actual people, is usually stereotyped, flat, often deviant, and almost always wrong.

Does anybody remember the 1988 movie “Rain Man?” I know that you are probably groaning right now, considering my regular readership. Most autistic people hate Rain Man and many subsequent portrayals of autism that do not involve the actually autistic. This “Rain Man” is a perfect example of what I say – that a first and many subsequent portrayals that are not involving actually autistic people. The only portrayals of an autistic person I have liked are the one by Claire Danes, of Temple Grandin, and Dr. Latham from Chicago Med. (I’m currently wavering on Dr. Latham – it seems a little checklist-driven.) The point is, a person from the margins of society must be involved for the portrayal to be whole. My problems with most portrayals is this:

Stereotypes and Deviancy

My initial problem with a marginalized portrayal is that it’s usually based on stereotypes. Remember the portrayals of blacks in the 1930s? They were usually a Mammy, a singer, or someone usually incompetent. Don’t get me started on how the black female romantic lead had to be light-skinned – or white-looking. Usually, the dark-skinned black person was regulated to the role of prostitute or criminal. It’s sad that I have to look to the 21st Century to see Viola Davis in non-criminal roles – and her resume is not even criminal free (How to Get Away With Murder, anyone?). How long before a regular actor of dark skin can escape portraying a criminal?

Wrongness

It’s absolutely necessary to note, back in Rain Man, that the man who is the real-life inspiration behind the “gold standard” for autism portrayal, diagnosis and future study, was not even autistic. He had FG Syndrome, a genetic anomaly on his chromosomes. It mimics autism, but it is not autism. The reason I look at Claire Danes’ portrayal of Temple Grandin is because it was much more accurate in showing how autism can actually give a different world experience, and might actually – GASP!!! – help the person. It’s a shame that a person along the margins of society cannot be given a proper portrayal unless they come out of the closet and show people how they are.

The Problem

The problem with all this is: people rely on portrayals of others and their own experiences to believe the person when they come out as, say, autistic, or gay, or even with anxiety. Due to these inaccurate portrayals of the trait or condition, they usually do not believe an autistic person unless they act like Rain Man, of more appropriately, “my cousin’s uncle’s brother’s sister’s former roommate’s son – he is autistic.” The autistic person has to literally justify their diagnosis. They have to lower their competency to be believed. They have to act like Rain Man.

Disability is Not a Costume 

I am coming off a brilliant performance of Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III in “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses,” a sort of Shakespeare showcase of linked historical plays. I am happy he did the performance; he did it well. What I am not happy about is that soon it will be put into the long history of abled actors donning disability like a costume, as if they can really draw upon direct experience.

It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly is disturbing me about abled actors portraying disability. Is it the lack of direct experience? Is it the donning and doffing of disability like a regular Halloween costume? Is it the presumption that we actually disabled can really do that? Or is it that it seems like a version of a white person doing blackface? Maybe it’s as if we actual disabled are not good enough to provide our own voices. Why is that? If the mathematicians in “Hidden Figures” were played by white women in “black makeup,” would it not cause outrage due to the casting? Yet, because we are disabled, such outrageous assumptions like stupidity, incompetence and inability to act are foisted upon us, causing the “need” for abled actors to don disabilities like costumes, only to toss them off later. It’s a terrible thing to consider; that I’m not good enough to provide my own voice. Does anybody else want to feel this way?

Now, I can sense some people think I’m picking on Benedict Cumberbatch. That is not my aim. I just hope that he had at least one or more consultants who could put a sense of competence into his performance. I think he did; see, when his Richard III is on horseback or in battle, he is just as elegant and competent with the horse and sword as his brothers. It seems like light is breaking through, but I’m not so sure.

My aim is simply this: to help people to understand that, at the end of the day, real disabled people still feel shunned by the film industry, unless it is reality TV aimed specifically at showcasing disabilities, like A&E’s “Born This Way,” about people with Down Syndrome. With my known condition, and the glacial pace that the film industry is moving, it’s going to be a long time before I really feel represented in film, beyond the inaccurate portrayal by Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man.” Oh, how I wish I could shed that image!

Musings on Stigma and Ableism 

I once had a friend who preferred going in and out of mental health hospitals to actually taking mental health medicine. When we confronted her about it, she felt that the medicine was “stupid” and would still not take it. I suspect, however, that there was something else at work in her brain. It somehow reminds me of country star Mindy McCready, who eventually committed suicide after learning she had been living with a mental illness. I myself am not immune to this type of thinking. I have had trouble with concealing my autism as well as revealing it. This kind of tension should not be. I mean, it’s a choice between “You’re a Weirdo and We Don’t Like You” or “You Poor Unfortunate Soul! We Still Don’t Like You!” So what am I supposed to do? I confront stigma and ableism on a daily basis.

