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 Fall of Steven Universe and Voltron

Last year, I made a post out of anger over the lack of female characters (that weren’t based on stereotypes or had complicated gender politics attached to them) in Voltron. The post is now gone (I wasn’t very proud of it and it was getting waaaaaaaaaaay too much traffic, and I was sure it wasn’t the good kind), but it turns out I may have been vindicated. Because now the fans are starting to turn on the show.

What happened? Allura.

Before the major controversy happened, a lot of people were starting to point out that, for a character who’s coded as black (dark skin and voiced by a black actress), she didn’t really look black.

Picture an African American (or look them up on Google images). What do they typically have in common? Full lips and big, wide noses. You’re hard pressed to find an African American woman with a tiny, upturned nose. And of course they have a wider range of hair styles, too. This is what Allura looks like.

Image result for allura voltron

Note how she has none of those features that are common with black women. It just looks boring and generic. A lot of people pointed it out (and made some awesome edits and redesigns), but things just got worse.

If you watch the show, you might be given the impression that Allura is an adult, given how mature she is (by her looks and personality). She’s actually a teenager.

So…you can’t have the black teenager look and act like a black teenager. All the other teenagers look and act their age, but suddenly, the black girl has to look and act like an adult. Given how black children and teens are perceived to be older (and more violent and scary) than they actually are and therefore less innocent, this is…not a good implication.

What’s worse is that now that Allura is a teen, the possibility of an Keith/Allura/Lotor is very high (since it happened in the original show). You know, Keith, the guy with more chemistry with men and absolutely zero with her until the very tail end of season 2. The guy a lot of people have been hoping to be gay (and be in a relationship with Lance). Nope, can’t have any explicit LGBT characters! Can’t let Allura be with a character she actually has chemistry with (Shiro)!

Trust me, I’m not exaggerating or alone in this. A LOT of people are upset by this, especially black fans. That’s not very good.

So wow. That show got spurred very quick! Which reminds me of another show that’s going downhill: Steven Universe. You can find a lot of info on why this show has gotten so hated recently (just check the “su critical” tag on Tumblr), but basically, the show has been nothing but endless filler and cop out, horrible animation (the characters have consistently gone off model and fat characters have been slimmed down), bad characterization, and unfortunate implications (apparently you’re just as bad as your oppressors or abusers if you fight back against them, and the 14 year old is never wrong).

What the fuck happened? How did these two shows that started off with so much promise go downhill so quickly?

Well, for Steven Universe’s case, it was a myriad of reasons. Like, Rebecca Sugar has a lot of cool ideas and an earnest interest in telling a good, diverse story, but she’s hampered by bad writers and storyboard artists that don’t properly communicate (Lauren Zuke tried to force in a Lapis Lazuli and Peridot romance, and the lead writers, Matt Burnett and Ben Levin, don’t exactly have the best resume if you look them up on IMDb), an over-reliance on filler to stall time for her to get the story figured out, and terrible executives at Cartoon Network that will fuck with the show’s airings. And also, I know this is a conspiracy theory, but I feel that once the show got brownie points for being diverse, the crew stopped giving a shit. They figured they could ride the success of the praise to stay relevant, but people have started to point out the flaws (again, check out the su critical tag, but once you make an episode about a fucking human zoo you’re in deep shit). I just hope the show manages to end on a high note because at this rate I don’t think it’s going to last much longer given the ratings.

I think a similar thing happened for Voltron. I mean it did try to be diverse (none of the Paladins are white men) but it kind of failed (Hunk’s character is nothing but food and fat jokes, no one can agree on Pidge’s gender, and we discussed the problems with Allura). And honestly, I don’t think it’s as well-written as the previous shows Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery worked on (Avatar: The Last Airbender and Justice League: Unlimited).

I guess, ultimately, this is cautionary tale of not being fully committed to diversity or consistent quality writing, and how it can turn off fans completely. So, if you’re an aspiring writer and creator, look at the criticisms these shows get so you can avoid them yourself, make sure you get in with a good network, and make sure you have qualified (and diverse!) staff. Then you can create a show that will be loved for a long time.

In the meantime, let’s hope these two shows improve. I would rather they die heroes than live long enough to see themselves become the villain.

Why Not Having a Love Interest Isn’t Necessarily Feminist

In a world where writing female characters is still somehow a difficult task, a lot of praise is heaped on movies and shows where there is no romance. Creators pat themselves on the back for not making the female character have a love interest, the public gushes on how it’s oh so feminist and progressive. This is especially prominent in regards to Disney movies; the company, after receiving tons of criticisms for having their main characters fall in love and get together so quickly, has started to make itself appear revolutionary by phasing out on romance.

I think to myself, is this really the bare minimum a movie needs to do to prove that it’s female friendly? Not have a romance? Is this really what it’s come to?

Here’s the thing: it’s not always a bad thing to have romance. It’s only bad if it’s shoehorned.

Take a look at, say, Aladdin and Jasmine, Belle and the Beast or Ariel and Eric. All these couples have lots of onscreen chemistry and relationship development. They may have happened quickly, but it was clear they loved each other and enjoyed each other’s company. And it didn’t compromise any of the female characters. All these women still have an interest in exploring the world(s) around them, care about their family and friends, are kind, have distinct personalities, and have active roles in the plot. The romance didn’t harm any of that.

On the other hand, look at couples like Anna and Kristoff or Captain Amelia and Dr. Doppler. Kristoff is pretty rude and condescending to Anna for most of the movie and she doesn’t really show much interest in him but suddenly by the third act they love each other? And Dr. Doppler gets with a woman way out of his league and she becomes a mother (even though she’s not very maternal)? Yeah.

