OPINION: It’s okay to have complex relationships with problematic media

The back of a figure with long hair sits on a couch facing a television that displays a smiling figure. The person on the couch has a cloud-shaped thinking bubble emerging from their head that contains a colon, a closed parenthesis and another colon in order to create a smiley face that can be read from one side as sad and from one side as happy, indicating a sense of internal conflict.
Graphic by Greta Long

A fair number of autistic people absolutely hate the movie “Rain Man.” It’s easy to see why: Even giving it the benefit of being released in 1988, it still promotes significant and harmful stereotypes of autistic adults as a monolithic group of overgrown children unable to function except for one or two savant-level skills, who need to be consigned to institutions for the good of everyone.

This singular portrayal, clearly, is untrue and the film has many scenes that make me want to scream. But I still can’t bring myself to hate “Rain Man” in the way I sometimes should.

It’s a good film, from a technical standpoint, with an amazing soundtrack. I also think the film’s pro-institutionalization message, while definitely present, is overblown in some discussions. (The main character, Raymond, moves back to an institution at the end of the film, and this choice is portrayed as complex and potentially coerced by a doctor.)

I also repeat one of Raymond’s many verbal stims — short, repeated, calming phrases — to reassure myself when I drive: “I’m an excellent driver. I’m an excellent driver. I’m an excellent driver.”

On the one hand, I can’t stand the false, dangerous beliefs about autistic adults that “Rain Man” helped perpetuate. On the other hand, I can’t deny I’ve gained something from it.

Media doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Fictional media, especially, exists within the boundaries of the societies that create it and interact with it. It’s irresponsible to excuse harmful or offensive parts of creative works because those works are enjoyable.

Yet I also find it demeaning to claim that one’s enjoyment of a work is inherently less valid or always causes active harm because that work (or its creator) has harmful aspects or history. People are capable of considered evaluation of and rational thought about the media we interact with.

For me, “Rain Man” is a layer cake of complexities. Even decades after its release, it perpetuates outdated, painful ideas about autism and autistic adults. Yet it also explored autism — and had an autistic adult as a main character — at a time when the diagnosis was less well-known.

“Rain Man” starred a non-autistic actor playing an autistic character. Yet Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Raymond Babbitt is honestly one of the more realistic fictional semi-verbal autistic characters I’ve seen.

“Rain Man” does not wholly condemn institutions — modern-day mental asylums with nicer paint jobs — as an option for disabled people. Yet by the end of the film, it’s clear that Raymond could live with his brother, integrated into the community, and his “choice” not to is coerced by a doctor. 

“Rain Man” is not an easy movie for me to watch, but I keep coming back to it because it makes me feel less alone.

Or consider a conversation I had a couple weeks ago with an old friend. She messaged me with some lyrics from a band we both love, essentially asking “Is it just me or are these lyrics way more misogynistic than I remember?”

Yes. The lyrics were terribly misogynistic, portraying women as needing to stay with men they no longer love to receive proper guidance. Those particular lyrics aren’t the only misogynistic lines that band has ever performed, and misogyny isn’t the only bigotry they’ve ever perpetrated.

But my friend and I decided that we couldn’t give up on a band that had been part of our lives for years. Maybe that makes us bad people. I can’t say.

I don’t think liking a piece of media that perpetuates stereotypes or bigotry makes one guilty of perpetuating those stereotypes or bigotries, so long as one recognizes and acknowledges the failures of a work. Humans are not perfect, our media is not perfect and we should not crucify each other for failing to have flawless moral standards.

Obviously, there are some works that are so founded in the hate, degradation and violation of certain groups that interacting with them is suspect, if not potentially illegal. But for the vast majority of media, the world is too many shades of gray to draw a clear line between black and white, good and bad.

The intricacies of media ethics and enjoyment make my head spin, especially as someone who both consumes and creates media. I worry that my poetry — which is often fictional but based on my real experiences — perpetuates oversimplifications about disabled people, or queer people or any other group I belong to. I worry that my interacting with certain “problematic” media, without vehemently disavowing it, signals that it’s okay to enjoy stories built on stereotypes.

In the end, I can’t draw lines. I can’t say definitively what’s right and what’s wrong, because nobody can.

One should be critical in consuming media and seek out perspectives that conflict with one’s own. We, as a society, should hold harmful works and the falsehoods they portray to account.

We should also let each other — and ourselves — enjoy what we enjoy, recognizing that media is not perfect. Criticize, yes, but don’t cast off a work wholly simply because it’s not flawless.

After all, every one of us has a Raymond Babbitt-character we relate to, even if the work that character comes from is painful to experience. 

Donnie TC Denome PZ ’20, CG ’21 is a 4+1 BA/MPH public health major from Sunnyvale, California. They’re an excellent driver by virtue of being too scared to drive in virtually all circumstances.

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