Winter – and specifically the holidays – is the perfect time to hunker down in front of a movie or two. And while it’s great to zone out and not think too much about plot holes and inconsistencies, sometimes certain aspects of a film can really stand out. Like the representation, or lack thereof, of neurodivergence in movies. And more specifically, neurodivergent women on screen.
NEURODIVERGENT WOMEN ON SCREEN
How often is neurodivergence portrayed solely from a male perspective? Women are impacted by autism, ADHD, and other neurodivergent conditions, but can you think of a major Hollywood star portraying such a character or co-staring alongside one? There are some, for sure, such as Sigourney Weaver who played a person with autism (or an autistic person, depending on your preference for person-first terminology or not) in 2007’s Snow Cake. However they tend to be more independent, less mainstream movies.
Sigourney Weaver plays an autistic woman in Snow Cake and is one of the few instances of a neurodivergent women on screen
Now if you were asked to name a male neurodivergent character in a movie or series, it wouldn’t be difficult to come up with a few examples: Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Jim Parson’s portrayal of Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory or Leonardo DiCaprio as Arnold “Arnie” Grape in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. So why so few female representations? Why are there so few neurodivergent women on screen? Is it because men are three or four times more likely to be diagnosed than women? Are women diagnosed less because they tend to mask their symptoms in order to fit in with society? And if so, why?
Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of an autistic man in Rain Man won many accolades
Let’s break it down.
In the first place, we have to take into account that the majority of research carried out on neurodivergent people have used men as subjects. This means that ‘typical’ neurodivergent symptoms in men may not present themselves in the same way in women. Take ADHD for example. In men, it can present as hyperactivity, impulsivity, and poor concentration, while in women or girls, ADHD could show as problems with organization, attention, or time management. Studies have shown the autism also presents in different ways between the sexes. Unfortunately, to date, there has been little research done on the intersection of gender identity and neurodivergence, so that is something to bear in mind. Neurodivergence, as it relates to intersectionality, will be an exciting and necessary area of research within the subject of representation and inclusion.
THE PRESSURE TO MASK
Meanwhile, many studies have shown that girls and women tend to be more empathic than men, but could it be that this comes from societal conditioning? Girls are expected to show more empathy, while ‘boys will be boys’, right? The pressure to fit in and not exhibit neurodivergent behavior means that many women experience high levels of stress and also either get diagnosed later – or not at all.
If neurodivergent girls and women saw themselves portrayed on screen, then perhaps the pressure to mask would ease. And they might seek a diagnosis which would help them navigate society so much more easily. Though, representation alone isn’t enough. The normalization of neurodivergence, and not neurodivergence as the focus of the character’s quirky, odd, or annoying nature, is the goal.
There are signs that things are changing. In 2020, the series Everything’s Gonna Be Ok was released, which features an autistic girl as one of its main characters. And there is a sense that movies and series are willing to be more inclusive nowadays. For example, here’s a great must-watch list where neurodivergent characters are generally portrayed in an accurate and positive way. And if you’re really after a Christmas-themed neurodivergent movie, then there’s always Hallmark’s Our Christmas Journey to check out.
Remember to reach out to me if you need support navigating a new diagnosis, or you just need some guidance on neurodivergence in general.