Jane from “Happiest Season” is Autistic-Coded—And She Thrives

Alison Brie as Sloane, left, and Mary Holland as Jane in Happiest Season (Photo credit: Lacey Terrell/Hulu)

Happiest Season sparked lively Twitter debate and broke streaming records on Hulu when it debuted. My wife and I devoured it. Too, we chatted through the criticism of the film, which was swift and ranged from thoughtful to needlessly harsh. Much of the criticism surrounding the film was mainly centered around Harper (Mackenzie Davis) and how she could have been a more responsible, thoughtful partner to Abby (Kristen Stewart), plus a lot of screaming about Stewart’s very gay outfits and chemistry with Harper’s ex, Riley (Aubrey Plaza). One clear fact that stood out in the background of the collective rage was a unified feeling: That Jane (Mary Holland), one of Harper’s sisters, is the best character in the entire film, hands down.

Jane is arguably one of the most mature, independent, and emotionally stable characters in Happiest Season, and she’s also autistic-coded. The film itself doesn’t identify Jane as autistic and neither do the film’s creators, and yet many autistic viewers have come to see themselves in Jane and to champion her. Among her competitive, perfection-focused family, Jane is characterized as the odd one out. Like many autistics, Jane struggles with picking up on and following through with social cues—or she just doesn’t care to pretend, often called “masking” by the autistic community. Upon first meeting Abby, Jane sincerely and tearfully tells her that she’s sorry about Abby’s parents before reaching out to pull her in for a hug—a stark contrast to Harper’s otherwise stiff family, who crudely refer to Abby as Harper’s “orphan friend.” Autistic people are often known for talking about topics that people tend to avoid out of presumed politeness, especially if we want to show that we care. (Indeed, Jane’s extended welcome hug ends when her mother, Tipper [Mary Steenburgen], insists “That’s enough, Jane.”)

As Happiest Season continues, it becomes clear that Jane is autistic-coded, and that she’s also frequently ignored and invalidated by her family because she doesn’t live up to their often ableist expectations to be who they want her to be in favor of her authentic self. The entire family is obsessed with projecting a perfect image of itself, and it’s clear that Jane has long been dismissed as an inconvenience to that perfection. We learn, for instance, that Jane was relegated to a basement bedroom in childhood to keep her night terrors from disturbing everyone while they slept; when Tipper expresses resentment that none of her daughters learned to play the piano, Jane mumbles that she took lessons for eight years. Jane info-dumps (enthusiastically shares information about a special interest) about the book she’s writing, Shadow Dreamers, at a family dinner until Tipper sharply switches the topic back to memories of Harper’s childhood chicken pox. When bragging about his daughters at the Christmas Eve party, family patriarch Ted (Victor Garber) can summon only one positive about Jane: She’s the reason the internet works in the house. Jane is forbidden from wearing anything that “strobes” in the family Christmas photo, and Tipper physically moves her so that she’s not in the middle of the shot.

In a particularly heartbreaking scene in the car on the way to the ice skating rink, Jane says, “Let me know if you guys need any more room. I can make myself real small.” It’s intended to be funny, but it’s clear that Jane has had a lifetime of shrinking herself at her family’s command. And yet Jane thrives. She has long stopped trying to appease her family and its unreasonably high expectations, and as a result is the one who is most confident and comfortable in who she is. Sloane (Alison Brie), the most serious and intense sister, masks her shame about her career and forthcoming divorce by judging others harshly and competing intensely with Harper. Harper is terrified of being herself in front of her family and instead has become a habitual liar who would rather hurt the woman she loves than disappoint her parents. Meanwhile, without assistance from her selfish sisters, Jane has freed herself from the strain of fitting into her parents’ tight mold and leaned into her individuality and joy.

She dances at high-profile functions instead of making awkward small talk like Harper and Sloane; she gets excited about ice skating with her family; she enthuses over the small details of the family’s Christmas rituals, putting 100 hours into a painting for their white-elephant gift exchange instead of purchasing something generic just to check the box. In contrast to her family’s neutral, polished outfits, she’s not afraid to wear a dress that prompts Tipper to ask if that’s what she’s really wearing for the night. Happiest Season may be primarily about Harper’s indecision surrounding coming out, but Jane makes an interesting foil as a proud, autistic-coded woman who is in no way ashamed to be herself. It’s a shame that Happiest Season didn’t take this one step further and make Jane canonically autistic. Jane is so strongly coded as autistic throughout the film that when Tipper says about her third daughter, “We gave up on her when she wouldn’t stop biting in preschool,” I genuinely thought she was about to say, “We gave up on her when we got her autism diagnosis.”

Coded or canon, it’s a moment that’s moving for autistic viewers—and anyone who’s always wanted to see a character as unapologetically bold as Jane finally get their due.

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In a movie so strongly focused on Harper’s difficulty coming out, it would have been powerful to have another marginalized character dealing with her family’s expectations in a different way. Disability representation on TV and in movies is rare; according to GLAAD’s 2019 “Where We Are On TV” report, only 3.1 percent of characters on TV are disabled. Representation of autistic characters in TV shows and movies is often reduced to harmful stereotypes. As a well-developed character with goals, flaws, and meaningful character development, Jane would have been a welcome change from that. Jane’s arc is to assert herself as worthy and part of the family by the end of the film. “I like myself,” she declares. “Whether you like it or not, I am a part of this family.”

After Sloane and Harper reveal their secrets, Jane announces that although she has no secrets of her own, she is an ally. When her painting is destroyed during the resulting physical fight between Harper and Sloane, Jane says, “It was something. I am something.” Tired of being cast aside as useless because she doesn’t have kids or a high-powered career, Jane wants to be seen. This offers a nice contrast to Harper’s intense fear of being seen by her family, and would have been an even stronger foil had the movie committed to making Jane autistic. It also would have only added to a nuanced perspective on how Tipper and Ted’s standards created an impossible situation for their children, forcing them to either be ignored entirely for being themselves like Jane or pressured to be perfect at the cost of being their authentic selves like Harper and Sloane. Autistic kids are just as capable of being put in a box by their parents, and failure to live up to appearances has an impact on our sense of self the same way it does for non-autistic people.

A canonically autistic Jane would have shown how Ted and Tipper are not only cisheteronormative, often falling into queerphobic microaggressions like referring to Riley being a lesbian as a “lifestyle,” but also ableist, and this could have showcased that oppression is often interlinking. To witness an autistic Jane eschew her parents’ disinterest and demand unconditional love would have been empowering for any autistic viewer who has been dismissed simply because of the way our brains work. At the end of Happiest Season, Jane is still exactly who she always was: proud, loud, colorful, and passionate. It’s one year later and she’s celebrating the release of Shadow Dreamers and the Second Sister at a packed book-launch party, laughing with John and signing books for her fans. She’s thriving, and this time with a supportive family who are likely still unlearning their ableism, queerphobia, and toxic behaviors. Coded or canon, it’s a moment that’s moving for autistic viewers—and anyone who’s always wanted to see a character as unapologetically bold as Jane finally get their due.

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Alaina Leary is a white person with bangs, purple and blue hair, and a colorful dress on. They are smiling and looking down.
by Alaina Leary
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Alaina Leary is the communications manager for We Need Diverse Books. She teaches courses in Emerson College’s graduate department of Publishing, Literature, and Writing. Her work has been published in New York Times, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, Allure, Healthline, Glamour, The Oprah Magazine, and more. She currently lives just outside Boston with her wife and their two literary cats. Follow her @AlainasKeys on Instagram and Twitter.