This handout image from Netflix shows South Korean actress Park Eun-bin playing the role of autistic high-achieving lawyer Woo Young-woo in the K-drama ‘Extraordinary Attorney Woo’. (Photo: AFP)
After the torment of indebted souls in Squid Game, South Korea has fallen in love with a feel-good courtroom drama with an unusual lead: a young lawyer with autism. Lawyer extraordinaire Woo has been the most popular non-English-language series on Netflix for weeks this summer, and the season finale, which aired last month, broke viewing records for broadcaster ENA.
Too bad this runaway hit misses out on an opportunity to educate and entertain.
A main character with a disability is a welcome change of pace for the South Korean entertainment industry, a behemoth best known for its flawless actors and polished pop bands. Here, as in much of the world, stigma exists and autism is often misunderstood. The problem is that while representation is important, stereotyped representations like this one do not seek to show people with disabilities as they really are. Rather, they show themselves as the public wants them to be. In this case, clumsy but pretty, academically high-performing, achieving one professional triumph after another.
Indeed, the wise man syndrome, responsible for the legal brilliance with which main character Woo Young-woo constantly amazes his colleagues, is rare. Statistics vary, but perhaps 1 in 10 people with autism display some clever abilities, and not many with the degree of virtuosity shown here. The reality for the vast majority of people with autism couldn’t be further from Woo. He is more mundane, more complicated, and much more challenging. Especially since, for many, the workplace remains out of reach entirely. Perhaps those fights would not have been for comfort television.
The portrayal of people with autism as weird geniuses dates back to the 1988 movie rain man and Dustin Hoffman’s character Raymond Babbitt, a wise man who can memorize the phone book but is overwhelmed by the world. The performance earned Hoffman an Oscar and brought autism to the fore. Unfortunately, he also created enduring stereotypes that impact how society views people with autism, their abilities and limitations. More modern versions of the same idea, like the series. the good doctorabout a medical prodigy with autism (which exists in both the American and Korean versions), continue to fuel misconceptions about a condition now estimated to affect an estimated 1 in 44 American 8-year-olds.
There have been more successful efforts to tackle fictional characters with autism who are not just plot devices, and perhaps the detective Saga Noren in the Nordic film noir series. the bridge (even if he is never identified as having autism) comes close to something believable. documentaries like The reason I jump either billy the kidanchored in real life, they do predictably better when it comes to giving audiences an accurate snapshot.
But tropes are hard to shake, and as a parent of a child with autism, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked what his “special talent” is. He doesn’t have one, and neither do the vast majority of other kids with autism I know. He is not particularly bright at math and finds computers challenging due to the fine motor skills required. He probably won’t work at NASA. But he, too, is incapable of getting around a revolving door, as Lawyer Woo incongruously appears to be, and he has a wicked sense of humor. Unlike the one-dimensional protagonist on television, his autism does not define him.
Of course, it is challenging to represent a neurodevelopmental disorder that is not simply a condition with a single set of features. What is so often described as a spectrum is, in fact, a matrix of possibilities, ranging from relatively mild impairments to debilitating intellectual disabilities. Many of those affected will have difficulty communicating, tics, intense interests, but the particular symptoms vary dramatically. A significant proportion, between a quarter and a third, although again the statistics diverge, are minimally verbal.
That’s why it’s a problem when the only representation on screen is someone who doesn’t speak until 5 but then recites the Korean penal code. That’s a cartoon, not a character. Certainly one of the problems is that the neurotypical actress who plays the main character chose not to use real people as references and instead studied the description of the diagnosis; in some ways, one step worse than simply failing to cast an actor with autism. It may be enough for entertainment, but it disappoints an entire community.
There are some redeeming features. It’s nice to see a female autistic character and indeed a non-white one. His obsession with facts about whales, his favorite subject, is exaggerated, but recognizable.
But it’s hard to get around how completely the show fails to capture the tests that everyday life brings, even for people with autism who are labeled “high-functioning,” as Woo would be. They are pressured to mask physical tics and stimulating movements (rocking, hand flapping) that act as a pressure valve and help control emotions. They report extremely high levels of stress. Saying or doing something awkward out of context inadvertently isn’t a funny joke, like on the show; it is a cause of paralyzing anxiety.
More than that, by choosing a successful attorney, the show ignores that some of the most challenging battles for people with autism are financial and professional. Employers can accommodate a genius, but statistics suggest they are less willing to give those who require other accommodations a chance. While more neurodivergent adults are getting jobs, still very few do. Statistics from the UK, for example, suggest that only a fifth of adults with autism are in paid employment, the lowest employment rate compared with other disabilities.
Why not tell the majority story next time?Bloomberg