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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Drax Isn't Autistic, And Applicability Isn't Enough



I assume that the readers of this blog, like most of America at this point, has seen or at least heard of the Guardians of the Galaxy. I also assume that readers of this blog, like most people on social media within some sort of fandom, have seen this widely circulated post about how a fan's autistic little brother connected strongly to Drax the Destroyer, as he also had difficulties with figurative language. This is a heartwarming vignette in microcosm, that a boy who has difficulties relating to people found solace in a superhero character who also has difficulties with metaphors (albeit due to his species and not his neurology). In macrocosm, unfortunately, it means little for representation of autism in popular fiction and only serves to underscore Hollywood's exclusion of difference, except on carefully controlled terms.

Because while Drax the Destroyer may have similarities to autistic spectrum traits, most notably his inability to grasp metaphors but also his restricted interests; his abilities in battle can be best described as savant-like. Unfortunately, none of that was intentional. In the movie*, Drax is an alien from a species who, like most alien species in fiction written by human beings, has a very restricted civilization with limited diversity of personality. A lack of figurative language is apparently universal across his species, and in the movie it serves as little more than a running gag. Drax no more represents an autistic experience than Groot represents a nonverbal experience, because both are completely fantastical characters who only connect back to real disability experiences if the audience is actively willing to apply those experiences to the characters.

The boy mentioned in the post was able to make the connection because Drax's quirks overlap substantially with his own life experience. The majority of people without autism (including those who have autistic loved ones; would the boy's sister who made the post have made the connection if her brother hadn't brought it up first?) would just see Drax as a big green dolt with some funny lines at his unwitting expense. Other people with autism might also not connect Drax's experiences to their own; I certainly did, even though I completely understand the desire to see other autistic people in fiction (and have even speculated about some characters being on the spectrum). It's incredibly unlikely that Drax would've adapted as an autistic character for this movie, and even if he were, he probably would've manifested as the usual stereotypes of the nerdy and physically incapable savant, who represents a constant burden on his loved ones. He likely would not have gotten any meaningful character development**, such as Drax's admission that his desire for revenge was ultimately just a cover for his grief over the death of his wife and child. An explicitly autistic character probably wouldn't get a wife and child in the first place, instead swearing vengeance for a long-suffering mother or a destroyed model train or any other stereotype that only reflects a disinterested outsider's willfully shallow understanding of the autism spectrum experience.

Of course, that's the larger problem with the Marvel Cinematic Universe; even if it has diverse characters, it's still subservient to the Hollywood Narrative, and demands a straight, white, male, and neurotypical star. Dave Bautista proved in this movie that he's a talented actor as well as an imposing physical presence and MMA fighter, but they wouldn't make him the protagonist of a movie that cost so much to make and was advertised so thoroughly. They'd probably be even less likely to put him in the lead if he weren't covered in green and red paint, and instead appeared as his mixed-Filipino-Greek self. Same goes for Zoe Saldana's Gamora, a Dominican actress whose biggest roles were as a blue elf giantess and as a green alien warrior***. The Marvel Studios movies may have had strong results by casting unlikely choices, but the movies, like the comics before them, still started with all attractive white guys. It might've been a strange casting choice to have Andy Dwyer from Parks and Recreation (a.k.a. Chris Pratt, a.k.a. BERT MACKLIN, FBI) as Peter Quill, but it was a million times more likely that they'd cast Chris Pratt than Aziz Ansari****.

There's still a clear heirarchy of what the producers funding these multimillion-dollar special effects orgies will allow. Handsome white dudes first, women and racial minorities second if at all, disabled characters never (unless as villains). They think audiences are willing to accept raccoons and trees as star characters before the physically and/or mentally "infirm". If audience members with disabilities identify with those characters, bully for them, but it's not going to make a green alien brute anything more than a green alien brute for the rest of the world-- least of all for the people actually making this stuff.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh, and I should be grateful that we even got this little story doing the social media rounds. Perhaps that's just the way representation works, that baby steps are all that can be expected from media aimed at a wide audience. You don't get to complex and sympathetic gay characters like Hulkling and Wiccan before you do the heavy-handed " Northstar is gay and is yammering on about AIDS" story, just like you don't get to Chris Claremont's powerful and alluring Storm before you get years of Stan Lee's***** useless, weepy female love interests. But social media has, for better or worse, made conversations of representation and privilege much more relevant now than they've ever been. And at some point, when real life gives you enough shit and the fiction in which you would normally find solace now appears all too complicit, you just gotta say-- Not. Good. Enough.

* Yes, I'm aware that Drax in the comics is a human spirit placed in a powerful body like Thanos, but that's not really relevant to the films. Just like Thanos in the comics is Jim Starlin's avatar of Freudian themes in love with a literal personification of Death, instead of a generic Big Bad who's yet to actually dirty his own hands.
** In so far as the movie had character developments. As a film, it's extremely predictable, and the humor is its saving grace. Similar to the Pirates of the Carribean films, the absurdist nature of the humor and the talents of its cast are all that stand between it and banality, though at least GotG has more to rely on that one Johnny Depp.
*** Yes, I'm also aware that Saldana was also Uhura, as well as Columbiana, Aisha from the Losers, and plenty of other roles that don't involve explosions, but my point still stands.
**** I would pay so much to see Tom Haverford as Star-Lord. Aziz Ansari has the "Small Name, Big Ego" character down to a science.
***** Edited because I've been aware that Stan Lee did write some great female characters as well, such as Medusa

3 comments:

  1. You need to do more research

    ReplyDelete
  2. You're not being "too harsh", you're just being a fuckin' whiny little douche bag. One of the most powerful beings in the MCU is Professor Charles Xavier, a paraplegic.

    So just shut your stupid trap up about queers and people of color not having significant roles. Nobody really gives a shit, and probably never will. Too bad for you, douche!

    ReplyDelete