Thursday, 20 November 2014

"I am different too:" on Strange Empire and being lovable

To call media representation of autistic people a "mixed bag" is overstating the case slightly. We have occasionally been granted representations of autistic people shown in a positive light- though they're usually tinged with the narrative of tragic disability, a la Rain Man- but more often, we hear stories of how difficult autistic people are to deal with, how hard we are to love. On ABC's (late, lamented) "Selfie," John Cho's Henry scolds his co-worker for not dedicating herself to "solving the world's problems . . . like autism." The biggest news story currently concerning autistic people is of a mother who threw her six-year-old child off a bridge. She was described as "patient and loving" in dealing with her son. This is considered an anomaly. Autistic children learn quickly and often that we are not easy to love.

When the CBC's Strange Empire was announced, I immediately planned to watch it. It combined a multitude of fictional aspects that I'm drawn to- history, women and the ties between them, the building of communities, and the ways in which we view our own past. But what I didn't know until after I'd watched the pilot was that one of the three main characters- Rebecca Blithely, the medical protege- was actually written and played as an autistic woman. Once I'd been told, I couldn't believe that I hadn't seen it sooner. Rebecca's mannerisms, speech patterns, and general demeanour are all aspects of a life I am intimately familier with- my own. In the supplementary website The Curiosities of Rebecca Blithely, she describes feeling overwhelmed by the weight and texture of a necklace given to her by her husband; I have many memories of breaking down in tears because something in the texture of what I was wearing overwhelmed me. (At one point in my childhood, I recall having a meltdown because one of my boots felt tighter than the other; when asked what was wrong, all I could do was wail "it's uncomfortable!") When Rebecca speaks, she stops and starts, sometimes struggling for the correct words, often hushed by the husband who claims to love her by being told that she is being inappropriate. This is a bitterly familiar experience for people on the autism spectrum; being told we are too loud, too impassioned, too annoying. She wrestles with finding the right words, and with gauging the correct level of discourse for any given situation; again, something I am intimately familiar with. Rebecca Blithely and I share a story: of moving through a world not built for us, attempting to master a language that seems rife with traps and potholes that can easily be fallen into for the unwary.

Rebecca is brilliant, impassioned, and yet unhappily stifled. She is recently married to a fellow doctor, a man who doubles as her adoptive father- a dynamic that the show has not shied away from (although happily, they have refrained from introducing sexuality into the relationship.) She desires knowledge, endless knowledge, and finding herself suddenly stranded in a shanty town outside the constrictions of Victorian society, she is finally given the opportunity to explore. Up until this point, she explains in the pilot, her ability to practice medicine has been limited to papers published under her husband's name ("of course," she says; the suggestion that she be allowed to take credit for her own genius does not appear to have been posed to her) and a series of scientific conventions in which her husband/father put her on display as an abnormal prodigy. "They tell me my abilities derive from my head, which is too small, and my brain, which is overlarge and presses acutely against my skull," she explains. This zooification of an living human being may seem barbaric to viewers now, but it hasn't been so long since the mentally ill or otherwise neurodivergent were locked up in asylums and gawked at by spectators. And this legacy is part of Rebecca's story too: she began life being committed to Bedlam, where she spent her childhod prior to being adopted by Thomas Blithely and his wife. Rebecca's backstory puts on display all the ways in which the different have been dehumanized, denied autonomy, and treated as "less than." But her entrance into the world of Strange Empire means that a change is coming for her. There are no asylums on the frontier. There are no doctors anxious to measure her skull or poke and prod her to see how she'll react. Freed from the society she was born to, Rebecca is finally being given the opportunity to thrive.

And thrive she does- in Janestown, Rebecca comes into her own. She performs a ceasarian section, saving the life of both mother and child. She begins to explore the possibilities of electricity. She is frustrated when she cannot save a patient, but continually offered new opportunities to improve. But in some ways, Rebecca;s intellectual blossoming takes backseat- for me- to what happens to her socially. Rebecca Blithely, a lifelong outcast and freak show, is treated for the first time with unconditional love. In the pilot, when she talks to Kat Loving (a fascinating character in her own right, and due an essay of her own) she sometimes stumbles over her words and rambles without knowing when to cut herself off, but Kat never does it for her: she smiles, congratulates Rebecca on her accomplishments, and generally offers her respect and kindness. Later, in the third episode- after her husband has slapped and berated her for trying to save a patient- she confesses to Kat that she longs to learn more about the human body, and that she disdains the religion she was raised with. All through this scene, Rebecca's posture is tense, her voice clipped; undoubtedly she is expecting another slap, or at least a cold shoulder. But she recieves neither. Instead, Kat smiles at her, and asks her to go for a walk with her. Rebecca, neurodivergent and noticeably different as she is, is accepted unconditionally into Kat's family. And the example Kat sets is followed by others: in the scene after this, Kat's daughter Robin impulsively grabs Rebecca's hand and smiles at her. The step Kat has taken- without doubts, without fear- has started the ball rolling for everyone in Rebecca's social circle to treat her exactly as she should be treated: as a valuable member of the community, who deserves love and respect without reservation.

Rebecca's discovery of a loving home for herself is reflected all throughout the show: we are being presented with a narrative about social outcasts and misfits finding their place. This is made explicit in episode four, where the main storyline is largely concerned with racism against First Nations people. When Rebecca's husband gawks at a Native woman, suggesting that she does not feel pain as white people do- that she is somehow "different-" Rebecca quietly retorts, "I am different too." Seeing the way this woman, Nuttah, is treated, she draws the connection between the two- both have been classified as less than by the likes of Thomas Blithely, and both are worth more than the categorization he offers. Later, when Kat announces her intention to leave her adoptive white children behind for their own good, Rebecca insists that she not do it: "They will see your value," she pleads. The intrinsic value of women like Kat and Rebecca has not been recognized by the world they live in, but here- in Janestown, surrounded by other outcasts and misfits, they are being offered for the first time a chance for untempered acceptance. In the world we live in now- where the different are still treated with hostility and suspicion- is it important beyond the telling of it that we are able to turn on our televisions every Monday and see these women, hearing the statement the narrative is making loud and clear: they are different. And they are valuable.

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