by Jay Edidin
In Episode 61, we answered a listener’s question about Autistic1 characters and neurodiversity in X-canon, and I want to take a moment to elaborate on a couple things I brought up there. Nothing formal, mind: this is both a bit of a ramble and significantly more personal than I usually get here. Consider yourselves warned.
There are–as far as I recall–two named, explicitly Autistic-labeled2 characters in X-Men. Neither provides a particularly accurate or sympathetic representation of autism; and in Legion’s case, that label has been quietly dropped in more recent appearances.
I think I’ve mentioned before–and definitely mentioned in Episode 61–that I tend to interpret Cyclops as Autistic. I have no idea whether he’s ever been deliberately written or coded as such; I suspect not. He is, however, frequently written with a lot of traits commonly associated–individually and collectively–with the spectrum; and a number of incidental traits–i.e. a mutant power that makes eye contact impossible–that passively reinforce that association.
By the same token, friends have pointed out that my arguments for Cyclops as sympathetic–especially in context of interpersonal stuff, like the breakdown of his marriage to Madelyne Pryor3–make a lot more sense if you place him on the autism spectrum. Early X-Factor reads fairly differently if–for instance–you presuppose a Scott Summers who is excessively literal and who learned social skills largely by rote.4
The other X-characters who most often come to mind when I’m thinking about Autistic coding are Cypher, X-23, and Abigail Brand. Expand to the larger Marvel universe, and I’d definitely throw in Daredevil,5 and maybe Echo/Ronin (primarily as portrayed by David Mack) and Valeria Richards; with the qualifier that I’m familiar with the latter two only from fairly limited contexts.
You might have noticed that I tend to use language like “coding” and “interpret” a lot. I hesitate even to call what I wrote above headcanon, for reasons that are ultimately kind of tautological: I disproportionately prioritize precision, and I am incredibly uncomfortable speculating about other people’s creative intent. I’m okay with saying that Cyclops is often written with traits closely associated with the autism spectrum; and that those traits contribute significantly to my identification with him; but I won’t say that Cyclops is Autistic.
To borrow a phrase from the character in question: It’s good to be precise about these kinds of things.
(Are you with me so far? This is something that it’s often difficult for me to explain, and which has historically been difficult for people who aren’t coming to it with a fairly specific frame of reference to wrap their heads around. Your mileage is likely to vary.
And honestly, I’m not sure exactly where I’m going with all of this. It’s not a subject I write about a lot; or, rather, not one I tend to write about publicly. But it seems important to address in more depth than I had time for on the podcast proper.)
Anyway. Textual representation. When you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail; when you write in genre, it’s appealing to deck everything in genre trappings. X-Men does this with a lot of vectors of diversity, but particularly aggressively with anything related to neurodiversity or mental illness. Superhero comics do in general, to some extent; but the nature of mutation in the Marvel Universe makes it particularly well suited to custom tailor a power to fit any allegory.
This isn’t always a bad idea, in and of itself. I love the hell out of Daredevil for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that Matt Murdock’s superpower is literally a sensory integration disorder, with all the snags and challenges that would bring. The Miller run includes the hands-down best, most accessible portrayal of the experience of overload and shutdown that I’ve ever encountered, in any medium. That’s huge, and in context of the character Matt Murdock and the book Daredevil, it works well to contextualize that coding around superpowers–largely because it’s just that one thing. Matt Murdock is still fucked up and divergent in a lot of very human ways that have very little to do with the radioactive stuff that spilled in his face–and that is often more salient and central to the story than his superpowers.
But then, there are the X-Men, and god, do they fall flat on this front. It’s just not there; or when it is, it’s supernatural; or when it’s not supernatural, it’s skimmed past in jarringly superficial ways. There are a few exceptions–again, I’ll go to the mat for Spurrier’s Legacy run any day of the week–but they’re rare outliers. Any given sequence at the Jean Grey school will feature a myriad of reasonable accommodations, sure–but all recontextualized around mutant powers.
So now I’m thinking about solutions, and coding, and representation; and in thinking about this, one of the things I keep coming back to is the fact that while I know that textual representation is really important, I tend to be very suspicious of it, because when you label a character, the label begins to define their portrayal rather than vice versa. It’s also a statement of intent in ways that matter.
To wit: When I think of good representations of autism in pop culture, I go straight to Community’s Abed Nadir. Abed is pretty definitely Autistic, but he’s never explicitly identified as such on the show. Abed ducks labels incredibly deliberately and persistently, in ways that are very relevant to his characterization; and the fact that the show doesn’t let other characters do so either reinforces that agency. Abed says it’s none of your business, so it’s none of your business.
I really like that.
