When talking about representations of disability in television, it doesn’t come as a surprise that 95% of the actors that play people with disabilities are actually able-bodied. I mean, it sucks but it’s not that surprising. Think of the last ten movies portraying people with disabilities; what do they have in common? They’re all white guys marked as “geniuses.” The major conflict is to overcome their body through their “superior minds” or, more importantly, “being a man.”
This process of making a character with a disability overcome his disability through “being a man” is called “reinscribing heteronormativity.” And the story arc of Netflix’s Atypical is the definition of this reinscribed heteronormativity.
For those of you who don’t know, Atypical is a show about Sam, a teenager with autism, created and written by How I Met Your Mother alum, Robia Rashid. Sam is considered “high-functioning,” and it is implied that he has had applied behavioral interventions since he was a young child. According to the non-profit Autism Speaks, “autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication.” To its marginal credit, the show does attempt to explain autism and the surrounding politics of it. They cover the emphasis on person-first language (meaning, “person with autism” versus “autistic”). They talk about coping mechanisms individuals with autism use, such as Sam’s “twiddling” or keeping to particular routines.
I can’t presume to speak for individuals with autism, as I do not have autism. What I am, though, is a woman with a disability. In attempting to normalize Sam’s experiences, this show managed to portray disability and the dynamics of it in a way that somehow manages to offend people with disabilities in general. This is really an accomplishment, considering that a show about autism shouldn’t trigger someone with an entirely different situation like myself.
Apart from reports of the offensive portrayal of autism from a variety of people on the spectrum, this show uses the women in Sam’s life to generate conflict. Instead of dealing with the realities of Sam’s life, the quest to find a girlfriend perpetuates the common trope in portrayals of disabilities. The trope is that the white, male protagonist with a disability needs to achieve total heteronormativity in order to overcome his disability. This overcoming is done using the female characters as objects that mark Sam’s masculinity (read: normality) despite his disability.
In full disclosure, it was difficult for me to organize my thoughts for this essay. This show is so problematic on so many levels that I ended up choosing the adult women in Sam’s life to talk about, which are his mother and his therapist. So, let’s get into this mess.
And, of course, it’s always the mother’s fault. We’re starting with Elsa, Sam’s mother, played by acclaimed actor Jennifer Jason Leigh. Right away, the family dynamics of the show point to Elsa as the controlling, well-intentioned mother. The problem is that these traits are not explored in a nuanced way; rather, the story arc relies on Elsa’s one-noted character to present Sam (played by Kier Gilchrist–who is, you guessed it, not on the spectrum at all) with new challenges in achieving his goal of finding a girlfriend.
In the first episode, “Antarctica,” Sam declares to the family that he is ready to start dating. In response, Elsa tells Sam that she thinks that he’s not ready. Sam determines his boundaries and decides to come shopping with his mother to pick out his own clothes, something he’s never done before. Elsa discourages this at first, sharing with Sam that it might just not be a good idea because he had an “episode” (the language used by the show) last time that they were in the mall together. Sam insists that he goes, and Elsa begrudgingly agrees. They go to the mall, and Sam unexpectedly invites his friend from work Zahid (played by Nik Dodani) because “he’s the most stylish person I know.” Elsa is dissatisfied with the store’s neglect to find Sam a private dressing room. After attacking the store clerk, Elsa is escorted out of the shop. She’s surprised to see that Sam and Zahid had gone to the changing room that Elsa claimed was unsatisfactory. Elsa tries to ask Sam if he needs her, but he insists that he’s fine.
At the end of the shopping scene, we are meant to read these boundaries as positive for Sam’s character development. I agree that it was important to set boundaries for Sam’s character and to show that it is allowed for people by disabilities to have boundaries, but the show relies on Elsa’s seemingly overbearing actions as Sam’s mother in order for Sam to define his boundaries. Sam cannot grow in this moment without Elsa’s failure.
In response to her apparent desire to be needed, Elsa begins an affair with a bartender named Nick. It’s clear that there are issues between herself and Sam’s father, Doug (played by Michael Rapaport) prior to the affair. Nonetheless, it’s Elsa’s infidelity that we have the pleasure of seeing on-screen, while Doug’s failures as a husband and parent remain off-screen.
In beginning her affair, Elsa’s selfishness in her actions isn’t read as sympathetic, which I argue that her actions should be seen as sympathetic. Because her character is maintained as only controlling and reliant on her power as a mother, Elsa is portrayed as an entirely selfish person who resents her son’s disability. I do not think this tension was intentional on Rashid’s part, but this is the result of creating a one-dimensional character with no clear motivation other than vague feelings of discomfort.
As a result of this sloppy character development, the important things Elsa has done for Sam and herself, like her support group, the annual autism walks, being a part of Sam’s school, all read as overcompensating for her feelings of guilt and resentment. The problem is that this portrayal of Elsa is inherently sexist: her constant need to control the family instantly places her in the role of the overbearing mother. In order to root for Sam in his quest to find love, the audience must be against Elsa. They must see Elsa as this “evil” person in order for Sam to be successful, when in reality Elsa’s a mother who’s concerned for her child. The things she does for her family go unnoticed and underappreciated. She cheats on her husband because her marriage is falling apart, but her son is the not the catalyst for this deterioration.
