Extraordinary Woo Young Woo misses mark depicting autistic people

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Netflix

Korean drama, Extraordinary Woo Young Woo has been the new Korean film in the spotlight. However, this series is different in that the main character is autistic. Despite the representation it brings into the Korean drama industry, critics are concerned about the stereotypes the character brings into the show.

Rin Ryu, Managing Editor

Netflix is home to yet another Korean drama, Extraordinary Attorney Woo. The 16-part TV series set numerous records, with 77.4 million hours watched; the show became the most viewed show during August and took over the Netflix Top 10 chart

This show stands out with its main character, Woo Young-woo, played by actress Park Eun-bin being autistic. The series follows Young-woo as she navigates her way through her attorney career. Through it all, it is evident that with Young-woo’s extreme intelligence, she is able to come up with brilliant solutions to legal issues.

When given the role opportunity, Park Eun-bin was hesitant to accept it as she was aware of the impact the character would have worldwide. The character also brought up multiple challenges for Eun-bin.

“It was the first time that I had absolutely no idea what to do, when it came to how to express things, while I was reading the script,” she said on Agence France-Presse. “I knew [the show] was inevitably going to have an influence on people with autism and their families.”

In South Korea, the stigma surrounding disability is much more significant compared to the West. According to Son Da-eun of Autism Partnership Korea, those with autism are not represented in Korea.

You rarely have interactions with persons with autism on a daily basis. Historically, people with autism are kept home, hidden away from the world.”

— Son Da-eun

“There is much more of a sense of shame, not just for individuals with disabilities but also for their families,” Da-eun said. “You rarely have interactions with persons with autism on a daily basis. Historically, people with autism are kept home, hidden away from the world.”

Despite the drama taking steps toward highlighting the challenges and discrimination faced by people with autism, the show has faced criticism for bringing unrealistic, stereotypical tropes into the show. The original Korean title, 이상한 변호사 우영우, translates to Weird Lawer Woo Young-woo begins the common critique of the ableist undertone prevalent throughout the show. 

The writer, Moon Ji-won, spent a year with an early childhood special education professor to create an authentic character. This research was a significant step to ensuring an accurately written character, but it falls short when the show fails to hire disabled actors.

Woo Young-woo has a rare case of autism, Savant Syndrome, characterized by fantastic ability and talent. Because experts say these characteristics only exist in 2-10% of autistic people, the character fails to represent the general population. Critics are concerned that Young-woo’s character will impose unrealistic standards on real people with autism. 

Even though the show gets a lot of things wrong when approaching the topic of autism, the show has been praised for its portrayal of ableism. In media representing disability, the writers and directors of the film usually present ableism in an exaggerated, overly aggressive way. Although these forms of discrimination can occur, more covert forms of discrimination are rarely seen in media. 

Extraordinary Attorney Woo does a good job of highlighting other forms of discrimination. In numerous episodes, Young-Woo is faced with challenges due to the prejudices of her coworkers and clients. These scenes present a more common form of ableism such as exclusion from activities and sly comments. By showing some of the realities of autism, neurotypical viewers can reflect on their own prejudices and come away more educated on how to be a better ally.