By: Olivia Visser, Opinions Editor
Netflix K-drama Extraordinary Attorney Woo follows the life of a young autistic attorney, Woo Young Woo, who lives in Seoul with her father. The series is dramatic and charming, while respectfully addressing serious social issues like mental health, labour rights, and sexism. Many western media outlets have attempted to represent autism on screen with little success. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Extraordinary Attorney Woo effectively captures the many challenges of adjusting to adulthood as an autistic person who just wants to fit in. I could really connect with this sense of isolation depicted on screen.
It was emotional to see a show articulate the social aspects of disability so well. Many series pathologize autism by using tropes that focus on “symptoms” or treatment rather than the autistic experience. Shows like Atypical and The Good Doctor medicalize autism by frequently showing their autistic characters in therapy. Autism is more than just a disability — it comes with considerable social stigma and isolation. Fitting in at work and even just engaging in simple conversation is a challenge for Young Woo, and she works through this with her friends and family instead of therapy — everyone’s different.
Part of what made the show more authentic for me was its honest portrayal of autism. Young Woo is far from perfect — she has a lot of difficulty with interpersonal relationships. She often finds herself hyper-focused on particular topics like whales and law, and ends up overlooking how other people feel when she has a goal in mind. Like everyone, autistic people have flaws. This series portrays Young Woo’s flaws as natural instead of demonizing her. At the same time, it celebrates her quirks and mannerisms as differences that can make life more enjoyable.
The problem with autism’s media representation is that it’s targeted towards neurotypical people, who see autistic people’s behaviour but lack an understanding of what goes on inside our heads. TV shows like The Good Doctor and The Big Bang Theory try their best to make autistic people seem aloof, unreasonable, and unrelatable. Because of this, I rarely find myself enjoying shows with autistic characters. Extraordinary Attorney Woo was enjoyable to watch because it often reminded me of myself. Young Woo’s introspective remarks about feeling unfit for society were tear jerking at times.
Genuinely relating to a character is something you nearly never experience as an autistic media consumer, since you have limited and poor representation. Young Woo’s relationship with Lee Jun-ho was familiar and touching to watch, and I appreciated that this show highlights some of the difficulties of navigating relationships as an autistic person. Young Woo repeatedly finds herself more interested in discussing law than her relationship, which hurts Jun-ho’s feelings. She forgets that many people like to be asked about themselves at times, while Jun-ho doesn’t understand that info dumping can be its own love language. It particularly stood out to me when Young Woo expressed frustration with the restrictive nature of her thoughts: “All my thoughts tend to centre around me, so I make people close to me lonely. I don’t know when or why I do that. And I don’t know what I can do to stop it.”
Extraordinary Attorney Woo has its own flaws, despite being one of the more tasteful shows with an autistic character. I had to overlook some blatant clichés like Young Woo having a high IQ and photographic memory. You don’t need to portray autistic people as hyper-intelligent for a show to be interesting! It also has a few content warnings to watch out for: ableism, abuse, suicide, and sexual assault. The most significant criticism comes from those who say Young Woo should be played by an autistic actor. This argument is important. Media representation should start with the hiring process, not with the fictional character we see on the screen. Multiple autistic actors auditioned for Atypical, but a neurotypical lead was hired. Extraordinary Attorney Woo doesn’t have any known autistic cast members, which is a shame.
That being said, I don’t think we should write the show off as unwatchable. It’s important we continue making strides to expand our neurodivergent representation, even if that means we fail at times. I would love to see Extraordinary Attorney Woo return for its second season with an autistic actor, but more importantly, I hope neurodivergence becomes a normality in television rather than being an exaggerated trope.