Attorney Woo and the Burden of Extraordinary
Her name is Woo Young-woo. Whether it’s read straight or flipped, it’s still Woo Young-woo. Kayak, deed, rotator, noon, racecar. Woo Young-woo.
If you have Netflix and you haven’t yet given the show Extraordinary Attorney Woo a chance, I highly recommend you do. And if you don’t, I recommend finding friends or family with Netflix to sponge off ASAP.
I didn’t give the show much thought when my dad first eagerly suggested we watch it together. I usually feel unsatisfied with most attempts at autistic representation, often feeling as if I am being told to feel grateful to be reflected in an image that so rarely represents me. I lack many supposed hallmark symptoms of autism and, however well-intentioned their presentation is, most autistic characters are rarely allowed to scratch the surface beyond these stereotypes.
I was surprised when I did not feel that way about Attorney Woo. Though played by a neurotypical actress, Woo’s behavior is a painstakingly detailed recreation of the reality of autism based both on actual autistic people and the advice of experts. Thus, she still displays many of these common symptoms that I lack. Yet I have never felt more keenly represented than in her. Why?
Thinking on it, I have concluded that this is because in many cases a character’s autism is rarely lingered on. They may mention it to make sure their representation is explicit, but even when their symptoms are brought to the forefront instead of glossed over their diagnosis remains strangely talked around. People are rarely able to clock them as somehow disabled unless told so. The word disabled itself is rarely even used. The main cast of characters often accepts their strange behavior and need for accommodations without question (to do otherwise would make them look bad) unless the idea is to portray someone as a jerk. Even when a character faces rejection due to their symptoms, the ableism of it all is rarely named for what it is. Part of this may be to avoid feeling like a PSA, to dodge accusations of being too preachy. I’m sure another worry is allowing a character to be “defined” by their autism.
But Attorney Woo is not afraid to preach to its audience about things that are well worth preaching. And it seems to understand the bittersweet reality that Woo as a character cannot help but be defined by her autism. Rather than try to present itself as the story of a lawyer who just happens to have autism, it is very much the story of an autistic lawyer. Woo’s autism, and what it means to be disabled, is at the core of the show. Because of that, it can speak to the struggles of life with autism directly and with honesty. Even if Woo is not exactly like me, the ways autism affects her life are more than familiar.
Every person with autism is so different. I have often thought that this is the core puzzle around achieving good autistic representation. The show itself, crucially, acknowledges this. One of Woo’s clients is a man with autism, who she struggles to connect with the way others expect her to due to the vast differences in their symptoms. The show avoids the futility of trying to provide representation for every person with autism by instead trying to represent the experience of having autism. Of being disabled in a world that is still so painfully full of ableism. This, more than any of Woo’s individual symptoms, is what I’m sure all of us can connect to.
To me, this show itself is extraordinary. I will not mince words; it is the best piece of media about autism that I have ever seen. Every time I think it is about to blunder into frustrating tropes and stereotypes, or even when I think it already has, it surprises me. A moment where the show openly acknowledges the Nazi origins of the label Asperger Syndrome right when I thought it was about to gloss over them comes
immediately to my mind as the instant it truly shattered my expectations. This show may be light-hearted, but it knows when not to pull punches.
On the surface, Attorney Woo seems like another stab at the already getting tired trope of the autistic or otherwise disabled genius (both ambiguous and explicit). Someone who is so good at what they do that ableism cannot truly touch them. It can inconvenience them, yes, but their genius makes them so invaluable that they cannot be ignored. Their symptoms are endured, treated as eccentricities by those around them because a genius is allowed to be eccentric. They may bemoan that they are only valued for this genius, but at least it lets them plow through the barriers of discrimination. They may suffer in their personal life, but never in their professional one.
This worried me because I have come to have a distaste for this approach to portraying autism in a positive light. Even many advocacy organizations fall into this. I’ve seen some trying to advertise to companies how productive autistic employees can be as if we are a product being sold. If we focus on the idea that autism is not so bad because many on the spectrum are either eccentric geniuses or at the very least good and productive workers, where does that leave those who aren’t? What hope are we really giving the autistic community if we are telling them that to be truly accepted, they must be extraordinary?
But that is not attorney Woo’s story.
I will not spoil the show too much, but each episode uncovers more of the struggles beneath the surface of attorney Woo’s life. Problems that at first seem glossed over always rear their ugly heads in due time, peeling back the curtain to expose the harsh realities present even for those of us on the spectrum who can claim to be living our lives “successfully”. What may initially appear to be the smooth sailing of a genius through life is the perilous voyage of someone just barely getting by. As she rises to meet each obstacle in her path, the show does not glorify Woo for it nor overly pity her. Woo’s struggles are simply a part of her life. She has no choice but to face them.
One of the chief pleasures of the show for me has been watching it with my dad. It can take us quite a bit of extra time to get through each episode, as we often pause it to discuss each poignant and relatable moment. He himself can relate strongly to Woo’s single father, having been my primary care parent while I was growing up.
While we were discussing some detail of the show, he said that he felt its goal was to spread acceptance for those on the spectrum by highlighting how capable Woo is and thus the unfairness of the discrimination against her. I voiced my dislike of tying the respect and dignity we are owed to our potential usefulness. How it ultimately does harm to those on the spectrum, putting pressure on us to prove ourselves.
“That’s well and good to say, and maybe it’s true,” he told me (more or less). “But there are many who believe even neurotypical people that fail to be useful aren’t worthy of dignity or respect. How will you reach those people? What good is a perfect message if it can’t change anyone’s mind?”
I didn’t have a good answer for him, and I still don’t. But I would argue, and did argue, that the show itself is aware that this is not the only message it should offer. Even in the world of Extraordinary Attorney Woo being extraordinary is not enough. Again, I will not spoil, but while Woo is extremely talented it still becomes clear that her talent alone could not get her to where she is. Her disability looms too large, eclipsing all else she has to offer in the eyes of many. Whether Woo ought to try to make it on her own merits alone despite this or take any advantage she can get even if others call it unfair is left refreshingly ambiguous. Rather than the show trying to offer an absolute answer, it is up to you to draw your own conclusions. As it is with many other complicated topics the show does its best to tackle with grace. Still, there is no denying that for Woo it is painful to realize when her best has not been enough. I empathize with that to a truly awful extent.
The show also features other disabled characters, ones whose disabilities more severely limit their supposed “usefulness” to society compared to Woo. Yet the show still argues that they are deserving of dignity and respect and criticizes a world that often offers them neither.
While there is still a strong thread of acceptance through exceptionalism in the show, with Woo winning many characters over or at least earning their respect through her sheer competence, I cannot begrudge it that. This story is ultimately a hopeful one. I am just glad that despite this it is willing to face some of the ugliest sides of living with a disability. Even presented through the simplified filter of legal dramedy, it is reassuring to see my struggles represented like this and to have them treated with such compassion.
I’m aware even as I write this that I am only on episode 10 of a planned 16, eagerly awaiting the release of the rest throughout August. The show may yet find some way to disappoint me, but it has given me the hope that it won’t.
Ultimately, Extraordinary Attorney Woo has reminded me that even if I was unquestionably extraordinary it would not free me of the hardships of disability. That may sound depressing, but to me, it also feels like a relief.