When “The Accountant” came out with its cold-blooded killer “autistic savant,” I confronted stigma. When I see people deciding not to vaccinate their children because they don’t want said children to be like me, I feel stigma. When I was told “You suffer from nothing” by a (former) friend, I confront stigma. While I mostly act neurotypical, when I don’t, I am told either explicitly or implicitly that I “know better” and I ABSOLUTELY MUST ACT NEUROTYPICAL for the sake of other neurotypicals. I am never allowed to be my autistic self, unless I am completely alone or with only my mother. It is a vicious cycle. It seems that without my mother or the internet, I would be completely alone with nobody to understand me or my condition. I am considering moving to a low-income area near a center focusing specifically on autistics after my mother passes on, to be honest.

Don’t even get me started on the ableism I got from my sisters. For example, if I did any stimming at all, I was yelled at to stop. I was often told to sit down and shut up. They mocked me for sitting on my hands to stop the stimming; but that was the only way. Of course, after my sisters unceremoniously sent me back to my mother after telling her I was a horrible person, I had to pay back Social Security thousands of dollars due to their handling of all my money. Of course, they will deny all this. Anyway, abuse is a common effect of ableism and stigma.

Let me explain why I put ableism and stigma together. They work together. Stigma about having something wrong with you feeds discrimination for the  able bodied and able minded. The neglect of people to, say, allow an access for a wheelchair-bound person feeds the inability for that person to be there, even if they are the person of honor at the event! Hopefully, my mother won’t need to speak at church; she can’t even get up on the stage. Oh, and another thing about stage access: If you see my disability as an “acting challenge” that you can put on as if it were simply a costume, you are wrong. Can you draw on being disabled yourself, “Rain Man” actor Dustin Hoffman? DO you know what it’s like to live with the pity, “Ray” actor Jamie Foxx? Can you handle constantly being told your kind is a scourge to be eradicated, Daniel Day-Lewis? No, because nobody ever asked us what it was really like to be us! In Hollywood, we disabled are a forgotten bunch of sideshow freaks cordoned off from the main attraction, hid in the back to be feared and pitied at the same time. We are too scary to be on TV, unless you treat our disability as a costume. I hope someday your disabled performances are as offensive to us disabled as blackface is. I digress; my point is, ableism and stigma are connected; they’re practically siblings.

What can we do with my friend who used to cycle in and out of mental hospitals due to the stigma of taking care of your mental health? Self-care is not a glamorous spa experience. How can we say “There is nothing wrong with taking your medicine,” when we as a society mock and ostracize people who take medicine? How can we say “We want you at our protest/ceremony/place of worship” when they can’t get either in the door or on the stage? How can we, and this is a personal one, say we are supporting autistic people when we will not take a measure or two to prevent sensory overload or meltdown? Society, we need to change. We need to not view disability or mental illness as a moral weakness or failure. (This viewpoint dates back to Biblical times, as does Jesus’ response: John 9) I hope we can before the disabled do what other marginalized groups are doing: resorting to their most frightening stereotypes.

Black Bart and the Unseen Enemy

Blazing_Saddles_inline_-_Gene_and_Cleavon.jpgI am a fan of “Blazing Saddles.” Yes, the 1974 movie about a black sheriff taming a Western town. There, I said it. It is one of my favorite movies concerning prejudice. It gives the lesson with a good spoonful of sugar. In case you missed it, the racial lessons are the medicine, and comedy is the sugar. Not to say that “Blazing Saddles” is perfect. For example, there is a lot of mockery of gays, especially gay men, plus tossing around of homophobic slurs. (Personally, I do not find them funny.) That is not to devalue the lessons in “Blazing Saddles.” As I said, it was made in 1974.

The warning of “Blazing Saddles” is that the societal ill of racism is elusive, and must be defeated in order to defeat the enemies. It is the fatal flaw that the townsfolk must overcome. The nature of the unacknowledged societal ill is plenty displayed. It works like a malevolent ghost, waiting for the right time to strike, and strike it does, in the form of the sheriff’s general treatment by the townsfolk. Of course, it takes the striking down of racism in the townsfolk’s hearts to save the town. Watch it for how it works.

Unfortunately, in real life, that ideal has not happened yet. It’s still 1874 in some people’s hearts. What some people think about racism – that it was over in 2008 – and what is going on – that it went underground only to resurface with some misguided permission – are markedly different. Racism is a poltergeist.