From ‘Freaks and Geeks’ To ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ Pop Culture’s Conflation Of Geekiness and Autism

In mid-January, the critic Noel Murray wrote a perceptive and important essay for The AV Club about how much depictions of both nerds and people with autism have improved in popular culture in recent years. He explained that:

Five years ago, when my son turned 6, I wrote an essay for this site called “Rain Man Revisited,” in which I lamented that movies and TV episodes about autism tend to treat the autistic as aliens in our midst, defined only by their family members, who spend their lives waiting for their autists to say “I love you.” The situation has vastly improved since then, even beyond Sheldon Cooper. The HBO movie Temple Grandin did justice to an icon in the autism community, showing Grandin as a complicated person with accomplishments and pleasures as well as limitations. Community, The Middle, and Parenthood have created distinctive ASD characters in the pop-culture-consumed Abed Nadir, the obsessive-compulsive bookworm Brick Heck, and the inadvertently insensitive Max Braverman. And Ryan Cartwright’s performance as the autistic superhero Gary Bell on Alphas has been one of the truest I’ve yet seen, accurate in the autist’s at-times-frustrating inability to control his own quirks while also allowing Gary to be amused and amusing on his own terms.

In the weeks since Murray published his essay, I rewatched Freaks and Geeks, Paul Feig’s genius single-season show about the students at a suburban high school near Detroit, and Undeclared, collaborator Judd Apatow’s show about college freshmen living on the same hall. And while I was struck by any number of things in both shows, part of what stood out for me was the depictions of nerds. There’s no question that the geeks on both shows face any number of social challenges, from bullying, to building friendships with women they find attractive, to communicating sincerity when their default mode is sarcasm, to determining the status of a relationship after you’ve slept with someone once. But they’re decidedly not autistic: in fact, many of their problems stem from a mismatch between the geeks’ strong emotions, sincerity, and desires to connect and the environments in which they operate, which tend to overvalue coolness, detachment, and irony. It was a set of depictions that made me wonder if the depictions of nerds and autists have improved because we’re over-conflating geekiness and the presence of characters somewhere on the autism spectrum, rather than reflecting the range of both nerds and people with autism.

One of the best creations of Freaks and Geeks is Harris Trinsky, a long-haired nerd played by Stephen Lea Sheppard who, incidentally, has his only other acting credit Dudley Heinsbergen, the character in The Royal Tenenbaums who is being studied by Bill Murray’s Raleigh, who describes Dudley as suffering “from a rare disorder combining symptoms of amnesia, dyslexia, and color-blindness, with a highly acute sense of hearing.” Harris unmistakably geeky—the Dungeon Master of his social circle’s Dungeons and Dragons games, a good student, slack-physiqued in a way that suggests he isn’t trying to assimilate by bulking up or going out for sports—yet he’s also something of a sage. He advises Sam Weir, Neal Schweiber, and Bill Haverchuck to fight their bully, Alan White. He has a girlfriend, Judith, who he gets “scented oils and plenty of time with her man,” though they don’t appear to be having sex. Chief Freak Daniel Desario comes to Harris for an assessment on whether or not he’s a loser, and Harris calmly tells him “You’re not a loser ’cause you have sex, but if you weren’t having sex, we could definitely debate the issue.” When Coach Fredericks institutes a requirement that students shower after gym class, Harris is the one of the geeks who reacts with utter calm—he’s not ashamed or anxious of his body. Harris is very, very different from his contemporaries, but he’s not made uncomfortable the ways in which he’s socially out of step. Instead, Harris is comfortably and confidently marching to the beat of his own drummer.

The question for the rest of the geeks—and even for some of the freaks—is whether they’ll end up deciding that the tune Harris identified earlier than the rest of them is a fit, or whether they’ll end up socially assimilating in other ways. Sam, as his friendship and experience dating Cindy Sanders suggests, may have more capacity than Harris does to socially assimilate. The most conventionally handsome of his friends, once Sam hits his growth spurt and develops some fashion sense that doesn’t involve powder-blue jumpsuits, he may face even more intense questions about which social groups he wants to be a part of, rather than finding happiness in the group that will have him. Sensitive Bill may not grow into those options, but his bluntness has its appeal for popular students who are also going through the process of finding out that the social group where they initially landed may not be the one where they’d prefer to end up, as was clear in the episode where he and the other geeks attend a makeout party, and his seven minutes in heaven with a cheerleader turns into something more sincere and extended.

Undeclared, which examines the same kind of students four years down the line as they enter college. Steven Karp, Ron Garner, Marshall Nesbitt and Perry all have better social skills than than Bill, Sam, and Neal did, but the challenges they face are also more significant, mostly because having sex is an actual possibility for them in the way it wouldn’t have been for their younger counterparts. But once again, the things that make them awkward may also be the things that are going to make them wonderful, open-hearted men once they get the kinks out. Steven gets overly attached to Lizzie Exley, a pretty girl on his hallway, after they have sex their first day on campus, but once they find a way to be together, he wants nothing more to be solicitous and attentive to her needs, even if he’s not always clear on what they are. Marshall is, to a certain extent, a prototypical Nice Guy, yearning after Rachel, even to the point of letting her do alternative medicine experiments on him, without ever making a definitive move on her. Fortunately, though, he never acts as if he’s entitled to sex with her simply because they’ve been friends for a long time. And his desire for her, and his failure to act on it, is part of Marshall’s larger efforts to act on his own behalf, including deciding to study music rather than business. His instincts are good, he just has to learn to follow that he has a right to follow them. And then there’s Perry, who we meet when he uses his obsessions with hip-hop and Brit-pop to find a place for himself DJing campus parties. The things that might have made Perry weird in high school give him a role on campus. And it’s true with girls as well as guys. In the final episode of Undeclared‘s lone season, Perry’s expertise in dying hair, gained from the fact that he’s gone prematurely gray, gives him the skills to save Lizzie from bad highlights.

All of these kinds of stories about coming to terms with your difference, finding strength in it, embracing your openness and emotionality even if they don’t conform to the expectations for your gender, sharing your powers of perception and observation with people who have more social capital than you, and moving beyond the first social group you fell into are wonderful, important stories. There are scenarios in this class that people—and characters—with autism experience, but they’re not necessarily inextricably linked to the autism spectrum. Conflating geekiness and autism may help render people with autism more recognizable to audiences who aren’t on the spectrum, and may grant them access to social capital that wasn’t previously available to characters like Raymond Babbit. But that conflation also cuts us off from stories about social confident and competent geeks who are powerful bridges between social groups, rather than struggling to learn social norms, and from stories about people on the autism spectrum who have geeky interests, but whose behaviors are less comprehensible to people who don’t have much experience with people with autism than Sheldon Cooper’s might be (Alphas did an exceptionally good job of bringing out Anna, a character on the autism spectrum who invented her own language). As useful as combining these kinds of traits may have been over the past half-decade, I wonder if it’s time for us to start separating them out again, and start telling stories that both recognize the social capital many geeks possess today, and expanding pop culture’s exploration of the humanity of people whose main symptoms of autism aren’t defined by obsessive interest.