Fetishizing Cognitive Difference in The Big Bang Theory and Atypical

Curator's Note

In the past two decades Asperger's Syndrome and autism, or the "autism spectrum," have become common subjects of discourse in a similar way to ADHD in the 1990s. Autism has figured prominently in the anti-vaccine movement, and increasing numbers of diagnoses and increasing numbers of representations of this form of cognitive difference in the media have made it a popular subject. The "spectrum" element of autism also makes it difficult to "know," and that very instability and "unknowability" makes it a subject often surrounded by insecurity and fear. Far from representations like Dustin Hoffman's Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man (1988), newer representations in The Good Doctor (2017 - present), Atypical (2019 - present) and the massively popular The Big Bang Theory (2007 - 2019) suggest that our culture is still grappling with autism in a more complex way.

In Rain Man, the cognitively disabled are static Others that provide contrast, depth, and desire to evolve in the abled protagonist. In Atypical and The Big Bang Theory, cognitive difference is integrated into society. However, the shows repeatedly distance and Other the characters on the spectrum. In the clips included here, we see two characters who physically embody this complexity. They are coded as on the autism spectrum (Sheldon is never said to be autistic in the show, but is coded as such), and as such are "different," and "unknowable." At the same time, just like in Rain Man their desire for sexual) intimacy and the comedic nature of the interactions brings a form of ridicule to the situation that, when combined with the "knowable," makes the characters (and by extension their cognitive difference) contained. What is otherwise intimidating, threatening, or disturbing becomes a sexual/commodity fetish of the accessible and humorous.

It is important to recognize that these actors are not on the autism spectrum, and the shows do not make any attempt for us to see the world through the characters' experiences or through their eyes. By looking at rather than through (or even "with"), The Big Bang Theory in particular did not construct the form of empathy or connection needed for understanding or dialogue. We are not seeing through Sheldon's eyes or experiences, but rather gazing at him from the perspective of the "normal." At the same time, Sheldon does demonstrate growth. As the show continued, the affection of a loyal audience necessitated growth within the contemporary sitcom genre, and so the unknowable does in fact progress. Cognitive difference is shown as a disconnect, but also not as Sheldon's only defining characteristic; his relationships become more important, and while not "normal," at the same time are recognizable.

It remains to be seen whether Aytpical, whose ads sometimes have copy that reads "normal is overrated" and "every family is atypical," will do more to show the world through Sam's eyes rather than having us gaze at him, or have us work with him to change (as does the novel and play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time) rather than having his challenges serve as foils for other characters. The question is: at what point does looking at cease being exploitative and instead move towards establishing trust, engagement, and shared understanding? 


This is a great insight and I appreciate your post! While representation matters, when it is always funneled through an abled gaze, what are viewers learning? And when characters like Sheldon, who has had huge reach due to the popularity of the show, are in some ways "forced" to develop as characters to create a satisfying story arc, and not demonstrate how change might happen, if it even can. More voices and more perspectives will help for sure, and I guess we can only hope the vast media landscape will make room for them. 

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