Three cheers for ‘Woo’
The author is a columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.
British social scientist Colin Barnes listed 11 stereotypes of disabled people in the media, including “pitiable; pathetic; an object of violence; sinister and evil; super cripple; an object of ridicule; and their own worst enemy.” They are all negative or discriminatory images. Barnes found the media shares liability for the social representations of impairment and negative assumptions about disabled people.
According to the book “Disability and the Media” by Katie Ellis, disabled characters appearing in American network TV and streamlining original dramas in 2017 were 1.8 percent of the total, far less than the 20 percent disabled ratio in the American population. The situation is no different in Korea.
HBO mega-hit drama “Games of Thrones” received high approval from disability activists and community for breaking the clichés of disability. Peter Dinklage, who played Tyrion Lannister in the drama up to Season 8, grabbed eight Emmy Awards for his outstanding work as supporting actor. He played a prominent role in the series. The four and a half-feet tall actor broke the common stereotype on dwarfs to create a complex character. Speaking about the hard days before his break in an interview, he said, “My agent knows better than to send me up for a K-Mart spot as Santa’s helper, which explains why I’m poor. But that’s the choice I’ve made.” But his choice had been right.
The latest Korean TV drama “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” portraying a rookie genius lawyer with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) on little-known cable channel ENA has been creating a splash. The first episode had a viewership of 0.9 percent, but by the sixth episode, the viewership was 10 percent. It tops Netflix’s Global Top 10 list as the most-watched non-English drama. A strong script and good directing and acting accompanied by a warm and non-condescending perspective have touched home and global audiences. The drama has come to represent not just the voices of diversity and minority but the zeitgeist. The show featured not just the heroine with ASD but also a single father and lesbian couples.
There have been shows featuring autistic savants before. But the films and dramas on them focused on the triumphs of people with disability yet extraordinary capabilities. The drama on 27-year lawyer Woo Young-woo is about how someone with a disability blends into the society and grows from interactions with the surrounding people. It depicts how people accept differences and how people can live alongside those with disabilities without the usual sentimentalism and bias.
In the courtroom, Woo is struck by a “whale-like” extraordinary insight to turn the case in favor of the defendant. In her first appearance, she introduces herself to the judges and civilian jury on the bench that she is on the ASD spectrum and could appear awkward in speech and behavior, but does not differ with any other lawyers in “her love of the law.” She tells her client that “the law values the heart.”
Despite the strong reception of the drama, the social perspective and environment on the disabled remain brutal. There is also a gap with the reality as the act has been “acted” by an actress who is not autistic. A recent tvN drama “Our Blues” cast a real character with Down Syndrome, and there has been a rise of similar cases. In “CODA” — which won Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards — Troy Kotsur, who won the Best Supporting Actor award as the first deaf male, portrayed the life of a teenage girl who is the only person in her family who isn’t deaf. The film proved that deaf and disabled people can be as talented as anyone else. We have come a long way since the Middle Ages when male actors played female roles, or when white actors played the black characters in Hollywood films.
In spite of the restraints, the drama “Woo Young-woo” deserves praises for nonbiased representation of people with disabilities. A civic group advocating rights of the disabled criticized the drama for being “discriminatory” before the show began. We need more characters and shows like Woo to break the stereotype across the society.
And personally, bravo to my favorite actress Park Eun-bin for her splendid acting.