1/26/15

The Imitation Game and Autism

Let's talk about The Imitation Game, or rather, let's talk about the print advertisements for The Imitation Game. As you may know, The film The Imitation Game is about British mathematician Alan Turing, who led a team that broke the Nazi code "enigma" during World War II. The print ads, which Deadline notes began in January and are no doubt bent on winning Oscar votes, focus on Turing's homosexuality. One ad reads:

"Alan Turing and his team broke the German Enigma code and saved millions of lives during World War II. Rather than be recognized as a hero, he was persecuted for his sexuality. All these years later, the injustice remains."

As the movie acknowledges (it is no great spoiler), Turing killed himself one year after being arrested for "indecency," which was code for hiring a male prostitute. When sentenced, he had the choice of going to prison for two years or undergoing chemical castration. Clearly, in every sense of the word, Turing's life was ruined--it ended--as a consequence of his being a closeted male in an age when being a closeted male was not only socially unacceptable but illegal.

But I want to talk about something else. If you watch the movie, it it hard to come away with the feeling that, while Turing's postwar life was turned upside down as a consequence of his homosexuality being discovered by police, his life was also affected by his being a person with Autism.

The movie does not say Turing was on the spectrum, but it uses all the tropes that writers and moviemakers use to signal a person is on the spectrum: he is presented as socially awkward and inflexible, he cannot read people, he cannot tell when a person is joking. From his childhood (seen in flashback) to his days working for the military, to his post-war encounter with the police who ultimately discover his homosexuality, the thing that makes Turing stand a part is that which makes him be A part: his autism. His literalness, intransience in the face of authority and change, and his seeming petulance and childishness in the face of opposition--all hallmarks of autism--isolate him from others. In the worst of circumstances they lead to his being tormented and bullied and in the best of circumstances they lead to well-intentioned individuals (namely the Keira Knightley character) having to interpret the world for him and to him. Indeed, the success he ultimately has in breaking the Enigma code--if the movie is to believed--comes only when he is able to marry (nearly literally) his genius to Keira Knightley's social skills assistance.

All of this is a very long way of saying: why are we only talking about his homosexuality? Why is Turing being presented as a hero and a martyr for gay rights but not ALSO as a hero for the autism community?

I'll tell you why: Because making it an autism movie will not earn the movie any Oscar votes. Now--I want to be clear here--I think a movie that starts a conversation about the injustice faced by the LGBT community after World War II is important and I think that conversation is important. But in an age of ever-growing awareness of and diagnosis of Autism, a movie that tries to start a conversation about being on the spectrum is also important--especially a movie that says no less than three times that it is the people we often expect the least of that sometimes achieve the most amazing things.

Here is where we are as a country: We are at a place where we can advocate loudly (and rightly so) for gay rights. We are at a place where we can advocate loudly for more people of color being nominated for Academy Awards (and rightly so). We are at a place where we can advocate for more women in media (and rightly so), but we are not a place where we can even call a movie about a person with autism a movie about a person with autism.

Have you heard the saying, "Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, but backwards and with high heels"? It is sort of like that for Alan Turing: Alan Turing did not just break the Nazi code: he did it while trying to negotiate a social world that dismissed him and that he could only imperfectly fathom. Maybe the next ads going out to Academy voters could focus on that.






14 comments:

Lynne Wong said...

You have an unique perspective. Don't forget though, there was an Emmy award winning TV movie called Temple Grandin in 2010 that stared Claire Danes. And of course Rain Man won an Academy award.

Cathy Perlmutter said...

I agree. To complicate the situation, a couple of weeks ago I read an article that quoted Turing's contemporaries as saying he really wasn't all that socially awkward - quite the opposite - and that the film created/overblew the autism angle. Without naming it, of course. The UN should declare International Autism/Asperger's Year, to help get it out of the closet.

Olga Hebert said...

It is pretty clear society has a long way to go in acceptance of differences in general. To start looking at specifics...well, just discouraging.

Petrea Burchard said...

I think we're all so uneducated about autism and Asperger's; I surely don't know what differentiates the two. I have no idea how many people I know on the spectrum, but I suspect there are more than I'm aware of. One of my friends growing up, a neighbor, a kid I knew in high school...

I would like to think it doesn't matter, but it does. When we've gotten to a point where it's a more regular part of conversation, we will have come a long way.

Ms M said...

Very well stated!

Anonymous said...

Glad to read this,Margaret.

As I work in a large university, I see a great deal more research underway now on autism spectrum illnesses (of which there appear to be more than we might have thought). Temple Grandin, of course -- and her wonderful book and movie -- is now making a slow but steady ripple; and Rainman to a much lesser degree, helped raise earlier, maybe less fully conscious public awareness. But the populous-seeking branch of entertainment tends to be quite fashionable and safely removed from the present in its portrayal of famous or infamous historical figures. You imagine some producer's thinking 'Well, I'm doing a film about this hero who was brilliant and exhibited this behavior -- I don't know -- but he was also gay, and I can more easily get the big box office with two out of three of his character traits-so we'll focus on the more sensational, more familiar.' It's still about safety more often than not.

Foundpoem1

Anonymous said...

I posted last tweet as Anon as I'm too tired & lazy to create yet another web account tonight. Sorry - maybe tomorrow.

FP1

Ann Erdman said...

Apparently in Hollywood autism isn't nearly as chic a topic as LGBT. Perhaps someday...

Petrea Burchard said...

You make an interesting point, Foundpoem. Ann, too. Producers these days no longer answer to movie executives who had power but loved movies. Now producers answer to shareholders, who expect financial returns.

Lynne Wong said...

It just occurred to me that since Aspergers wasn't recognized as a diagnosis until the early 1990's it probably wouldn't make sense in a historical context to talk about it in that movie. I do think it is included in a Hollywood context though. Big Bang Theory and Community both feature very popular characters with Aspergers, in addition to Rain Man (not Aspergers, but autism) and Temple Grandin. Of course it's a concern that's close to your heart so keep up the crusade. It sounds like it could be your next book!

Bellis said...

I'd say Turing had high-functioning Asperger's, which is on the autism spectraum. As the wife of an academic in the physical sciences, where the extreme left brain males (and some women) tend to gather, I'm pretty familiar with his type. Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory is one (he's even at Caltech!) and look how much money that series has made! But as others have said, it's the LGBT audiences that bring in the money nowadays.

Margaret said...

Well, Cathy, your point sort of ruins my whole thing. You can't mobilize a campaign around a person with ASD who didn't have ASD, but as Bellis said, maybe he did. For me, however, the bigger point is how do we talk about people with disabilities. How do we make them visible. There are a few shows, like the Big Bang Theory, that do have characters on the spectrum (and now Asperger's is defined as high-functioning autism), and I especially appreciate when their gifts are celebrated, but I just thought it was interesting, and that it situates the movie and the campaign around the movie in an interesting moment in time when it can be publicized as a gay rights movie but not a disability rights movement. All you are smart. I appreciate your comments.

Margaret said...

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Pasadena Adjacent said...

Patience -- it will happen.

I'm glad to see Ms E standing up with a voice. It's her story. She gets to own it and write it as she sees fit. A trailblazer -- that one. She'll be the voice to lead the way.

When I was a kid I had to keep my condition a secret. It was surrounded by shame. When word got out via well meaning but loose lipped parents? oh, the horror

Now my condition is so trendy EVERYONE has it.