Friday, March 2, 2012

Is smart the new sexy?

Is it me, or are there suddenly a lot of autistic characters on our television screens? Maybe, having just had my son – rightly or wrongly – diagnosed as High Functioning Autistic (HFA)recently, am I now more acutely aware of the traits that are apparently part and parcel of the autism spectrum? Am I just now more likely to notice these behaviours of Asperger’s Syndrome, and HFA?
Taking a quick look across an evening’s viewing, I’m tempted to think it’s not me. Who hasn’t noticed the ubiquitous Sheldon Cooper from Channel 9’s incredibly successful Big Bang Theory? Here is our socially helpless genius, a world-beating physicist on his way to winning a Nobel Prize, whose Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (knock-knock-knock-Penny), and germ phobia give rise to a regular round of chuckles each evening in houses all over Australia (mine included). Sheldon is played lovingly by Jim Parsons, who captures his character’s discomfort with social norms, inability to spot sarcasm and rigid thinking processes perfectly and portrays them with comedic perfection. Sheldon doesn’t understand friendship, can’t deal with changes to his routine, and finds emotion mysterious, illogical and therefore unnecessary
We love Sheldon. We adore his eccentricity, his helplessness and vulnerability. We love him despite the fact that nobody – not even we – are allowed to sit in HIS chair.
Still on Channel 9, let’s take a look at Sherlock. This is a luscious series of movie-length episodes centring on an updated 21st century Sherlock Holmes, played by the enigmatic Benedict Cumberbatch, and his trusty friend in sleuthdom, Dr John Watson. This is a new version of the genius detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle back in the late 1800’s. Watson, played by Martin Freeman revisiting the Everyman role that is his forte (go re-watch The Office), is the perfect foil to Cumberbatch’s difficult, unpredictable and often unlikeable Holmes. This Holmes is super-observant, has a lightning-quick mind, but is a man of habit, who shuns emotion and finds the strictures of friendship difficult. Eye contact is infrequent, and human relationships – for the most part - redundant. He is often socially obtuse, trampling over the feelings of those around him as “the case” is paramount and humans irrelevant. In a recent episode Watson even tentatively remarks to a colleague that Holmes has Asperger’s Syndrome.
We admire Sherlock, despite his shortcomings. Maybe we believe we can make him feel emotion, if we could get our Geek Girl hands on him. In a recent episode a female adversary commented upon meeting him, “Is smart the new sexy?” We see Sherlock’s sex appeal, his unavailability, aloofness, as ultimately alluring.
The other show that I’ve been watching of late is Sci Fi’s Alphas. This is an appealing science fiction show about a new sub-species of humans who have various highly-evolved human senses and abilities. The group of Alphas seek out other Alphas, a little like X-Men, but in a much less superhero style, with gritty realism and some less expensive effects.
One of the Alpha group is Gary Bell, played by Ryan Cartwright. Gary can see electromagnetic waves in the air, which comes in handy for tracking down perps, listening in to mobile phones and tapping into the CCTV network. This wonderful power comes with a down-side. Gary is a young man who lives with his mother, is withdrawn, unable to communicate normally, cannot make eye contact and is frequently rude. He talks incessantly and can’t cope with changes in his routine. Again, this character exhibits some clearly autism spectrum traits, while being highly intelligent.
We empathise with Gary, and see his worth to the Alpha group. He is a the genius of the group.
There are other examples of characters who exhibit strong symptoms of HFA and/or Asperger’s (sometimes overtly, sometimes more elusively) from television present and past… Adrian Monk from the series of the same name, Spencer Reid in Criminal Minds and Jerry Espenson in Boston Legal. I’m sure there are many more I’ve missed.
We love our Aspy’s and HFAs on television, otherwise they wouldn’t keep writing them into shows. Smart is the new sexy… we value these people for their genius, we admire them, we’re prepared to overlook the difficult aspects of their characters. We find their brains incredibly sexy.
So what might this mean for my little HFA? Will people in his future value his mind, accepting his foibles? Will they see his strengths while putting up with his constant chatter? Will they mind his rigid thinking and work around it because they see his potential? I wonder. Would we put up with Sheldon’s Roommate Agreement in real life? Would we accept and still adore Sherlock, even after he’s torn our character to shreds in front of our friends, with no thought for the consequences? Would we want to be Gary’s mother, living with the never-ending verbal narrative and his inability to be flexible?
I don’t see any of these often funny, lovable characters forming long-term relationships in the shows we see them inhabit. I see them being valued as almost Rain-Man like assets. I wonder, look my son, and worry.


  1. Well, as you probably know by now, I know at least a couple (and suspect a few more) in real life.
    And you're right... it can be tough. There are times when you wonder why you bother - and other times when the person involved has a breakthrough and it's wonderful! So... you have to remember the breakthroughs - or anticipate those to come - to help you cope with the current problems.
    But that's why there are various support groups and similar around the place - so that you can let off steam, or get much needed assistance and comfort, from other people who are actually in the same situation as you are. And unfortunately, you will also have to let the comments that will be made by those who don't or won't understand - or who just are not as tolerant - those ones you have to let be water off a duck's back... even when they hurt and annoy and are unfair - remember, those people are not walking in your shoes - talk to the ones who are.

  2. Thanks Kathy! I love these shows, and these characters, and I hope that their proliferation on our screens is a step forward. Time will tell.