I’ve decided it’s about time for me to talk about Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory again. Specifically, about how he is so completely portrayed as a stereotype of Asperger’s, yet the show never just comes out and says so. Even more specifically, about the reasons the show’s creators have given for why they are refraining from doing so, and how utterly offensive those reasons are.
This is a topic that has been bubbling around in my head ever since I first encountered it, as well as the blow-to-the-gut feeling I had upon first hearing a rough outline of the justifications for not giving Sheldon the Aspergers label. Fair warning – this is an emotional enough topic for me that I’m probably going to have some trouble writing it. Also, I am not always very good at unpacking and explaining why something is problematic and/or offensive, and I’m not sure I am going to have all the words I need to do it justice or fully explain my feelings. Still, I am going to try.
So basically, apparently lots of people have questioned whether or not Sheldon has Aspergers. Enough so that there are multiple articles out there talking about it, and the show’s creators have talked some about why they have not and will not give Sheldon that particular label. The problem is I happen to find all their reasons deeply problematic and offensive. I figure I’ll just go over them and try to unpack their problems in no particular order.
Number one on the list is that if he’s afflicted with a real disease, how can his friends mock him the way they do? [link]
Alright, if that’s what they are going to declare “number one,” then that’s where I’ll start. The first problem that jumps out at me is the fact that they call autism a disease. Autism is NOT a disease, not at all, and it is incredibly offensive to call it that. Autism is a condition, a syndrome, and can also be termed a disorder as well as a developmental delay. It is not, not at all, a disease. A disease is something you have. Something that happens to you, but is separate from who you are. Autism is a difference that is there from the start, and will always be there. It is about how I think and view and interact with the world. For me, and many others, it is an identity.
However, there is another matter deeply problematic in this statement of theirs. One thing more or less everyone I come across in the autism community agrees on regarding Sheldon Cooper is that the Sheldon jokes (very nearly all of them) are autism jokes. Some of us find them funny, others of us find them offensive, but all of us recognize them for what they are. So when I read that sentence up there, it sounds to me like they are saying they want to mock autism and make autism jokes (because, you know, that’s exactly what they’re doing), but they don’t actually want to admit to it. Personally, I am not in the least bit impressed with that. I would much rather people just admit that they are making jokes about Aspergers rather than look away and deny it because, I don’t know, they might feel bad if they own up to what they are doing.
Our feeling is that Sheldon’s mother never got a diagnosis, so we don’t have one.
Well that doesn’t make any sense at all. It does, however, reflect some ignorant attitudes I’ve seen around occasionally, that seem to assume that Asperger’s has been on the books as a diagnosis more or less forever. In reality, Aspergers only made it into the DSM in 1994, and even then it was fairly obscure. It wasn’t until 2000 or so that it really started becoming a thing. Occasionally I encounter people who believe that if someone did not get a diagnosis in childhood, that must mean they weren’t really challenged and thus their perspectives as adults don’t mean much. This is very far from the truth, and I imagine many adults who are being diagnosed today would have been diagnosed as children, had it been known. Sheldon’s mom not getting him a diagnosis means *nothing whatsoever.* That particular justification sounds, at best, like a bad cop-out. At worst, it sounds like an echo of the harmful attitude that people diagnosed in adulthood must not have had significant problems as children.
Instead of the writers having the freedom to make Sheldon as anal and nerdy as they like, they would be constrained by the nature of the ailment.
Parsons and the show’s writers have very carefully avoided labeling Sheldon as having an ASD, because they’ve said they don’t want to be limited by what an autistic person would or wouldn’t do. [link]
Ok, I’m going to address these two together, because they are more or less the same thing, and have the same problems. Here, they are saying that if they actually labelled him with an ASD, they would suddenly find themselves writing a personification of autism, rather than writing, oh I don’t know, A CHARACTER. As though if you give someone that label, suddenly EVERYTHING they do is about that label or comes from that label.
It’s like they’re saying they would do exactly what ada hoffmann asks writers not to do in her livejournal post here. When you write about autism, there is absolutely no need to reduce the autistic character to only autism, or (even worse) to only the deficiencies of autism. In fact, it is it is a fairly horrible thing to do, because it denies us our humanity, our agency, our flexible, dynamic, and incredibly diverse selves. That is not ok at all. Labelling Sheldon with Aspergers would not suddenly limit him, and it is not ok to act like it would. It really says something about what they think of those of us on the autism spectrum – and what it says is nothing good.
As for “limited by what an autistic person would or wouldn’t do,” well that’s an interesting statement. Exactly what limits are those, anyway? Ari Ne’eman is a white house appointee, and founded the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. Alexis Wineman was Miss Montana and made into the top 15 for Miss America. Jessica-Jane Applegate won a gold medal in the paralympics. If you browse through ThAutcast’s facebook page, you’ll see autistic musicians, autistic artists, autistic people who play any variety of games, autistic people with intellectual gifts, the list goes on and on and on. Tell me, what exactly are these limitations on what autistic people “would or wouldn’t do”?
In reality, there is no reason that Sheldon would lose anything if he were labelled with Aspergers. Not unless the writers decided to do so, and if they did it would ENTIRELY be something they chose to do. Not something they were forced to do because of the label.
But by not defining Sheldon, they’ve inadvertently captured an important aspect of autism, which is that the disorder has common tendencies, but flexible boundaries.
No. Well, yes in that they are showing that “the disorder has common tendencies, but flexible boundaries,” but it is not at all *because* they did not define Sheldon. As I said above, they could still do so if they said he had Aspergers. In fact, it would be incredibly offensive (and downright wrong) if giving him that particular label changed any of that. And really, the author of that quote admitted, right in that sentence, that labelling Sheldon as being on the autism spectrum would not (or at least should not) have lost that aspect of autism.
Not unless the writers decided that they would do it that way. Which would be predictable, but wrong.
In the writers’ minds, calling it Asperger’s creates too much of a burden to get the details right. [link]
You know what… at least this one is honest. Everything so far has shown significant ignorance about Aspergers on the part of the writers/creators, to the point of being really quite offensive. Clearly, they do not know Aspergers well enough to be able to write about it, if they actually believe all the things I talked about above. While I am internally facepalming about their worrying about “details,” there is no question that they would at least need to learn enough to rid themselves of their misperceptions and prejudices. That said, I am disappointed with their decision, as well as their attitude that it would be a “burden” to learn even the basics of autism.
Personally, I would love to see Sheldon get diagnosed with Aspergers (or other ASD). It would not at all need to change the way he is portrayed, nor would it need to reduce him to “autism traits.” He could be just as eccentric, dynamic, and funny (or offensive, depending on your point of view) as ever, with all the randomness he sometimes has.
And really, this post is not purely about the fact that the creators of The Big Bang Theory have said offensive things about Aspergers in their justifications to not label Sheldon. They have simply expressed the same misinformation that already surrounds us. The fact that people seem to so readily accept their justifications just further shows how far the ignorance goes, which is a big reason why I wanted to write this. These attitudes and beliefs are wrong. They are offensive. And they need to stop.