By Alexandra Haagaard
Content warning: ableist slurs, ableist violence, sexual abuse
If nothing else, The Accountant’s marketing team deserves an award of some kind. In the run-up to the October 14 release of Ben Affleck’s thriller about an autistic savant who does accounting work for the criminal elite, media coverage spun the film as a brave venture into risky territory, with an honest depiction of an autistic central character. Much was made of the “months” that Affleck, director Gavin O’Connor, and screenwriter Bill Dubuque spent researching autism and consulting with experts and members of the autistic community. Early reviews of the film praised the authenticity of Affleck’s character, Chris Wolff. Appealing to his own background as an aide for special needs children, YouTube critic Chris Stuckmann commended the film for realistically capturing experiences that he is familiar with, in a way that many other Hollywood portrayals fail to.
As I entered the theater for my screening, I felt momentarily apprehensive. Working off of the film’s trailers and the fact that Affleck and O’Connor had received positive feedback from Autism Speaks, a notoriously reviled organization within the autistic community, I had pitched a piece on the harm done by inaccurate portrayals such as this one to autistic persons such as myself. But the aggressive focus of the film’s marketing on the accurate and research-driven nature of the portrayal had shaken my confidence in my initial response. I wondered if perhaps I was judging the book by its (admittedly trope-laden and red flag-festooned) cover, and whether I was in fact about to watch a nuanced and empathetic characterization.
I needn’t have worried. The Accountant most assuredly is an honest depiction of autism — but it is an honest depiction of what autism looks like through the eyes of humans who are allistic . . . that is, not autistic themselves. As such, it is a painful and often stereotypical rendering of a character who is constantly and explicitly signified as Other.
For the duration of the film’s 128-minute runtime, we are treated to the cold spectacle of a man whose human qualities are confined to a minimum. His face is uniformly mask-like; he exhibits no sign of a life outside the confines of his work (and of the plot); he doesn’t even bleed when punched in the face. A number of motifs do the unsubtle work of reminding the audience that Chris is not one of us. Repeatedly, the camera lingers gleefully on minimalist shots of Wolff framed through a window. He is quite literally an outsider looking in. There is a similarly gleeful preoccupation with having him shoot people in the head at point-blank range — an astonishingly frequent occurrence that, each time, left the audience in my theater groaning in a sort of appalled admiration. An early scene in the film that depicts a room full of autistic children has the feeling of a wildlife documentary, full of close-up, slow-motion shots of the children stimming and having meltdowns.
More than just the characterization itself, the experience of watching the film was a painful one. In addition to his mathematical savantism, Chris Wolff is a prodigious marksman and martial artist who, we are given to understand, developed these skills courtesy of an abusively militaristic upbringing. In a pair of scenes that suggest an especially violent take on Applied Behavior Analysis therapy, Chris subjects himself to overstimulation via a variety of extreme sensory inputs, including loud metal music and strobe lighting that differ markedly from his usual preference for peace and quiet. As in the meltdown scene, the film takes its time here, using long shots with isolated audio that gradually builds in intensity, in what appears to be an attempt at simulating the experience of sensory overload.
The problem here is that for autistic audience members, sensory overload is not a simulated experience. It is real and yes, painful, and has the ironic effect of making this “honest” film about autism an unsafe experience for autistic moviegoers. As someone who has had to leave clubs and concerts before when strobe lights were turned on, I found myself having to close my eyes, then cover them when my eyelids weren’t enough to block out the light. I am still having trouble wrapping my mind around the incredible disregard the filmmakers showed for the autistic community when they chose to include not one but two of these scenes.
Then there was the emotional pain. This was the pain of witnessing the perpetration and perpetuation of stigma against the autistic community. I cringed when the audience laughed as Chris inadvertently insulted a client with his blunt manner, then again when they laughed as he awkwardly attempted to converse with Anna Kendrick’s character, who is cast as something of a love interest, and then again when they laughed at Chris’ brother angrily calling him, “you weird fuck.” At the third one, my heart started to race. This was not the friendly laughter that happens once you recognize you’ve done something a bit odd, or missed what should probably have been an obvious social cue, and you’re joking around about it later with your friends. This was the laughter of the kids in the schoolyard, egging the bullies on. This was the laughter of the mob clamoring to see the weird fuck get taken down a peg or two. He deserves it, after all, for being such a weird fuck in the first place.
But of course, in the world of The Accountant, the weird fuck does deserve it, because in the words of Chris’ father, “life is a series of choices, the first of which is to be a victim. Victim or not, make a decision.” This line is the lens that brings the rest of the film into focus. Chris decides not to be a victim, and so he exits the car to beat his schoolyard bullies senseless because to do otherwise would be to choose victimhood. He submits to his father’s abuse because to acknowledge it as such would be to become a victim of abuse. He intentionally exposes himself to painful sensory stimulation because to avoid it would make him a victim of his own nervous system. According to The Accountant, victimhood is not only a choice, but something to be literally beaten into submission.
