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Aspergirls and Intersectional Others

This essay is the third post from’s current “Writer in Residence” Stephen Totterdell. This is a series which sees us introduce a new writer to’s readers with the contributor free to write about whatever they like once it’s loosely centred around cinema in some form. Read other pieces in the series here.

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The imperfect Mozart and the Whale (above) selects an incisive point about its female Asperger character. Isabelle’s Asperger’s disguises itself behind the tropes of such personality types as the Quirky Girl. If she is quiet, or eccentric, she can make it work for her. This is why so few women with Asperger’s are diagnosed, which then fuels the perception that it is a male syndrome – which, completing the circle of indignity, is why we see so few portrayals of women with Asperger’s in movies.

Another imperfect film called If You Could Say It In Words portrays the life of Nelson, a painter from an underprivileged background. He has Asperger’s, but he is undiagnosed and the film never mentions the word. It is common for those from underprivileged backgrounds to go through life without a diagnosis. Alex Plank, the founder of and a prominent autism advocate, called this film “the most authentic portrayal of an autistic person that I’ve ever seen in the movies”. It’s not hard to see where he is coming from. Whereas many films are content to offer a run-down of symptoms (I’m looking at you, Adam, as much as I like you), this film is more akin to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends. Rather than Asperger’s becoming the whole point of the movie, we see a nuanced relationship and thwarted artistic career; the protagonist just happens to display many characteristics of those on the spectrum. Fassbinder said of his groundbreaking film (which also deals with class) something that I think applies to this one, too:

It is certainly the first film in which the characters are homosexuals, without homosexuality being made into a problem. In films, plays or novels, if homosexuals appear, the homosexuality was the problem, or it was a comic turn. But here homosexuality is shown as completely normal, and the problem is something quite different, it’s a love story, where one person exploits the love of the other person, and that’s the story I always tell [Wikipedia]

Additionally, we have the advocate Alex Plank relating to Nelson more than he relates to a character like Hugh Dancy’s Adam, even though Alex Plank and Hugh Dancy’s protagonist come from a similar socioeconomic background, to which Nelson is not privy. Here is a common misconception of Hollywood: that films must draw on protagonists of the same cloth as their viewers. For a long time it was simply too much of a risk to write characters as potentially alienating as Nelson. The rise in independent cinema has therefore been liberating. In gay cinema we have films like Behind the Candelabra (maybe ‘independent’ is too strong a word, but it is an outsider film) which might not be allowed a mainstream release but find their audiences regardless. Behind the Candelabra strays from the Wikipedia-Generated-Minority-Film-Script (can we coin a word for that?) and constructs a nuanced relationship between complex and contradictory characters. Similarly, the new film Gerontophilia features an elderly gay character – must we really consider the elderly to be a minority group?

Trans actress Laverne Cox

Trans actress Laverne Cox

So although If You Could Say It In Words and Mozart and the Whale are imperfect, they portray a part of the Aspergic experience to which viewers are not accustomed. This is why figures in pop culture such as Laverne Cox (from Orange is the New Black) are such an important milestone. Cox (left) is not only trans*, she is also black (she is also a black woman, and for a long time  black characters were men – similarly ). For a long time, minorities have been the preserve of white men, or at least men. Similarly, although Parenthood’s Hank is a white man with Asperger’s, his experience differs because he receives his diagnosis (or self-diagnosis) in middle-age. It is rare to see this experience portrayed, so it is a credit to that show that it tackles the issue.

So with these few glimpses we can get a sense for how many outsiders lie outside the circles of the “Official” outsiders. This is why it is important for cinema to represent intersectional identities. To cast a small group of people as “those with Asperger’s” is to place this minority group at a safe distance, rather than to acknowledge that people with Asperger’s travel in all walks of life. This is the conundrum with every minority group, and the language we use to define them. Perhaps it is cinema’s desire to “abject” a minority in order to establish and maintain stability and our sense of relatability with our protagonists. By that I mean that we place them outside of our experience; we place them elsewhere where they cannot interfere with our lives.The thing about those with neurological disorders or differences is that their experiences frequently deal in failure, embarrassment, difficulty, and that runs counter to the Hollywood “Hero’s Journey” and to the late capitalist ideology of “productivity”. It is the preserve of novels, for what novel was ever written by a success? Cinema is different, and it still has trouble with failure. Failure means downtime, career breaks; everything that is the antithesis to mainstream cinema. I think it is no coincidence that some of the most prominent films about failure come from screenwriters who see themselves primarily as writers rather than filmmakers: people like Charlie Kaufman or Todd Solondz.

So we place these characters at a distance, and define them clearly. But this fails to recognise that these characters walk amongst us; are us. The fall of Hollywood and the rise of TV, European cinema, and independent cinema means that this is changing. One prominent portrayal of Asperger’s in recent years has been the Indian film My Name is Khan. Films like this are receiving much wider releases and far more critical attention than before, and even the Academy Awards are opening up to other national cinemas (Michael Haneke’s Amour being nominated for Best Picture rather than Best Foreign Language Film was a big step), or critics paying more attention to festival winners. This democratisation of filmmaking has led to the most predictable result: that we are hearing voices that might have been excluded during the years of Hollywood domination. We are beginning to see that identity is far more complicated than a series of  definable “markets”, that people like Alex Plank can relate to characters who aren’t like Alex Plank; that we might find those with Asperger’s closer to home than we think. We have an underprivileged character with Asperger’s, and a women with Asperger’s. We have yet to see a trans* or elderly character with Asperger’s, but we will get there.