Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Representation

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the series Brooklyn Nine-Nine recently, even before the news of its cancellation and miraculous resurrection. I started watching it mostly as a kind of methadone for The Good Place, whose creator is a co-creator and executive producer of B99, and it’s definitely not anything like as good a series as The Good Place, which I will argue to anyone who will listen is possibly the best piece of TV ever made.

But Brooklyn Nine-Nine, while it’s a fairly standard sitcom, has become comfort viewing to me, to the point that in the last few months I’ve watched every one of its hundred and twenty or so episodes at least four times. And I don’t watch a lot of TV content normally — Brooklyn Nine-Nine is rapidly reaching the point that it makes up a noticeable fraction of all my TV watching *ever*.

Now, the reason for this is simple and a bit depressing — I’ve been seriously mentally and physically ill for a good portion of this year, and I needed unchallenging distractions, the mental equivalent of junk food. Something I’ll watch when I’m well, like say The Good Place or The Strange World of Gurney Slade or F For Fake or something of that nature, is far less appealing when I’m having the kind of cognitive problems that come along with my illness flare-ups. What I need then is something that’s completely unchallenging and which has a mildly funny joke every two minutes, a story that only lasts twenty minutes, and which repeats the important plot points about three times to remind people where they are after the commercial breaks.

But why *this* particular series, rather than any one of a dozen other similar sitcoms? I hadn’t really thought about that until the campaign to save it.

That campaign spent a lot of time talking about the series’ representativeness and wokeness, and I felt that was rather overstated. Yes, it has a racially diverse main cast (though it does centre on a white man — one who is Jewish and presumably has some Latin American ancestry given his surname, but still, white man), but I saw a lot of people talking about its “LGBT representation” or “LGBTQ representation”, and that’s not really accurate — it has one prominent gay man as a principal character, and has recently revealed another major character to be bi, but there are no trans characters (though there have been a few trans-affirming comments in the last couple of seasons) and literally only two mentions of lesbianism in the entire series (the name of Captain Holt’s organisation, the African-American Gay and Lesbian New York City Policeman’s Association, and a comment from Holt about a male officer’s poor fashion choice — “Boyle looks like a lesbian!”).

On top of that, it has the usual problems of US comedy in that it thinks that all non-US cultures are inherently funny (see for example its treatment of the Swedish police officers from Interpol, or the Latvian culture of Boyle’s adopted son Nikolaj), it’s had a few fatphobic moments, and while it does push against much of the negative culture around the police and incarceration in the US, it still accepts that arresting sex workers and their customers or drug users is a morally reasonable thing for sympathetic protagonists to do.

That makes it sound like I’m critical of the series’ politics — I’m actually not, for a US network TV series. It’s less ethically problematic than almost anything produced by that system, and there’s a running theme of critique of toxic masculinity, and several explicit statements against things like transphobia — it’s a series which is quite clearly trying hard to do the right things, even as it’s made by fallible people in a system which does not exactly encourage nuance, and in two genres (the sitcom and the cop show) which are actively hostile to it.

But it’s nowhere near as representative as people say — except in one way, the way that made it feel most comfortable to me. Because this is the series that has the most autistic representation I have ever seen in a TV series.

Now, before I go any further, I must say that there are no explicitly autistic people in the series. But then, there very rarely are. Autism representation in TV and cinema is in much the same stage as, say, gay representation was decades ago or trans representation is now. If there’s an explicitly autistic character in a TV series, that’s because the TV series is “about autism”, and the character is a zero-dimensional stereotype treated as a problem.

For our representation, then, we look to characters who aren’t stated to be autistic but who just feel like they might be, in much the same way people used to have to look for lesbian or gay coded characters (bi representation hasn’t even extended to coding, often) — but even there, there’s usually only one per series, and they usually fall into a handful of unrepresentative tropes — usually the (white, male, straight) arsehole genius in the manner of House or the Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock Holmes. While there definitely are autistic people like that, they’re thankfully not the majority of us.

