The problem with misrepresentation

Maura Kelly, Opinion Columnist

Popular media frequently attempts to spread awareness on a variety of mental and neurological differences that people experience. In today’s commercialist society, these differences are easily capitalized upon. Oftentimes in the media, individuals who struggle with psychiatric or developmental disorders are stereotyped or portrayed inaccurately. For example, a common misconception is that the great majority of mentally ill individuals are violent and unpredictable and have a slim chance of accessing treatment and reaching their full potential – this is, of course, untrue. This stigma engulfing pop culture and “othering” people depicts innocent people as dangerous. 

Now, I’m not the poster child for media consumption. In fact, my roommate is frequently appalled by the lack of movies I have seen. However, I did dip my toe into the pond that is the Netflix series “Atypical.” 

Creating a single, “true” story of autism in the media is an impossible task, one that we should not strive for. Autism is a spectrum, and no two people will follow the same trajectory.

Upon my first encounter, I liked “Atypical.” But I also like “The Bachelor,” so I like shitty television. This is not to say that I think “Atypical” is a shitty piece of work. I believe it had good intentions and holds some accurate educational purposes depicting autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to inform non-autistic individuals. My main gripe with the show is that Keir Gilchrist, the actor who plays Sam, the main character, is not autistic. I feel this undermines the show’s credibility and makes me a tad uncomfortable. 

Matthew Rozsa, who has ASD, wrote in his review of “Atypical” that Sam is a “high-functioning Aspie,” a term reappropriated from ableist culture. Rozsa goes on to argue that characters like Sam are “almost everywhere in pop culture these days, nearly always as a white, heterosexual male.” Sam’s character is sweet, intelligent, driven and funny, yet he still fits into the archetype of a comedic relief character placed into the show merely for viewers’ enjoyment. Rozsa, who has written about the topic of dating on the spectrum, describes the way in which Sam’s dating life is “violent, creepy, cruel and make[s] the autistic character seem like a monster.” When we are made to pity Sam, that distinction makes the character that much more offensive. When it is asserted that individuals “with neurological conditions shouldn’t be held accountable for hurting others, [it] is as patronizing as it is socially irresponsible,” concludes Rozsa.

I appreciate that “Atypical” centered around Sam. I thought a lot of the plotlines and characters were cliché and underdeveloped. I think “Atypical” tried its best. It had some good moments and was a step in the right direction toward a more realistic portrayal of autism in pop culture. 

However, I can’t let the opportunity pass me by to write about reality dating on television, more specifically, “Love on the Spectrum.” We’ve all seen it before: people go on a show to “find love,” but really the directors just make a shit ton of money, some people get famous, we watch as the drama unfolds and we grunt in frustration at the cliffhangers and previews. Some may call this a tired trope that’s overdone, but I enjoy it nonetheless.

I approached “Love on the Spectrum” with an open mind and fell in love with many of the contestants by the end of the season. They are refreshingly honest, respectful and sweet beyond belief. But, there was an undercurrent of guilt and uneasiness as I was watching. Sometimes I would feel unsure if the audience was meant to be laughing with the autistic person, or at them. 

Okay, let’s talk about Sia’s movie. I didn’t watch it, and I don’t think I will be watching it ever. But, my friend recommended that I watch the trailer to see the way Maddie Zeigler (“Dance Moms'” very own) portrayed an autistic person. Now, I’m trying to imagine the inside of Maddie Zeigler’s brain and what she could have possibly been thinking to make her think this representation would be okay. I think Maddie Zeigler, Sia and Kate Hudson need to evaluate their actions a little further. And seriously, just cast autistic individuals in autistic roles. Is it that difficult?