Happy Valentine’s Day!
I have a pathetic affection for this holiday. Sure, it’s a grossly problematic event dedicated to perpetuating the cultural ideal of heterosexual monogamy via capitalistic consumption. But—thanks to social conditioning too relentless and insidious for me to resist—I’m actually a sucker for the popular idea of romantic love. As sheepish as I am to admit it, a holiday dedicated to the idea of “love” (minus the focus on material consumption) is actually okay by me. And of course there is an infinite variety of different kinds of love and relationships to celebrate today: altruistic love for one’s fellow human beings, kinship relationships, friendships, platonic romance, self-love, et cetera.
For just this one post, I’m taking a little break. I’m going to invoke the ideas I brought up in a previous post about “finding autism” in popular fiction, and just dedicate a little Valentine’s love to a few fictional ladies who might be on the spectrum.
I’ve already discussed a couple of these characters before in this series:
In my entry on Lisbeth Salander I pretty much just accepted that Lisbeth has Asperger syndrome, but Steig Larsson left the matter ambiguous. Whether or not Lisbeth is really a feminist heroine is also a topic of debate, and she certainly isn’t an unproblematic figure. She kicks a staggering amount of ass, though, and I love it.
Mattie Ross of the Coen brothers’ True Grit was my first foray into mapping autism onto a character who is not usually read as autistic. I used the word “mythic” to describe both Mattie and Lisbeth because both of them, in their relentless efforts to exact vengeance, are evocative of the Furies. Part of what makes Mattie awesome is her sheer gumption—or her “grit,” I suppose. She is smart, fearless, and forthright, and she couldn’t care less what other people think of that.
Temperance “Bones” Brennan is a pretty obvious choice because lots of fans speculate as whether she has Asperger syndrome, and the show’s creator has conceded the possibility. I don’t watch Bones regularly, but when I find myself in front of a TV and it happens to be on, I enjoy watching it. It’s ridiculous, but so what? Because the show is carried pretty much entirely by the sexual tension between the protagonists, Bones’ character is unfortunately defined by her relationship with a man. Nonetheless, she’s brilliant at her job and generally doesn’t take anybody’s shit.
Pearl Prynne of Natheniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter seems like a random choice, I know. But she’s a really weird kid. Her strangeness is manifest in her socially inappropriate bluntness, her apparent fearlessness, her disconcerting insight, and her fixation on the titular scarlet letter affixed to her mother’s breast. Pearl is deliberately portrayed as “otherworldly” in the text. Autism didn’t exist in the 1600’s, but Pearl’s particular brand of strangeness might, in a contemporary context, possibly be understood as autistic.
Of course Hawthorne meant for Pearl’s oddness to be symbolically linked to Arthur Dimmesdale’s denial of his affair with Hester. At the novel’s climax when Dimmesdale publicly confesses and thereby acknowledges Pearl as his daughter, she magically (and disappointingly) becomes a “normal” child, wholly of the human realm, as if a spell has been broken. She leaves America and eventually marries into English aristocracy—or so we’re led to believe. Of course there’s always room for re-interpretation and re-imagination. In the spirit of The Third Witch and Thornfield Hall, perhaps someone ought to write a novel that features an adult Pearl Prynne as an eccentric and self-possessed American wandering Europe in the late seventeenth century.
Luna Lovegood. Does anything more need to be said about Luna’s awesomeness? It might be a stretch to interpret her as autistic, but given her mannerisms and character-defining fixation on imaginary (or not) creatures, it’s within the realm of possibility.
Amélie, the title character and protagonist of the hit French film about a quirky and naïve young woman who obsessively dedicates herself to brightening the lives of others.
Seven of Nine isn’t autistic, she’s a cyborg. As a Borg drone forcibly disconnected from the Collective, though, she faces the challenge of integrating into human society. She has to learn the social cues and emotional sensitivity that seem intuitive to other members of the crew.
Seven of Nine’s character is often derided as fan-service to satisfy the gaze of straight male viewers. When it comes to portayals of strong and compelling female characters in Star Trek, and specifically in Voyager, Seven gets overlooked in favor of Captain Katherine Janeway, who is one of the very few prominent female characters in any of the Star Trek series who isn’t hypersexualized. Here’s the thing, though: When I was ten and eleven years old watching the original run of the series with my family, Seven of Nine was my favorite character, and it wasn’t because of her skin-tight costumes. Like Lisbeth Salander, she isn’t afraid to kick some ass. Until she’s awkwardly shoe-horned into a relationship with Chakotay, she is competent, self-possessed, and complex without needing to be defined by a romantic relationship. And while she does integrate into the community onboard Voyager, Seven never fails to realize how her Borgness has defined her–sometimes in positive ways. Altough she eventually comes to terms with her traumatic past, she stubbornly identifies as Borg as well as human and remains a little bit proud of the Collective, no matter what anyone else thinks or says.
Ruth Fisher is a little more obscure. She’s (arguably) the titular ugly stepsister of Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, a novel that re-imagines the story of Cinderella in fifteenth century Holland. Like Pearl Prynne, Ruth inhabits a historical context where autism doesn’t yet exist, but one can infer from the text that today she might be understood as a nonverbal autist. Also like Pearl, Ruth is perceived as otherworldly (as somewhat infernal, actually) and it is fancifully suggested that she might be a “changeling.” Ruth doesn’t seem like a terribly prominent character for most of the book, but the end of the novel reveals her depth of insight and self-awareness. Ruth is awesome because she puts up with an unbelievable amount of shit without losing her own shit (for the most part) or her sense of perspective.
So that’s my modest little list of possibly autistic ladies in fiction who I think deserve a little acknowlegement this Valentine’s Day. They aren’t without problems (A cyborg? Didn’t I just talk about that in my last post?) but there’s something there to admire or at least to explore.
I know I’ve asked before if you can think of any potentially autistic characters in fiction, but now I want ask the slightly more specific question: Can you think of any awesome female or otherwise non-cis-male characters who might be thought of as on the spectrum?