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A Neurologically Different School of Thought

This essay is the second 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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There is a trend in cinema of writing characters from ‘Other’ groups – whether they be black, female, gay, transgender, disabled – as representatives of those groups. Hence the token trans* character, or the token Asperger character, and so on.

This process stems from the idea that whiteness (and maleness, being cisgender, and so on) is not a culture unto itself but rather the natural order of things, and that everything outside of it can be considered a subculture – something less natural and less inevitable than whiteness (etc). This trend is strongest in Hollywood. Because of Hollywood’s rather long reach, the idea has taken root in smaller national cinemas and, as a result, in the worldview of many of us. However, I can take a guess that not many of us see our own lives reflected in mainstream cinema. How many of us are white, male, straight, cisgender, neurotypical, and so on? It’s a narrow focus, and it contributes directly to the stigmatisation of the Other. HBO’s Silicon Valley lampooned the Others working in the Valley. In response, tech giant Elon Musk said that Hollywood couldn’t understand a place that allowed people to be individuals, and that “The parties in Silicon Valley are amazing because people don’t care about how they’re perceived socially. Hollywood is a place where people always care about what people think of them, and it’s fucking sad, and the show felt more like that.”

So where are all the leading men and women in my everyday life? If these characters represent such a small portion of the population, why are they dominating cinema screens? This tendency towards “normal” characters explains a lot about why Other characters only materialise to represent or to describe the lifestyle and habits of the Other. If they exist only to describe, then they exist in isolation. They are not nuanced characters, but rather descriptions of symptoms. One of the latest frontiers is that of those with neurological differences. If a character with, say, bipolar disorder appears in a film, they are frequently the only character with bipolar disorder in the film. They are defined against the Neurotypical characters, and become their neurological disorder or difference. There is no way to place them within a nuanced community of like-minded people. Thus, in the film they end up alone. We perceive them as alone. We assume that in life they are alone. We assume that in life they are a list of symptoms.

02There’s a quote about autism: “If you’ve met one person with autism you’ve met one person with autism.” This applies to every type of neurological group, as well as to every “minority” group in general. This is why Silver Linings Playbook is so important. Although the film is problematic in more ways than one, it is admirable for its focus on community. Bradley Cooper’s Pat has bipolar disorder. But for the author of the source material, this was just not enough. No, Pat befriends Jennifer Lawrence’s Tiffany. He befriends Chris Tucker’s Danny. Pat’s father has Aspergic qualities. The film’s narrative is told from the inside out. Rather than the token bipolar character, we learn to empathise with the worldviews of Pat and Tiffany. Their reality is our reality. Because characters with neurological differences outnumber Neurotypical (as I mentioned in my previous essay, this is a contentious term) characters, their realities are validated. Rather than the “Unpredictable Bipolar” character with a loose grasp on reality, we have merely a set of different realities from a set of different individuals. The film challenges the false binary of “crazy/normal” reality, and insists that each character’s reality carries its own weight. Life – and cinema – is just a numbers game. What is “normal”?

When movies place a character with neurological differences on their own, their reality becomes invalidated. There are so many Neurotypical characters that the Neurotypical narrative outweighs the Neurologically Different narrative. Silver Linings Playbook gifts its audience with several Neurologically Different characters, and thus the shared reality of these characters gains traction. We can empathise with them as people, rather than merely as descriptions of disorder. If we look at the X-Men films, we can see that this idea can be taken further still.

In X-Men, there are enough mutants to form a school; indeed to form a school of thought. The reality shared by the mutants has a history, and this history is taught in a school that they themselves built. Usually taken as a civil rights allegory, or an allegory for gay rights, these films can also be interpreted as an allegory for those with neurological differences (note that I do not use the phrase “suffering from”). They cannily use Xavier and Magneto to articulate some of the problems and benefits of engaging with different realities. Whereas Magneto has frequently been portrayed (perhaps unfairly) as irrational, overcome by emotion (emotion, in traditional Hollywood thought, is lacking in credibility), Xavier is the good assimilationist. Rather than asking his mutants to assimilate totally into “normal” reality, Xavier asks that they persuade “normal” people to accept the benefits of embracing mutant reality as a valid alternative school of thought.

Of course, such realities have to be tempered. Can we trust a reality constructed by a number of characters with neurological differences? Are they not merely the classic “Unreliable Narrator” figures? The Unreliable Narrator – to recap – is a character whose narrative we initially take at face value, but which slowly loses credibility. I think this trope is a little unfair, and leads only to the stigmatisation of those with neurological differences. It plays into the trend of turning neurological differences into plot devices, and it hinges on the idea that we can write off and dismiss the perspective of those with differences at the end of the film. To say that this has no knock-on effect in the real world would be naive.

03Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915 deals with this brilliantly. Ostensibly a biopic about the sculptor Camille Claudel during her time in an asylum, Dumont uses the genre to turn his audience into the Unreliable Spectator. The Unreliable Spectator, for Dumont, questions their own motivations for watching the film. “Why are you watching me cry!?” shouts Claudel at a patient – but also, we feel, at us. Why are we watching her cry? Why are we watching biopics and reducing their subjects to a set of moral lessons that we can use in our own lives? Are we unhappy enough in ourselves that we need to devour others for validation? In Dumont’s film, characters that we have accepted as “normal” slowly reveal their disorders, and characters we have accepted as having disorders slowly reveal that they are “normal”. By the end of the film, we – the spectators – have become totally unsure of our own perception. It is looking increasingly likely that Claudel is not crazy at all, and that we have merely made a series of assumptions based on our own distorted perception of the film’s narrative. By allowing us only short and visceral bursts of narrative, we never have the full story and must draw conclusions timidly and engage with our own fragility. Through this breakdown of our own interpretive powers, we gain empathy with the characters in the film’s asylum. We join them, as Tiffany joins Pat in Silver Linings Playbook. We gain a sense of how it would feel to distrust our own perception, or to have that perception discredited. The Other isn’t so different anymore.

So if we take each character and spectator’s reality as its own interpretation of the world, rather than engaging in the false binary of “crazy/normal”, we can understand how it is possible to build a space supportive of – and engaged with – those with neurological differences. We can understand that the Neurotypical reality is considered “Official Reality” because of numbers; because there are more Neurotypical people than there are people with neurological differences (I don’t think there are – many will simply hide their differences and “act” Neurotypical, highlighting this flimsy ideal). Building a space supportive of those with differences has practical benefits. For example, the Neurodiversity movement asks us to accept the reality of those with Asperger Syndrome as an alternative perspective rather than a disordered perspective. With increasing numbers of people with Asperger Syndrome being hired by tech companies eager to take advantage of their ability to think outside the box, I think cinema and society as a whole will catch on. Tropes like the “Unpredictable Bipolar Character” will fade out and be replaced by real characters with whom we are asked to empathise. If we can accept their perspective, we can accept them. We have been lucky in the last few years; we are finally seeing films about Others break through to the mainstream. In fact, white men are now perceived as less fashionable than ever. Let’s hope that this continues.

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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