The Symmetra Test

In a 1985 comic strip for Dykes to Watch Out For, Alison Bechdel inadvertently created the Bechdel Test, a tool used by feminists to critique media narratives. The rules are:

  1. The movie has at least two (named) women in it…
  2. …who talk to each other…
  3. ….about something other than men.

The test is NOT an indicator of a film’s overall quality (it is possible for a movie to past the test but still be sexist, or for a film to have empowering female characters who don’t talk to each other), and it was originally meant to highlight a lack of lesbian representation, but it does do a good job of highlighting a troubling trend in media.

Since then, there have been other tests. They include:

  • The Mako Mori test: a) at least one female character b) who gets her own narrative arc c) that is not about supporting a man’s story (this is mostly used for women of color)
  • The Furiosa test: the film makes the Internet angry for being ‘feminist’
  • The Babs and Kara test: the female characters are distinguishable and recognizable even if they were wearing identical bathrobes and their hair was covered (a critique of ‘same face syndrome’)
  • The Sexy Lamp test: if the woman can be replaced by a literal sex object, would the plot change at all
  • Ellen Willis test: would the character’s role in the story be the same if their gender was reversed
  • The Aila Test: a) is the character an Indigenous or Aboriginal main female character b) who does NOT fall in love with a white man c) who does NOT end up raped or murdered at any point in the story

You can read more about media tests HERE.

As an autistic person, I feel like there should be a similar test for autistic people. Representation for autistic people tends to be few and far between, and the most prominent examples tend to be stereotypical. So, I decided to create my own test: The Symmetra Test.

Here are my rules:

  1. Is there an autistic or autistic-coded main character
  2. Who ISN’T a white man
  3. Who ISN’T infantilized by the narrative or other characters

The test is named for the character of Symmetra of the game Overwatch, who is an autistic woman of color who is definitely seen, depicted, and treated as an adult.

If the autistic character in question is a child, they can behave like children, but it has to be appropriate for their age. So characters like Vanellope (who’s 9) from Wreck-It Ralph and Laura (who’s 11) from Logan, two characters I see as autistic-coded, would pass because they’re children but they’re not treated like literal infants or toddlers. Characters like Peridot would not pass because she’s at least a few hundred years old but is treated by both the crewniverse and the fandom as a baby.

The test is not a be-all, end-all indicator of quality autism representation and is not meant to discount white male autistic characters (as long as they’re not infantilized or rely heavily on stereotypes). This test is to bring attention to the fact that so few autistic or autistic coded characters are non male or non white, and fewer still are treated age appropriately.

If you’re autistic, let me know if you think there should be any amendments to this test, or if you can name any characters who would pass! I’d love to hear some feedback.

I hope this test can help bring attention to more autistic or autistic-coded characters of different genders and races, as well as help people when making any autistic characters of their own.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Writing an Autistic Character

In a world where autism is often portrayed in a negative light in media, a lot of people (myself included) create autistic headcanons to give to popular, positive characters who exhibit some characteristics of autism without being overly stereotypical. Yet canonically confirmed autistic characters do exist.

Here’s a (possibly incomplete) list. What really sticks out to me right away is that almost all of them are white men.  One of the biggest problems of autism in the media is that it’s portrayed almost exclusively as a white male thing. This results in autistic girls and boys of colour getting misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all, and raises stereotypes.

Some of the portrayals vary widely. Sheldon Cooper is a stereotype and his autism is often treated as a joke, so that’s not good (and his show is extremely unpopular, so that doesn’t help). Gil Grissom (from CSI: Crime Scene Investigation) is brilliant. He’s smart, a competent leader, is able to look at things from a unique point of view, is shown to be capable of loving others, is a hero, and is a multifaceted, layer character. When I read that he was on the list I was so happy.

When I saw Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) on the list, I was surprised, but then I realized it did make sense. That said, his character can be a huge asshole (there have been a lot of instances of him being a shitty husband to Sue), so, not the best representation.

Two literary characters that are autistic include Christopher Boone (from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a book I read for school), and Jacob Hunt (from House Rules). Christopher Boone is very stereotypical (if you find a find a checklist of autistic characteristics he fits every box), and his parents treat him like shit (they lie to him and tell them to his face that he’s driving them to an early grave), BUT I ultimately did feel for him, and I liked how the story was told exclusively from his point of view. I consider it a mixed bag. On the other hand, I could not get past the first chapter of House Rules because Jacob is 18 but treated like a child. No thank you.

