Mozart and the Whale

I was never a big fan of the romantic comedy genre. While some of these movies are often admittedly entertaining, they always leave me feeling a bit cheated. I do enjoy myself; I laugh, I get emotional, I sympathize with the characters, and I’m often completely engaged with the protagonists’ relationship, rooting for its success. But then, as the movie draws to its inevitable happy ending, I start to question the credibility of this whole thing. I start to reflect critically, and usually realize that the story was a bit too… much; the breakups too dramatic, the gestures too grand, the female protagonist too stereotypically cute, the male protagonist too stereotypically charming, and their love way too unreasonable. I then regret actually having been made to feel something, wasting sadness or sympathy on such an obvious falsity. I even feel I was cheated into laughing – odd as that may sound – because (except for in the first 20 minutes or so, where the jokes are usually quite good) it’s always that kind of laughter that stems from being surprised while overly emotional; like in Pretty Woman when Julia Roberts bursts into laughter when Richard Gear hands her the diamond necklace and then shuts the box abruptly. It’s not really funny – unless you’re four – but you laugh anyway. “What did I go through all that for?” I think angrily. What did I gain? I feel duped!  Give me back my 1 hour and 45 minutes! And more importantly, give me back my cynical faith in the inherently pessimistic and sarcastic nature of the human spirit.

Well, that was pretty much how I felt watching Mozart and the Whale. Image

But I have to say, that’s not all bad. See, I’ve been learning about autism for a while now; reading personal memoirs, papers and books in the humanities and social sciences as well as studies in the natural and medical sciences. Reading articles in popular media, and watching documentaries and lectures – as well as movies and series. And autism, I found, is almost always talked about in this earnest austerity; like it necessarily warrants a very grave face, the one you would wear at a funeral. (Example: recently I applied for a research grant for an ethnographic study on emotional experiences in autism. The reviewer rejected my proposal for what I thought were entirely unfounded reasons, ultimately suggesting that I might modify my research to focus on ‘distress’ as a main theme. Why distress, I wondered? Why not love, pride, aspiration, or attraction?  Why assume that the only way to talk about autism is through negative prisms?) Yet at the same time I also know autistic people; and our conversations are rarely austere. We share laughs, enlightening discussions, as well as mind-numbing chit-chat (alright, not so many of the latter). Sure, sometimes difficult experiences are talked about, where earnestness is indeed in order. But it’s not my impression that that’s the norm. It is not the only way to talk about autism.

Anyway, I found watching Mozart and the Whale to be kind of a multi-layered experience. In the beginning, I enjoyed it tremendously; the writing is good (in that pristine yet banal sort of way), the acting is pretty great, and the whole thing is done really professionally – as romantic comedies usually are. So I laughed, I got emotional, I sympathized with the characters, and rooted for them. Then, as the movie was drawing to a close, I started getting a bit angry, as it dawned on me – like it always does in this genre – that I am being duped. Why did they break up? I understand they had a fight, fair enough, but to actually break up over a thing like this? (This applies to each of the three times they broke up). Why did Izzy get so mad when Donald freaked out when she rearranged his apartment? She did this without asking him, and he’s obviously into order and routine. How about some understanding on her part? And him, how about some self-respect? This girl plays with his feelings like a marionette. I’m not saying forget about her, because she’s really cute and all and he obviously loves her, but how about calling her out on her overreacting whenever he does the slightest thing to upset her? How about these two guys have a CONVERSATION between them? You know, actually TALK about what’s bothering them? That’s kind of a major thing in relationships (for a fantastically angry and eloquently written review of the film check out this post by Caroline Narby).

But then, I was overtaken by yet another feeling, and that’s the one I’m still carrying now; it’s actually pretty cool that a movie where all the characters are autistic, and where autism is the main theme (well, aside from love; it is a romantic comedy after all), is made as just another movie in a genre. Not trying to educate, not trying to scare, not trying to draw a meaningful lesson on human nature, not even trying to promote tolerance or acceptance (not that there’s anything wrong with that); just another romantic comedy, where the characters happen to be autistic. Obviously, as far as representation of autism goes, it’s got its flaws (again, check out Caroline’s review). But still, this movie makes you want to put politics aside, and just say “hey, I just moderately enjoyed a mediocre movie about autism, without it antagonizing me by making a huge deal out of itself”. That’s a nice accomplishment I think. Maybe it even does teach a valuable lesson; sometimes autism is not the most important thing in autistic people’s lives. Sometimes it’s just something some people have to live with, while busy with work, errands, family, and relationships; in short, while occupied with living their lives.