So there is nothing wrong with giving your female characters a love interest. It is a problem when the romance feels forced. But you can still have a romance without getting all lovey-dovey; you can just have one character asking the other character if they’d like to get a coffee or go on a date and that’s perfectly okay.

But the problem with Disney’s recent stance on not having romance is that it’s just starting to happen with their films focused on nonwhite people.

Wreck-It Ralph, Tangled, and Frozen all featured romances for their white (or white passing) leads. When Big Hero 6 rolled around, there were no romances whatsoever, not even implied ones. Then Moana got lauded for not giving the main lead a love interest. And now apparently they are getting rid of Shang to replace him with a rival in the Mulan remake.

Why is this a problem? Because people of color don’t get to see themselves be in a romantic relationship a lot. Sometimes you’ll see two black people pair up, but the white couple has the main focus. Or it will look like the white lead will get with a woman of color only to ditch her for a white woman later. Sometimes you’ll see pairings between a white man and a woman of color, but never a man of color with a white woman (unless the movie is making a statement on racism), and you’ll rarely see interracial couples between two different nonwhite races. And of course you’re hard pressed to find any LGBT couples. You can see how there would be an unfortunate implication that white, heterosexual couples are the more ‘acceptable’ or ‘desired’ couples that people are willing to see. Disney does not have a lot of pairings with a person of colour involved and, with the exception of Aladdin and Jasmine and Tiana and Naveen (or not, if you think them being frogs for most of the movie doesn’t count), none of them get a lot of focus.

My main point is, it IS possible to have a romance and still be progressive if it gives representation to people of colour and LGBT people (and other minority groups, without relying on offensive tropes). You don’t have to add romance to everything, but if you do, it won’t hurt to add in minority groups.

And if you’re NOT going to give your female lead a love interest, don’t make it sound more important than it actually is. Making your female character single is not the be all end all for making her a ‘feminist’ character.

Lego Batman, Maui, and the Jerk With a Heart of Gold

A long time ago, I watched Don Bluth’s All Dogs Go To Heaven and hated every minute of it. The reason being is that, quite frankly, the character of Charlie Barkin is the most reprehensible main character I have ever seen. He’s rude, he’s greedy, he’s manipulative, he’s a liar, and extremely self-centered. Yet because he gives some puppies pizza and suddenly gives a shit about Anne Marie at the climax, we’re supposed to like him and sympathize with him. I did not buy that for a minute.

See, Charlie Barkin was an attempt at writing the Jerk with a Heart of Gold character, but a failed one. Stories about redemption and second chances are important, but Charlie was too unlikable for it to work.

Lately, I’ve been thinking of this trope and how it’s used in media. It is used a lot for secondary characters. Arguably the greatest example is Grumpy from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. At first he resents Snow White and wants nothing to do with her, but as the movie progresses Snow White’s kindness rubs off on him and he grows to truly care for her, and he becomes a better person. We believe that he’s a jerk with a heart of gold because his reveal isn’t sudden or forced, and he has some redeeming qualities early on.

Writing this type of character takes skill because it’s very easy to just make them an actual jerk who isn’t a wholly awful person. And this is pretty relevant thanks to two recent animated hits: Moana and The Lego Batman Movie.

In Moana, Maui is extremely narcissistic. That makes sense, he is a demigod. But throughout most of the movie he’s, quite frankly, a humongous asshole to Moana herself, constantly dismissing her and putting her life in danger, from trapping her in a cave to using her as bait for Tamatoa. He starts to warm up to her after she reassures him that he’s not worthless (he was abandoned as a baby), but he still snaps at her. But then, by the climax, SUDDENLY he values her life more than his and will help her complete their quest.

What? No, I’m sorry, that doesn’t work. That literally does. Not. Work.

You cannot have this character act like a complete ass, make us feel sorry for him almost a third into the story, and then expect us to believe that he can overcome his narcissism and abandonment issues in only a few minutes. That is not good characterization, and a poor representation of someone with mental health issues. (This is one reason why I was really disappointed in Moana and cannot love it like everyone else.)

So that is an example of a Jerk With a Heart of Gold that doesn’t work. Thankfully, Lego Batman does.

SPOILERS FOR THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE AFTER THIS POINT

See, we like Lego Batman right away because he’s FUNNY, and we KNOW why he’s a jerk at the beginning (his parents died and he doesn’t want to get close to anyone because of that). After Batman accidentally adopts Robin, he decides to get the Phantom Zone Projector from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude to banish Joker for good. At first, I was horrified because he was going to use Robin to go get it in what was essentially a death maze. BUT, to my great relief, we see that Batman really and truly does care for Robin. He panics after almost getting into a car accident when Robin doesn’t have a seat belt on before they even get there, and he guides and helps him into getting the Projector so he doesn’t get hurt. And when they leave, Batman almost admits he was happy. As the movie progresses we see him gradually and naturally start to let others in and care for them. And at one point, the narrative actually calls him out for the jerk things he did (I won’t elaborate because I don’t want to spoil TOO much). In the end, he is a happier, better person with lots of love.

See, THAT’S a lovable jerk. THAT’S how you do a Jerk with a Heart of Gold because he doesn’t spend the whole movie being a complete ass but then revealing that, awww, he DOES care after all.

Basically, the key to writing a main character who is a jerk but we’re also supposed to like is to make sure we like them from the very start and understand WHY they’re a jerk right away. They should consistently care about others, even if they can be grouchy or do morally dubious things most of the time, or they should be hilarious so we can still enjoy them despite not being the best person. Otherwise, you just end up with an asshole, and nobody likes those.

 

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.