Turing: Why Benedict Cumberbatch should stop talking about disability

(or at least read up on it. See disclaimer.)

Just before I went to see The Imitation Game, I read that Alan Turing had been retroactively diagnosed as having Asperger’s Syndrome. I’m very wary about any Hollywood films featuring people with any disability at all, especially people who are on the Autistic spectrum. But I was willing to be convinced, and excited to see Benedict Cumberbatch’s big performance. I watched it not as a tragedy, or the story of a gay man in a homophobic world, but as the story of Alan Turing: brilliant, Autistic, gay, human.
And the film made me so happy.
I felt it was a beautiful tribute. Cumberbatch’s acting is versatile enough to capture Turing’s complex character; he gives us the sense of a brilliant mind working away beneath the facade. His performance is the focus of the film – I think it’s fantastic, possibly Oscar-worthy. And: at no point did I ever, ever doubt that he was playing an Autistic character. Actually, I forgot that he was acting at all.
But after all that, I was upset a few days later to see how Benedict Cumberbatch actually feels when he’s asked if his characters are Autistic. Rather than being delighted that so many fans identify many of his characters as being on the spectrum, (Sherlock, Turing, and even the pilot Martin Crieff in Cabin Pressure) Cumberbatch seems annoyed:

“People talk about me doing that quite a lot and that being a good thing for people who are on the spectrum, which is great. But… I’m very wary of that, because I’ve met people with those conditions. It’s a real struggle all the time. Then these people pop up in my work and they’re sort of brilliant, and they on some levels almost offer false hope for the people who are going through the reality of it.”

First off, what I don’t understand is how BC can honestly think that there is “no hope” for any Autistic people – an enormous range of people, of all ages, backgrounds and abilities. Autistic people are human. There is hope for every human being, no matter how “disabled” they appear to be, or how much help they require; and assuming someone automatically has less hope because of their neurology is enormously patronising.
There’s also the assumption that Autistic people can’t be “sort of brilliant”. Not only is it nonsensical, it invalidates that Turing was retroactively diagnosed in real life, and that many other intellectually brilliant people have been diagnosed as Autistic. And who knows how many more Autistic people – brilliant or not – have been institutionalised, ignored, or even killed, just because people can’t communicate with them or it is “too much work” to look after them? It’s truly heartbreaking.
And knowing how important positive representation is, it seems so irresponsible of Cumberbatch to write off and patronise a section of his fanbase. It contributes to a culture of ignorance and bigotry, whether he’s aware of that or not.

Secondly, it’s incredible that he can hold such narrow-minded views and yet play characters on the Autistic spectrum – Sherlock, Turing – so beautifully.
Tumblr is (or was) full of posts by Autistic fans who praise his acting for its precise physicality: every tic and finger stim appears completely natural. Sherlock and Turing would be easy to present as stereotypes, but his characterisation makes them into people. His characters’ movements echo their personalities: in Sherlock his graceful leaps, spins, and almost acrobatic movements showed a character who was always ten steps ahead of everyone else. In The Imitation Game, Cumberbatch’s facial expressions, his posture, his terse delivery, the way he delivers flashes of emotion and shows his character concentrating hard on being liked by others, builds up an image of an Autistic human being at work in the real world.
It’s doubly surprising because usually, creators’ prejudices inevitably show up somewhere in their work. It’s probably a stretch to say unpleasant creators make unpleasant work (Roald Dahl was anti-Semitic and classist, but I still enjoyed Matilda as a kid), and actors are collaborative by nature, mostly speaking words that aren’t their own. But it seems bizarre that someone who holds such ableist views can provide such sensitive, nuanced portrayals of Autistic people.
Mostly, I’m disappointed. So much more could be made of this situation. Instead Cumberbatch has left people upset, saddened, and wondering whether to watch his next film. Not impressive.

(Disclaimer: I have never been diagnosed as Autistic. I consider Autistic people my disability siblings, and wanted to do them justice in this post. There is so much ableist writing about Autism in the media that I wanted to contribute positively in some way.)


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