Alumni

Alumni Epsilon Newsletter: Nov. 2018

Speaking Without A Voice:  An Analysis of the Gendered Portrayal of Autism in Television

Emily Gimbel

Speaking without a voice

One of the most well-known depictions of Asperger’s Disorder in popular culture is undeniably Sheldon Cooper, one of the protagonists of CBS’s twelve season long juggernaut The Big Bang Theory. The character has proven so popular that Jim Parsons, the actor who portrays him, recently went on to create Young Sheldon, a comedy about Sheldon growing up as a child prodigy in Texas. The show was immediately renewed after the debut of its pilot episode and is currently airing its second season. Sheldon is, quite literally, everywhere and last year’s crop of television pilots indicates that he is no longer such a loner—from Dr. Shaun Murphy in The Good Doctor to high schooler Sam Gardner in Atypical, Autistic characters seem to be populating the television landscape. However, there are significant problems with the portrayal of these characters—for one thing, Sheldon has never identified as being Autistic. For another, they are all men (and, naturally, white, straight, and cisgender).

Big Bang Theory co-creator Bill Prady has been noted as claiming that labeling Sheldon with “Asperger’s creates too much of a burden to get the details right” (nj.com). All that one has to do to see the connection between Sheldon and ASD is to Google either of his shows—practically every think piece article about the character references his inability to read body language, his dislike of physical contact, and his difficulties with relating to other people. Because Prady utilizes specific characteristics of ASD in order to characterize Sheldon, it becomes his responsibility as auteur to represent ASD faithfully. Additionally, not every autistic person possesses every trait related to autism. As noted by Dr. Stephen Shore, “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” There are no “details” for Prady to “get right” in his script, because autism is a neurological disorder and each person manifests differently. If he were to focus more on writing the character of Sheldon, rather than on the details of Asperger’s, perhaps the current crop of pasty oddball intellectuals inhabiting our television screens would be more well-defined as people and less likely to be a lumped into a sitcom alongside other caricatures.

In a direct contrast to Sheldon, the most famed Autistic woman on television is perhaps Julia, one of the newest Muppets on Sesame Street. Julia was created to debut in Sesame Street’s online book We’re Amazing, 1-2-3! She did not debut on the show proper until 2017, after her popularity had been cemented online. In Julia’s first appearance on the show, she is introduced to Big Bird, which allowed for Elmo and Abby Cadabby to explain Julia’s behavior to a newcomer. Perhaps this awkward introduction could be explained away by the fact that it is much easier for young children to understand Elmo’s explanation of Julia’s behavior rather than a personal explanation from Julia herself. However, despite Elmo’s insistence that “none of us are exactly the same,” meaning that Julia’s differences are really not so different after all, the show still treats her differently. Typically, all of the Muppets sing together joyously, but when Elmo sings with Julia, his voice leads while hers trails behind. Julia only ever interacts with Elmo and Abby and although they say that Julia is not so different from anyone else, they certainly treat her differently and talk down to her.

Julia was created in a partnership between the Sesame Street Workshop and Autism Speaks, one of the foremost autism advocacy groups in the country. However, Autism Speaks is well known for focusing its resources almost exclusively on discussing childhood disintegrative disorder, a disorder wherein a young child’s development suddenly declines after months of seemingly normal growth. This most often results in loss of speech, motor, or social skills; hence the name Autism Speaks—the organization’s late founder Suzanne Wright has often been quoted as saying, “we need to speak out for these children” (autismspeaks.org). By “speaking out for these children,” Suzanne Wright and her husband, Bob, have denied autistics the right to hone their own voice. Autism Speaks’ philosophy, in turn, has directly influenced the manner in which Sesame Street portrays Julia. Typically, an adult such as Gordon or Maria would explain a new situation to a younger character like Elmo or Big Bird. However, in an odd turn of events, Elmo explains Autism to Big Bird. Elmo is three years old—he probably should not be defining neurological differences to the audience. And, yet, here he is, defining Julia’s differences not only to Big Bird, but to an entire generation. Similarly to the Wrights, Elmo speaks for Julia.

