Television Tuesday :: I am not Sheldon Cooper.

29 Nov

There have been very many essays, I’m sure, written on all the ways that The Big Bang Theory is a problem. It’s a problem. It’s a problem in so very many ways and, having unwillingly seen enough of it that I can tell you the entire plot of episodes after seeing a scene of some of them, I consider myself something of an expert. But I’m not going to sit down and rehash the sexism, or the racism, or any of that. Other people can probably do that better. I’m going to address something that affects me personally.

I am not Sheldon Cooper.

Pretty much everyone I know who watches this show without finding it problematic has, at some point, told me and/or mutual acquaintances that I’m a lot like Sheldon, I have so much in common with Sheldon, oh I’m really going to like Sheldon he’s so similar to me. What they mean by this, I assume:

  • I am obsessive about things, including my special academic areas and my favored media, sometimes to the point of near-pedantry.
  • I collect things with a similarly singular focus.
  • I believe that everything has its place and like to keep it there (but am pickier about this in some contexts than others).
  • I am an inveterate nerd.
  • I like answering people’s questions correctly and am not bothered that this might make me seem like a know-it-all sometimes.
  • I am very good at certain things and less that at others.
  • I would much rather stay in with a movie than go out to a club.
  • I enjoy routines and similarity.
  • I am sometimes baffled by social conventions.
  • I have a slightly off, literal sense of humor.
  • I sometimes take things literally in general
  • I occasionally say things too bluntly.

In short: I assume these people have the sense that I am the one of these things that’s not neurologically like the other, and they pick up on the coding that Sheldon is also the one of these things that’s not neurologically like the other. I have me an autism flavor, though they don’t think to use that description, and so does Sheldon. Sheldon is heavily coded neuroatypical, which would be great, we always need more neuroatypical characters in fiction, if… it wasn’t constantly played as a joke or an annoyance or a joke about how annoying it is.

To wit: obsessions, collecting, rearranging, savant skills, voluntary aloneness, routines, confusion about social interactions, literalism, bluntness, all of these things can be found on lists of common autism traits. I personally try to work with these things, putting my obsessions and routines to good use, learning how to mimic social things even if later I have to ask why they’re done, using my literal interpretations for comedic relief. (“In that Sheldon is a character written with a sense of humor, he has a robotic sense of humor,” my dad argued. “It is not the same thing, my sense of humor is that of a highly literate robot,” I sighed.) For a very long time, most of my life, I figured I was just an anxious quirky nerd girl with funny habits, because the way that autism manifests in me is not, necessarily, the stereotype. I exhibit stereotypical autistic behaviors (see above) but I am not a stereotypical autistic person, so the clues didn’t get put together. Some people close to me could see something was there, but they didn’t know what.

Sheldon Cooper is a stereotypical autistic person. He’s a lifelong savant scientist with chronic social difficulties, pedant king of special interests (Star Trek, flags, and that popular stereotype trains), he’s all about rules and routines to the point where it makes everyone around him crazy. He is unflinching. He is insensitive. He is abrasive. He is very knowledgeable in his areas, but basic things like driving cars or comforting his friends or dealing with authority figures leave him stymied. I would go so far as to say there is nothing about Sheldon that couldn’t be part of autistic coding.

And because Sheldon’s behavior is atypical, and because quite frankly Sheldon is a jackass, virtually all of what he does has at some point been a punchline. That’s part of the annoyance I feel when compared to Sheldon. If, presumably, I am being compared to Sheldon for these behaviors, but these behaviors are a joke, does that mean I am also a joke? Consciously, people would say no, but subconsciously? (A trait I get from my anxiousbrain: overanalyzing everyone’s behavior and motivations. Probably because when I was younger I was bad at reading them, so I learned how, and then it became an obsession.)

And furthermore: Sheldon? Sheldon is a jackass. Sheldon is not developed in a three-dimensional way because on that show, like on many sitcoms, nobody is, but the writers took the easy way out and lumped stereotypical autism behavior in with stereotypical jackassery so his unflinching, insensitive, abrasive characteristics are often grouped with his more stereotypically autistic ones. He is a snob, he is more than a little petty, he is stubborn, he is selfish. He is a slew of negative traits that are sometimes lumped in with autism and applied to what people think of as “autistic behavior,” he is a slew of negative traits that I myself have been trying consciously to avoid even since before I started throwing the a-word around because I want more than anything to be good.

So. I am not Sheldon Cooper. I am three-dimensional, I try to be kind, and I am not a joke. I reckon the same is true of many people who get compared to Sheldon.

–your fangirl heroine.

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