I heard a lot of positive buzz about Freeform’s new sitcom, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay. Specifically, that the character Matilda is excellent autistic representation. Not only is Matilda portrayed by autistic actress Kayla Cromer, but the autistic actors on the show (yes, more than one) act as consultants. As someone dying for some good autistic representation, I was excited to check this show out.
And it is good…for the most part. There’s a lot to love about the ten-episode season, until the season finale, which hit me like a sucker punch to the stomach and almost soured the entire experience for me.
Let’s start with the positives. Everything’s Gonna Be Okay is about a young gay man, Nicholas, who is forced to care for his teenage half-sisters Matilda and Genevieve after their father dies. Matilda, age 17, is autistic with dreams of going to Julliard and having as many “normal” high school experiences as she can before college.
Matilda is great. The narrative dedicates time to her wants, dreams, and insecurities as she is on the verge of adulthood. Her moments of social confusion and sensory overload feel authentic, thanks in part to Cromer’s brilliant portrayal.
Instead of relying on stereotypes, Matilda is a character going through a coming-of-age arc that feels refreshingly human. Autism is brought up a lot but it’s never used as a replacement or shortcut for her personality. The audience also gets to see multiple examples of autistic characters in Matilda’s autistic support class. She even gets an autistic girlfriend by the end of the season.
Because I loved Matilda so much, I barely noticed the handful of questionable moments sprinkled throughout the first nine episodes. Person-first language is repeatedly used, and Matilda refers to herself as “high-functioning.”
The autistic community has raised concerns with both person-first language and functioning labels. But I was willing to overlook that. After all, it made sense for Matilda to use those terms, because she is still young, and it’s what she’s heard from her teachers and counselors. There is also a moment when Matilda has sex while drunk at a party.
I was a little disturbed that the adults in her life seemed to take more issue with whether an autistic person can consent than the fact she was drunk. As an autistic person who has had sex, I found that just a tad bit offensive.
Still, no piece of media is perfect. Any stride towards positive representation–especially if it includes actually autistic input–is a step in the right direction.
Then I got to episode ten. Spoilers ahead. Stop here if you don’t want to know the plot of the season finale.
In the season finale, the family visits New York City to get Matilda ready for college. Genevieve wants to go to an open mic event–and quickly shoos her siblings out the door before she goes on. At first, I thought it was a poetry reading (Genevieve’s been shown to write poems), but instead it’s a stand-up act. And Genevieve’s entire performance makes fun of her autistic sister.
I’m not exaggerating. Her entire set revolves around Matilda embarrassing Genevieve in public, Matilda acting weird as a kid, and Matilda lacking a “theory of mind.” Genevieve even says that she had to put up with Matilda’s antics because asking her to empathize would “shatter her world.”
Watching that scene was painful. Is this how my family sees me? As a joke? A burden? Someone deserving of public ridicule? It’s made doubly worse by the knowledge that real life discussions about autism are dominated by Autism Parents while autistic voices are drowned out.
Autism Parents, after all, do exactly what Genevieve did: make their family member’s autism all about themselves.
For a show that wants to be inclusive of autistics, this was a betrayal.
I’m not saying that family members shouldn’t be allowed to talk about their experiences. I know that having a disabled family member presents it’s own challenges.
But the majority of the media already revolves around neurotypical families, about how it’s so hard for them, about how they are saints for putting up with and rescuing their autistic relatives. Meanwhile, there are so few stories being told from an autistic person’s perspective.
Genevieve never consults Matilda about her comedy routine. She never asks for permission to tell her jokes. In fact, she explicitly hides it from her, being sure to usher Matilda out of the club. My sister is also a comedian, but she would never consider making a joke about me without my consent (she also wouldn’t tell “aren’t autistic people weird” jokes, because she isn’t a hack, but I digress).
Genevieve doesn’t have anything insightful to say about autism. She isn’t being clever. She lets strangers laugh at her sister. She’s a bully, picking on a vulnerable person. Not only that, but she is openly spreading harmful stereotypes.