Anyway,

I want to talk about one specific event that happened to Donald and Izzy. When Donald’s boss comes over to their house for dinner, Donald asks Izzy if everything could be ‘nice’. Isabelle interprets this (probably justifiably so) as a request that they act ‘normal’, and that makes her upset. She responds by acting – well, I’m not sure how to describe her behavior, as she’s not being herself, but not what you would stereotypically refer to as ‘normal’ either. She basically goes out of her way to make both Donald and his boss feel uncomfortable. Which I found was quite rude, seeing as he did ask her nicely and this dinner means a lot to him. Why not just tell him you were hurt by this request and that you refuse to change your behavior for his boss? That’s a very legitimate stance. Instead, she chose to act all awkward and bizarre. Anyway, that’s not my point. My point is that this scene, I think, offers an opportunity to reflect on what seems to be a very dominant theme in the lives of many autistic people. The notion of normality, and the demand that autistic people either embrace (mimic) it, or reject it, or do both alternately.

An important concept that will help us discuss this matter is ‘discourse’. Basically, discourse refers to any loosely connected cluster of texts, written or spoken, that subscribe to a certain attitude or perspective towards a particular field or domain. For example, you have the gourmet discourse, where unique and delicate tastes, textures and smells are glorified; then you have the health discourse, with its emphasis on nutritious consumption, breaking food down to its dietary elements; and you have the vegetarian discourse, which infuses food-talk with notions of morality and conscience. Clearly, these aren’t the only discourses on food, nor are they mutually exclusive. In this sense, bringing up ‘discourse’ is more of a working tool than it is in any way an objective descriptor of reality.

Similarly, there are different discourses on autism. Again, these are not mutually exclusive, and are very far from static; instead they are fluid, dynamic, and contested; reality is never so simple that it can ever be accurately sketched with such ease. But this sketch is still useful to appreciate the various influences that affect our understanding of things. Broadly put, there are two main discourses on autism, which are mostly in opposition with one another. On one side is the biomedical discourse, otherwise referred to as the deficit model, which views autism as essentially a disease, impairment, or disability. It seeks to find the causes of autism; trace its genetic, neurological, or cognitive mechanisms; find cure or treatment; subdue autism; alleviate its symptoms, and ultimately normalize autistic individuals. Medical professionals, as well as researchers in genetics, neuroscience, or psychology are usually prone to this kind of discourse (also promoted by various types of organizations), which they, in turn, reproduce and reify.

On the other hand is what’s usually referred to as the neurodiversity discourse, or the social model. In this discourse, autism is not seen as an impairment but as a difference, a form of human diversity. The autism traits (the equivalent of what the biomedical discourse refers to as symptoms) are considered ontologically inseparable from the autistic person, and thus there is no desire to be rid of them, lest the person him/herself will simply cease to be. This discourse emphasizes the role of society and its institutions in the disabling of autistic people, by way of marginalizing, silencing and othering; punishing for atypical behavior; and glorifying normality while devaluing difference. Instead, according the social model, society should be more accepting and tolerant towards all forms of diversity, including autism.

So you can see how normality is a central sticking point in discussions about autism. The very acceptance of such a thing as ‘normality’ ­– as an absolute and a positive – will most likely lead one to accept the biomedical discourse. Alternatively, leaning towards the neurodiversity model will unavoidably drive one to reconsider what ‘normal’ might actually mean, to the extent of arguing that there is really no such thing – or at the very least that there shouldn’t be.

Except, of course, there is such a thing as ‘normal’, because we all use it. We all know what the word means. So the question to ask might not be ‘does normality really exist?’ but rather ‘what sort of power dynamics do current notions of normality reflect?’ What ideology is served when ‘typicality’ is rearticulated as ‘normality’? What institutions will have trouble justifying themselves once ‘normality’ is readjusted to include autistic behavior? And how are people’s lives affected by the idea that normal=good, and abnormal=bad?