Clearly, part of the reason for Julia being portrayed as shy and quiet must be that she is a female character. Sheldon, as a male character, is allowed to be loud, proud, and incredibly intelligent. However, although Sheldon is granted a degree of autonomy, both characters are denied their rhetorical sovereignty as autistic people—neither of them are allowed to discuss autism. In Sesame Street, being autistic is Julia’s prime directive, and she does not have much character development outside of her disorder, but she herself is never allowed to discuss it.

In The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon’s behavior is not part of his characterization, but is instead a set up for a laugh track where his odd behavior is the punch line. Autism is not subject matter that the show is interested in exploring, because doing so would force the viewer to wonder if he/she had been laughing at a disability, rather than a person, for years.

Works Cited     

Autism Speaks. Autism Speaks Inc, 2017, https://www.autismspeaks.org, accessed 1 Oct 2017.

Collins, Paul. “Is the World Ready for an Asperger’s Sitcom?” Slate Magazine, 6 Feb. 2009, www.slate.com/articles/arts/television/2009/02/mustgeek_tv.html.

Holmes, Linda. “Confessions Of A ‘Big Bang’ Watcher, 11 Seasons In.” NPR, NPR, 25 Sept. 2017, www.npr.org/sections/monkeysee/2017/09/25/552888806/confessions-of-a-big-bang-watcher-eleven-seasons-in.

Sepinwall, Alan. “Reader Mail: Does Sheldon from ‘Big Bang Theory’ Have Asperger’s?” NJ.com, 13 Aug. 2009, www.nj.com/entertainment/tv/index.ssf/2009/08/reader_mail_does_sheldon_from.html.

“About this Initiative.” Sesame Street and Autism, 2017, http://autism.sesamestreet.org/about-this-initiative/, accessed 1 Oct 2017.

“Sesame Street: Meet Julia.” Youtube, uploaded by Sesame Street, 10 April 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKCdV20zLMs&t=206s.

“Sesame Street: Twinkle Twinkle Little Star with Julia & Elmo.” Youtube, uploaded by Sesame Street, 19 Mar 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rIlLpwgjmXA.

Emily Gimbel is a recent graduate of Chapman University, possessing dual degrees in English, and Television Writing and Production. She is a freelance writer and editor, based in Los Angeles. Contact her with any questions at etgimbel@comcast.net, or check out her website https://etgimbel.wixsite.com/website.


Teach Me How to English: Lessons in Language and Grammar

Mary Paplham

Teach me how to English

Working at my hometown’s local library for the last year has been a mixed blessing. On one hand, I see a lot of people I know. On the other hand . . . I see a lot of people I know. Most of the time, to save them any potential embarrassment, I wait until they recognize me before I acknowledge our acquaintance—particularly when it’s someone I haven’t seen in a while.

A couple months ago, while supervising the circulation desk, I was approached by my eighth grade language arts teacher, ten years nearly to the day since I sat in her class for the first time. I wasn’t going to say anything, but I didn’t have to. She not only remembered me, she recognized me.

Ms. Berry was the kind of teacher you either loved or hated—and I loved her. She was a walking grammar textbook who didn’t suffer fools and could wilt even the most obnoxious students with one look. She sparked my obsession with grammar and rekindled my love of writing and my belief in myself as a writer. I truly do not know whether I would be where I am, as I am, today—writer, editor, English major—without her.

To this day, her grammar lessons have proved invaluable. My education up to that point hadn’t been entirely void of lessons in grammar, and as a perceptive reader, much of my understanding of language and grammar was self-learned by absorption; but Ms. Berry’s curriculum was comprehensive. She not only filled in the gaps but also helped me understand the logic and reason behind the rules (or the flaunting thereof) of the English language. As a result, I am hyperaware of and always on the watch for typos and misuses and have been throughout high school and college and into the professional world, where grammatical errors still—still—abound amongst my peers and colleagues. While grammar police everywhere call out the most common misdemeanors, many other infractions go unpunished.

