Content warning: mentions of suicide, abuse, and contains spoilers for the Korean show Extraordinary Attorney Woo on Netflix. I want to make it accessible even for those of you who haven’t seen it, but hopefully won’t be revealing too many plot spoilers that would ruin your enjoyment of the show should you choose to watch it yourself later.
I first heard about Extraordinary Attorney Woo from a Malaysian writer I published in my Asia-Pacific speculative fiction anthology, Amok. Then came a recommendation from a work colleague. Then a friend in Hawaii announced she was watching it too. At that point I decided that clearly I needed to make it a priority to watch it myself. I finished all 16 episodes in about a week.
When I told a friend I was watching Extraordinary Attorney Woo, he asked me what genre it was. I’m not sure what the official genre is, but I described it as a romantic legal dramedy, which I think is the best way to sum it up. Netflix is now recommending the whole K-drama category to me as a result of my watching the show, but I think the comedic aspects of the show make it difficult for me to categorise it as a straight drama. On the other hand, I haven’t watched any other Korean dramas, so I don’t know if it contained a normal level of humour for that genre.
If you’re unfamiliar with the show, it follows the journey of a young autistic woman in her mid-twenties, who just started working as an attorney. Whilst Woo Young-woo is more in the savant area of the autism spectrum, which isn’t necessarily a common aspect of autism, the show itself still provides autistic representation at a level I’ve never seen before—especially when it comes to autistic women. As a result, and as an autistic woman myself, it’s become my new favourite show.
As is the way with my interests, that means I want to talk about it a lot, so what better way to do that than to analyse in depth the things I felt like the show got right, what I connected with, and what parts gave me all the feelings?
Autism is still largely misrepresented and misunderstood in the mainstream, to the extent that I would imagine most neurotypicals watching Extraordinary Attorney Woo wouldn’t be able to pick up on just how much of Young-woo’s behaviours and actions stem from her disability. It’s honestly so nuanced that I found myself feeling giddy over every single little detail they included. Here are a few to get started:
- Autistic people usually have at least one major special interest that they will gather as much knowledge as they can about as humanly possible—far beyond what a neurotypical person would. For Young-woo, her two major interests are the law—with her savant abilities having her memorise essentially every law in Korea—and whales and dolphins—which she will talk your ear off about any chance she gets, and everything reminds her of a whale or dolphin fact.
- One of the ways in which an autistic mind functions differently is in its creative problem solving to come up with an out of the box solution that neurotypicals are unlikely to consider. Young-woo demonstrates this well, starting with her first case in the first episode. Watching her mind work like that had me feeling so emotional that I wanted to scream, “See! This is why you need to hire autistics!” My body was so overwhelmed that my chest was tight, my face was wet with tears, and I needed a long break just to calm myself down after watching the first episode. I’d never seen a show that represented my experience so well—a character who goes from being considered unhireable because of her disability, despite her amazingly impressive grades, to proving her worth when she’s actually given the chance to do so.
I recently survived two rounds of layoffs at the company I work for, and I’ve considered that my autistic way of thinking is a major reason I wasn’t also laid off when so many of my awesome coworkers were. I’m not a savant, but my head still acts like a catalogue of information that can readily explain what is and isn’t in the curriculum I work on, what datasets we’ve used, what sections have been changed and improved, what can still be improved, and where to find it all in a minimal amount of time. I’ve had coworkers comment on how fast I am to finish things or find the information or link they need, but the quality of my work has never suffered for the speed. In fact, I even catch small mistakes no one else does before the content is ever seen by a student. When I’m making changes, I also consider the big picture, whether that’s thinking about the content that comes before or after the section I’m working on, the student experience, and/or diversity, equity, and inclusion issues. I also have a wealth of life experiences from all over the world that help inform my decisions as we’re going forward and considering the future of our products.
- I think most people know eye contact is an issue for a lot of autistic people, and that’s the same for Young-woo.
- Autistic people generally have strong morals like honesty and a sense of justice. Going against those morals tends to make us feel sick to our stomachs, so when we find ourselves in a situation where we have done just that, we’re likely to learn from the experience and never do it again, and will often atone for our sins as best as we can. I was really impressed with the way Extraordinary Attorney Woo handled this. There was a distinct conversation where Young-woo explains why she’s honest, but on top of that, she encounters a situation where she has to choose between helping her client win a case, and exposing their lie. When she chooses the path of helping her client and it results in a situation that hurts her moralistic integrity, her reaction is on par with what I’d expect from an autistic person, because I’ve felt exactly the same way.
- Sensory issues are really common for autistic people, and I think the show does a great job of demonstrating these experiences in a way that neurotypicals can also have a sense of what that is like for us. For Young-woo, this is demonstrated with specific sounds, light and vision issues, certain touch sensitivities (she can’t wear clothes that have tags in them), and even emotional overload. One of the hardest things I’ve experienced as an autistic person is how my body will literally take on someone else’s emotions if they’re close enough to me and the emotions are strong enough. There are a few times in the show we see this with Young-woo, too. Young-woo’s sense of hearing is similar to mine too. In one episode, we see her unable to fall asleep because of a clock ticking in a completely different room that no one else can hear. You know what I can hear sometimes? My neighbours’ phones ringing and microwaves beeping despite the fact we live in detached houses separated by at least four metres.
