There are a couple of things I didn’t want this blog to be about, though I knew steering away from them will take some conscious effort on my part. First, I never intended for this blog to be a film review. I’m not particularly interested in discussing how good a film is, the quality of its writing or acting, the choices made by the director, or its production value. There is quite enough of that already, and I don’t feel especially qualified to talk about these sort of topics anyway. I like movies a lot, and then sometimes I see a movie that I categorically don’t like. I can probably analyze why this is, but to be honest, I prefer to just read a well-written review by someone else to set my mind at ease, and think “ah, yes. That’s what I didn’t like about this movie!” It’s not the most original way to reflect about a film, but why waste my energy articulating a position that’s already been articulated by others?
The second thing I didn’t want to focus on, for quite different reasons, is the representation of autism in film. See, representations matter; they play a significant role in shaping our view of reality; indeed, of shaping reality itself. When members of certain social categories (e.g. black, gay, Jewish or autistic) are routinely represented in a certain way, this creates stereotypes, which in turn leads to stigma. In other words, negative, wrong, or even just overly simplistic portrayals of autism in cinema lead people to hold false beliefs about autism. This has real-world effect, as autistic people inevitably have to deal with these false beliefs on a day-to-day basis. At the very least, this involves having to repeatedly correct people’s preconceived notions about them and their condition. At worst, it prevents them from finding employment, acquiring an education, accessing services, or forming relationships. Representations matter.
So why don’t I want to write about the representation of autism in film? Two reasons. First, other people do it better than I can; in fact, some do it brilliantly. Look up Stuart Murray for a good example. Murray is neurotypical, but there are also many autistic bloggers online who have a justifiable bone to pick with depictions of autism in movies; many of these blog posts are sharp, accurate, brilliantly articulated, and sometimes angry as hell. My input in that field is just not really needed. The second reason I don’t want to write about representation of autism in movies is because it will just deflect me from my real purpose, which is to employ movies where autistic characters are depicted to talk about other social and cultural aspects of autism, as understood by various social scientists, including myself. In order to do that, I actually want to suspend my disbelief, and take the on-screen portrayal as at least partly representative of reality, so that we can all discuss certain aspects of autism without being overly general or obscure, through a discussion about specific (albeit fictional) people and events.
So why am I telling you all this? So that you can appreciate my difficulty in discussing the film I just finished watching, Snow Cake. I had a hell of a hard time suspending my disbelief on this one, as every little thing in this movie just shouted out at me from the screen “this is fake! And poorly executed! And a terrible representation of an autistic woman, who appears to lack any depth, life experience, or ability to experience grief or come to terms with her own emotions!” Ehm. So you see my problem? Having a serious discussion about fictional people and events is fine. That’s what this series is all about. But having a serious discussion about fictional people and events which I don’t believe and think are devaluing to autistic people is quite another. But perhaps I’m being overly critical. After all, this movie does offer some food for thought. Let’s give it a shot. Meanwhile, for a spot-on review of both the movie’s quality and its treatment of autism read this excellent post from Bitch Magazine by Caroline Narby.
Linda (Sigourney Weaver), presumably in her 40s, lives with her teenage daughter in the township of Wawa in the Canadian province of Ontario. One day a car accident kills her daughter. If I seem to report this devastating event offhandedly, it’s only because this is pretty much how the filmmakers chose to portray this tragedy. We never see Linda receive the news of her daughter’s death, but instead we encounter her for the first time a few hours later, when Alex (played by Alan Rickman), who was driving the car at the time of the accident, shows up at her doorstep to explain and apologize. Amazingly, Linda appears rather unaffected by the news. She’s not apathetic, though; she displays anger (at her intruding neighbour), joy (at the toys which her daughter had bought for her minutes before the accident), and distress (at Alex’s wet clothes which threaten to contaminate her carpet), but no sorrow, grief, or sadness. One could say that such an unimaginably tragic occurrence as losing one’s only child takes time to process. That’s possibly true; except during the 1 hour and 47 minutes of the film, Linda barely displays any emotion whatsoever with regards to her daughter dying. Pretty much the only time she expresses any negative reaction at all to Vivienne’s passing is when she refers to her, in the past tense, as “useful”. She was “useful” to her. Her only child, who we later learn was her best friend, the one person who truly accepted her, who played and danced with her, who shared stories and snowmen and made-up words with her, was “useful”. Oh, and Linda is autistic. As if that explains it.
But I digress. I actually don’t want to focus on grief at all (mainly because, as Caroline Narby observed, Linda’s character never gets a chance to grieve, but instead the grieving is reserved for Alex, who barely knew Vivienne!), but on another, less explicit theme in the movie: Minutes after they first meet, and her autistic traits become obvious to him, Alex worryingly asks Linda “Are you alone here? … is anybody… I can stay with you for a couple of days”. Linda’s ability (or inability) to live independently is recurrently referred to throughout the film. I already mentioned Alex’s amazed reaction at her living alone. Her next door neighbor Maggie expresses her own concern: “She needs other people to do things for her, if not necessarily with her. Vivienne did all the boring stuff, what’s she going to do now?” While Linda’s father mentions, without solicitation, that he never liked her house and never felt at home there. “Linda always liked it” He says, “We bought it for her because she wanted to be independent”. In one of the very last scenes, while Linda was enjoying the snow cake Alex had made for her (any ideas what this snow cake symbolizes? Couldn’t quite figure it out myself), Maggie, following through on her concern, takes out Linda’s trash.