The notion that we choose to be victims is echoed in the film’s marketing campaign. In multiple interviews, O’Connor notes that someone, somewhere on the internet was bound to “take issue with it. It’s just the way of the world now . . . .” This attitude exemplifies an ethos that places the blame for victimization squarely on victims’ shoulders. It’s not our fault if you’re offended; it’s yours for choosing to be offended. This is a stance that’s become popular in recent years among the liberal intelligentsia, finding proponents among Lionel Shriver, Stephen Fry, and Yale professors Nicholas and Erika Christakis. It’s also a stance cultivated by a privileged class in wilful denial of the power it exerts.
Because when we talk about privilege and representation, we are really talking about power and oppression. Michel Foucault’s concept of the gaze explicates how practices of looking and recording are a means of enacting relationships that are based on differentials of power. In The Birth of the Clinic, he describes the practice of medicine, enacted by the examining gaze, as a practice of differentiation between observer and observed, in order to create space for the observer’s conception of disease. This practice is mirrored in the cinematic gaze’s production of disabled characters by and for abled viewers. In The Accountant, the image of Chris’ autism is dependent upon his differentiation from the presumed-allistic observer. It is signified throughout the film by highly stylized symbols of his Otherness: his monotone, his robotic affect, the spartan furnishings of his home, his choice not to pursue his love interest, and the reactions of Normal characters to his behavior, which range from bewilderment, to amusement, to anger.
In producing the space for Chris’ autism, The Accountant signifies autism as a set of deviations from the audience’s expectations for the actions and behaviors of a Normal straight, white, adult cis man. In short, it signifies autism as stigma. Erving Goffman defines stigma as a difference between the expected attributes that society ascribes to a person within a certain category — say, a straight, white, adult cis man — and the attributes that person actually exhibits. In Stigma, Goffman describes the social consequences of this phenomenon as follows:
“By definition, of course, we believe the person with a stigma is not quite human. On this assumption, we exercise varieties of discrimination, through which we effectively, if often unthinkingly, reduce his life chances. We construct a stigma-theory, an ideology to explain his inferiority and account for the danger he represents, sometimes rationalizing an animosity based on other differences, such as those of social class. We use specific stigma terms such as cripple, bastard, moron in our daily discourse as a source of metaphor and imagery, typically without giving thought to the original meaning. We tend to impute a wide range of imperfections on the basis of the original one, and at the same time to impute some desirable but undesired attributes, often of a supernatural cast, such as ‘sixth sense,’ or ‘understanding’ . . . “
In fact, portrayals such as those in The Accountant impose a double stigma against the autistic community. First, they construct autism as an essential difference from the expected attributes of a Normal person. As described by Goffman, and as I witnessed in the theater, this stigma generates an animosity toward the stigmatized. An autistic person is a weird fuck, and so we laugh at their awkwardness, we are shocked by their behaviors, and we take pleasure in their redress. Second, they define a set of expected attributes for the category of Autistic person. These attributes are typically stylized and stereotypical: monotone voice, absence of visible emotion, hetero(a)sexuality, whiteness, maleness. Consequently, there is often a stark difference between society’s expected attributes of autism, and the actual characteristics of real autistic persons — another stigma.
The practical consequences of the double stigma faced by autistic people are significant. Throughout the world, autistic people are targeted for violence and abuse, while the perpetration of this violence is framed as justifiable, or even compassionate — as in the case of Kelli Stapleton, who attempted to murder her autistic daughter, and subsequently appeared on Dr. Phil to discuss her “nightmare.” Only two weeks ago, a young boy who exhibits signs of autism was set on fire in Texas, and received first- and second-degree burns to 20% of his body. The children who were with him at the time, who have a history of verbally and physically assaulting the boy, have said the incident was “an accident” and police have found that there was no evidence of premeditation. However, the boy’s first words upon waking up from a medically-induced coma were, “Grandma, they burned me.”
Meanwhile, those who deviate from the expected set of autistic traits, by being girls and women or people of color, or by adapting to stigma and abuse by learning behaviors such as modulation of vocal tone and facial expressions, are underdiagnosed and undersupported, preyed upon by abusers, and often struggle with other mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression. In fact, the problem of invisibility among autistic women and PoC is so well-recognized within the autistic community that it has spawned the Twitter hashtags #SelfDxIsValid and #SheCantBeAutistic.
As an autistic woman who has never received a formal diagnosis — I have been told by two psychiatrists that “you show autistic traits, but you are so high-functioning that I don’t see the benefit of a diagnosis” — I myself have dealt with abuse and depression throughout my life. Because of my desire to fit in and my inability to do so growing up, I often entered into physically and emotionally abusive friendships, to the point where I am still superstitious about calling anyone my best friend, lest they turn on me in short order. I was sexually abused by a family friend for some time before I realized what was happening to me, and was subsequently blamed for putting myself in that situation and not saying anything. I have struggled with depression and self-loathing since childhood; it was only upon recognizing my autism that I realized my meltdowns and tendency to become distressed when people moved my things or changed my schedule unexpectedly did not make me a tyrant.
Contrary to the narrative of The Accountant, these kinds of experiences are not under our control. In the end, we cannot resolve our oppression by beating our oppressors into submission. (Can you imagine the headlines if we tried?) The responsibility for autistic victimhood lies with those who create, distribute, and consume the images of our Otherness.
Life is a series of choices, the first of which is how you will wield your power.
For another #actuallyautistic perspective on ‘The Accountant,’ read “What Is The Role Of Autism In Art?”
Lead image: Facebook