But two characters that I want to bring to attention are Symmetra (from Overwatch) and Peridot (from Steven Universe). These characters matter to me because they’re both women/female-aligned (like me) and from series that are the most popular at the moment.

Symmetra is canonically autistic, and Peridot is very strongly implied to be so. There is an entire tag dedicated to Peridot being autistic. Some of the evidence of Peridot being autistic is her lack of social skills/inability to understand social cues, hyper focus, is easily frustrated, uses comfort objects, can be abrasive, needs a routine, etc. At first, she was a likable character! She was funny, she was unique, and a great foil to the crystal gems. What happened?

The show infantalized her.

Ever since season 3, she’s been described as a ‘gremlin’. She has been behaving more and more childlike, always shouting, always running around doing weird shit, not being allowed to show her technical skills. What’s worse, she’s had her comfort items broken (her recorder) or threatened to be broken (her tablet), there was one point where she was put on a leash, and in a deleted scene Amethyst tried to show her how to eat by putting her in a fucking high chair. Ultimately everything that made Peridot interesting is gone.

By contrast, we have Symmetra, a canonically autistic character who is not infantalized or treated like shit at all. She’s beautiful, talented, and capable. She’s allowed to be a hero. She has a desire to do the right thing, even if she’s doing it the wrong way (but is starting to realize something’s up). We can tell she’s autistic (the need for order and routine, black and white morality, special interest, smart but not very social) without relying too much on stereotypes. She’s a breath of fresh air.

Basically, if you’re going to create an autistic character, 1) don’t base them off stereotypes, 2) don’t overly infantalize them (having some childlike quirks and interests is okay, but constantly behaving like a toddler is not), 3) don’t have them seen as a joke or constantly treated like shit by the narrative or other characters, 4) let them be heroes and have them save the day, portraying their unique ability and worldview in a good light, and 5) try to make them something other than a white man.

Basically, WRITE US AS PEOPLE! And if you’re still having difficulty, research and ask people on the autism spectrum for help. I’d be more than happy to help. (You can look up some traits of autistic people HERE.)

Also, if you’ve seen, read, or played any of the media featuring canonically autistic characters, let me know of how you think they’re portrayed, and if it’s positive, I’ll be sure to check it out! In the meantime, I’ll make more posts on autistic headcanons to give visibility to characters who have characteristics of autism that are ultimately positive potential portrayals.

The Pitfalls of Writing Romance

So recently, Lauren Zuke, one of the writers of Steven Universe, made this statement on their Tumblr:

I can’t speak for any other writers or artists, or the show’s intention, none but my own– but lapis and peridot, I wanted to create the experience of a growing queer relationship. Again- this is only my intention. Can’t speak for anyone else! Many people are writing those episodes. But. I don’t want to have people have to sit down and put together puzzle pieces to see if they were represented. Not in this day and age. That game is so tiring. As for amethyst and peridot, again, this is only my writing intention, I wanted the feeling of a “first time crush” that you go on to then be close intimate friends. Anyone who wants to see the narrative they want is completely, 100% allowed to.

But I wanted to close the book on this- I am queer, and intend fully to write queer characters when I do.

And it raises a lot of alarms.

For starters, it’s pretty clear that the writers are not unified or have cohesive communication AT ALL, and gives the implication that the show is being written on the fly. Shouldn’t the entire crew be on board on what relationships to develop? What if another writer wanted to make another pairing canon? That’s not good.

Secondly, while it is commendable to want more LGBT relationships, and I’m so glad that Zuke is proud of being queer, why not just settle with Peridot and Amethyst? They had good chemistry and interactions, it seems kind of pointless to build it up only to diffuse it later. And I don’t see how you can call them ‘close intimate friends’ since they barely interact anymore.

And lastly, and I’m sorry, but Lapis and Peridot are NOT a growing relationship. At all. Literally after an episode of hostility they’re immediately besties. Whenever they’re onscreen it’s just fluffy domestic interactions.

And the worst part is? The pairing is seriously harming both characters.