It’s important to note here that there’s a subtle difference between autistic people’s headcanons and medicalising a personality trait. Most of us who are autistic don’t see our neurology as being a medical condition, and we don’t particularly think our personalities need explaining — we are who we are, and that’s OK. But we often have a certain ability to identify autism in others, often before they get diagnosed, something like gaydar. I can think of maybe a dozen people I know who I just assumed were autistic who later realised it about themselves and got diagnoses. There are patterns of thinking and behaviour which are much more subtle than those that are generally picked up on, but which resonate deeply.

And one of the things about autistic people is that we tend to cluster. We don’t always *only* feel comfortable around other autistic people — my own wife is neurotypical, and she’s the only person I know who I feel no discomfort at all around — but we almost always feel *more* comfortable around autistic people than around neurotypicals.

And Brooklyn Nine-Nine feels to me like visiting a bunch of autistic friends. I’m not the only one, either — a site which lists people’s headcanons lists six of the main characters as being read as autistic. I don’t actually read two of them (Gina and Jake) as being autistic myself but it’s not completely out of the question.

And what’s really interesting is that all these characters can be read as having autism that manifests in different ways, which is *something that never happens*. When writing a character who is autistic, or even one that just uses autistic coding, what normally happens is that a writer puts together something that fits the DSM criteria precisely, and has the DSM stuff cranked up to eleven but doesn’t have any of the other tells — they have a bunch of quirks bolted together, with no real observation of what actually happens, which is that most of us kinda-sorta fit into the DSM criteria, but also have a whole lot of other things in varying proportions, all of which tend to cluster, but none of which are universal.

Now, I’m going to take a quick look through the principal cast, and show you what I mean. For those who don’t know, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has an ensemble cast with nine regular characters who appear in (almost) every episode, and also has a bunch of recurring characters. I’m not going to look at the recurring characters, but some of them (like Adrian Pimento and Kevin Cozner) certainly ping my autisticdar.

First, let’s get the white men out of the way, because they’re the least interesting ones here.

Jake Peralta — the protagonist, and one of only two characters (the other being Captain Holt) to appear in every episode. Jake has some Special Interests (ones that are acceptable within toxic masculinity, like the Die Hard films and expensive trainers) but is the most definitively neurotypical character in the series as far as I can tell.

Hitchcock and Scully are both one-note joke characters, who don’t have any depth at all, so aren’t really worth thinking about here.

Charles Boyle, on the other hand, is *definitely* autistic. He’s sensory-seeking with respect to food and taste, he means well but he’s so bad at social cues that he crosses boundaries all the time. He’s “not physically gifted”, and he clearly has sensory stuff around clothing — while he loves to dress up, most of his clothing is… exactly the same stuff I wear. Well, I no longer wear the kind of button-up shirts he wears, because I lost all mine in my luggage once and just switched to T-shirts, but I used to, and the rest of his dressing is precisely how someone who’s trying to minimise sensory discomfort but has no visual aesthetic (like myself) will dress. His family also all dress in this way, behave like him, and have sleep apnoea and psoriasis (two conditions which go along with autism regularly). He’s unaware that others don’t share his enthusiasms, but he’s fiercely loyal to people he cares about (often displaying it too much) and his family go on holiday every year to Iowa. He is, in short, the person I secretly fear that other people must see me as (though I’m not sensory-seeking with food, alas).

Captain Raymond Holt is in many ways Boyle’s opposite — he’s sensory-avoidant to an even greater extent than me, and a line from him, “I have zero interest in food. If it were feasible, my diet would consist entirely of flavorless beige smoothies containing all the nutrients required by the human animal”, is one of the lines I’ve identified with most, as someone who is sensory-avoidant with all the senses except hearing. He has a completely flat affect, and speaks in the overly-formal manner that many of us do (“‘I am feeling trepidation at the prospect of a parent-less existence.’ No kid talks like that.”/”Those lines were lifted verbatim from my childhood diary.”) He has a rigid moral code, and has rules for almost every kind of behaviour (“There are two acceptable sleep positions: on back, toes up, arms crossed or on back, toes up, arms at the side.”)

