The most important lessons children learn are the dos and don’ts of socializing. They watch how their parents interact with strangers, calculate when someone should speak and determine how often they should share how they actually feel. What may be a normal social cue for some children doesn’t occur in the mind of an autistic child. In fact, autistic children have a completely different understanding of how the world operates. Now that society has become more informed about autism, film and television are able to contribute well-written and respectful narratives of autistic characters.
Netflix’s “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” has garnered a large fanbase with Park Eun-bin’s performance as Attorney Woo, an incredibly bright attorney with autism who is finding her way in the corporate world. Although extremely intelligent and well-versed in her expertise, Woo struggles to fit into the social climate of her work environment. Filled with ups and downs of her adapting to a work environment that doesn’t always understand her mannerisms, Woo Young Woo ultimately prevails because of her grit and passion.
Each case that Woo takes on challenges her to find an alternative way to solve the case and connect with clients. The available ten episodes have Woo deal with a myriad of cases: a wedding gone wrong, familial drama, copyright battle, sentence reduction, class-action, children’s liberation and a disability dispute. Despite the culture of Woo’s firm being very formal, she’s still able to remain her authentic self. Her co-workers learn from her tenacity and also teach her lessons along the way.
Autistic representation began with a few quirky, often socially distant characters who lacked autonomy. Notable representations included characters like Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory,” Tina Belcher in “Bob’s Burgers” and “Temple Grandin” from the eponymous film. While each work represents different worlds and character personalities, they all touch on the complications that come with having autism. Beyond not fitting in, many of the characters live with the stress of masking in order to appear neurotypical. Public opinion started to shift when Netflix released “Atypical.” Much like Woo Young-Woo, “Atypical” protagonist Sam is encouraged by his friends and family to indulge in his interests rather than be isolated. Sam has a job at an electronics store and deals with the growing pains of adolescence which ultimately helps him mature as a character.
This same journey is shown in “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” when she initially meets her boss. At times she appears distant and even has an outburst about her favorite animal, whales, when first discussing her case. The brilliant part about Woo’s character is that her knowledge and her work, as well as hobbies, push her to discover a crucial defect in a case file.
“Extraordinary Attorney Woo” is a breath of fresh air because it doesn’t push harmful stereotypes or treat Woo Young-Woo like a child. Activists and people on the autism spectrum have spoken out against neuro-typical actors portraying autistic characters, like Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” Along with neurotypical actors running the risk of incorporating exaggerated behaviors, writers and directors often infantilize autistic adults. Additionally, Grammy-winning singer Sia faced huge backlash after her film “Music” used Maddie Ziegler to portray the main character who’s autistic. Many people with autism critiqued Ziegler’s performance, saying that it felt more like a mockery.
Portraying mental and neurological disorders in film can be tricky because the representation is sparse. There’s a push for including more autistic actors in autistic roles in hopes of achieving more accurate performances. While actors Park Eun-bin and “Atypical”’s Keir Gilchrist are not autistic, the careful casting, directing and writing for each results in heartwarming performances that speak to many autistic experiences.
Autism in film and television should continue to demand understanding and empathy. “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” captures this truth beautifully by allowing Woo Young-Woo to blossom without feeling the need to conform to neuro-typical cues.
“Extraordinary Attorney Woo” is streaming on Netflix.
By Adia Carter