Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sociopaths in Sweater Vests? (Dexter, Dollhouse, BBT)

Asperger syndrome, or high-functioning autism, has had a less than decent portrayal in the media. I am aware of three characters on contemporary television that appear to me to be depictions of people with Asperger syndrome: Vince Masuka from Dexter, Topher from Dollhouse, and Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. None of these characters are explicitly stated as being autistic, but based on my interpretation it seems to be what the creators were going for, especially in the case of Sheldon. Though none of these characters are exactly positive depictions, I would say that Vince Masuka is probably the best, followed by the rather negative Topher, and the absolutely horrible (if cute and funny) Sheldon.
Vince Masuka is a Japanese-American forensics specialist at the Miami Metro Police Department. Perhaps his most apparent characteristic is that he is a pervert. He is incredibly sexual, makes crude remarks, and often banters with Debra about his lusting after her. He seems unaware of social boundaries and when he should shut up about his sexual desires.
In general Vince is socially inept, which is the reason sociopath Dexter likes to work with him, as Dexter doesn’t have to work as hard to pretend to have a conscience while around him. In addition to his overly sexual dialog, he often doesn’t show the proper emotions for grim and/or gruesome situations. Dexter, who has less natural ability to understand social behavior, invested so much effort into developing a mask of normalcy that he sometimes seems surprised by Vince’s blatant lack of attempting to fit in. Vince is not antisocial or intentionally cruel, but he does display an out-of-place excitement at the unusual killings of the Ice Truck Killer, and during a briefing about former coworker Doakes (framed by Dexter to look like the Bay Harbor Butcher) he mutters to Dexter about how horrible the gas prices are as seen in one of the photographs.
The character Vince Masuka may be influenced by the stereotype of Aspergian geeks being highly sexual, perverse to an obsessive degree. His social quirks are often played for laughs as well as adding to the surreal atmosphere of the show, which was especially the case in the first season. It should be noted that besides Dexter himself, most of the characters of Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the book on which the show is based, are all flat and stereotypical, probably because the narrator is a sociopath and doesn’t really understand other people. Vince is, however, a good person who cares about his coworkers, and he sometimes gets emotional when he’s worried about them, a big contrast to Dexter. Even though it is never made explicit that Vince is autistic and Dexter is sociopathic1, the differences between them are made clear.
In contrast to the fairly decent portrayal of Vince Masuka, Dollhouse’s Topher Brink is a fairly negative portrayal. Topher, while viewing himself as a humanitarian, is a definite villain for the majority of the show thus far. He is highly amoral, Dr. Saunders referring to him as a “sociopath in a sweater vest”. He participates in the dehumanization of the Actives, often toying with them. His big humanitarian moment of season one is trying to help a sexually abused girl by introducing her to an Active, imprinted with the same traumatic memories, who can help her deal with the experience constructively. This is good for the girl, but he completely disregards the right of the Active to not have vivid memories of abuse forced on her. And who could forget his cute but horrible “sneezure” joke?
Dr. Saunders: “There have been instances of this technology causing aneurysms and, in one case, death. It’s possible one good sneeze could being on a seizure.”
Topher: “Or even worse, a sneezure.”
–1x05 “True Believer”
In the second season, the Topher character is getting more developed. Several characters explicitly point out his amoral personality. He asserts that he does have a conscience, even though he doesn’t seem to use it that much. The plot of the most recent episode, 2x04 “Belonging”, has Echo waking Topher up by nudging him in the direction of finding out that Priya/Sierra was taken involuntarily. Topher turns from his usual conscienceless behavior, and he enables Priya to take revenge on her rapist. He seems pretty shaken up about his role in the Dollhouse, and it seems reasonable to expect that in the future he would be more thoughtful about what exactly he’s doing with the Actives. Only time (and whether or not Fox cancels Dollhouse) will tell.
Topher spent season one as a distinct villain, and is starting to be reformed in season two. The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, however, is always one lab accident away from being a super villain. Big Bang Theory, full of self-deprecating geek humor, features the one character out of these three that I am absolutely certain is supposed to be autistic. Sheldon, while probably the funniest character of the sitcom, is portrayed as horrible to have to interact with directly because of his autistic traits.
It is a standard trait of autism to desire consistency, to experience events the same way according to an understood schedule. Big Bang Theory turns this into a joke with Sheldon making crazily specific demands, terrorizing his friends until they do everything exactly the way he wants. A whole set of jokes has been built up around Sheldon’s demands, sometimes ridiculously infantile because of his refusal to alter his expectations.
Another trait of autism is the appearance of a lack of empathy. This is distinct from sociopathy, which is a true lack of empathy. Not always being able to pick up on social cues, it is sometimes difficult for autistic individuals to realize there is reason to be concerned about people. Even if there is concern felt, the autistic individual would not respond in the way a neurologically typical individual would with their empathy made clear through social interaction. This leads to the mistaken assumption that autism is linked with sociopathy.
Big Bang Theory doesn’t quite make the leap to sociopathy, and one episode has Sheldon idly speculating Leonard’s potential sociopathy, implying he doesn’t consider himself one. He ultimately dismisses the idea, reasoning that Leonard would have killed him a long time ago were that the case. Regardless, Sheldon doesn’t seem to really care about anyone. He’s not violent, but he regularly verbally abuses everyone around him. His archenemy Leslie Winkle once refers to him as a misogynist, though I’m not sure how accurate this is. He seems to put down everyone equally because he believes himself to be innately superior to everyone.
Sheldon is hilarious to watch. In his own standoffish way, he’s cute and lovable. Still, I think the character projects negative ideas about autistic persons. Sheldon is a farcical depiction, but with so much misinformation about Asperger syndrome out there today it seems potentially harmful to have him be probably the most prominent character with autism on television these days.
In conclusion, these three characters I believe to have Asperger syndrome represent the contemporary depiction of high-functioning autistic characters. I don’t watch every show, so I could be missing some other prominent character with Asperger syndrome, but among the shows I watch these are the main representatives of autism. Vince Masuka, a weird geek outcast, is the best of them. Topher is predominantly amoral, but has the potential to improve as the show progresses. Sheldon is pretty much the worst depiction possible while still keeping him entertaining to watch as a protagonist. This is far from ideal, and the frequent association with amorality is indeed troubling.
1In an episode’s flashback sequence teenage Dexter makes a reference to reading a book about psychopaths and he implies that he is one, but Dexter of Darkly Dreaming Dexter refers to himself as a sociopath and he indicates not wanting to become a psychopath (page 151).


Elleoneiram said...

Interesting post. Regarding Topher, I think that in a psych evaluation of his character at age 18 (floating somewhere on the internet - I think Fox released it, or something), it is mentioned that he has slight Asperger tendencies, or something like that. Just wanted to say that, heh.

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