16 December, 2010

something else about Skins

(stfu you can't imagine how much I love this show)

in 3x04 when Freddie finds JJ at Pandora's party and looks after him--I generally hate Freddie, but he's really sweet in that scene. and the whole fact that Freddie, Cook, and JJ all use the phrase "locked on" to refer to instances when JJ becomes obsessively upset; then people who aren't in the trio, like Emily, also start using the phrase about JJ when he is upset.

I think this is cool for multiple reasons.

We eventually learn that JJ has a diagnosis of "lower autism spectrum" (is this really what they say in the UK?). But the truth is, we really don't need a word to tell us about JJ. Often, pop culture portrayals of verbal people with ASD are very superficial and behavioral. It's hard to explain what I mean by behavioral, but you'll just have to take my word for it that JJ isn't portrayed like that. It's something like...you could watch a lot of clips of the show and not realize that JJ is written and played as having autism. But those moments of his character aren't at odds with the moments in between, where he certainly seems like an unusual person but it could be a lot of things, or the moments when he's quite stereotypically (but not inaccurately) "locked on" or having a meltdown.

He's just himself, the whole time.

As far as we know (well, I'm only seven episodes in, but still, that's a lot) none of JJ's friends know about his diagnosis. I'm guessing Freddie and Cook probably do, but we're not actually told that. The only time words related to ASD have been used are a)when we learn JJ's diagnosis by seeing his diagnostic papers and articles on autism that his mother has, and b)when JJ is upset and calls himself a bunch of slurs: "Retard! Nutjob, headcase, spazzo, mong, autistic fucking fruitcake, mental basket, shitty, in a fucking cuckoo's nest."

The first instance is kind of cheesy forced exposition, but the second is really interesting because we get a sense of autism not by itself, but as part of a whole group of stigmatized conditions. I think it's really--well, I can't say it's more realistic for everyone, but personally, I think that, assuming you're not part of any kind of Autistic culture, and especially if you are really upset about your disability, it makes sense that you wouldn't really identify as having "autism" or "Asperger's" or "ASD," but just as Not Being Normal. After all the idea of abusing someone for being "autistic" is not as established as abuse against people who are "retarded" or "mental baskets." So abuse against people with ASD is often done in the name of another disability that ASD superficially resembles. And therefore, it's not really strange that almost every term JJ uses in his outburst is a derogatory term for people with either psychiatric or intellectual disabilities, except for "spazzo," which I think is generally an insult based on CP and/or epilepsy; "autistic;" and "shitty."

Anyway, where I'm going with this, and with the fact that none of the other characters so far have ever had a discussion about JJ having "autism" or "lower autism spectrum" or "Asperger's," or whatever...is that the tendency to repeat a bunch of diagnostic labels in fiction, or to have a character who constantly "acts autistic," is often done in a clumsy attempt to educate, or to sensationalize the disability. In real life, people with ASD, and the people around us, don't usually behave like this.

The risk is, though, that if an ASD fictional character just behaves like themselves and isn't stereotypically, classically ASD all the time, and we don't use the word much, then consumers may just say, "Oh, I didn't realize he was supposed to be autistic, and he was just a little weird anyway. It didn't seem to really affect him." Which is annoying, because the character isn't really making a difference then. Plus there's the whole sense that if someone's ASD isn't immediately visible to you, then it's not really affecting them. But how do you show effects that aren't as obvious as a monologue or something?

What I think is really lovely in Skins is that JJ's disabled-ness is kind of like a ghost--although it's not something that people intentionally don't mention, like a ghost, but it's just something that everyone is very used to and doesn't state outright most of the time, and it's also something that isn't always apparent.

JJ has two best friends. This already takes him away from the worst of autism pop culture, where he would often be portrayed with no friends. But we soon see that there is something strange in the way Freddie and Cook treat JJ. They say some things to him that are kind of harsh, when he's being genuine ("She's not looking at you"). Cook roughhouses with JJ in a way JJ doesn't seem super thrilled by. JJ seems obligated to go along with all of Cook's plans*. There's an element of bullying in the way the two of them treat him, like he inherently has less authority or less value. At the same time we see Freddie and Cook's tenderness and sense of responsibility toward JJ when he is distraught.