Holt is also black and gay, neither of which is usually an attribute associated with these autistic characteristics in most fiction, but of course there are plenty of autistic people who are black, gay, or both.

Sgt Terry Jeffers, his subordinate, doesn’t read as autistic to me, but there’s a complicating factor there. Jeffers is, like Holt, black, but he has more aspects of African-American culture in his accent, body language, and so on, and as I’m not as familiar with the nuances of that culture as I might be, he might read as autistic to someone who was more fluent in that culture. Certainly there are quirks of his, like referring to himself in the third person or his yoghurt obsession, which are not incompatible with autism, and his desperation to be liked and his exaggerated facial expressions also fall into that category. While he doesn’t read as autistic, then, he reads as autism-compatible.

Rosa Diaz is the closest thing the series comes to the arsehole genius stereotype I talked about above. She is super-competent, flat in affect, often verbally aggressive, and in short all the traits that characters like House normally display. However, these traits read very differently in a Latina woman than in a white man, due to the normal power differentials. She is also bisexual, and this is one of those traits that seem to cluster in autistic people to an amazing degree (I think there’s literally a 90%+ overlap between the autistic people I know and the bisexual people I know, and I know a lot of both).

Amy Santiago is someone who needs rules and organisation to keep herself together — the kind of person who keeps every aspect of their life ordered as a bulwark against the chaos of the outside world. This is something that is *extremely* common in autistic people, although sadly it’s not a trait I share. She is also extremely unaware of her own physical presence — often doing extremely uncoordinated victory dances, or for example attempting to wink flirtatiously, using both eyes, and accidentally blinking her contact lenses out. She believes deeply in rules, and follows even those rules she doesn’t understand or agree with, because rules exist for a purpose. Again, all *very* common traits in autistic people.

And the final regular in the series is Gina Linetti, a character who is frankly so strange that she doesn’t fit into any category I can think of. She doesn’t read as autistic to me, but she definitely doesn’t read as neurotypical in the broader sense.

So we have a series where four of the main characters *definitely* read as autistic (Amy, Rosa, Holt, and Boyle), a couple more are possibles, and only one character reads as absolutely neurotypical (and even he is someone’s headcanon as autistic, so…). Annoyingly the neurotypical one is the main character, but even so, that’s not something I’ve seen in any series ever, let alone with them being *different* in their autisms.

And that’s why Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been my comfort food, because watching it is like being in a place where everyone is like me in a way that matters. It’s a window into a society where autistic people outnumber, or at least balance, neurotypicals, and what it shows is a world where I could at least be comfortable. Not a utopia, just a group of people I can understand.

There aren’t many people I can understand, and when I’m that ill, I don’t have the mental cycles to spend on processing neurotypical reactions, and so a series where I don’t have to do that is just the thing.

Anyway, yeah. Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Better and worse on representation than it’s portrayed.

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7 Responses to Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Representation

  1. prankster36 says:

    If you’re looking for something similar I might recommend Michael Shur’s OTHER other show, Parks & Recreation, which varies much more wildly in quailty but at its best is very good indeed (in general I prefer it to Brooklyn 9-9) and has a lead, Leslie Knope, who even to my ignorantly neurotypical eyes plays very much as autistically coded. Based on what you’ve said here that may be true of some of the other characters, too–the B99 characters sometimes feel like knockoffs of the Parks & Rec characters to an extent–and it doesn’t have the problematic cop-show stuff (though it does sometimes drive my more radically left friends a bit nuts in its celebration of neoliberal politicking of the West Wing variety–but it’s a satire of same, too, so it’s a little more tolerable in that regard). It’s probably closer to the comfort food aspect you describe than the genius of The Good Place but it’s still quite a smart show and, IMHO, funnier than Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

    I would recommend skipping the short first season, which is pretty lousy because they didn’t have a good idea what they were doing, and the season 2 premiere makes for a perfectly good introduction anyway.

