Watching the puppet of Greta Thunberg on Spitting Image, the revived show on BritBox, left me feeling exhausted.
Thunberg was portrayed as a scowling weather girl who appears twice in the show – initially to yell ‘hot!’ in lieu of a broadcast.
When we see her again she has been told by ‘ignorant and lazy adults’ to ‘bring a lighter touch’ to her presenting skills (and ‘to cover afternoon drive time’).
After she relays the day’s forecast, she screeches – again – that the weather will be ‘hot!’, her trademark plaits flying.
As an Autistic person, the depiction of Thunberg wasn’t a ‘different type of humour’ that I have ostensibly failed to understand – I am simply tired of stereotypes about Autism being recycled for the sake of comedy.
Puppet Thunberg embodies all the age-old tropes: the humourless demeanour all Autistic people apparently display; the obsessional nature and inflexible thinking we are all supposed to have, followed by the screeching meltdown – because, it seems, Autistic people can only exist at extremes.
Of course, these are challenges that some Autistic people do indeed struggle with – but I feel like Spitting Image is using Thunberg’s Autism against her to deliberately make her look childish and pedantic.
For someone like me – who is frequently compared with Thunberg simply because we share the same diagnosis – this one dimensional portrayal is so irritating. While I must continually think about how I can adapt to the world around me, society is so often unyielding when it comes to accommodating me.
I can’t be the only one who thinks it is inappropriate to satirise a 17-year-old with Autism but whenever I point this out the response is the same: ‘If you can have a go at politicians, she’s fair game.’
Except Autism is a protected characteristic. It would have ostensibly been acceptable to use words like ‘r*tard’ and ‘sp*z’ decades ago – it isn’t now. In the very near future, I hope, we will recognise that making fun of someone with Autism is not any different.
This isn’t the first time Thunberg has been singled out either. Far right pundits have attacked her for things like her ‘flat’ voice and ‘obsessional’ mission to tackle climate change. She has been variously too childish and too ‘superior’.
These are accusations that most Autistic people will know very well – to be too much or too little, to be too intense. We are so often mocked for the way we talk. As a child, I was described as having a ‘robotic’ voice.
Yet Thunberg speaks more than one language, meets with world leaders, spearheads a global movement, and does so much more beyond. She is also just 17 years old. To define her merely by her Autism does us all a disservice.
It doesn’t help that most people’s points of reference for Autism are still so limited. There’s Raymond, Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man; Sam Gardner (played by Keir Gilchrist) from Netflix’s Atypical and The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) – all men, which reinforces the stereotype that Autism is a ‘male’ condition and compounds the fact that women are under-diagnosed or diagnosed later on in life, because the diagnostic criteria is not written with us in mind.
Autism is more nuanced than a linear spectrum but you frequently wouldn’t think it. Sheldon Cooper is lauded as a genius – yet, as someone who is sometimes suggested as being Autistic, his personality is usually the butt of the joke.
I face numerous challenges all the time, yet compared to the bog-standard representation of what Autism looks like, I am frequently told I cannot possibly be (as though that should be a compliment).
This is hurtful; it undermines my experience, and the challenges I face, and is used as justification to deny me help such as Personal Independence Payments (PIP).
I am all for satire; I love comedy. I particularly like the comedian Jim Jefferies, who leaves me in tears of laughter, because even though the language can be offensive to some, he attacks the actions of people, not their individuality.
Spitting Image did not need to include Thunberg in their roster of puppets but the risk of portraying her as a figure of fun is that to some, caricature becomes fact and Autistic people are reduced to entrenched tropes about how we’re supposed to be rather than regarded as individuals in our own right.
Would it not be refreshing for the power dynamic to be reversed? An Autistic person should write a sketch about how they see the world – and how we are treated, with the oddities that come with it.
The same content is being endlessly recycled – and it’s time to change. Ed Sheeran’s puppet was apparently changed at the last minute because a reference to his hair colour would possibly be too offensive.
Why can’t it be the same for Thunberg?
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