(*I should note that there are some times when Freddie starts asking JJ to keep Cook out of trouble; the relationship between the three of them is certainly not a one-dimensional thing where Freddie and Cook always control, bully, and take care of JJ, but I think that's a very strong element.)

This is a really fantastically realistic and complicated portrayal of a trio of teenage friends, regardless of the disability aspect. But with the disability it becomes almost miraculous. Without the help of words like autistic or disabled (although Cook uses some words related to mental illness), we get the picture: JJ is guileless--which makes him funny, and easy to use--and afraid to stand up for himself, because he sees himself as inferior to other people--which, again, makes him easy to use and push around. He is very loyal to his friends, partly because he doesn't like things to change and partly, I think, because he doubts his ability to make new friends. Freddie and Cook sometimes treat him in a way that's really patronizing and disrespectful. (And despite this fucked up stuff, all three genuinely care about each other, because in real life friends can treat each other terribly without meaning harm.)

We also see that JJ feels guilty because his mom is stressed out about him. Which is really classic disabled kid stuff--real disabled kid, not TV disabled kid--and is conveyed really briefly and effectively.

So we kind of see JJ's disabled-ness, or what it means to him socially at least, through the way Cook and Freddie treat him and the way he reacts; and the way he feels guilty about his mom, and sometimes hates himself for looking like all those words. We definitely see straight-up impairment. But sometimes we see how the experience of growing up as disabled--not specifically ASD, but you know, "spazzo, headcase, fruitcake, retard"--has in some ways really shut down JJ's sense of what he can be and what he's allowed to pursue.

Also--the scene that started this for me, at the party, with JJ getting locked on. Freddie comes to the party, finds JJ, helps him to come outside, and then tells off Effy for not looking after JJ; and Effy apologizes. What I was originally just going to say is that Freddie and Effy are both talking about JJ as someone who needs this particular kind of support, but they're not using any words that are explicitly related to disability. Which is just an example of something that I like and think is realistic.

But another thing is just the complicated thing of being disabled and having friends who don't seem to need as much support as you need. To paraphrase, for the third time on this blog, a line from my favorite book: "They needed to treat him like an autistic person, but they also needed not to treat him that way." How is JJ supposed to say that Freddie's pissing him off and needs to stop ruffling his hair, when JJ was dependent on Freddie to come and rescue him from the party? Thinking about this really kills me. Gosh (oh my giddy giddy giddy aunt?) I love television.

ETA: Really annoyed with JJ's portryal in 3x09 though.


  1. Back when I caught the Skins bug about two years ago, I couldn't believe how much I loved it either.. it really wasn't a show I expected to like.

    Interesed in hearing what you're making of the Emily/Naomi storyline at some point.

  2. sorry dude, I guess I'm just more Autistic than I am gay.
    like, I enjoy Emily/Naomi and everything, but it's not cracking my head open like JJ is. I mean, it's a good portrayal of a lesbian relationship, but we know at least hypothetically what that should look like. I feel like I didn't know what a good portrayal of someone with ASD would even look like until I saw this show, so that's why I won't shut up about it.

    I just watched 3x08 and it made me like Effy. A little. But I still find her and Freddie to be the most annoying characters in the show, especially Freddie.

  3. Ha, everyone hates Freddie. He's the most boring character ever. I think of him and Effy as like an indie Ken and Barbie. Actually Effy is really interesting in series 1+2 and to a degree in 4.. but in 3, no, not one bit.

  4. I related to the complex relationships, especially related to your friends taking care of you and not treating you as an equal together and love still being part of the equation. Can we ever get away from that?

    And, I was wondering where that quote from your favorite book came from.

  5. my favorite book is Send in the Idiots by Kamran Nazeer. it's the best ever.

    and yes, I do think we can get away from that.