There are many arguments about mental health of Sheldon Cooper, a major character in the Big Bang Theory (I shall further refer to it as BBT) TV series. Jim Parsons who plays this character said in his interview to Variety that Sheldon “couldn’t display more traits” of Asperger’s. The authors of the series denied using Asperger’s symptoms in creating Sheldon’s character, which is very reasonable considering the sensitivity of this issue. Clearly, they wouldn’t want to be rightfully or falsely accused of profiting from making fun of people with Asperger’s. To me, since the screenwriters are perfectly aware of the syndrome, they couldn’t avoid using their knowledge in fleshing out Sheldon’s personality, so the Asperger’s properties were smartly camouflaged with exaggerated geek-ness and eccentricity.
But before we think about the morality aspect it’s worth looking first at another important side of this issue – how to define Asperger’s? There’re Asperger’s bloggers on the web, often calling themselves Aspies, who disagree with labelling Asperger’s as a medical condition or a pathology. They are happy about their difference and uniqueness and claim the right to be regarded as normal individuals. I wonder how Aspies feel about the mass culture industry monetizing their uniqueness by, for instance, making fun of their unusual personalities.
One thing is joking about a sick person, but another – about differences in normal human states or behaviour – man vs woman (you may be accused of sexism), gay vs straight (you may be labelled as homophobic or someone maybe offended and jump off the bridge), iPhone vs Android (your blogger account may be removed by Google, lol) or geek vs non-geek (you may lose your geek friends). So, is it safe to make jokes about Asperger’s? Well, it depends on what kind of jokes you make. The strategy of BBT makers – you can joke however you like as long as you don’t mention the word (Asperger’s).
Asperger’s definition is rather vague. The condition was named after an Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger who first observed it in children. In psychiatry Asperger’s is still classified as an autism spectrum disorder and its main specific features among others are difficulties in social interaction, repetitive patterns in hobbies and behaviour and the reduced empathy.
Aspies have mostly normal verbal and cognitive development compared to people with other autism conditions. This is used as an argument in support to recognise Asperger’s as a normal type of human behaviour. Another such argument is that no anatomical or physiological pathologies were found in Aspies.
However, the fact that Asperger’s frequently goes along with anxiety, depression, inattention and aggression may persuade psychologists to keep calling Asperger’s a medical condition. But then all these co-morbid symptoms may just arise from the pressure from our society as they are common in many other stigmatised social groups: LBGT, physically disabled people or ethnic/religious minorities.
Now, as I noticed my rambling turned out to be an effective sleeping pill, I’m going back to Sheldon. Which of his qualities make the audience laugh and to what extent they fit into the Asperger’s description?
- Repetitive behaviour Penny (knock, knock)! Penny (knock, knock) Penny (knock, knock);
- Reduced empathy;
- He misreads facial expressions and doesn’t get jokes;
- His verbosity is as notorious as his ineptitude of normal communication;
- No idea of tact;
- Great abilities in maths and obsession with figures and precision.
All of these are qualities often observed in Asperger’s. And let’s be honest, they makes us laugh.
What about other things like:
- Geeky and eccentric traits;
- Avoidance of drugs (tobacco, alcohol);
- Germ phobia.
These are not the Asperger’s features. To me, they arise from Sheldon’s extreme focus on intellectual topics, which he ranks as much more superior to materialistic or emotional interests of other people. Sheldon is perfectly aware of huge negative impact of infectious and toxic agents on human health. And because he is self-centred and in a way even narcissist (he probably thinks the high IQ makes him superior to other people), he likes showing off those unusual properties (high susceptibility to germs and booze, brain of a polymath, etc.) to others to validate (and to prove to himself) his special and superior nature and to compensate for his socially inadequate traits he’s perfectly aware of.
Sheldon is funny because he’s a misfit, a source of unstoppable weirdness, geeky wit, eccentricity and social misconduct. But it is his harmless nature mixed with the above-listed things what makes him so popular. So, is it moral to laugh at him? I think YES… provided it’s not an evil laugh.
So what happens to Sheldon when he does get drunk?