Woo Young-woo. Whether it's read straight or flipped, it's still Woo Young-woo. Kayak, deed, rotator, noon, racecar.
She’s a Seoul National University alumni who achieved a near-perfect score on the bar exam, is employed at Hanbada, the second-best law firm in South Korea and has a photographic memory encompassing everything from criminal law on bodily injury to the average size of the beluga whale. She also introduces herself with palindromes, always carries a pair of headphones to play whale ASMR and thrives on a kimbap-only diet.
Following in the footsteps of shows such as "The Good Doctor," "Extraordinary Attorney Woo" depicts Woo Young-woo, a first-year lawyer on the autism spectrum played by Park Eun-bin, as she navigates through the legal world, prejudice and love. The latest entry in a recent slew of South Korean shows gaining much-deserved recognition from Western audiences, the feels-good law drama has spent 10 weeks as the most watched non-English show on Netflix, amassing 31.6 million weekly views as of Sept. 18.
"Extraordinary Attorney Woo" has all the makings of a hit series — a charming soundtrack accompanying a wholesome office romance, a cast of characters that jump out of the screen and a plotline that keeps you impatiently clicking on “Next Episode.” The show was so successful that Attorney Woo will return for a second season — a relative rarity for K-dramas compared to their Western counterparts. However, much of the buzz around the drama has not centered on the show itself, but on what the show means for the depiction of neurodivergent people in media.
The show does an excellent job of getting viewers to empathize with Woo — and take the first step to understanding neurodivergence. It is most explicitly displayed through employment and workplace discrimination, reflecting that only 22 percent of autistic South Koreans are employed and earn only $800 a month on average. Despite graduating from the most prestigious university in South Korea with near-perfect scores, Woo could not find employment for months. Even as a lawyer at one of the top law firms in South Korea, she is taken off cases or discriminated against by clients.
“Even when I’m working as attorney Woo Young-woo, it feels as if I’m autistic Woo Young-woo in people’s eyes. Autistic Woo Young-woo is the weakest link,” she said.
Despite the bias portrayed against the main character, "Extraordinary Attorney Woo" also portrays how neurodivergence can be a strength that brings diversity to a workplace. In recent years, companies including Microsoft, Deloitte and JP Morgan have either started or executed efforts to access neurodivergent hires. Many of Hanbada’s greatest wins are a direct result of Woo’s creative thinking and memory of the law. Even as her co-workers take time to warm up to her, her team learns to value not only her skill, but also her company. Woo references Hans Asperger, the leading autism researcher of his time:
“He said, ‘Not everything that steps out of line, and thus abnormal, must necessarily be inferior.’ That with their new ways of thinking and experiences, people with autism can later accomplish great things.”
Attorney Woo displays several symptoms of ASD — echolalia, or the pattern of repeating others’ words, a hyperfixation on whales and sensory issues that prevent her from wearing clothes with tags. For some, the inclusion of these traits makes them and their loved ones feel seen. During a press conference, director Yoo In-shik recalled a reaction video he saw of a mother raising her autistic child. Although worried about if Woo Young-woo would be an accurate portrayal of ASD, she soon felt differently:
“‘I felt that the cuteness and brilliance only I saw in my child could be loved by society,’” said Yoo, paraphrasing her words.
For others, the show portrays an inaccurate and potentially harmful image of autistic people. Woo also has savant syndrome, a condition in which a person with “serious mental disabilities, including autistic disorder, have some ‘island of genius’ which stands in marked, incongruous contrast to overall handicap.” Despite some studies indicating that about 10 percent of autistic individuals may have some degree of savant syndrome, a “prodigious savant” such as Woo would be among the less than 75 people in the category.
Despite autistic savantism being a rarity, it is incredibly common in pop culture’s depictions of autism. Naturally, "Extraordinary Attorney Woo" engenders comparisons to Rain Man’s Raymond Babbitt, another autistic savant. Similarly, Rain Man raised awareness of autism in a time when autism was “an abstraction, understood only by dedicated parents or specialised clinicians.” However, Rain Man also engrained in the popular imagination an image of autism elevated to the socially inept super-genius, far from the reality of what the average person living with autism experienced.
“Actors insist that they invest months of preparation to study the movements and reactions of autistic persons, script writers read scientific articles on autism, directors call on consultants, they all want an absolutely sincere and truthful rendition of autism; what they come up with is an autistic character with freak-like savant skills, unlike anything resembling a normal autistic person,” wrote Douwe Draaisma, a professor of psychology at the University of Groningen.
While not inaccurate for the 10 percent of autistic people with savant syndrome, the narrow frame from which autism is portrayed leaves little room for the remaining 90 percent. For neurotypical viewers who do not know autistic people, this can strengthen a belief that all autistic people have savant characteristics. The lack of diverse representation across the autistic spectrum also leaves the 90 percent majority with the pressure to prove themselves with a Babbitt-esque special ability — a social contract that hinges upon the value neurodivergent people can provide for neurotypical ones.
To this end, the creators of the show itself acknowledge the shortcomings of their show. For director Yoo, he sympathizes with the “relative deprivation” that autistic people feel that they “must have some kind of special talent to have value.” Writer Moon Ji-won added that for autistic people and their families, the show may elicit conflicting feelings despite good intentions.
“I was afraid of showing [prejudice against autistic people] in a way that would hurt autistic people. I wanted people to support and root for the character Woo Young-woo not because she is pitiful and they feel sorry for her, but because she is lovable, courageous and cool,” Moon said. “As a result, there is a limit to how much we can address such points.”
At the same time the show portrays autistic people as being just as extraordinary as neurotypical ones, "Extraordinary Attorney Woo" depicts the stereotypes of the autistic savant that we desperately need to move past for a more accurate representation of neurodivergence in media. Like the name Woo Young-Woo, the show's impact can be read back and forth, straight or flipped. Kayak, deed, rotator, noon, racecar.
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Audrey Wang is a Trinity sophomore and a university news editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.