Independence is a problematic and laden concept. In general discourse, the ability to live independently is valued as a proof of a person’s general competence; it connotes worth, self-definition, importance, even meaning. Independence allegedly differentiates child from adult; burden from contributor; disabled from able-bodied. In autism discourse (among other discourses), independence is often equated with what’s come to be known as ‘functioning’; so that someone would be considered high-functioning if they demonstrate an ability to live independently, while those who allegedly can’t would be labeled ‘low-functioning’. The concept of independence in this regard has meaningful and tangible implications. It influences policy: resource allocation, housing benefits, education programs, service provision etc. In the more abstract and yet equally significant spheres of life, demonstration of independence is often a precondition for respect, for equal and humane treatment, for recognition of personhood.
But what does independence mean, anyway? What is “living independently”? Does anyone truly live in-dependently? And is that really what we should be striving for so passionately? Independence stands for not being dependent on anyone. I’m neurotypical, and I certainly do depend on other people daily, constantly, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. So yeah, I take my own trash out, but my wife doesn’t. She hates it. She wouldn’t freak out if she had to do it herself, but she definitely prefers that I do it. Bad example? Alright. I hate fixing the toilet. I hate the chemicals, the smell, the – well – stuff that clogged it in the first place. Also, I don’t know the first thing about plumbing, I’ll just mess it up if I try. I depend on other people to do that for me. Sometimes I have to pay for it. Sometimes I ask a friend to do it as a favor. Does that make me less independent? Well yes, probably, but so what? We all have those things.
We rely on other people to help us live our lives. If I had to butcher my own cow to make dinner (or grow my own beans, if you prefer it) I would freak out! Different people have different skills and different preferences; that’s why we have distribution of labor. That’s how society works. I was never referred to as being any less independent because I can’t raise my own lunch, and I was never complemented for my impressive independence when I took out the trash.
But that seems to change when disability is concerned.
Because people need to differentiate. We (as in members of society) need to determine the boundaries of what’s normal. Those boundaries are then naturalized and presented as fact. Namely; some dependence is ok, but too much dependence isn’t. Rephrase; ‘just some’ dependence is renamed ‘independence’, while ‘too much’ dependence is termed lack of independence. Now it’s all sorted. But how arbitrary is this?
Taking a step back – obviously some people are more dependent than others. My wife’s reluctance to take out the trash is nothing like Linda’s anxiety. People are not the same, but are infinitely different. Autistic people, by and large, need more assistance in various aspects of life than many neurotypicals do. And of course, among those on the autism spectrum, some are more dependent, while others are less. I’m not arguing with that – I think acknowledging this is a fundamental part of promoting acceptance. What I am arguing with is the arbitrary dichotomous division between independent (healthy / able-bodied / adult / typically male), and not independent (sick /disabled /child / typically female). This dichotomy does nothing but reproduce power dynamics, in which those who are apparently independent must assume responsibility for those who aren’t. Case in point – Maggie, driven by the very best of intentions, takes out Linda’s trash, which was traditionally Vivienne’s role. But Maggie never asks Linda if that is something she would have wanted. In helping her (and in a pretty rude manner, I have to say, not even saying hello as she enters her house uninvited) she creates a reality in which she (Maggie) is the powerful decision maker, while Linda is that week receiver of assistance. Similarly, Alex decides to stay with Linda to “take care of her”, without her ever asking! Is that really a legitimate choice on his part?
Friends can and do often help each other; they should help each other; but without resorting to this kind of power dynamics, which occur when one party in the relationship is regarded as less than independent.
Rosetti and colleagues (2008), following an ethnographic study which included participant observation and interviews with autistic individuals who type to communicate, made a similar point. These authors challenged notions of agency, independence, and capability in autism discourse, arguing that all people have agency and capability, although they might require very particular conditions to express their agency (by which they mean “the opportunity to initiate a topic or agenda, participate in a dialogue, move a conversation in a particular direction, interpret others, affect the person with whom one is in dialogue, make a point, interact as a peer, and be seen as a person with ideas to contribute and a personality to inject into the conversation.” 2008:365) Independence does not exists, they argued, since everyone is always interdependent. Following from this is that incapability is never a quality of an individual, but always an outcome of environment and context.
What would change in Snow Cake, had Linda merely been considered interdependent rather than (not entirely) independent? For one thing, instead of offering to stay with her in order to ‘take care’ of her, Alex would probably have inquired about what precisely Linda might need help with in her to-to-day; since it’s not much (presumably just taking out the trash), he could have easily stayed at a hotel. Linda’s father may not have been so surprised and resentful that his adult daughter wants to live alone; perhaps accepting this would have helped him to like her home, and actually enjoy spending time there. We don’t know why Vivienne went to live with her grandparents as a kid; we’re never given that information. I suppose someone decided Linda couldn’t take care of a child all by herself; fair enough (though like I mentioned before, no one ever does anything 100% alone. That’ why we have nannies, teachers, social workers, food deliverers, therapists, doctors and nurses). But how many alternatives were considered before the decision was made to simply separate mother from daughter? How would a notion of interdependence affect that decision-making process? Actually a very nice example of portraying interdependence in the film was when Linda asked Alex to come with her to identify her daughter’s body. That was – I thought – the most touching and convincing scene in the film, because yes – people can ask their friends for help, that’s absolutely fair and legitimate. Especially in such hard times. Her independence would not even slightly be affected.
Language shapes reality; it can divide people, reproduce damaging power structures, and hinder positive development. But it can also lead to positive change, help growth, and unite people. This is basically just another claim for the thoughtful use of labels.
What do you think? Let’s talk about this some more. Please share and comment.