What is it about serial killers that makes them such a popular topic for TV series? I can think of a number of reasons, but I guess the main one is audience’s proven love of gruesome and meaningless, yet often admirably photogenic acts of violence, accompanied by a somewhat shallow and sensationalistic exploration of the workings of the psychopathological mind.
Plus, it’s pretty much an ideal plot vehicle; you have the killer on the prow, the detectives on his tail (the killer is usually male), the innocent unsuspecting victims… It virtually writes itself! Well, except it’s often terribly superficial and silly. I guess that in order to write itself well, a talented team of writers is still a fundamental requirement. Now, while I personally don’t mind the graphic depictions of violence one bit (it’s just decent make-up work as far as I’m concerned), my wife is not a great fan of extreme close-up ultra-bloody murder scenes. It’s not so much the violence itself that upsets her – after all, some of our all-time favorite series are The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad, none of which is in any way shy of violence– but it’s the graphics of the serial killings that bother her. And I get it. When Tony Soprano or Avon Barksdale kill a gangster, they shoot him and get on with their lives. Serial killing bad guys on TV tend to have more lengthy engagements with their victims, pre and post mortem. So anyway, while in our household watching a series alone – as in without each other – is considered a breach of confidence, I can get away with it as long as it’s about serial killers. Looking for a new one to watch, after having finished watching Dexter (loved it at first, then started really hating it, had to finish though), I came across Bron/Broen or as it was titled in English, The Bridge (meanwhile an American/Mexican remake has come out, as well as , apparently, an English/French one, but this post is about the original show) What a thrill! A fierce serial killer terrorizing both sides of the Danish-Swedish border, and a joint detective duo, Saga from Malmo and Martin Rohde from Copenhagen are out to get him. It truly is a wonderful series.
Saga Noren is first and foremost an amazing detective; a real bad-ass, but in that good way. Tough, fearless, relentless, bright, meticulous. Also blonde, attractive, and always in leather trousers, she is presumably in her mid-30s, and single. She is well respected by her coworkers, superiors and subordinates alike. She’s mostly well liked, it seems, though people always appear to have trouble figuring out what to say to her, how to react to her. That’s probably why she doesn’t have that many friends. She generally prefers to stick to rules, however unreasonable they may seem at times. She reports her partner for mild violations of protocol. She refuses to let an ambulance pass through a crime scene, despite the fact that it’s carrying a kidney on its way to a transplant surgery. When the rules aren’t written anywhere, that’s when things get really difficult for her. Saga can’t make out what’s wrong with having spent the night with her partner’s 18 year old son – nor does she realize why her colleague would assume this means they had sex. She does have casual sex with men she meets at a club – always the same club – but she’s not interested in having a drink with them, and she doesn’t really understand why that might make them feel awkward. She’s fascinated by the police profiler, who makes sense of their perpetrator’s actions and behavior using analytical tools. The murderer also fascinates her, with his systematic conduct and obvious intellect.
I absolutely loved The Bridge. I have grown too accustomed to watching American TV series, and I enjoyed tremendously the different atmosphere, different scenery, different nuances (nuances! I watched so much American TV I forgot those even existed!), different style of writing, acting, even editing. I admired the fact that the show speaks Danish and Swedish, two languages I hardly ever have a chance to hear, and embarrassingly, I could not even for a second tell apart. (This romanticization of what is to millions of people their everyday languages is obviously amusing to some, but I stand by that comment. Foreign languages just make you feel something.) The writing is absolutely brilliant, and while the realism of the plot could probably be up for debate – I’m certain people have already found a myriad flaws in it – I found the characters to be as reliable as TV characters get. I believed everything that came out of their mouths, whether in Danish or Swedish (I never knew which it was, anyway). But there was one character who stood out. That would be splendid Saga.
