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Towards an Asperger Cinema

This essay is the first post from’s new “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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Ben Stiller in Greenberg (Asperger Syndrome)

There’s one group – and the word ‘group’ here will come to sound meaningless – in society that is consistently under-and-misrepresented in cinema. That group (defined perhaps temporally rather than geographically), is that section of the population affected by mental disorders. For such a common part of the human experience, their representation has ranged from the haphazard to the exploitative. There have been, however, a few gems and moments of truth.

I would like to begin by discussing Asperger Syndrome as represented in film and television. Asperger Syndrome is a disorder in theory, but it is really more of a neurological difference. There is nothing wrong in the mind of somebody with Asperger Syndrome; they are just wired differently.

Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the quintessential Asperger character, and has been a figure of intrigue since his inception. Throughout his many incarnations the character has remained a stable portrayal of an intelligent man with Asperger Syndrome. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have largely continued this tradition, but they have introduced a disturbing discourse of “mainstreaming” into the mix. In addition to this, they have also branded him a “high functioning sociopath”. Whereas Sherlock’s mental state has always remained implicit, his explicit statement at the end of season 3 reeks of fan-fiction: “I’m a high functioning sociopath. Do your research!”

SherlockFirst of all, Sherlock does not appear to match the description of a sociopath at all. He doesn’t get social rules, he doesn’t like being around people, when he acts “normal” it is a temporary performance. Even if we are to step back from the Asperger diagnosis (and lord knows, there’s no shortage of writers online trying to pin one diagnosis or another on him – me included), Sherlock’s relationship with Watson clearly indicates a bond that is based on more than material benefits. Furthermore: although he claims to work out of curiosity, it is quite clear that Sherlock does have a social conscience. When he upsets Watson it may be unintentional or cruel, but he does feel remorse for his actions. This disqualifies him from a diagnosis of sociopathy; which, by the way, is no different to psychopathy. That Moffat and Gatiss took Sherlock’s glib one-liner (“I’m not a psychopath, I’m a high-functioning sociopath”) and turned it into fact sits uncomfortably with most informed critics, I think. This ease with which psychological labels are thrown around is a huge contributing factor to the problem of misrepresentation. Sherlock, in particular, has a large Aspergic fanbase who had found somebody to look up to; a fanbase who, when he suddenly branded himself a sociopath, felt confused and upset.

This reflects the refusal, for example, of the writers of The Big Bang Theory to concretely say that Sheldon Cooper has Asperger’s. I understand why showrunners and screenwriters want to avoid the label, but it strikes me as just another version of the “camp” characters of the past – they weren’t explicitly gay, because that would alienate audiences or cause political problems around accuracy of representation. They were simply “camp”. In other words, this form of representation is the refuge of a writer who doesn’t want to get involved but wants to reap the benefits of appealing to this community – a writer who wants to take the rewards but not to pay the price alongside the members of the subjugated community.

Another distancing tactic is the “mainstreaming” method I mentioned above. Mainstreaming is the method whereby difference is minimised in order to make the subject more “normal”. It can be seen all over the place. My “Writer in Residence” predecessor David Turpin wrote about the mainstreaming of homosexual characters in Brokeback Mountainthat this film was perceived as a ground-breaking moment for gay characters because they were “normal”, masculine men rather than the outsider characters of a rather rich history of gay cinema. If you watch Sherlock you will notice that Holmes is rarely rewarded for his Aspergic qualities in his personal life, and only rewarded for their material benefits in his career. For his personal life, they’re a necessary evil. It is the moments when he displays empathy with John Watson, or when he develops a romantic relationship (such as his interest in Irene Adler or his fake relationship with Janine in season 3) that the audience is asked to applaud Sherlock. He is becoming more “normal”, and therefore relatable for the viewer. In fact, he is becoming more relatable for the Neurotypical viewer (those without Asperger Syndrome – although I find the term a little contentious) and less relatable to the Aspergic viewer. There is a trend in film and television of gifting Asperger characters with superpowers as compensation for their personal shortcomings. Their superpower quality is what makes them productive and profitable, and this allows society to forgive them their perceived failings.When it is revealed that his relationship with Janine is fake, and he has been using her to further his plans to take down his enemy Magnussen, Watson and the viewer get their “Aha!” moment. He was only engaging in personal relations in order to further his super-productivity.

rrTwo films attempt to grapple more seriously with the issue. Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love decline the mainstreaming approach. They take their central characters’ diagnoses as more than glib attributes. Baumbach offers his usual talent: his ability to simply sit with and observe flawed human beings. Roger Greenberg is a former musician-turned-carpenter with undiagnosed Asperger Syndrome. And he is bitter. With regard to the trend I mentioned for portraying Asperger characters as having superpowers (for example, Sherlock, The Big Bang Theory, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Hannibal, and so on), this is a form of mainstreaming, because it ignores the parts of Asperger characters that aren’t “of use” to Neurotypical communities. Greenberg tackles this by setting the film’s narrative late in Roger’s life. He is middle-aged, and his failed music career is behind him. Although the film hints at Roger’s past musical talent – or superpower – it makes very clear that his personal shortcomings have cost him a potential career, as well as friends and romantic relationships.

