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Eun Park-bin as Woo Young-woo looking up at the sky with the subway station sign behind her Image: Netflix

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Extraordinary Attorney Woo is autistic representation at its best and its worst

The Park Eun-bin character makes autistic audiences feel seen — in a very specific way

Extraordinary Attorney Woo begins with an argument. Jung Myung-seok, a senior attorney with Hanbada law firm, objects that CEO Han Seon-young has assigned an autistic lawyer to his team. Seon-young is quick to admonish him. It doesn’t matter that she’s autistic, she says; what matters is that she graduated top of her class from Korea’s most prestigious university.

It’s an immediate introduction to Extraordinary Attorney Woo at its best and worst: text that highlights Myung-seok’s, and Korea’s, ableism while the subtext reinforces the idea that disabled people’s value is derived from what they can contribute.

The attorney in question is the titular Woo Young-woo, played by allistic actress Park Eun-bin, an autistic savant who arrives at Hanbada after six months of struggling for employment due to her autism. The series follows her as she uses her extraordinary powers of memory and intellect to find solutions to questions her allistic colleagues cannot.

Is Extraordinary Attorney Woo good representation? The answer is complex. Having watched the series, and spoken to autistic viewers, autism organizations, and an actual autistic attorney, the consensus appears to be yes… and no?

Autism in Korea, in context

Woo Young-woo imagining facts projected against a car window, she’s reaching out to touch them Image: Netflix

Ableism is pervasive in the West, but there is significantly more stigma surrounding autism and disability in Korea, where the primacy of societal normalcy is traditionally paramount. “There is much more of a sense of shame, not just for individuals with disabilities but also for their families,” says Son Da-eun of Autism Partnership Korea. “Despite the prevalence of autism in Korea” — she tells me Koreans are diagnosed at a rate of 1 in 38, compared to the WHO’s global estimate of 1 in 100 — “you rarely have interactions with persons with autism on a daily basis. Historically, people with autism are kept home, hidden away from the world.”

That’s not to say there is no progress in Korea. Public awareness is slowly shifting, which leads to better accessibility and more service providers. That improving support infrastructure took a hit due to COVID-19, however, and reading through reactions to Extraordinary Attorney Woo it’s clear autism and disability remain intensely stigmatized in Korea — the extent of which becomes apparent when reading how many parents felt forced to emigrate for better support for their autistic children.

Scratching the surface

In that vein, it’s appropriate that the series starts with Young-woo’s difficulty finding work. According to the Employment Development Institute of Korea, only 22% of autistic people in the country are employed — the lowest rate of any demographic, and a proportion is echoed globally.

In highlighting the realities of discrimination through the microcosmic lens of Hanbada, Extraordinary Attorney Woo excels. Though it stops short of ever challenging the system that drives those realities, it frequently emphasizes the issues within. For instance, while Young-woo’s ableist colleague Kwon Min-woo is often reprimanded for his efforts to undermine Young-woo, the show never tries to challenge where that ableism is coming from or how Hanbada is latently encouraging it by withholding censure.

Woo Young-woo and her coworker sitting at a conference table. She is poring over documents while he sits and looks slightly consternated. Image: Netflix

In this way, Extraordinary Attorney Woo aptly illustrates what moving through a (often hostile) world with autism can feel like. “I felt extremely represented,” Haley Moss, an autistic attorney and neurodiversity advocate, tells me. “People typically are very nice to me,” she says. “But a lot of the time they offer me unwanted and unneeded assistance and it ends up looking like special treatment that makes me (and everyone else) sort of uncomfortable.”

So, too, is the show relatable for Stephanie Bethany, an autistic content creator, who felt particular affinity with Young-woo’s mannerisms and story.

“Attorney Woo does finger and hand stims like I do,” she says in an email, “wears her headphones as needed and not 24/7 like I do, gets into a romantic relationship with someone who is not autistic like I have, engages in occasional echolalia and hits her head/ears when things become escalated, threatening, and loud like I do. So, there are many ways that I feel represented by Attorney Woo.”

The ultimately supportive nature of Young-woo’s colleagues has led some to criticize the show for being too fantastical. It’s true many disabled people would be more familiar with Kwon Min-woo, and how his frustration at Young-woo’s accommodations drives him from simply undermining her to actively trying to get her fired. “The resentment around receiving accommodations is SO REAL,” says Dannie Lynn Fountain, an autistic HR specialist, in an email. “This has definitely been part of my lived experience.”

But as Haley tells me, “I want to live in the fantasy where everyone is always accepting and supportive!”

Offering comfort like that, it’s no wonder that Extraordinary Attorney Woo has found an audience among the disabled community. When we’re so used to being chronically underrepresented, it sometimes feels like, as a community, we’re ready to accept any relatable moment in film and television. I initially felt positive watching Extraordinary Attorney Woo, seeing growth depicted as a process rather than an instant change, the realistic depiction of discrimination, and the support Young-woo receives from her colleagues. But I also wonder if we’re not sometimes guilty of relating to what we want to see.

The best of intentions

Representation isn’t easy, nor is it the only tool for driving change for underrepresented groups in media. It’s unrealistic to expect one character — or even one series — to fully represent the full scope of a disability. And even shows that are aiming to do good can fall short. Extraordinary Attorney Woo is no exception.

