Warning: this article has spoilers for the anime Darling in the Franxx.
I’m autistic, and I was homeschooled until college by parents who tried to shelter me from the word. Even when I was in college, or had contact with other homeschooled kids before then, I was usually not included socially.
As a result, so much of what I learned about the world was from books, TV shows, and movies. For a long time, I have used fiction as an outlet, a way of connecting with a world that I’ll never fully be a part of but longed to be accepted by.
For this reason, I have come to see many fictional stories as metaphors of my own life, and I looked for deeper themes in fiction that I can explain aspects of my own experience. Recently, I found one in the Japanese anime series Darling in the Franxx.
The part-human character Zero Two’s experiences resonated more with my own than most human characters’ experiences do. This is not to say that Zero Two is autistic – canonically, she isn’t, though some fans on the Internet think she could be. However, I would not be surprised if one of the writers was neurodivergent or was close to someone who is.
In the world of Darling in the Franxx, Zero Two is a genetically-engineered hybrid, a combination of humans and Klaxosaurs, a species of monsters that seek to destroy human civilization as a reaction to humans extracting magma energy.
Zero Two has visible horns, blue blood, and an extraordinary ability to pilot giant robots known as Franxx, which she must do with a male copilot.
However, this piloting comes with a price: it can be very harmful to the human male who pilots with Zero Two, and even fatal after three attempts. The one exception to this is Hiro, the other main character of the anime.
Zero Two’s abilities are invaluable in humanity’s war against the Klaxosaurs, but her inner motivation is something very relatable to me: a deep desire for acceptance in a society that sees her as Other.
When she was a child, she was told that she could become human if she killed enough Klaxosaurs. Whether or not this is true, it drove her to become the best pilot she could be and made her willing to serve her oppressors despite being treated so terribly by them.
In a way, this reflects the internalized ableism that so many of us autistic people experience: in neuronormative society, the price of our humanity is the absence of visibly autistic traits.
In order to be accepted, we are told not to stim, to follow meaningless rituals of etiquette like saying “Fine” when asked “How are you?”, and to make eye contact even if it is painful for us. For those of us who are unfortunate enough to have been subjected to ABA, failing to meet these standards would result in direct punishment.
For autistic people like me who were not subjected to ABA, we still felt these punishments in the form of friends cutting us off because we violated social norms we weren’t aware of, or of being pushed to the outside of social groups and having no one in our lives who cared enough to text first or invite us to social outings.
The message we are given, whether directly through ABA or indirectly through social exclusion, is that we must destroy the parts of ourselves that do not conform to neurotypical ideals, just like Zero Two is forced to physically rip apart Klaxosaurs because they are a threat to the posthuman utopia built by the humans of the Darling in the Franxx universe.
Zero Two’s constant desire to become human rather than accept herself as she is definitely is relatable. I will admit that there are times in my life when I probably would have accepted a “cure” for autism if such a thing were possible, but now I am glad I didn’t, because such a “cure” would have been the death of who I really am.
Hiro, on the other hand, accepts Zero Two for who she is, and his acceptance is very good for her, like how I feel when my closest friends say things that accept me as I really am.
While I do not blame Zero Two for wanting to change, learning to overcome internalized ableism is difficult for all of us on the autism spectrum, and I applaud the show for demonstrating how harmful such internalized feelings can be.
Zero Two’s desire for acceptance is also very relatable. There were so many times when I could understand exactly what she was doing, like when she was participating in the silly gendered fight that Squad 13 had in the episode “Boys x Girls,” not because she cared about the reasons for the fight, but because she wanted to participate in a “real human fight,” as she put it.
When she attached herself to Hiro during social interactions, even breaking social norms by sitting at the boys’ table, this fits how I would go out of my way to sit near the few people I felt comfortable with in large group settings.
When Zero Two finally felt accepted by Squad 13, and then the whole squad turned against her, I had to take a break from the show because of how emotionally overwhelming it was based on similar experiences I had in my own life.
Even the way she harms her Franxx co-pilots reminds me (in an exaggerated way) of how I have on multiple occasions accidentally hurt the feelings of allistic people I care about because of how hard it is for me to understand the social meaning of my actions, causing me to internalize that I’m a monster, like Zero Two thinks of herself.
One example was when I reached out to someone outside an organization I was part of for help with a specific goal of mine, but a non-autistic person who had authority over me saw it as a personal attack and was furious at me, even threatening to kick me out of the organization. I felt like I couldn’t help hurting people because of what I am, because I didn’t understand the social norms surrounding authority.
Also, even Zero Two’s utility to human society being contingent on her ability to pilot Strelitzia is reminiscent of how autistic people tend to only be valued if they are great scientists or computer programmers or other stereotypically-autistic professions.
It’s pretty clearly implied that Zero Two would be euthanized if she were not useful to humans, like how doctors in Iceland advise people pregnant with babies with Down Syndrome to abort them – after all, people with Down Syndrome don’t characteristically have unusual skills that make capitalist society label them as “productive” like some autistic people do.
Major spoiler – stop reading here if you plan to watch the show and haven’t finished it:
At the end of the story, we learn that the Klaxosaurs are not the real enemy, but all of the suffering that the main characters went through was orchestrated by an alien hive mind known as VIRM. At the end, Zero Two and Hiro destroy VIRM with the support of all their friends, who have finally accepted Zero Two for who she is.
In my opinion, the support of their squad at the end stands for a healthy group dynamic that accepts difference and understands that not everyone is the same.
Indeed, Squad 13 has always been more willing to do this than other groups of Franxx pilots. On the other hand, VIRM can be seen as symbolic of neuro-normativity, as a group that does not accept difference and desires to make everyone the same, while eradicating those who are deviant.
By destroying VIRM at the end, Zero Two and Hiro symbolically destroy ableism. Not only do they save the Earth from literal destruction, they create a future where people can actually be themselves.
As a final note, many allistic people love to empathize with fictional characters who are different from everyone else but fail to do the work to affect neurodivergent people in their own lives.
If you are an allistic person who watches Darling in the Franxx and empathizes with Zero Two, but then you try to force us to conform to your social norms even when our autistic behaviors are harmless, or you refuse to hire someone because they didn’t make enough eye contact during the interview, then you are no better than VIRM.