Korean TV Drama Offers Much-needed Disability Representation
Columnist Alliah Czarielle shares her take on 'Extraordinary Attorney Woo'
Lately, I’ve been binge-watching the Korean TV drama “Extraordinary Attorney Woo.” It tells the story of a young lawyer with autism and the challenges she encounters (and does her best to overcome) in her life, career, and relationships.
I instantly got hooked on the show for two reasons. First, it appealed to the little girl in me who once dreamed of becoming a lawyer — and still does.
Second, I found the show’s overarching theme of thriving with disability and adjusting to the world to be relatable. I’m married to a person with hemophilia and a seizure disorder, and I’ve been diagnosed with mental health conditions such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and bipolar II disorder, so I appreciated seeing positive disability representation.
Much like the show’s gifted protagonist, Woo Young-woo, my husband’s disabilities are not obvious at first glance. When Attorney Woo walks down the street, she looks like any other young woman. If not for a few odd mannerisms and tics, people wouldn’t be able to tell right away that she has autism.
It’s the same with my husband, Jared, whose hefty build, athletic prowess, and outwardly “normal” appearance obscure the reality of his bleeding disorder and seizures. Who would ever guess that the guy who looks so strong in the gym would sometimes be unable to move due to severe bleeds?
In the show, Attorney Woo frequently apologizes for any potential awkward behavior caused by her autism before speaking up in the courtroom. It’s the same with Jared, who must fully disclose his conditions to his bosses and colleagues before starting a job. Whenever he goes to the gym, he must tell his trainers about his hemophilia so they don’t assign him activities that exceed his physical limitations. (For instance, he can’t do plyometrics or any exercise that could put excess stress on his ankle joint.)
Both Attorney Woo and Jared are thankfully blessed with friends and colleagues who are able to extend grace and understanding. Yet the possibility of encountering discrimination from strangers (or even familiar people) never completely goes away.
Several times throughout the show, Attorney Woo is discredited in the courtroom because of her autism. While defending an intellectually challenged client, she realizes that many disabled people might feel like their emotions are never truly their own. Other people tend to project their thoughts and emotions onto them, often coercing them into make decisions that don’t align with their true desires.
“If you have a disability, I think merely liking someone is not enough. Because even if I say it’s love, if other people say it’s not, then it’s not.” — Woo Young-woo
In one particularly sad episode, Attorney Woo speaks of the reality that the world will likely only see her as “the autistic one,” no matter how accomplished she is in her chosen field.
Jared has shared a similar sentiment with me. Even now that he’s almost 30 and has achievements of his own, he still gets treated like a child at times. This is because some people choose to only see his disability, and not his humanity. They might make assumptions about what he can or can’t do, and base the way they treat him on those (often flawed) prejudices.
In one particularly heart-rending episode (spoiler alert!), Attorney Woo overhears a love interest’s family members call her “difficult” and basically a “burden.” This scene caught my attention, as I had a similar experience when Jared and I were still dating.
There is truth to the idea that dating a person with a disability might be categorically more challenging than dating someone more “typical.” My husband and I both believe it’s not for the faint of heart. One has to possess a great deal of empathy, flexibility, and emotional steadfastness to have a successful relationship with someone who’s disabled.
Yet for an outsider to automatically assume that having a disability makes someone a burden isn’t fair to either party in the relationship. This kind of thinking is based on false dichotomies like “things are either good or bad” or “a relationship can only be difficult or easy.”
Relationships are far more nuanced, and so is the real world. Even the most typical relationship experiences ups and downs, ebbs and flows, and in-between moments. A relationship like ours is no different.
People with disabilities are very much human, with their own emotions and desires. Being married to Jared has taught me this, and watching “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” affirms it even more. So few shows offer this kind of representation, and I’m glad Woo’s quirky yet adorable character is around to make disability more human and relatable.
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