Did you know that 3.1 percent of characters on television are disabled? This is worrying when you consider that, in the UK, 21 percent of adults of working age and 42% of adults of retirement age are persons with disabilities. On children’s television, that meager representation has fallen below 1 percent – and that’s a 10-year high, which means when a show focusing on characters with disabilities hits our screens, like Awesome Lawyer Wooit’s important.
Like Squid Game and Twenty-Five Twenty-One, Netflix’s new Korean hits have been topped the streamer television chart and capture the imagination globally. Lawyer Extraordinary Woo follows the titular Woo Young Woo, played by allistic actress Park Eun-bin (The King’s Affection), an autistic lawyer who was recently hired by law firm Hanbada. The series takes the time to explore the challenges he faces while navigating an analytical world – well, ish.
When disability is represented in film and television, it is of great benefit to able-bodied and neurotypical audiences. We are an inspirational story; object of sympathy and compassion. Lawyer Outstanding Woo, unfortunately, is no different. Get many of what went wrong in his approach to autism. But it works in one particular area.
As an audience with disabilities, what I think is most acceptable is how this series depicts abilities.
We are all familiar with how prejudice is usually displayed on the screen. It is open and aggressive, displaying the most extreme forms of right-wing ideology. In contrast, covert discrimination, which is often much more common, is rarely shown in TV shows and movies.
By always centering the first, it creates satisfaction for the viewer. They go away thinking, ‘I’m not like that, so I can’t be a fanatic.’ And it also makes them blind to the discrimination that happens around them every day, from the systemic bigotry that has been seen tens of thousands died in the British welfare system to the mundane discrimination people with disabilities face on a daily basis that underpins all other forms of ability: sneaky comments behind a smile, excluding disabled voices from conversations about inclusivity, coworkers hate over small accommodations, and now complaints about remote work.
It’s this ability that Lawyer Outstanding Woo brings to the forefront in a way that few other shows do.
In episode 3, Woo Young-Wo is charged with defending Jeong-hun, an autistic man accused of murder. There is a direct tone. “Did you assign me this case because I am autistic?” he asked.
The answer is yes.
It’s not meant to be in the least, but it’s irrelevant. The fact that his first instinct is to hand a case involving an autistic client to an autistic lawyer is a capable act.
Later, Hanbada argues that Jeong-hun – who is on the more severe end of the autism spectrum – is not always able to understand his own behavior, with prosecutors arguing that Young Woo must not be worthy to defend him considering he is also autistic. These two examples show how easy it is for able-bodied neurotypicals to view those on the disability spectrum as a homogeneous group.
As a person with a disability, it means a lot to see something that I and other people with disabilities are all too familiar with handled in a show that many able-bodied neurotypical audiences watch.
It also shows that light entertainment and the grim realities of life can coexist without compromise with each other. Awesome Lawyer Woo is, in essence, a romantic comedy, but at least it’s not featured a number of realities of life for people with disabilities and autism.
Shortly after I became disabled, I remember finding an episode of Golden Girls where Dorothy tries to convince doctors to take her chronic fatigue seriously – just like I did then. When I watch it defending oneself in the face of callous medical professionalsit felt like he was defending me – and it still managed to make me laugh.
It takes a smooth hand to highlight realistic struggles while keeping the tone light, and more often than not episodes dealing with heavier topics feel detached from the general rhythm of a series. But those moments are seamlessly incorporated into Lawyer Outstanding Woo, which makes him much more representative of the real world, at least to some degree.
On the other hand, the show also takes steps to ensure that it remains suitable for an allistic audience. When Jeong-hun’s mother comments on her hope that he will “get better”, Young Woo doesn’t say anything. He looks confused but remains silent – as he does in the face of all discrimination. Instead, it’s up to his able-bodied and neurotypical comrades to defend him because of us impossible have a show about disability without giving able-bodied people something to pat themselves on the back.
Out of all the unreality in the show, Young Woo’s supportive peers like them were probably the most unrealistic. In reality, people with disabilities have to be their own defenders because no one else really cares.
It wouldn’t make any difference to Young Woo, and he was in a better place than most people to know his rights.
While Lawyer Outstanding Woo shows a number of From the reality of disability, this book stops to reveal how the challenges faced by persons with disabilities in the neurotypical world of able-bodied people can be overcome.
But the depiction of that ability blends with my own experience of discrimination in a way rarely seen on screen. Able-bodied, neurotypical viewers may not see it – the show does a lot to make sure they don’t feel guilty – but the fact that it exists is important because if it’s not part of the cultural conversation, how are we going to begin to recognize it in real life?
Awesome Lawyer Woo is available to stream now on Netflix. Check out our list of the best series on Netflix and the best movies on Netflix – or see what else is in our TV Guide. Visit our Drama hub for all the latest news.
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