No matter what neurotypicals might think, many autistic people have empathy and theory of mind. In fact, many of us experience an intense empathy, even if we don’t show it the same way as others. For a show that consults with autistic people–and even shows Matilda as very caring and loving–it’s surprising to see them perpetuate this myth.
There is so much potential in Everything’s Gonna Be Okay. Despite my issues, I do believe that the showrunners sincerely care about autistic representation.
There are ways for them to fix the situation next season. Maybe Matilda can talk to Genevieve about how hurt she is by her comedy, and Genevieve can be shown to develop her own jokes that move beyond just making fun of her sister’s autistic neurotype.
In the meantime, though, the season one finale left a bad taste in my mouth, and clouded over what had otherwise been an enjoyable show.
- The Hidden Strength of Autistic Moms in a Neurotypical Mom Culture - September 13, 2021
- What I Wish Neurotypicals Knew About Meltdowns - February 25, 2021
- Review: The Promise and Disappointment of Everything’s Gonna Be Okay - September 21, 2020
Hmm. Thanks to my set of the effects of autism I don’t watch TV; to which the unthinking could say, “Well then, what’s on TV doesn’t affect you.” Ahh, but one errs in thinking that, people in the community, the world, will develop beliefs and behaviors based on what information and media they take in: their beliefs and behaviors will eventually cross paths with my life, maybe directly, maybe indirectly.
What I would hope for the TV show is that the routine’s content is learned of and causes a crisis in beginning episode of next season; which then gets lived through and eventually resolved in a manner which can be both a constructive conflict resolution example & and a ‘this is why that is bad and hurts people, so don’t do it.’ example.
I haven’t seen the show, but after reading the review, I hope, much as scottfw does, that the standup routine leads into some sort of situation, a conflict perhaps, that can be played out to illustrate just how harmful and hurtful some neurotypical attitudes are towards autistics.
And let’s face it, dropping a bombshell in the season finale is a common technique to rouse interest for the next season. But typically it’s not something that most viewers have had personal experience of. And even in this case most viewers are probably not autistic, but hopefully, the jokes will make them feel uncomfortable after getting to know Matilda during the season. That in itself is a start.
Many TV & movie portrayals have massive, long term confusing effects, and muddy the waters for decades, making it even harder to explain nuances to NT’s. There is research somewhere that it is twice as hard to learn something if you have to unlearn something first.
I am coming to the view as an older autistic person that we need to get much more aggressive in fighting these issues. For example, Theory of Mind in my view is an example of unconscious biases from a medicalised/ psychologised NT researcher looking to explain known so-called faults. Yet those very theories and accompanying jargon are being spoken by us in attempts to get things on a better track. Not a criticism of the article at all, but better that we don’t use, or even pillory these theories and jargon created by negative NT’s when we talk if at all possible, and talk down those who do. It is like accusing Jews of being mean or greedy & looking for evidence. Or Muslims of being terrorists because of their religion. Simply rubbish.
We need a more Hannah Gadsby type of humour to make people laugh about their own discomfort with autistic people, and thereby move to honesty. I do know that is easy to say & hard to do, but that is our task. For example, when I challenge a superior doctor on the 5th visit by saying I’ve been lying to him because he is so overbearing with his assertions about autism that I feel I can’t tell him what I should, it shocks him and cuts through the garbage to a genuine conversation.
When we finally see most research going into increasing our Superpowers or for many our non-super abilities or whatever we have inside, and how to support us growing as an autistic person so we can use those abilities for our own benefit, then we can relax. Until then, I think we should call B$&* S@$# and use our honesty as a weapon.
I wrote about this on my blog too. It was a truly awful scene that just kept going on and on. For all Genevieve’s complaints about Matilda not empathizing, Genevieve didn’t bother with imagining how her “funny” anecdotes might impact her sister.