Whereas Sherlock Holmes’ personal life is a mystery; indicating his writers’ disinterest in exploring his less than “useful” qualities; Roger Greenberg’s personal life is front and center. The most explicitly Aspergic and authentic scene in the film comes when Roger’s date tells him a funny anecdote that involves her having sex with another man. Roger, unable to deal with his petty jealousy, has a meltdown. He shouts and storms in a way that is unique in cinema. Here is a main character in a film behaving badly; like a child; for no reason other than his own personal shortcomings. It is a credit to Baumbach that he watches unflinchingly as the event unfolds. As an aside, I think this instinct is what makes Baumbach one of contemporary cinema’s most interesting and important directors. Roger’s musical past is revisited when his old bandmate Ivan shows up. When Roger left the band years earlier, it fell apart. He doesn’t appear to realise the effect his departure had on his friends and their careers. Ivan is resentful, but remains loyal to his friend. It is as if we are getting Sherlock Holmes without the genius and without the glib comedy of his inconsiderate personality. Roger Greenberg, like Sherlock Holmes, is an asshole. Paradoxically, I think Baumbach’s willingness to explore Greenberg’s shortcomings is a mark of respect for those with Asperger Syndrome. They are three dimensional human beings, rather than a series of fun characteristics and plot devices.

In Punch Drunk Love Paul Thomas Anderson flips Baumbach’s approach on its head and attempts to portray an Asperger worldview from the inside out. Barry Egan – as played by Adam Sandler – has a limited existence. His superpower is the ability to nitpick and recognise loopholes in coupon schemes. His sensory overload is demonstrated for the viewer with the film’s surreal soundtrack. He is, like the others I mentioned, an asshole. But the confusion that dominates his world is as overwhelming for the viewer as it is for him. We begin to forgive him his shortcomings. We begin to empathise with his worldview, even if we feel a little creeped out by him. Something as simple as a dinner party becomes a threat to Barry Egan. His sisters joke about his eccentricities, but it’s clear that these jokes have had a serious effect on his personality for the duration of his life. When pressed to offer a strong opinion on anything, he replies with “I don’t know,” because something must have happened in his past. People with Asperger Syndrome are very sensitive to criticism, so my guess is that Barry Egan offered opinions more freely as a child but, as he grew weirder and weirder, began to withdraw in order to protect himself and his opinions from criticism. We are really in the depths of the useless factors of Asperger Syndrome here. If Sherlock is on one end of the theoretical superpower spectrum, Barry Egan is at the opposite. For this reason, as with Greenberg, I think Paul Thomas Anderson is a lot more respectful of the Syndrome than Moffat and Gatiss. He is engaging with it in all its flaws, and, although it is never stated that Barry Egan has Asperger’s, the viewer doesn’t get the same feeling of powerlessness that they get with Sherlock. There is no withholding. There is no extraction of the ideal elements and discarding of the rest.

Perhaps, like with gay cinema, Greenberg and Punch Drunk Love represent a truer form of Asperger Cinema; a genre that doesn’t just offer mainstreamed (or “camp”) representations of a community, but real and authentic examinations of this group of people. Although it might be having its moment in television, I think the superpower trope will give way. Community’s Abed, Parenthood‘s Max and Hank, the new Irish film Love Eternal, are all – in their way – nuanced portrayals of Asperger characters that don’t rely on superpowers. It may be that, given a decade or two, we will come to see Greenberg and Punch Drunk Love as among the early pillars of Asperger Cinema.

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Stephen Totterdell is a writer and editor from Dublin. He will be launching his German-Irish magazine Fressneid in December. Follow him on Twitter @sjtotterdell


Lenny Schafer

I would suggest people stop worrying about how alleged characters with Asperger’s are portrayed in the media. The Asperger Syndrome label has been rendered obsolete mainly because it created so much confusion by including both the disabled and the non-disabled. One result of this is that any odd-ball character in literature or in real life gets the label of Asperger’s pinned on them by arm-chair diagnosticians who are looking for self-esteem boosters. What is left after you ignore the over broad Asperger’s is the label of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Everyone under this label is unambiguously disabled. A glib paint job of calling autistic people merely different and not disabled does not work here. Autism is a disability and nothing less.

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