So, does Saga have Asperger’s syndrome? Is she autistic? That question is never answered directly. But as far as the creators of the series are concerned, I would bet yes. I’m certain the writers knowingly intended her character to have Asperger’s, and were constantly conscious of that when writing the show. I also know that the actress who played Saga (the extremely talented Sofia Helin) did some research on Asperger’s as preparation to the show, and acted her part accordingly (and quite beautifully done, I thought). But does that all mean Saga has Asperger’s? I honestly don’t know. Let me phrase the question differently: Were Saga a real person, who went to see a real-world clinician to seek a diagnosis for herself – would he or she diagnose her with autism? All signs point to yes. Seeing as Scandinavian countries have awareness to autism that is among the world’s highest, if Saga had been a real person, she would probably already hold a diagnosis. So problem solved, series Saga is an Aspie. Right?
Well, no, I’m still not convinced. Despite everything I just typed, I would actually say that series Saga – i.e., the woman we see on the screen investigating a series of murder cases – probably does not have Asperger’s. Why not? Because in this case, Asperger’s is the tree that falls in the forest and nobody’s around to hear it. To put it simply – If Asperger’s is not mentioned, there is no Asperger’s. In the reality of the show, Saga is an unusual person. She’s socially awkward, she doesn’t get subtle social cues, she’s not overly vocal, she’s bad at small talk, she’s not empathetic in the typical way, she’s quirky and she’s eccentric. That’s all true – so how is she NOT autistic? Well, because autism only exists when there are people around to call it that. And if no one ever does? Then autism simply does not exist. I’ll try to explain.
What’s a Social Construction?
Are weak arms a disability? Of course not, right? I mean it’s a trait – an impairment, maybe – but it’s definitely not a disability. Well no, not here and now. But say in an imaginary world where everyone’s a blacksmith, for example, so yeah, absolutely, people with weak arms would be quite severely disabled. And if in that world one of the blacksmiths happens to be a doctor, I bet he would diagnose about 1% of the people – those with the weakest arms – as disabled. There would be a label – let’s call it Badsmith Syndrome, on account of them being bad smiths (There would be self-advocates, however, who will resent the name because it’s degrading. Others will happily adopt that label and take pride in it, making it their own). The doctor would probably prescribe weekly push-ups. Which many would also resent, because, well, they have weak arms. It’s not their fault, they would say – they were born that way. Why shouldn’t society just accept that? Why change who they are? Indeed.
Mind, these people would not be disabled because of their weak arms. After all, they might be amazing painters, mathematicians, retailers, theologians, engineers, or nurses. In a different time and place, nobody may have even noticed their poor physical strength. They merely have a different set of skills that distinguishes them from the rest of the population. It is the context that makes them disabled (this idea is sometimes referred to as ‘the social model of disability’). Their weak arms is one thing; and while the label attached to it is certainly not unrelated, it does not inevitably derive from it either.
And it’s certainly not irrelevant or inconsequential. The label might make a world of difference in their lives – for better or worse. They might be stigmatized because of it, and assumed to be things they are not (weak of character, lazy, even stupid), but it could also help them organize, support each other, change people’s minds about them, show the world that they are capable of other things. They have become a group, possibly a community. Thus Badsmith Syndrome becomes a social category, as well as a medical one. It raises connotations, invites interpretations, arouses feelings, in bad smiths and typical smiths both. So did people with weak arms exist before the label was invented? Of course. But was Badsmith Syndrome a thing? No, it wasn’t.
(More about autism as a social construction in this post about Bertleby the Scrivener, the short story be Herman Melville)
Is deafness a disability? Quite clearly yes, right? But the thing is, a lot of deaf people wholeheartedly disagree with that statement. Many of them say that the problem is not with them; the fact that they can’t hear is secondary. The problem is that society excludes them by not working out alternatives for deaf people in the public sphere (such as an interpreter into sign language at parliament sessions, for example). If everyone in the world could sign (not such a huge deal, it can be taught in schools, right?), so deafness would cease to be a disability. It would still be a category, sure, but kind of like homosexuality is a category – or even left-handedness. Both were severe disabilities in the old days. Both aren’t any more (the latter can’t even be said to be a social category today – that’s how far we’ve come).