And, as Eleanor Shellstrop reminds us, pobody’s nerfect. Whether grammar was never your strongest suit (to paraphrase a friend and fellow English major, you “don’t English”) or you could use a refresher, I’ve compiled a list below of five of the most persistent errors I encounter on a regular basis.

1. Dangling modifiers. My creative writing professor threw out the term “dangling modifiers” several times before anyone had the courage to ask what they actually are. You can find a dangling modifier wherever a modifier is separated from the noun it modifies, either because the noun is absent from the sentence or because it is misplaced and doesn’t directly follow its modifier, which is left dangling. For example,

Having tried juggling cats, dogs are better.

 is incorrect. The modifier, Having tried juggling cats, doesn’t modify the noun dogs; the dogs aren’t the ones who tried juggling cats (most likely). In this case, the actual subject is missing from the sentence. A correct version of this sentence might read as follows:

Having tried juggling cats, I like dogs better.

In other words, I tried juggling cats and came away from the experience preferring dogs, whether for juggling or in general. (For the record, I am both a dog person and a cat person. Dogs tend to have friendlier personalities, but as my mother once noted, “cats are more user-friendly.”)

2. Awhile vs. a while. Awhile is an adverb meaning “for a length of time;” a while is a noun phrase meaning “a length of time.” Awhile is used independently to modify a noun or adjective—”I remained at the bookstore awhile;” “Let me stay awhile longer.” A while is used as the object of a preposition—”I’ll leave the bookstore in a while;” “Let’s stay for a while.”

It may help to compare their definitions: the definition of awhile already contains a preposition, so for it to follow one would be redundant; the definition of a while doesn’t contain a preposition, so it needs to follow one.

3. I feel bad, not badly. I think the contention between “I feel bad” and “I feel badly” exists because “I feel bad” seems counterintuitive, as though it’s breaking one of the basic rules of grammar. Feel is a verb, bad is an adjective, badly is an adverb, and adverbs, not adjectives, modify verbs—hence “I feel badly.”

The verb feel can act either as a linking verb, which takes an adjective, or as an action verb, which may take an adverb. If you feel bad, you’re emoting sadness, empathy, shame, and/or regret. If you feel badly, you’re having trouble with your physical sense of touch.

4. Setting off essential appositives with commas. Appositives are modifiers that can directly replace the nouns they modify. Sometimes these appositives are considered essential—without them, the subject lacks clarity. Sometimes they’re considered nonessential—you don’t need them in order to understand what the subject is referring to because there’s only one thing it could be referring to. For this reason, nonessential appositives are set off with commas, while essential appositives are not.

For example, I have one sister and two brothers. When I write about my sister, Carolyn, I set her name off with commas because I only have one sister, so there’s only one person I could be referring to when I say “my sister.” Her name is nonessential and could be removed from the sentence without any loss of clarity. When I write about my brother Will or my brother Ben, I don’t use commas because their names are essential and can’t be removed from the sentence without causing confusion as to which brother I’m talking about.

5. Commas before quotation marks. Text preceding a quotation doesn’t necessarily need to end with a comma.

Incorrect: He said the word, “Mum.”
Correct: He said the word “Mum.”

The reason goes back to the above discussion of essential and nonessential appositives—in this example, the quote is a modifier that is essential to understanding the sentence. Generally speaking, unless the quoted word or phrase is part of a nonessential clause or modifier, you’re only going to set off a quote with a comma if it’s an actual direct quote—dialogue—and the preceding text is acting as a dialogue tag. (With one-word quotations, the comma is optional.) But even then, if the quote acts as the subject or an object of the sentence, it might not need a comma, as seen here:

He ran down the school hallway yelling “Eulalia! Eureka! Hallelujah!”

I am often reminded of how lucky I am to have had Ms. Berry to teach me how to tame—and love—this beast of a language. No matter how well we understand it, English will never cease to be weird. It’s wonky and awkward, inconsistent and illogical. At its best, it’s a chimera—at its worst, Frankenstein’s monster.