And, I mean, look: In my personal life, I am generally with Abed on this. You will note, if you are a long-time listener, that I do not generally talk about this stuff on the podcast, even though it’s certainly something that informs the way I interact with the material I’m discussing (not to mention the baseline degree of granular obsession that making a career out of explaining the minutiae of X-Men continuity requires). If you know me outside of the podcast, ditto, unless you’re one of a very small handful of people. Note that, nearly 1000 words into a post that is literally about reading X-Men as an Autistic person, this sentence is the first in which I’ve formally labeled myself as such.
That is, I think, how it often goes. There are a lot of reasons for it, but the primary one is that labels are generally not part of our day-to-day interactions. Autism may mediate my day-to-day experiences, but it’s not germane to most of my day-to-day conversations or relationships.
At the same time, once I concretely use a label, people start interacting with it instead of with me–which is the same reason I’m leery of seeing it applied textually to characters I care about. I associate labels with loss of agency, the right to self-definition. People read Autistic and see Claudette St. Croix or one of a dozen other facile pop-culture misrepresentations; or their six-year-old cousin who’s really into trucks; or John Elder Robinson, who seems like a neat dude but has about as much in common with me as Augusten Burroughs has with a random person who isn’t Autistic.
And I don’t want that. I mean, fuck, I’m Autistic: misinterpretation and assumptions about my intentions are nails on a blackboard. What I want is for you to interpret my text with the understanding that I’ve chosen these words with care, and a baseline understanding that while you may find points of intersection and identification, you will not come away with an exact understanding of how I feel, because we aren’t the same person. I want you to trust the validity of my perspective, even when you have textual evidence that it’s not wired the same way as yours. I want the freedom to define the terms in which you get to talk about me.
I want that for fictional characters, too. Obvious caveats apply: fictional characters are not people, and concepts like self-determination don’t apply to them the same ways they do to you or me. But it’s equally short-sighted to deny that the way we interact with and talk about fictional characters reflects and informs the way we interact with and talk about real people.
Ambiguity has other values, too. I’ve talked and written a lot about the wild inconsistency that results from characters being portrayed by dozen of creative teams over decades, and how much I like the fact that that creates room for a dizzying range of interpretations and points of identification. My Cyclops is not your Cyclops, and that’s okay. That’s awesome.
It’s important to me to see characters with enough wiggle room to provide points of identification for multiple perspectives, because no matter how hard we try to make someone for everyone, everyone’s experiences are different, and there’s never really going to be enough. I want to be able to interpret Cyclops as Autistic and get what I need from that, and still have there be space within canon for Readers J and Q to see something entirely different and get what they need from that.
On the other hand:
I’m reading comics in a world where characters are popularly assumed to be a narrow and very specific default. There’s really no definitive textual evidence that Rogue is cisgender, or (pre-All-New #40) Iceman is straight; but posit otherwise, and you will get some deeply hostile pushback. In an ideal schema, I’d like to see that be the factor that changes; but the uncomfortable truth is that we live in a world where it’s a lot easier to change comics than to change society.
I don’t know if there’s a good answer here. I know what I like and look for: representations of Autism or queerness or other outside-the-narrow-default stuff I identify with that are casual and don’t involve labels but are also clearly intentional. Showing a character taking antidepressants as part of their routine, even if their depression is never discussed as a plot point; or casually using neutral pronouns. I want to see mantelpiece photos of unconventional families, and ASL interpreters in classrooms. What it comes down to, I think, is that I want canon representation whose legitimacy isn’t dependent on labels.
1. For folks to whom the semantics matter: I’m using descriptive rather than person-first language; and capitalizing autistic as a proper adjective when it refers to individuals or communities, but not in medical contexts. I say “not Autistic” rather than neurotypical or allistic for reasons that are about half semantic and half political. Using neurotypical to mean not Autistic is misleading and erases a lot of marginalized people; and allistic is jargon-y to an extent that makes it dubiously useful outside of specialized contexts.
That said: there is no standard style guide or usage for most of this. Do what works for you. (Except neurotypical; fuck that shit, seriously.)
2. I’m saying “labeled” instead of “diagnosed” here because both of those “diagnoses” were inaccurate, facile bullshit.
3. Pursuant to X-Factor #1: if someone I loved and respected and knew I’d let down told me “Never come back,” I would never go back; and I would genuinely believe that I was doing the right thing, in accordance with their explicitly stated wishes.
4. There are, of course, other entirely valid ways to interpret the text. For instance: Cyclops’s social stumbling blocks overlap considerably with developmental delays associated with early history of traumatic brain injury, which is totally canon but just about never offered as a mitigating or even relevant factor. Actually, it kind of surprises me in general that you don’t see more mention of repetitive TBI in superhero comics, but that’s a whole other conversation.
5. Confession: while Scott and Jean are very much Miles and my X-couple, this is my secret actual slightly-uncanny-comic-book-power-couple analogue for us: