So, here’s where I get to play the killjoy cultural critic. This was certainly not what I was hoping to come back to in terms of writing, but perhaps it’s the one that I can easily produce.
I want to discuss representations of autism in the media. In the past, I’ve attempted to approach the subject from the perspective of being a writer and honing my critical eye. I try to handle these discussions with more nuance than what I often see around me.
I will still defend Atypical, despite its flaws, for casting a critical eye on the autism martyr parent archetype and for portraying its protagonist as someone who wants love just like anyone else. This is still a largely underrepresented aspect.
However, there comes a time where even my standards eventually breach and there’s a representation that particularly grinds my gears, despite my best intentions. Because it’s attached to a currently popular show, that makes handling it all the more tricky. Let’s talk about Resasuke from the Netflix show Aggretsuko.
Framing, Coding, and Fates
Now, I enjoyed Aggretsuko. I found it a great exploration of the stressors of office jobs and the associated baggage that goes with it. It’s relatable in a way that most executives who produce adult animation don’t want to touch.
But, near the end of the series, the protagonist Retsuko meets Resasuke, a male red panda who is nearly identical in appearance to Retsuko.
Resasuke is coded autistic. What does that mean, exactly? Resasuke possesses traits that are associated with autism or autism spectrum disorder. He is characterized as having trouble with tasks such as how he leaves his expense reports in the wash and pays for things out of pocket because accounting can’t process them.
Fans speculate (what is referred to in common fandom parlanace as headcanon) that Resasuke is autistic. Anime in particular uses autistic traits to make a character seem “odd” or “weird”. L and Near from Death Note are both examples of this. Due to the fact that this is coded and not explicit, there’s a level of plausible deniability when creators are approached to answer if these characters are autistic.
Resasuke also has trouble socializing, ending up as a filler friend that tags along. He daydreams constantly, making him late for work on multiple occasions. He doesn’t respond to hints and is insensitive to Retsuko’s sore feet when on a date. Basically, all of his characterization is meant to borrow autistic traits without explicitly labeling him as such. Put a pin in that, we’ll come back to the reason why.
The Resasuke arc largely deals with a relationship that is framed as Retusko trying to use marriage to paper over personal problems. This is honestly the more noble part of this arc. Retsuko has to come to terms with the idea that a man can’t solve all her problems.
However, this arc has the impact of completely relegating Resasuke to a solitary fate. All of it has to do with how he is framed, coded, and the end result of this arc.
The Neurotypical Gaze
When we discuss “gaze” in media studies, it’s largely about the male gaze. How does a stereotypical straight man (usually straight white man) see the world and other groups of people?
Aggretsuko’s Resasuke arc is an excellent example of a Neurotypical gaze. When the audience is introduced to Resasuke, he’s framed by several things. His nearly identical appearance to Retsuko signaling his role as a love interest, his nickname of “Space Cadet” or “Out of Pocket Prince” referring to his quirks, and how the other people in the office view him.
Manumaru brings him along and pushes him into a relationship with Restuko which is not narratively punished. Manumaru never faces any consequences for this behavior. The other women immediately write Resasuke off as a dud…and they’re vindicated. Resasuke is consistently framed as being bland, and that’s the reason that Retsuko gives for breaking up with him.
Resasuke’s final scene which completes his character arc is when he returns home to his plants and says “I’m home”. This communicates the idea that this is where he belongs. No one else in the narrative knows that he has this trait.
Resasuke is, as framed by the narrative is the following: Spacy, insensitive and oblivious to other people’s needs, completely disinterested in love and friendships, exactly what other people think he is, and destined for a life alone with his plants.
This framing typifies much of how neurotypical people view autistic people. Most of Resasuke’s traits are negative as framed by the other characters. While the audience can project themselves into a character like him, the narrative sides with the women, with Manumaru, with Retusko. All of these characters share a negative interpretation of Resasuke, even if it’s cloaked in humor and light-hearted teasing. There’s no character who sees Resasuke as a worthwhile individual, only Retsuko’s illusion.
Any positive traits are the ones that the audience brings with them when they project themselves onto him, not bestowed by the narrative text itself until we learn about the plants, which no one else sees or remarks upon. Whatever positive moments Resasuke has are kept out of sight from every other character, rendering them invisible.
Resasuke’s construction reveals neurotypical assumptions about what autistic people are like. The desexualization, the lack of desire for love or friendship, the pathologization of autistic traits, these are all parts of how neurotypicals view autistic people and their prospects.
This could feasibly change if Aggretsuko got a second season, but seeing as how that’s the completion of his character arc and Retsuko has learned her lesson from this escapade, I’m not holding my breath. I hope to be proven wrong in this case.
The Reason to Code
There’s obvious cultural differences that go into this, ones that go well beyond the scope of this article. But, let’s start a hypothetical script change. Resasuke is explicitly diagnosed, this changes how scenes are perceived. Manumaru’s prodding becomes sinister because Resasuke is being manipulated by someone taking advantage of his social deficits. Retsuko no longer appears in the right, because Resasuke has said that he thinks differently and may need some accommodation.
And imagine for a moment if Retsuko said “I can’t be with you because you’re autistic.”
The reason that media codes autistic behavior as weird and unusual instead of directly addressing it is because merely making it explicit can change how the audience views these scenes. If you don’t label it as autism, you don’t have to deal with the consequences of characters mistreating “the weirdo”.
We can see this with how autistic kids are bullied and picked on. No one ever says “I picked on you because you’re autistic”, it’s because they’re “weird”.
Autistic audiences, starved of representation, often have to make do with this. While I try to see the silver lining of imperfect representations, there does a come a point where “sure, it’s not perfect, but I do see some positives” becomes “we could clearly do better than this”
We can do better than how Aggretsuko handles Resasuke.