    Another suggestion, if you’re not completely sick of US sitcoms at this point, is Community, created and written by Dan Harmon, who I believe is autistic himself, and which features Abed, a character many feel to be the best non-neurotypical character on TV. He’s explicitly non-neurotypical, too, not just coded as such. The show is much less cosy–its main characters are trainwrecks–but it generally believes in the value of, well, community, and it does some much more ambitious and experimental things with narrative than is normal for sitcoms.

    • Tilt Araiza says:

      Ah, starting with the first season, that’s where I went wrong. Thanks, I’m going to give this another chance starting at season 2.

      Andrew, if you do give Parks & Recreation a go, see if you think Rashida Jones is the best Lois Lane we never had.

      • prankster36 says:

        The characterizations aren’t even right in the first season–they’re basically writing Leslie as a female Michael Scott, which might have worked but they don’t really have a handle on the comedy either. Meanwhile Ron and April, who dominate the show later, are nonentities and Andy is a huge jerk (that character shift actually gets addressed, at least) . By S2 Schur’s fundamental humanity kicks in and he realizes it’s a better show if he respects and likes his characters and shows them to be competent rather than failures. Also it gets much funnier.

  2. There’s also The Autistic Gardener, which obviously is a gardening show not a drama, but on the plus side doesn’t hide behind coding at all: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-autistic-gardener/videos/all/s1-ep1-a-gardner/4315572754001. I haven’t particularly set out to audit its representation, but the whole set-up is designed to give autistic people / people with Asperger’s a space to represent themselves in their own way and on their own terms, and on a casual watch it’s always seemed very sympathetic and non-exploitative to me. Plus the main guy has a lovely Brummie accent, which is my main reason for watching it! :-)

  3. Shawn Kilburn says:

    I really enjoyed the write-up of this show. Thanks!

  4. FrF says:

    I didn’t know Brooklyn Nine-Nine before reading this very nice introduction. If anything, I think Andrew sells it too short – I’d be happy if I could come up with snappy dialogue like the B99 writers do and the jokes are often cleverly constructed. Call me too easily excited but it takes a lot of work and combined brainpower, not to mention serendipity (cast dynamics,…) to make a show of that quality. The “cop stuff” is indeed not unproblematic…Even leaving aside the political aspects, the show treats murder and mayhem more or less as wallpaper behind and antics triggers for the characters. But all in all I can very much imagine watching B99 in toto!

  5. FrF says:

    I’m now 30 episodes deep into my viewing of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. My favorite so far is “The Party” (1.16). I find details like Sergeant Jeffords’ love for Jean-Luc Godard and the French Nouvelle Vague comforting! (Terry is B99’s resident polyglot humanist.) On the other hand, my least favorite episodes are the ones which rely mostly on slapstick such as “The Jimmy Jab Games” (2.03) and “Helloween II” (2.04) although the cast is absolutely up to the task of this style of comedy and the absurdly elaborate scheming of 2.04 is not unfunny.

    I’ve also been thinking about Hitchcock and Scully. You’re right, Andrew: The way they are written, they are basically one-note characters. But there could be, even should be, more to them. I’d be interested to know, for example, what made them gave up on their careers to such an extent that they handed over their dignity to boot. They’ve become so accustomed to their self-chosen lot that they bear the sarcastic remarks (“Retire already!”) of their colleagues with resigned smiles. It seems that if there’s one thing highly-functioning neuroatypical people can’t abide, it’s radically underachieving neurotypicals! Yes, I really see H & S more as tragic characters who’d be in need of writerly fleshing-out to not just be the target of sometimes-nasty jokes…

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