Who is Lapis? Why was she in the middle of a battlefield? What’s her connection to Blue Diamond? What did she mean when she said “do you even know who I used to be”? Who cares! She’s just Peridot’s love interest now. Peridot has been sucked of all charm and likable mischievousness so she can be all cutesy with Lapis. In other words, they’ve been bowdlerized in order to make them an appealing, inoffensive pairing.

This kind of plugs into a bigger problem with media as a whole: how romantic relationships are often forced to fit the writer’s preferred couples (even if it contradicts canon), and/or how one character’s only purpose is to become a love interest.

This happens a lot in animation. While Disney movies generally do a good job establishing well rounded characters with believable romantic chemistry (even if they do get together quickly), a lot of Disney knockoff films would force in a romantic pairing between the main two characters because why the shit not. Who cares if the characters don’t really get along or barely get any relationship development, kids love romance and Disney always has a couple, so our movie will be a hit!

Animated shows often have a lot of trouble with canon couples, mainly because they go on for a long time and have multiple writers. A great example would be Avatar: The Last Airbender. The creators of the show, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, wanted Aang and Katara to be together since the very beginning, which is fine, but they made Katara very mature and motherly and for most of the series she never really reciprocates Aang’s feelings for her. Meanwhile, other members of the creative team (mainly writers/producers Aaron and Elizabeth Welch Ehasz) developed Katara and Zuko’s relationship more, to the point where DiMartino and Konietzko allegedly pestered them to make the two’s relationship more toxic. You can see that this raises some red flags. Later, the creators would go on to make Legend of Korra, and while I think they tried to throw Zutara shippers a bone with the Mako/Korra pairing, it backfired seriously as their relationship ended up being EXTREMELY toxic and forced. While the show still had other pairing problems (don’t get me started on Bolin’s multiple girlfriends), thankfully the show ended with Korra and Asami together. Now THAT is a good example of a ‘growing queer relationship’. They spend four seasons together and gradually go from acquaintances to close friends to lovers, AND they don’t get reduced to just love interests. (My only complaint is that I wish the relationship was more explicit.)

There’s also an unfortunate trend of giving a major character a WOC love interest as a way to prop up a relationship with a white woman. Harry Potter initially had a budding relationship with Cho Chang, but that was quickly thrown out in favor of Harry getting together with Ginny. I haven’t watched Danny Phantom, but from what I know of it, Valerie Grey, a black girl, was a potential love interest for Danny but he got together with Sam (a white girl). In Justice League Unlimited, after a blossoming romance with Hawkgirl fell apart, Green Lantern was suddenly in a relationship with Vixen, and throughout the entire show he doesn’t seem fully comfortable being around her and is always thinking about Hawkgirl. Vixen herself mostly exists in her relationship to Green Lantern. It’s strongly implied that Green Lantern and Hawkgirl get back together (and if you consider follow up comics canon, they did…after Vixen was brutally murdered. Nice.)

There’s a TV Tropes page called ‘Strangled By the Red String” which details a lot of pairings that often come across as extremely forced. One series that is extremely guilty of bad relationship writing is Naruto. The author teased multiple ships, but it was pretty clear that Sasuke and Sakura had an incredibly abusive and unhealthy relationship, Naruto and Hinata had potential but hardly got any development (apparently Neji needed to die in order for Naruto to interact with Hinata again), and Naruto and Sasuke had a LOT of chemistry that could’ve easily passed for love but never fell through. In the end, Naruto becomes a shell of his former self, Sasuke is never with his family, and Sakura is depressed. Yikes.

 

The key to writing GOOD relationships is to a) have the characters and their relationships progress naturally and without contradicting established canon b) not rely on racist, sexist, or homophobic tropes, and c) don’t throw in a pairing because you cave into the fanbase or you felt like a couple HAD to be included. The characters need to have SOMETHING that would bring them together (such as surviving multiple adventures together, mutual pining, or a shared interest or value) to make it believable.

And if you’re not really good at writing romances, just don’t bother. We can handle stories without romance. We can’t really handle the reinforcement that romance (especially heterosexual ones) are the most and only  important thing.

Motherhood is Not a Woman’s Only Worth

For most of my life, I’ve made it clear that the very last thing I want in life is to get pregnant, give birth, and have kids. Yet throughout the way, a lot of people insisted that I’d change my mind, that I’d be a good mother, ask “don’t you want to get pregnant? it’s great!” and just generally be disappointed. But I made up my mind. I want to be free to be a successful woman who can focus on my own problems and responsibilities.

