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Typical Atypical: Critical Viewing as an Anti-racism Practice

Updated: Aug 11, 2023

Typical…Atypical


“Changing how we see images is clearly one way to change the world.”

― bell hooks, Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies


I like to sit in on the TV shows my daughter watches to give us a chance to have important conversations about the content. Recently she was watching the Netflix show, Atypical. This family drama tells the story of a White heterosexual couple and their two teenage children, one of whom is Sam, an 18-year-old male with autism. The episodes are written to highlight the ways that having autism affects Sam’s experiences with things like friendships, school, family, work, and dating. The show's purpose is to expose neurotypical folks to people living with autism. This is a great idea. Autism is something that is commonly misunderstood. Writing a show that contrasts some other, older films attempting to portray people with autism in an othering way is an important contribution.

The mother in this family is depicted as being self-sacrificing and devoted, and also is shown having an affair. The father is an EMT, who viewers learn struggled to accept their son’s autism at first and left for a short time before returning and committing to being a helpful parent and partner. Casey is Sam’s protective slightly younger sister. She regularly messes with Sam in a teasing way but also watches out for him.


Sam is portrayed as rigid, hyperfocused on penguins and the arctic, blunt, and unaware of social cues/expectations. His character is written to be endearing. Except for the students who tease him at school, it seems that most of the people in his life accommodate, protect, and work to understand Sam.


Critical viewing is a vital aspect of living anti-racism. Both overt and unconscious messages are being sent to the psyche through emotionally concentrated imagery. Media is a major informing influence in terms of social and cultural norms, belief systems, stereotypes, assumptions, and the potential perpetuation of systems of oppression. While Atypical is a show attempting to challenge stigma about neurodevelopmental diagnoses like autism, it cannot be assumed that it is presenting a balanced view that incorporates an analysis of all of the interlocking systems of oppression at play. There is no need to cancel the show entirely, but as an anti-racist practice, discussing the racial dynamics at work in the show is imperative.


As is typical of media centered in whiteness, this show has an interesting way of including representative racial diversity without addressing race as an important and unavoidable aspect of life in the United States. Particularly ignored is the racial privilege of the main characters. The focus on Sam’s autism is placed on top of an identity hierarchy. The racial optics and narratives in Atypical reinforce white supremacy by holding as primary the “goodness” of the central, white characters, giving them license to utilize people of color and women for their growth without ever having to take accountability for their racial privilege. In this way, Atypical is quite typical. In this article, I will discuss side characters in this show that are used to enact racial representation while the most primary aspect of the social identity of these characters is ignored – race. These side characters and the narratives in which they are presented illustrate how even a show with the intention of inclusivity can miss the mark and reinforce divisive caricatures. In addition, I will comment on other problematic themes in Atypical, such as the demeaning of women through patriarchal reinforcement and selectivity about which mental health issues deserve care, treatment, and accommodation.


Typical Race Representation


Casey has a best friend, Sharice, who is played by Christina Offley. Sharice is Black and remains an everlasting side character through all four seasons of Atypical. She is around on special occasions, always supportive and loyal, but never really has any life of her own. Casey is depicted spending the majority of her time with other people, yet affirming now and then that Sharice is her “best friend.” In the final episode of the show, Casey returns to the high school track team, which results in Sharice being bumped to the bench. Casey expresses sadness over this, to which Sharice responds, “I don’t care about running, I just want you.” The optics in this type of scene are not to be overlooked. The only person who matters is Casey – the white girl track star. Sharice is seen as merely a side character in her life, desperate to be included, with no real need to have a place, to be respected and valued, or to actually matter to anyone in the show. Viewing this through a critical lens, one can see the reinforcement of white supremacy and the dehumanization of Black people.


Doug, the father of Sam and Casey, has a work friend, Chuck. Chuck is played by Karl T. Wright, a Black man. The two men are shown sharing some details of their marital relationships and working alongside each other. After Chuck generously and kindly gives Doug the perspective he needs to save his marriage (enter: magical Black person stereotype), this character dies within one week of retiring. So, Chuck worked his entire life, was finally going to get to focus on his true passion, baking sourdough bread with a wife he dearly loves, and instead dies right after retiring. But viewers see Chuck’s value only in relation to Doug and the contribution he made to Doug’s life. Chuck’s death is announced to Doug through a phone call. We never see anyone support Chuck’s wife through the loss. Chuck’s existence is snuffed out as soon as he serves his purpose. Chuck lives on only as a reminder to Doug to live his life and take risks. This is a theme in white supremacy-drenched media that keeps Black characters in service of white characters, sending the message to the audience about who is disposable and who is important. This also taps into the “magical black person” theme that has been laced through countless movies over time, including Driving Miss Daisy and the Green Mile as just two examples.

Such films function to marginalize black agency, empower normalized and hegemonic forms of whiteness, and glorify powerful black characters in so long as they are placed in racially subservient positions. Hughey (2009), asserts that films depicting this theme subversively perpetuate the racial status quo by echoing the changing and mystified forms of contemporary racism rather than serving as evidence of racial progress or a decline in the significance of race.


Elsa, the mother of the family of focus, is frustrated in her marriage and has never forgiven Doug for leaving when Sam was little. She devoted everything to being a mother, and has never really lived for herself. She meets a bartender, Nick, who is played by Raúl Castillo. Here is another example of a side character played by a person of color. Castillo identifies as Mexican-American. Elsa has an affair with Nick over many episodes. They have sex and smoke weed. Then, Nick becomes more human. He loses a friend and requests support from Elsa. Elsa backs away and ultimately ends the affair. Nick’s role in Elsa’s life was not to be a human being, but to be a relief for her. His needs never mattered to Elsa, and his humanity was not affirmed in the story. At one point, Doug finds out about the affair. He kicks Elsa out of the house for a few weeks, and then lets her back in because he is struggling to manage the household. In typical white man fashion, Doug goes to the bar where Nick works, confronts him, says a couple words and punches him in the face. Nick does not defend himself or fight back but “takes the punishment.” Doug leaves and then is somehow willing to work on his marriage with Elsa. This choice on the part of the producers of Atypical is a clear indication that the audience is being encouraged to celebrate and humanize only the white characters. Nick exists only for relief of Elsa’s libido and Doug’s anger. Other than that, he remains an unimportant, sexualized character with no lasting or intrinsic value and no life of his own.