In the realm of adult women in Sam’s life, we must move on to Julia (Amy Okuda), Sam’s therapist. In the first episode, her role was small. Often when moments of Sam’s tendencies or habits related to his autism needed to be explained, something the show did well was that it let Sam explain his autism himself. He would normally do this with the backdrop of his therapist’s office. At this point, it is assumed that Julia and her office would be the connection between Sam within his world and the audience’s absorption of that world.
However, Sam decides that he loves Julia at the end of the second episode, “A Human Female,” after his dad tells him that the person you love has to be “someone you’re comfortable with.” In that moment, Sam’s motivations become not just finding a girlfriend but specifically working towards becoming Julia’s boyfriend. More so, Sam justifies that interest because Julia is a fixture in his life, which then coincides with what’s comfortable for him. This decision relies on the stereotype that people with autism aren’t just missing social cues but that they can never learn them or that they have no interest in learning these boundaries, which is not true.
But that doesn’t matter, because this show isn’t for people with autism or people with disabilities in general. In that moment, the show allows the audience’s misconceptions of autism to excuse behavior that is extremely inappropriate, like Sam breaking into Julia’s house with the help of his father in order to leave her chocolate-covered strawberries.
No, I did not make that up. That is a thing that actually happened.
After Sam decides that Julia will be his girlfriend someday, we become much more invested in Julia’s life than we ever should have been. At the beginning of the show, we learn that Julia has been with a man named Miles for five years. Julia ends up finding one chocolate strawberry that Sam accidentally left behind. From this, Julia insists that Miles is cheating on her. This leads to Miles walking out on Julia. After this, Julia becomes increasingly erratic and unprofessional with Sam, and this behavior is later written off as a result of Julia’s pregnancy, which we find out about at the end of episode six, “The D-Train to Bone Town.” While it is clear throughout the entire series that Julia would never be an “option” for Sam, the traditional arc of eliminating the competition is fulfilled. Once he realizes that he loves Julia, Sam seeks advice from other men, mainly Zahid and Doug, on what he should do to make himself a viable choice for Julia. It is important to note that Doug still does not see that Sam is speaking about Julia. However, Zahid, who doesn’t go to high school with Sam and his age remains ambiguous, does know about Sam’s affection for Julia. In this sense, Julia’s pain is minimized in order for Sam to fulfill a form of misguided heteronormativity in an attempt to find love.
In the middle of her deep depression over her breakup, Julia goes to Techtropolis to get a new TV, as Miles took their TV when he left. In the scene where Julia goes to Techtropolis, Sam helps Julia load her new TV into her car. He then confesses that he’s nervous about the slow dance coming up. Julia proceeds to explain slow dancing to Sam on a scale of one-to-three, one being “hands on shoulders, like dancing with a sister,” or three being close-up and personal. In a feat of true unprofessionalism, she then proceeds to walk through this with him and, in doing so, trespasses physical boundaries with Sam. This scene is problematic because it gives Sam false hope based on the misogynistic advice that he has received that Julia would be interested in him.
This scene is increasingly frustrating for the audience later in the series when Sam later confesses to Julia that he loves her and wants to be her boyfriend. Sam brings the same brand of chocolate covered strawberries in order to confess to Julia, and Julia realizes that Sam was the one who left a strawberry in her house. Julia then screams at him and uses sarcasm to express her disbelief and outrage. She says “Seriously, after all of the work I’ve put in, you don’t know how this has hurt me? How this is inappropriate?” This level of stress causes Sam serious distress, and his parents have to come to bring him home and calm him down.
Despite the many flaws in how this development unfolds, Julia becomes the villain in this scene. While Julia was in the right in terms of the larger picture, her complete lack of tact when refusing Sam forcibly puts her in the role of “every woman.” She, by default, represents the trope that no woman would want Sam because of his autism. Julia’s unwillingness to trespass boundaries with her clients is painted as a source of conflict when it clearly shouldn’t be. Sam is the protagonist and, rightfully so, we root for Sam to win at what he attempts or to learn from his mistakes. Much like putting Elsa as the initial source of familial conflict, Julia is placed as a form of conflict which reaffirms to Sam that his “abnormality” makes him unable to find love.
The problem is that Julia naturally did not belong in this role; several boundaries on Sam and his father’s part were overlooked in order to manufacture this conflict. Overall, this character arc is entirely unnecessary and completely devoid of professionalism. There was no need to develop Julia further as a character to the extent that Rashid did. There was no time, really. Each episode is a half-hour in length and only eight episodes comprise the first season. Instead of developing Elsa and even Sam to a richer extent, they decided to half-develop all of the characters involved in this story.
Atypical uses the two adult women in Sam’s life to generate particular types of conflict. In using its female characters to perform this reinscribed archetype of a male individual with a disability overcoming that disability through performing masculine heteronormativity. In order to achieve this goal, the women of the show must be objectified. In doing this, this show sells short of what it could be: it could show how someone with autism just lives on a daily basis. It could show struggles of having autism in a realistic way, and the show could make a larger point about how we view disability in this country.
The show, however, is not about Sam, nor is it about autism. It was about the people around him; how they relate to him through his autism. Like many supercrip stories, it is a show about overcoming disability. It is a show about becoming normal. In this case, Sam’s ability to overcome both his mother’s unspoken resentment and Julia’s rejection is what makes him “normal.”