My husband and I have been watching The Outsider. No, we haven’t finished it yet. No, I haven’t read the book. And no, I haven’t read any other books featuring the character of Holly Gibney. So I can only go on this sliver of information taken from watching six of the ten episodes.
There’s my first disclaimer. My second is that I do enjoy Stephen King and have since I was about 15 and began sneaking his books off my dad’s shelf. Uncle Stevie has a history of taking differently abled characters and making them “special” in other ways. (See also: Tom Cullen, Bill Denbrough, etc.) Holly Gibney seems to fit squarely in that field. She’s hyper-intelligent but comes across as distinctly on the spectrum—or at least the way media likes to portray people who are on the spectrum, which is where I start to feel uneasy.
But first let me point out that as a character—that is, as someone designed to intrigue and entertain me—Holly Gibney ticks all the boxes. I like her. If I didn’t, my internal conflict wouldn’t be a conflict. I’d be able to write her off and simply rant.
The thing is, as someone diagnosed somewhat later in life, I’ve become aware of an entertainment media inclination toward casting high-functioning [Asperger’s] types as quirky genius saviors. We have hangups that get played for tension or laughs. We do complicated puzzles in our heads, apparently. And we solve all the mysteries and problems. We range from socially awkward (funny) to stubborn/difficult (sometimes also funny, but also obnoxious). We speak very little and/or blurt things that are variously blunt, random, brilliant. We practically read minds but also struggle with emotions because we’re really just human computers. We observe, read, do some research, then chew up all that data and spit out the resolution.
Many of these characters are not explicitly stated to be on the spectrum, they are simply coded that way via the above characteristics. Whenever someone tells me they “never would have guessed” I’m on the spectrum, I have to wonder if that’s partially because I’m not “as seen on TV.”
Holly Gibney, at least as portrayed in The Outsider, is definitely coded this way. It’s explained that her parents were afraid… of her? for her? But doctors couldn’t come up with a diagnosis. So there seems to be an attempt to separate this character from a definite identification, but that just reads as “not like other Aspies,” which is lame. Or maybe, “Aspie Plus” or “Aspie but Better!” I don’t know. But this contributes to my discomfort because I recognize the shorthand symbols for someone on the spectrum: social awkwardness, high intelligence (with a touch of savant in some areas), a little bit of fixed mindset in the form of needing to sit in the same seat each time she visits certain restaurants or whatever. Holly cares about some things and is ignorant of anything outside her sphere of interest or ability. These traits, taken together, almost always dictate a character meant to be read as high-functioning autistic. I could dig up a dozen other, similar characters and portrayals, so it’s probably disingenuous to focus on Holly specifically, but… She’s the one that’s fresh in my mind, so here we are.
So what’s the problem? I should be glad for representation of any kind, right? Diversity and all that? (And Holly is also a black woman, so… hat trick?) Besides, people on the spectrum come in such a wide variety of traits that any one representation shouldn’t be an issue because they’re all valid? Or something?
I’m really asking. Because I can understand that way of thinking, and it’s not entirely wrong. But it still doesn’t sit well with me.
Portrayals of high-functioning ASD people tend to choose the most entertaining “quirks.” Because, you know, the point of entertainment media is to, er, entertain. So these characters are almost always written one of a few different ways: (1) funny/weird; (2) a little creepy but a necessary evil because his/her abilities are needed; (3) awkward, but eventually someone “gets through the armor” and the person is revealed to be sweet and shy; (4) insanely smart and therefore arrogant and obnoxious. Or some combination thereof. ALL of these usually have some kind of emotional stuntedness, typically shown via semi-robotic behavior in which the character doesn’t understand emotions, or doesn’t respond to emotions, or has no emotions him- or herself. But there might be one character that, over time, is able to break that shell, making the ASD character… less autistic? more “human”?
As someone on the spectrum, I can watch these characters and sometimes identify with them. In a few ways. I have hangups (mostly to do with noise, an issue I don’t see as often in media portrayals, and invasion of space/privacy, an issue I see portrayed pretty regularly). I’m smart, though I don’t solve nearly as many mysteries or save the world as often as other Aspies, if TV shows are to be believed. A lot of days it’s all I can do to remember to feed myself. I don’t like being touched, but I do have feelings and know how to love. I’m perceptive of others’ feelings, too; I just don’t always know what to do about them because the social aspects of dealing with emotions can be confusing. I’ve been known to be blunt and not understand when someone is joking. So, you know, all these various portrayals aren’t entirely wrong. And since everyone on the spectrum presents differently, what is true for me might not be at all true for the next ASD person you meet.
All of which is to say, it’s not strictly “wrong” to write these intelligent, quirky characters. But there seems to be a focus on one specific kind of intelligent, quirky character, probably because that’s the kind of character that contributes to the story: the one that can figure things out. But I do get irritated when some shows decide these characters need to be fixed, usually via a romantic interest, though sometimes a strong friendship does the job. Love is powerful, no doubt, but it isn’t a “cure” for autism. Loving someone on the spectrum means loving the things that make them different, not hoping that your love will magically change them.
So what would I like to see? Someone like me, maybe: a typical mother and wife whose autism is just kind of part of who she is rather than being the solution to some big mystery or problem. Someone who does a fair job of faking it through the world except when she just can’t. Someone who was classified as having a high IQ but chose a mundane life anyway. You can be high-functioning, brilliant and lazy, you know. “Gifted and talented” means very little in the long run; it’s all about what you do with what you have.
But maybe that makes for bad stories. Which is why we keep getting the same kind of ASD characters over and over. Often written by people who, as far as I can tell, are not on the spectrum themselves. They’ve just learned the shorthand and now this kind of individual has become a stock character.
As for Holly… I like her. And I want to like her. But there continues to be something about her that strikes me the wrong way. And maybe it’s because she sits atop this pile of tropes. I don’t know. She’s a black woman who has been coded as autistic (whether the writers admit it or not), so that’s… something.
I wanted to write this in the hopes that doing so might help me explore the root of the problem, whatever it is that makes me uneasy about this character. But I haven’t figured it out yet. Gonna have to do some more thinking/plumbing. In the meantime, if anyone else has thoughts about the topic, I’d love to hear them.