While Doug and Elsa are apart due to the affair, Doug casually meets Megan, mother of a girl with autism in one of Sam’s therapy groups. Played by Angel Laketa Moore, who is a Black woman. Megan befriends Doug through his difficult time, offering support and a listening ear, while also organizing trainings for EMTs about how to deal with people with autism. Elsa displays jealousy and feelings of inadequacy in relation to Megan at several points in the show. Megan is shown as the pursuer of Doug, and her character serves the purpose of giving Doug a road toward a different relationship. She is depicted as self-assured, kind, caring, and straight-forward. While this character is at least shown in a positive light in many instances, she is still only in the script to support the white characters. She is always available to Doug, even when he shows up at her house unannounced in the middle of her support group. She is available to him as a potential person to date with no scenes showing her own potential struggles with considering dating a white man. Megan is never shown setting boundaries or wondering if Doug might be too fresh out of a separation or unaware of his privilege as a white man, or how her Black daughter would feel about her dating a white man – all things that she would be considering in such a situation. This colorblind, male-focused view dehumanizes Megan as a Black woman. Once Doug decides that after kissing Megan he is going back to Elsa, viewers do not see Megan again. She served her purpose as a character who only existed for the enlightenment and experimentation of the white male character at the center of the story.


Julia, Sam’s therapist, is another character played by an actor of color, Amy Okuda. Amy Okuda identifies as American, and is of Japanese descent. She is depicted as a therapist with a purpose to support people with autism due to her own experience with a family member with autism. While she starts out as a character to be respected as a professional, the story gradually unfolds to show her breaking professional boundaries, allowing the white family members to come to her home and to talk about personal content in public many times. She is also sexualized by being Sam’s crush, who tells her he loves her in her office.


In addition to the side characters in Atypical who have BIPOC identities, another notable theme is the anti-feminist treatment of the characters who are women. Throughout the show, Sam’s well-being is managed and cared for – he goes to therapy and groups and everyone around him works to understand autism so they can support him best. Meanwhile, Casey, Paige, and Beth are in need of help and never receive it.


Casey is shown having intense anxiety related to track. She is not sleeping, not eating, biting her fingernails until they bleed. Her parents randomly notice some of this, but just keep focusing on her achievements and getting her ready for track. Throughout the show, Casey complains about feeling invisible due to the strong tending to Sam throughout her life, but it is never addressed. Her anxiety is never treated. She quits track and leaves the school she is attending, but no one ever helps her find therapy or any other type of treatment for anxiety.


Sam’s girlfriend, Paige, is created as a strange, nerdy, character who seems to have obsessive-compulsive disorder features and has random outbursts of rage that alienates her from peers. She is also depicted as a feminist, which does not match her behavior of being okay with Sam locking her in a closet because “she was talking too much and touching his stuff” or clearly not having her needs met in a relationship but staying with it just because Sam proclaims he loves her. While Paige acts in bizarre and non-neurotypical ways throughout the show, never once is it mentioned that she may need therapy or support. Never once do any characters attempt to learn more about why Paige acts the way she does. She is just made fun of and tolerated despite her strange behavior.


Beth, Casey’s boyfriend’s sister, is shown as being obsessed with baking and excessively cheerful. When Casey breaks up with Beth’s brother, Beth is shown as going on a rampage, sending videos to Casey of her destroying her baked goods as a way to express her anger. Not only is this playing on a stereotype about full-bodied people loving sweets and baking, but it reduces Beth’s entire happiness in life to whether or not her brother has a girlfriend. She is portrayed as a child-like, ridiculous teenager who has no life of her own. All of these white female characters are written in a way that reinforces the idea that women should not be taken seriously, and are truly side characters in the lives of men. While everyone is charmed and impressed at Sam’s attempts at communication and connection, Casey, Paige and Beth are left begging for attention and relegated to immature, bizarre ways of behaving.


While I understand that not every side character in a television series can have episodes devoted to fleshing out their narratives, there are choices made in Atypical that show the glaring oversight of the producers, writers and directors. Critical thought about race, the sub-conscious meanings in the optics being fed to the audience related to race, and the perpetuation of white supremacist themes were not considered.


As an anti-racist practice, critical viewing is essential in a world where we ingest images and stories as a part of our daily lives. It is important to step back and think about what we are seeing, and question the themes and depictions that are pretending to challenge the status quo set by systems of oppression while actually reinforcing it.


“We keep coming back to the question of representation because identity is always about representation. People forget that when they wanted white women to get into the workforce because of the world war, what did they start doing? They started having a lot of commercials, a lot of movies, a lot of things that were redoing the female image, saying, “Hey, you can work for the war, but you can still be feminine.” So what we see is that the mass media, film, TV, all of these things, are powerful vehicles for maintaining the kinds of systems of domination we live under, imperialism, racism, sexism etc. Often there’s a denial of this and art is presented as politically neutral, as though it is not shaped by a reality of domination.”


― bell hooks, Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies



References


“Hughey, M.E. Cinethetic Racism: White redemption and Black stereotypes in “Magical Negro” Films. Social Problems, Vol. 56, Issue 3, pp. 543-577.DOI 10.1525/sp.2009.56.3.543.




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