I’ve been watching the Korean Netflix show “Extraordinary Attorney Woo.” The short version of what I think is that the show has hugely problematic elements made cutesy by how female leads are often portrayed in Korean shows, but also that it is redeemed by how sensitively they handle the main issues of autistic people trying to just be, and the people who care about them.
Perhaps autism made cutesy is how people perceive the path to societal inclusion? I certainly feel like Americans and South Asians think this way too. Lots of folks love disability inspiration posts, or autism mom blogs where people share nicely photographed home baked cookies with their kid, and everyone thanks their deity for the treat before eating in front of a cozy fire, while the family dogs wait for crumbs.
Snark aside, I am enjoying the show, though I wince when they resort to simplistic imagery. The main character (who I wish had been played by an autistic actress) is Woo Young-Woo, a law school graduate who is autistic. She is newly employed at a prestigious law firm. She lives with her father. She likes only seaweed sushi for meals. And she loves whales. Oh my god, the whales. They are a trope for every epiphany she has.
I keep remembering a family friend who visited us when I was a kid. He was working in a Middle Eastern country, where tv censorship was taken seriously. Every time someone kissed in a scene or anything else considered immoral, the local stations would interrupt the scene with dolphins leaping up out of the sea. He laughed so hard telling us this factoid, we were laughing helplessly too. And because of Attorney Woo, I conflate dolphins as moral censors and whales as epiphanic symbols, and start laughing all over again.
It’s cringey, though. I know they want to show that Woo has a special interest, but it reads more like how we as parents, teachers etc try to guess what our non speaking kids are saying, and work on those assumptions. So similarly, a show made by neuro typical people falls into the trap of not knowing how to traverse how exactly the character makes logical connections as she works on cases, so HERE, HAVE A WHALE. And that way, maybe we the audience won’t notice the preposterous leaps? But also, we will say Look at her, being a savant.
The episode I want to focus on is Season One, Episode Three, called “This is Pengsoo.” My hat is off to how much meaning is layered in every episode, by the way. But you must watch it and see for yourself.
Anyway, in this episode, a couple who look to be in their early fifties return to their fancy apartment, and find one of their sons appearing to attack his brother, who is lying on the floor, and is declared dead. Attorney Woo is assigned to the case because the accused is autistic, and her boss thinks she might be able to connect and communicate with him.
So many of the things we deal with all the time are highlighted in this episode, so I can excuse the cutesiness to some extent.
One: People discordantly assume, both that an autistic person who is able to be more independent has no commonality with someone with higher needs, AND that they will magically understand each other.
Two: Challenged by how to communicate with the accused, Woo asks her own father what it’s like to exist with an autistic person. He tells her “It’s lonely. For me, it’s you and me against the world. But you don’t have any interest in me.”
POW. I know my kids love me, but yes. Though I wish the dad had spoken of how most of our isolation is due to lack of care by the larger world. I would not want any autistic person to feel like they are a burden, nor should any kid (regardless of neurology) grow up feeling like they have to be their parents’ bestie.
Three: Woo figures out that the deceased brother was attempting suicide by hanging due to academic pressure, and that it was not his first attempt. The accused had witnessed all those attempts, and had become unable to sleep, endlessly vigilant. In a journal found behind a bookcase, the deceased had written that at times, his autistic brother’s anxiety and concern were his only motivation to keep living. The accused had not killed his brother, and was in fact trying to revive him.
Again, POW. There is such a flow of unspoken but understood love between family members. In no way do I wish to minimize that many families do deal with violence from autistic teens and adults. But I appreciated that the focus here was on how keenly the depressed young man perceived his brother’s adoration and worry.
Four: The parents of the two young men do not wish to have their autistic son exonerated by these facts because that would mean that the suicide would become public knowledge. So basically, they want their autistic son to be defended as guilty of murder but mentally unfit to stand trial.
It is a dramatic portrayal, but yes. Everyone is always so much more invested in the reputation and halo polishing of neuro typical people. Here, the parents are not thinking of how proud they should be of their son, who attempted such a courageous rescue of his brother. And even if he had not known to try to save him, which is more realistic, the fact is that they choose the path which conceals their shame.
Five: Attorney Woo becomes a liability to the case because the prosecution decides to paint her as such. They argue that either the accused is as capable of standing trial as Woo is of doing her job, or Woo is as unfit to do her job as the accused is to stand trial. Which is it? She ends up having to step down as the defense attorney, a decision she makes after reading the pitiless comments online about the accused, and all the attendant fear mongering about his supposed capacity for violence; the higher value people automatically place on his dead brother’s life.
I hate this. But this is how systems are. Too many autistic people end up in prison. In the end, the parents reverse their decision to conceal the suicide; and the judge questions the accused herself, and determines that he is mentally unfit. So why did Attorney Woo have to be publicly humiliated? Her disability dragged out and disclosed to discredit her work?
We know why. Because it’s important to show that society does not trust autistic people to speak about autism. And this mistrust is one of the biggest barriers to actually opening the world up to autistic folks. Because then we would have to provide accommodations based on what self advocates say they need, rather than deciding for them. Talking over them.
Six: To our surprise, Woo’s boss hands the case over to a colleague he hates rather than abandon his underling and replace her. I hate that this action is even necessary. But it resonated with me: how we are read for filth when we stand by our autistic loved ones beyond whatever point outsiders deem reasonable. People cannot fathom why we would give up our privilege in the wider world.
Seven: Woo hands in her resignation. Because once one prosecutor has tried this angle of questioning her intellectual capability, it is always going to be a tactic. In this moment, at the end of this episode, she is defeated by the refusal of her profession to see an autistic person as anything but a subject. Acted upon. Without agency. Not belonging in a courtroom. No whales can shield her from that scorn and erasure.
Eight: Even after all that litigation, it never occurs to the court that the autistic man’s parents might need support services. This is the part that infuriates me the most about people who are given too much power to decide where our loved ones belong. They don’t think about how the family is living when they’re out of the public eye, and that parents may be in dire need of help that never comes.
If a show like this can uncover for people who only dabble marginally in disability issues how nuanced the issues are, and how many barriers to respect, safety, and independence exist for autistic people, I am all for it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I am, and I look forward to future roles in tv shows from all countries played by actually autistic actors.