- While I don’t think echolalia is an autistic trait I have myself, it is something Young-woo experiences and is told she needs to refrain from as much as possible in order to seem professional in the workplace.
- Her honesty gets confused for arrogance by someone who doesn’t respect her. Been there, done that.
All the Feels
Aside from the first episode, the other episode that caused me to have a full body reaction I needed to calm down from before I continued involved Young-woo representing a fellow autistic client, accused of murdering his brother. This autistic client had many more challenges than Young-woo, and represented a very different kind of autistic person, as he had the mental age of someone much younger than his physical age. One of the things I really appreciated about this episode is that I thought it did a good job of showing the breadth of what autism can look like—it’s not just the savants like Young-woo—and also how disability discrimination of one autistic individual can affect them all. Young-woo spends some time reading posts on the Internet talking about the “tragedy” of the autistic man surviving rather than his brother. Meanwhile, Young-woo’s investigation has lead her to discover the brother had died by suicide, so after reading these posts online, she begins to make her own attempt in exactly the same way, only being saved by a coworker who has a crush on her, Jun-ho. I felt this scene to my core, because autistic people are six times more likely to attempt suicide (and if you read that article, you’ll also learn that autistic women are “13 times more likely to die by suicide than women who are not autistic”).
After an episode like that, I’m glad that Young-woo’s journey took her in another direction, and allowed her to explore what it’s like to date when you’re autistic. I found a lot of her journey in that area really relatable, especially with her being clueless to notice when Jun-ho was attracted to her, and not knowing how to properly ask him if he was once her best friend suggested this was the case.
I posted my journey with Extraordinary Attorney Woo on Facebook, and in one post I wrote about enjoying the romantic journey for Young-woo. One of my fellow autistic Facebook friends, who’d only seen one episode, commented that they’d have preferred Young-woo to be represented as aromantic, since they were themselves, along with so many other autistics. I disagreed, though I didn’t go into all the detail about why I felt the way I did. One of the things I didn’t say at the time is that disabled people seem to me most commonly depicted as non-sexual and non-romantic people, as if this is something that comes with the territory. Whether it’s because of an assumption that disabled people don’t want relationships, or that no one wants to be involved with a disabled person because the assumption is that it would be too much “work” to look after one, with none of the “benefit” of being cared for in return.
One of the things I think the show does really well is provide commentary on this subject that causes people to think more deeply on it. Yes, disabled people deserve love too. And yes, sometimes being disabled means we crave it more because we’re less likely to find people who are willing to see us for who we are, past our disability. And this is why disabled people can sometimes be more likely to experience abuse. This topic is covered in depth in an episode in which Young-woo represents a client accused of abusing a disabled person, which asks more questions than answers them.
But I think the most meaningful experience I had watching Young-woo’s romantic journey was watching how and why she chooses to break things off with Jun-ho. It was heartbreaking seeing how Jun-ho’s friends and even sister judged him for dating Young-woo. Then, Young-woo overhears Jun-ho’s sister say some of these awful things, and so she decides to end it. When Jun-ho eventually gets an answer from her about why, she tells him that she doesn’t think she can make him happy, and that he would be lonely with her because sometimes she’s just so involved in her own interests to always pay attention to him, and she doesn’t know how to change. Gut. Punch. Because, whilst I didn’t have the greatest experience with the way my ex-husband communicated with me, I can guarantee that my ex-husband was hurting in our relationship, and felt lonely, too. For the exact reasons Young-woo listed. It’s a big part of why I haven’t dated since ending my marriage, because I worry about exactly this. Does another person deserve to be put through me going through periods where I don’t really want to spend time with them because I’m more invested in some other special interest for a time?
Yet, even after all that, Jun-ho returns to Young-woo and tells her he doesn’t mind all that. He still wants to be with her. I cried during that scene, just as I did throughout the whole series. It made me want to hope more that it is possible for me to find someone out there who loves and accepts me, autistic quirks and all.
Finally, when asked if she wants to stay at the law firm she works at, Young-woo describes herself with an analogy relating to her special interest. She says, “I’m… like a narwhal in a pod of belugas.” She then goes on to explain, “It has a helical tusk that projects from its upper jaw. That’s why its scientific name means ‘one-tooth one-horn.’ It looks like a horn on a unicorn’s forehead. I’ve seen a lost narwhal coexisting with a pod of belugas in a documentary. I’m… like that narwhal. I live in an unfamiliar ocean with unfamiliar belugas. Because everyone’s different from me, it’s not easy to adjust and there are lots of whales that hate me too. But it’s okay. Because this is my life. Though my life… is unusual and peculiar, it’s valuable and beautiful.”
I may not be obsessed with whales and dolphins to the extent that Young-woo is, but dolphins are my favourite animal. And like Young-woo, I relate to that narwhal coexisting with a pod of belugas. I may be different from most people around me, but that doesn’t make my life any less valuable. I just need to stick to the pod of people who accept me exactly as I am, and swim alongside them.