You might think that normality always existed. After all, what’s more natural and inevitable than drawing a line separating what’s normal and what’s abnormal? But this awesome graph illustrates just how recent, and therefore contingent and far from inevitable, our obsession with normality really is. The proportionate use of the words normalcy and normality has increased fivefold in literature over the last century.

Assuming that the possibilities for ‘being’ are infinitely varied, discourses constitute our best tool for tracing the influences that made people ‘be’ the way they ‘are’. They are a handy substitute for the still popular concept of ‘culture’, whereby it is often argued that it is culture that made you the way you are. Not that this statement is entirely wrong, it’s just terribly inaccurate. ‘Cultures’ are not homogenous; within any given culture there are hundreds or thousands of different available discourses which one can subscribe to; usually people subscribe to discourses which are most relevant to them in terms of age, gender, religion, ethnicity, social status, education, geography etc. Yet importantly, one very often has to make a choice – either conscious or unconscious – between different or even opposing discourses. Another alternative is to mix different discourses, taking just a bit of each.

With regards to autism, then, the choice is not so much between normality and abnormality; instead, as Nancy Bagatell, the medical anthropologist, has suggested in her 2007 article, being autistic involves a constant struggle to orchestrate two opposing discourses; the biomedical and the neurodiversity. Are my traits merely a form of difference, or are they symptoms to be subdued? If I wish to be alone, is that a valid choice or must I urge myself to seek company? In difficult times, should I fantasize about a cure for autism, or about a more just, tolerant, and accepting society? And mostly – should I lay my best efforts in attempting to pass as what others consider to be ‘normal’?

The conflict between Izzy and Donald is a marvelous example of this dilemma, primarily because the filmmakers do not suggest that any of these choices is necessarily right or wrong. Donald has a job which he loves, and therefore feels the need to impress his boss; this requires (presumably) that he and his girlfriend behave appropriately at dinner. Izzy, on the other hand, feels that her only way of getting by in the world is by not hiding her eccentricities, instead making them work for her advantage. Importantly, as the movie demonstrates, this is more than just an idle inconsequential decision; it affects relationships, employment, and social status. We, perhaps unfortunately, live in a world where appearances matter. I would think that the choice of whether to act normally or not is never an easy one. Bagatell indeed suggests that this necessity to constantly orchestrate these different ‘voices’ in choosing who to ‘be’ is itself a source of much stress and anxiety in the lives of autistic people.

But on the bright side, seeing as what we’re really talking about is not ‘normal’ vs. ‘abnormal’, but rather this discourse vs. that discourse, there is room for change. Currently, the dominant discourse has it that there is just one way of acting that is considered normal and appropriate; but like any other discourse, this discourse is also susceptible to change. Hopefully, the day when ‘autistic behavior’ would not fall outside the remit of the norm; or otherwise, the day when normality, per se, would cease to be in itself a value – might not be too far ahead.

What do you think about all this?

P.S. Did anyone else think the scene where they all go to the bleachers, boys on one side on girls on the other, is a homage to that famous scene in Grease?

References:

  1. Bagatell, Nancy. “Orchestrating Voices: Autism, Identity and the Power of Discourse.” Disability & Society 22, no. 4 (2007): 413–426.

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7 thoughts on “Mozart and the Whale

  1. askanaspergirl

    Romantic comedies can be emotionally manipulative (I see what you did there director with that score and the plotting). I remember seeing Mozart and the Whale and thinking it seemed sort of bleak — relationship expected to fail. Glad you found Caroline Narby’s series on portrayals of autistic people in media (Bitch Magazine is a useful resource).

    The notion of normal / normality in discourse is interesting to me because we avoid using those words in special education research. I usually see typically developing, sometimes typical, when I’m reading journal articles about autism. When I think about normal these days, I picture the normal curve and the expected range of human traits in the population.

    Reply
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  6. Brad

    I think the non sense it makes of them breaking up is just what the screenwriter wanted. People with autism don’t often make sense to us. People with out it. Take Donald, he told the guys he can do mathematical sums, but cannot make FRIENDS, that includes “girlFRIENDS” haha 🙂 Idk how true it would be but I could see autistic people driving themselves crazy over little misunderstanding that couples without autism may not.

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