Another example: Before there were schools; before kids were expected to sit down on their butts for hours on end, day in and day out, and listen to a teacher talk about something that they couldn’t care less about; was there ADD? Were there kids with attention disorders? No, there weren’t. How come? Because some kids sat and read or listened, while other kids drew, danced, learned to box, sew carpets or build furniture. Whatever a kid did, they would learn, grow, and improve at what they were doing. Attention deficit disorder only exists because now ALL kids are expected to sit and listen. Some kids find that easy. Some find it very difficult. They do have ADD – I’m not saying that they don’t – but they have it because in our context, in our society today, to not be able to sit and listen is a disability (or at least a disorder). So they invented a name for it, devised diagnostic criteria, and started labelling kids with it. Hey, they even found a treatment that works, which is fantastic. But the fact that ADD results from a real biological neurological mechanism does not mean it’s any less of a social construction. Just like weak arms are a real, biological fact. It’s the context that makes weak arms, ADD, deafness or autism into a disability, rather than a mere difference.
Of course autism is real. That’s not the question. It’s just that if no one’s naming it as abnormal, if no one’s placing it outside of the norm, if no one is there to give it a name, study it, investigate it, devise treatments, search for a cure, advocate acceptance etc. – so no, in that world (not necessarily a hypothetical world – this is still the case in some places) it doesn’t exist. After all, autism is a fairly recent diagnostic category. It was identified by Leo Kanner in 1943, and took a while to “catch on”. Even for decades after, kids that would today be diagnosed with autism were diagnosed with schizophrenia, retardation, or were simply – as in the case of what we refer to today as Asperger’s syndrome – often just considered eccentric. Were those diagnoses wrong? No, they were spot on! For the time, that is.
(More about the history of autism in this post, about Temple Grandin)
So wait, Does Saga Have Asperger’s or Not?
My point is this: We (as a society) acknowledge Asperger’s syndrome as a category. We diagnose people and consequently label people with it. We devise treatments for it, and initiate education programs for people who have it. People with Asperger’s are expected to perform their Asperger’s in a certain way. Some of them oppose that – and come up with their own idea about what Asperger’s means, and how to perform it. They negotiate the category, the treatments, and the expectations. They negotiate the very meaning of the term Asperger’s. Even the question of whether or not one has it depends on where you live, how much money your family has and other such social factors. The person is the same person with the same traits – I cannot stress that enough. But whether or not someone has Asperger’s ultimately depends not just on the person, but on society as well.
And it’s not only where you live, it’s also about when you live! 30 years ago, Saga would not be diagnosed with Asperger’s anywhere in the world. Today, she wouldn’t be diagnosed with it in many parts if the world. And you know what? In the revised DSM (diagnostic and statistical manual) that came out this last May, Asperger’s was removed as a distinct category. That actually means that as it currently stands, no one will be diagnosed with Asperger’s ever again!
So Saga has all the symptoms to indicate that in a Western country in the end of the 20th or the beginning of the 21st century, she would be diagnosed as having Asperger’s. But the way I see it is this: in the reality of the show, unless a fictitious Malmö psychiatrist was featured who gave her a formal diagnosis; or unless references would be made by other characters to such a diagnosis, I prefer to think of Saga as eccentric, quirky, unusual, and brilliant. She has a successful career, she contributed greatly to society, and she’s awesome. Her life can’t be easy, what with her difficulties in figuring out people and relationships, but as long as she has people who care for her, and as long as society is tolerant towards her and accepting of her unique needs, she’s not disabled. She doesn’t necessarily need to be labeled as “having” anything, or even “being” anything, other than her unique self. Does that make her life easier or harder than if the diagnosis existed? Can’t really say.
Do you agree? What do you think? I’m curious to know. Leave a comment or two.
- Bartleby the Scrivener (Part 1 of 2)
- Temple Grandin
- Lars and the Real Girl
- How to Write about Autism