And I for one wouldn’t have it any other way.

Mary Paplham graduated from St. Norbert College with a BA in English (creative writing emphasis) and minors in communications and classical studies. She keeps herself busy working as a clerk at her local public library, as a library services associate at her alma mater, and as a freelance editor.


Teaching Online Business English to Non-English Speakers, Part Two
Disadvantages of Being a Freelancer

Gabrielle McBath

Teaching online English

Part One to McBath’s Teaching Online Business English to Non-English Speakers series can be found in the April 2018 issue of the Alumni Epsilon Newsletter.

When I began writing my first installment of the Sigma Tau Delta Alumni Epsilon article “Teaching Online Business English to Non-English Speakers” in 2014, I saw the advantages of teaching online and the unique benefits it offered teachers. However, as time progressed, and more companies as well as mainstream universities added online courses, my teaching situation was neither unique nor novel as I had first anticipated. Knowing the following pitfalls may help English teachers looking to supplement their income as an online teacher. Here is what I wish I had known four years ago:

1. You are a freelancer, not a direct employee of the company. Therefore, you must pay freelance taxes and international taxes, if your employer is overseas. This means you have to keep meticulous records of your pay and hours spent teaching. A foreign employer is not responsible to send you IRS-1099 documentation, as they would be if you were working as a US employee under federal guidelines.

2. Companies like PayPal may not necessarily be an option for a foreign employer, so check with your local banks: most have an additional wire transfer fee to receive a foreign paycheck. This fee happens each time your paycheck is deposited and can become quite costly if your teaching hours are not consistent every month. You may have to ask your employer to roll over your hours to the next month in order to keep your deposit costs low, or to even make a profit.

3. There are inconsistent hours and limited benefits. You are responsible in obtaining your own workload. Therefore, on the teaching websites, you must advertise your skills and background as well as be accountable to your students’ (not administration’s) performance reviews of your teaching. You must also keep the attention of non-traditional students who have work-life scheduling conflicts. Being an online teacher for a company is not the same as working for an online university or established K-12 school. Administration is not the same. The former is more business-oriented and the latter is more academically-driven.

4. In the online language company role, the teacher has limited academic freedom since the curriculum is written and established through a third party. I have found errors in said curriculum that I was not allowed to correct because, “it wasn’t the focus of the company’s mission statement.” Online language companies want to focus on the real-life issues of the students, and the teacher must be able to accommodate the varying schedules of the students even when they are away from their lessons due to business demands. The teacher will run into problems with timelines and scheduling midterms or final exams if he or she has a student who is constantly on business trips and rescheduling their online classes. Also, the curriculum may be focused only on the needs of each individual student (travel plans, board meetings, or presentations, etc.) and not what the teacher deems necessary for learning basic Business English online. This discrepancy can be frustrating for teachers who know the material may not be the best fit for the student.

5. As a freelancer, you have limited facetime with your employer. You may have good employee training, but oftentimes, reaching out for assistance is dependent upon communicating with people in different time zones. Having a foreign, remote employer also means different teaching times from the times that the employer’s IT department may be available for help. However, with different time zones, the IT department could be on lunch break or not online for assistance when you need them. I have seen some companies advertise that they want teachers from “9 a.m. – noon their time,” and many do not realize that equates to 9 p.m. – midnight in the Eastern US time zone. Another example could be when the internet connection is not stable, for example, then the entire lesson may have to be rescheduled. Some classes require the teacher to stay online for 10 – 20 minutes before the class is canceled; and if the IT department is not there to help, then you will not be paid.

Teaching online English can be rewarding for supplemental income. However, there are numerous challenges between an online language company and teaching online for an established K-12 school or university. It is important to understand the difference between the two, since technology is useful only when it is functioning properly.

Gabrielle McBath is the Sigma Tau Delta Alumni Epsilon Liaison to St. John Fisher College in Rochester, NY. She is also a manuscript reviewer for the International Journal of Education Studies in Toronto.

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