Autism Representation or Stereotyping?

The Korean drama Extraordinary Attorney Woo is an inspiring and sweet story on neurodivergence which, even with its flaws, aims at representing the everyday struggles of autistic individuals in the normatively strict South Korean society.

By Silvia Vacchelli

Picture: Via Pixabay, CC0

Extraordinary Attorney Woo is a 2022 Korean TV series that has been acclaimed both in its homeland and abroad for its tactful and (mostly) realistic representation of the perception of individuals with an autism spectrum disorder in South Korea. The series follows the life of Woo Young-woo, a rookie attorney who struggles to fit into society because of her neurodivergence but uses her extraordinary photographic memory to solve cases in ways her »normal« colleagues are not able to.

South Korea and Autism

This series’ representation of autism is especially important in relation to the country in which it was created, South Korea. A few studies reported that being autistic was perceived much more as a stigma for Korean individuals than in Western countries, such as the United States. So, when asked, many Koreans replied that they would rather not get closer to autistic individuals and people with autistic siblings reported having more difficulties in finding a romantic partner. This ostracising of neurodivergent individuals has been explained by the stricter rules of Korean society, in which citizens are asked to rigorously conform to the norm and follow the unwritten code of behaviour. Those who deviate from these norms, like autistic people who struggle to understand social rules, are therefore considered as different and as an error in the system. The series then played an important role in educating the Korean viewers, as well as international ones, on the reality of autism to try to remove the stigma from neurodivergence by giving back dignity to the autistic people and showing them as humans with a fragile side.

Autism Stereotyping?

While the series has undoubtedly brought the topic of autism into the spotlight, some saw it as a stereotyping and a misrepresentation of people on the autistic spectrum. Extraordinary Attorney Woo seems to be following the trail of Good Doctor, another Korean series produced in 2013, which has a brilliant autistic doctor as the protagonist. It has been then argued that media like to portray only highly-functioning autistic individuals with special abilities, the so-called savants, which in reality represent a minority of autistic people. In fact, unlike the protagonist of the drama, many individuals on the spectrum struggle with different aspects of life, from talking (since 40 % of autistic people are not verbal), to learning, as more than one third of them have a lower IQ than their neurotypical classmates. Moreover, in the case of Attorney Woo, the actress’s excessive use of autistic stimming behaviour, has been also criticised, such as hand-flapping and echolalia (repetition of speech). Thus, the series has, in some way, contributed to the reinforcement of the stereotype of autistic individuals as misunderstood geniuses with quirky behaviours.

Autism representation – relationships and discrimination

Attorney Woo might fall under the stereotypical autistic genius, yet she is not the only autistic individual in the series and especially one episode plays an important role in explaining that autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that individuals have different ways in which they struggle with social interaction and communication. In this episode, the defendant is a young autistic man with the mental abilities of a young child, who is accused of having murdered his brother. The prosecution uses attorney Woo’s high-functioning disorder as a standard for autism to claim that the young man’s action was wilful and that he deliberately hurt his academically brilliant brother. In this way, they aim to portray him as a dangerous individual who hides behind the claim of a behavioural disorder.

In reality, the defendant simply had a meltdown after witnessing his brother´s suicide and the aggressive behaviour towards his brother´s lifeless body was a temporary loss of control caused by his extreme distress. However, both his family and society are more willing to believe that an autistic man killed his sibling rather than a talented young man committed suicide because of too much external pressure. This episode, together with others, shows how society alienates autistic individuals by forcing them to follow neurotypical rules and standards, and by marking them as monsters or freaks if they do not. Moreover, in the workplace, some of Woo’s colleagues are bothered by the »special treatment« she gets as her boss tolerates her unusual behaviour and her lack of understanding of social cues.

The series does not forget to also represent the human side of autism, by showing how, in spite of her struggles in social interactions, she is able to form deep friendships and start a romantic relationship, not without pressures from her partner’s family to break up because she is not the stereotypical »wife material« who can take care of her husband. Extraordinary Attorney Woo is a series that, even with its flaws, manages to represent the struggle of autistic individuals in a highly collectivistic and normatively strict society, such as the Korean one, in a heart-warming and entertaining way.

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