Those of you who write or read may be familiar with the trope of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”, a term coined by critic Nathan Rabin to describe the sort of love interest who exists only to teach young males how to experience life and make them better people. These girls aren’t real characters in a three-dimensional way. They don’t exist for themselves or their own happiness. They are creations whose purpose is only to support or provide a catalyst for growth for the man who spends time with them.
But what does this have to do with autism?
Well, think back to one of the most famous autistic characters of all time: Rain Man, aka Raymond as portrayed by Dustin Hoffman alongside Tom Cruise. I’m sure all of you are familiar with Rain Man. It’s not a bad movie, really, it’s just the public’s reaction to it has been… disappointing. Rain Man has come to represent all autistics (despite the fact that the majority of us are not savants) in the minds of many people, and the stereotypes about us have been reinforced by all the many portrayals trying to copy Rain Man as if it’s the only way to be autistic.
I don’t want to do a full review of Rain Man, or a full examination of the impact of Rain Man. It’s been reviewed by better minds than mine, been written about constantly, and there’s not much new to add to the subject. But I do want to address one fact about it, a trope that the entire plot is based on.
Rain Man/Raymond only exists to help the non-autistic character played by Tom Cruise grow as a person. He does not exist for himself or his own happiness. He is a creation whose purpose is only to support and provide a catalyst for growth for the man who spends time with him.
This is not an uncommon trope. There are tons of stories out there about characters with various disabilities ranging from mental difficulties (Rain Man) to physical ones (Me Before You – which also buys into the incredibly harmful and appalling “better dead than disabled” trope) that aren’t really about those characters, but the person next to them. Whether it’s a family member, friend, or love interest, these characters only exist to teach a non-disabled person a life lesson of some kind. Like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, this is a sort of objectification of our existences. We are turned into teaching props. Tools.
I don’t want to be a tool.
These sorts of stories are often (possibly always) written by non-disabled individuals, and similar tropes exist for essentially every sort of minority or perceived minority character. While I’m sure the creator’s intentions are mostly harmless (they may even think they’re doing good for the people they’re representing), using us as props to teach others lessons is dehumanizing. The problem with this is the same problem as with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl – it portrays a group of people as supporting roles for others rather than the stars of their own story. It almost removes them from their own story by putting the spotlight on someone else, someone the directors and writers think is more ‘universal’ and whose perspective will sell more tickets. But the ‘default’ isn’t representative of the entire population, and a variety of voices is good for showing that those voices do exist. We need variety and diversity, representations of all types. Autistic people deserve our own stories that accurately portray us as the protagonists and heroes of our own lives, rather than as background and support for the non-autistic people in our lives. We are not teachers. If we teach people in our lives something, that’s incidental, not the purpose of our lives. That should be a side plot. The purpose of our lives is whatever we want to make of it, and to be happy for ourselves.
So, Autistic writers, keep writing. We need you in the world. Everyone with any disability who writes, keep at it. Put your perspective out there. Actors, keep auditioning. Directors, keep going. One day we’ll break in, and we can be the stars in our own story and maybe finally teach people that we’re not tools or props, but the main characters in our own stories.
I am the hero of my own story. And you are too.