Too bad Hollywood doesn’t think that.

While it’s a little different for animated family films that focus more on budding romances, a lot of live action movies and shows seem to reinforce the idea of motherhood (specifically being a mother to your own children) as THE MOST IMPORTANT THING for any woman.

To name some examples off the top of my head, Black Widow feels worthless and ‘like a monster’ because she was made infertile. Not because her body was violated, but because ‘oh no I can never have any kids’. Even though Natasha never seemed like the motherly type, and she keeps bouncing between potential love interests (which would indicate she’s in no way ready to settle down).

The Bride from Kill Bill decides to stop  being a mercenary and live a more peaceful live in the name of her unborn child, and the catalyst of the plot relies heavily on avenging the child she thought died in utero.

In The Girl on the Train, all the main women’s lives revolve around the ability to give birth. Rachel feels worthless and  her marriage crumbles because she can’t get pregnant, and Megan decides to keep a baby that she had in an affair in order to ‘take responsibility’ after what happened to her last baby (even though not having the baby is also a responsible decision, and the movie makes it clear she’s not exactly the type of person you’d want to leave babies with).

Teen movies also reinforce this. In the Britney Spears vehicle Crossroads, one of the main characters is a pregnant teenage girl who is going to give her baby up for adoption. When she loses the baby in a miscarriage, she is upset because she was planning on keeping it. Kind of a bad message to be sending to your teenage audience!

Family and children’s movies don’t focus on potential mothers (because what kid would want to see a movie about that), though there are occasions where this message does slip in. For example, at the end of Treasure Planet, Captain Amelia married Doctor Delbert and has not one but FOUR children with him. Not only is that incredibly sappy, but it doesn’t really fit Amelia’s character. But considering how Amelia gets injured and dependent on a man in the third act as a way to become softer and kinder, maybe it does fit!

And of course, in a lot of fantasy, science fiction, and supernatural films and shows, female characters often get pregnant (violated, really) with unholy demon spawn. Instead of, you know, aborting it, the female character just takes it. In The X-Files, Scully gets impregnated with alien spawn, gives birth to a daughter, and instead of feeling angry or hurt that she was made into a brood mare without her consent and almost died because of it, she feels a motherly attachment to her offspring. And of course, when she does grow to love her child, the child dies. She has another child with Mulder, she can’t keep it. So, you’re going to make this woman pregnant not once but TWICE, reinforce her as someone who wants to be a mother, and takes it away from her.

And of course, there’s the infamous Twilight installment(s), Breaking Dawn. Bella gets pregnant through impossible means and her fetus ends up literally draining the life out of her, but she’s still adamant about keeping the baby even though her entire family begs her not to because, hey, she’s a living, breathing human, she matters more than an unholy fetus. When she gives birth in a very graphic scene, she actually does die. It sort of works out in the end because now Bella is a vampire and married to Edward and has a domestic family and blah blah blah, but still…who the fuck wrote, directed, and edited this shit without throwing up? Why did this need to happen? Why did Bella need a child with Edward (when a child with Jacob would’ve been more interesting and probably less creepy and wouldn’t kill her)? Why did she have to become a vampire without her knowledge or consent? Gross, gross, gross.

This is just a handful of ways media reinforces the idea that somehow every single woman, even strong, independent women, all really want to be mothers, and that in a lot of cases, their worth or character development hinges on the ability to have children. Adoption is rarely brought up and abortion is only used in dramatic, negative situations (see the above Twilight example). We live in a world where reproductive rights are constantly contested and not always guaranteed due to unscientific, religious, patriarchal beliefs that a potential person matters more than an actual, existing pregnant person, and where women’s sexuality and sex lives are constantly scrutinized.

I want more stories that say it’s okay to not want to be a mother. Where it’s okay to not have to remain pregnant or keep a child. Where, if they DO want to be mothers but can’t, they can go out and adopt a child. I want women (and anyone who can get pregnant, really) to be told that they don’t HAVE to get pregnant, give birth, and raise a child in order to be important or valid. Don’t make them suddenly maternal for plot or character development reasons. Show them happy, successful, and childless and don’t make it look like a bad thing. Motherhood should be an option for women who really and truly want it, not something that must be a requirement for a woman’s worth.