The creators of the show talk about bringing more attention to autism in Korea. But there is an ableist undertone that feeds into the show, starting with the title before it was altered for Western audiences. The Korean title, 이상한 변호사 우영우, is most accurately translated to Weird Lawyer Woo Young-woo.

One can perhaps understand what the show is trying to do: highlight a perceived otherness that may ultimately be dispelled for some viewers. Instead, it feels like the show is starting from an ableist, allistic place rather than invoking meaningful support for autistic people. That they’ve since introduced a Woo Young-woo NFT collection hasn’t helped make the series seem like it was firmly built on altruistic motivations.

A great way to counter the ingrained ableism that leads to titles like Weird Lawyer Woo Young-woo is to invite disabled people into the production (which would also do something to combat the staggeringly low employment rates of autistic and disabled people in Korea) and to hire disabled actors to lend their experiences to their own characters.

Writer Moon Ji-won purportedly spent a year consulting with an early childhood special education professor to ensure accuracy. Research is fine, but how you implement it is more important. And Moon’s characterization of Young-woo as a genius savant, in line with so many stereotypical depictions of autism that refuse to go away, is particularly telling.

Rain Man is older than me and I still have to talk about it!” Moss says, exasperated. Savant syndrome is a rare and hyper-specific point on the autism spectrum. Experts estimate that savant-like tendencies present in 2-10% of the autistic population. The way Young-woo is characterized, as a genius savant (known as the prodigious savant), represents less than 75 people in the world.

“The extensive use of savants-like characters and other autistic tropes (e.g., limited interests, difficulty making friends) in television is concerning for two reasons,” Sarah Audley wrote in her 2020 study into autistic representation in television. “The exclusion of authentic autistic representation, and the spread of misinformation about autism that may be perpetuated by the prevalence of autism stereotypes in the entertainment industry.”

It’s depressing, because the diverse realities of disability are intrinsically human stories that deserve more than stereotypical representation, rather than merely molding us into something palatable and misleading for non-disabled viewers. It’s pandering to the sense so many people have that we are defined by work and, as such, disabled people lack value unless they can be productive and contribute. This is what defines Young-woo at Hanbada. Not who she is, but rather that she can solve problems others can’t.

Da-eun tells me Extraordinary Attorney Woo “strips some of the shame and stigmatization” from autism through its humanizing of Young-woo, though she recognizes “the show does reinforce a few common misconceptions about the nature and treatment of autism.”

“The fact that the vast majority of characters with autism in media is portrayed as having a superpower, or that autism is really a blessing in disguise muddies the waters and can confuse the public as to what autism really is.”

The effect of that reinforcement is already being felt in Korea. Allistic content creators are imitating Young-woo’s voice patterns and mannerisms for views on TikTok and YouTube, driven by the decision to exaggerate many of Young-woo’s mannerisms that could be considered cute or quirky.

This isn’t new. Lydia Netzer calls it “cute autism,” depictions that strip away behaviors that might be off-putting or obtrusive to create an image as close as possible to neurotypicality in order to “trick us into thinking tolerance is easy.”

Woo Young-woo addressing the court Image: Netflix

Meanwhile, Korean schoolchildren are reportedly insulting each other by asking, “Are you Woo Young-woo?” Autistic content creators field comments expressing disappointment they’re not like Young-woo, while receiving abuse for their criticisms of the series.

Ultimately, while Extraordinary Attorney Woo might be flawed representation, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a possibility for better choices. Tom Purser, head of guidance, volunteering, and campaigns at the National Autistic Society, tells me about the power media can have for autism.

“The stories we see on screen must reflect the full diversity of the autism spectrum,” he says. “Many people learn about what life is like for autistic people through films and TV shows. It’s important these depictions of autism are realistic so people really understand the challenges autistic people face, as well as the huge contributions autistic people make to our society.”

We can laud the show’s alleged intent to bring better awareness to autism in a country that intensely stigmatizes it — and with an average nationwide viewership of around 13%, it is putting autism in front of a lot of Korean people. Yet, we also need to question how easily Extraordinary Attorney Woo’s stereotypical depiction of autism and disability is inspiring further narrow-mindedness. That the lesson the show is teaching its allistic, non-disabled target audience is just… more ableism.

Woo Young-woo sitting on the train with her eyes closed listening to whale sounds Image: Netflix

Perhaps I’m an optimist, but I do believe some people will watch Extraordinary Attorney Woo and begin to think differently about autism and disability.

But the facade is brittle; it’s easy to peel away. Once you do, you understand how much the ableism that pervades Korea — and, let’s get real, that pervades the world — has seeped into the making of Extraordinary Attorney Woo. In invoking stereotypes and creating a palatable, unrealistic disabled narrative, not only does the show fail to truly inform about autism beyond legal jargon or to address a status quo responsible for so much discrimination, but it robs what could have been one of the most important disabled characters in media of her voice and agency. It’s a drama — it’s entertaining. In that, it has power. For some, that’s enough and justified because autism in Korea is treated so badly. But, if things are worse in Korea, shouldn’t we be asking more of representation like this rather than accepting less?

I’m happy for those that relate to the show. I think, on an individual basis, that’s important. But it’s just as vital to remember that this is but one of many very narrow — often identical — windows into autism in media, and that we’re not the monolith shows like “Weird Lawyer Woo Young-woo make us out to be.

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