Being on the autism spectrum has become something I try to only mention when it’s important. With all the anti-vaxxers and people looking for a new insult now that “retarded” has gone out of fashion (as it should), it can be a troubling thing to be in public. This is especially true in the time since the Sandy Hook massacre, when the news was abuzz with speculation over whether people on the spectrum were more prone to violence (they aren’t).
Awareness and resources for autism have come a long way in recent medical history, but that hasn’t really extended to fiction so much. Autistic characters pretty much fall into two tropes: social dysfunction played for laughs, or the special snowflake inspirational angel that will change your perspective. Oh, and they are very overwhelmingly male. Don’t get me wrong, we can be quite awkward. And sometimes inspirational, I guess. I’m not in the business of changing lives. These same characters over and over again get old. Fortunately for my, uh, discerning tastes and the issue of representation at large, two films I’ve seen in the past year have given us two great autistic, female heroines.
Chocolate, a 2008 Thai martial arts film, is a pretty cut and dry series of fast pace fights on the surface, but its hero is not your typical action star. Zen (the adorable Yanin Vismitananda) is a young women raised by a mother with ties to both the Yakuza and the Thai mafia. She is also autistic. Her condition is, if I had to be really un PC and put a mark on the spectrum, somewhere between the middle and far right (verbal but barely, no real issues with motor skills). Zen watches martial arts films obsessively and uses her unnaturally good senses and memory to mimic the fighting style. She proceeds to barrel through a series of gang henchman to save her dying mother. Chocolate isn’t a super deep movie, and in the end it’s mostly action fluff, albeit touching action fluff. It also is a decent, if dramatized, depiction of the sensory issues that come with being on the autism spectrum. These are both a gift and a curse in my life, so it was nifty to see them being used as an asset, almost a superpower. Another thing the film does well is that even though Zen is a total BAMF, her characterization doesn’t shy away from the fact that with autism comes severe difficulties for both the person and their caregivers.
Park Chan Wook’s 2013 English debut Stoker is a horse of a completely different color. Fans of the Korean mastermind’s artfully gory brand of psychological horror will recognize the director’s trademark style, but it’s still a divergence from his usual stuff. I’ll say this upfront: it’s not his best work. It ultimately fails to fulfill some of its potential, but it looks damn pretty failing. What I want to focus on is its heroine, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska). The 18 year old at first comes across as offbeat and surly, but it becomes clear through her actions, reactions, and the way she sees her world that she was written as an autistic character. She is much higher functioning (honestly she’s a bit like me) than Chocolate’s Zen. Park Chan Wook’s masterful art direction really conveys how India’s sensory tics work. You can see, hear, and almost touch through her. Now, this is a dark film, and India is a dark character. She’s still the heroine, though, the one with agency, the one who gets shit done in the end. Yes, she’s violent and seems to relish in it more than in normal human emotions, but she is a fully fleshed out character.
I’ve read criticism of India’s character; that it’s offensive and insensitive to portray an autistic person as disturbed and violent. If Chocolate had been bigger in the US, I’m sure there would have been some complaints there too. For me, I appreciated these characters because they’re different than the usual stereotypes. In action movies, neurotypical folk get to be violent and kick ass all the time. Being a kickboxing hero or a homicidal maniac shouldn’t be reserved for the non-disabled. Growing up on the autism spectrum, there have been a lot of situations where I felt scared or thrown off by surroundings and circumstances I couldn’t control. If part of the reason we love stories is to fantasize and project, I like being able to take part in a narrative where it’s the autistic girl, the girl who would usually be a victim, who takes control. Sure, there are plenty of violent, badass films that I enjoy watching and whose characters I can relate to. But just once or twice, it’s really nice to see “me” up there throwing the punches.