Last one! Let’s get this done.
1. Anya/Anyanka/Aud (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
Let’s see, when did “The Body” air? February of 2001, according to Wikipedia. That definitely makes Anya the character on this list that’s been part of my life/mind for the longest amount of time. I liked her before this, but her alienation from the group combined with her ability to state exactly what’s on everyone’s minds were very strong in this episode and that hit me hard. (Of course, it probably helps that this particular episode hits so hard in general.)
Anya is introduced to the series as a vengeance demon who is then trapped in a mortal teenage body. It’s a similar situation to what I described for Castiel, where if she was the only one and we knew nothing else about her, the assumption would be that this is just how that species acts. In fact, she often implies as much. But she’s not the only one, and again it’s not something she shares with the other demons (or even the other vengeance demon). More importantly, when we see more of her back story we find out she not only started out human (in the late 800s), but that even then she was known for being…odd. (BTW, I just told you how to pronounce her original first name. Aud.)
So what are these odd traits? Overly literal interpretations, no understanding of social boundaries, bluntness, unusual tone of voice/expression, lack of sensitivity to others. In some cases, like in “The Body,” we see serious difficulty understanding and managing her own emotions. Obsession with money becomes a common joke later on.
One thing I really like about Anya that sets her apart from other characters on this list is the fact that these traits affect her in obvious negative ways. A common argument against reading any character as autistic is that they don’t suffer from any serious impairments. Sure, Sheldon annoys his friends, but they all do what he says and he hasn’t had any problems with his career or personal life because of his behavior. Leslie’s traits stand out to me more and more as I’m rewatching Parks & Rec, and because I can see so much of myself in her I read into it the consequences that I know accompany what the show portrays as her quirks.
I know only being able to sleep 3.5 hours a night causes serious impairment for me, so I’m more inclined to read her wide-eyed over-enthusiasm as exhaustion, while the show never says so and you could easily just assume she has too much energy to sleep and doesn’t need any more than that. I know her over-attachment to Ann and other characters is much more likely to result in them avoiding her than becoming best friends, but the show has everyone adore her. So things that I recognize as serious life-impairing symptoms become funny quirks and it’s hard for people to recognize them as actual autistic traits, because she’s a successful character in every way and it’s not funny to focus on those impairments. It’s not cool to laugh at disabled people or characters, so these characters can’t be shown in any way that seriously implies they’re disabled. Traits that would indicate a disability in real life become hilarious character quirks in fiction. (Hint: If you’re laughing at things that would indicate a disability in real life, you’re still laughing at people with disabilities.)
Not so with Anya. Anya has trouble fitting in with the group from day one, and this is a very accepting group. They’ve got vampires, witches, lots of people who have at some point tried to kill every member of the group, people who used to be balls of energy, ages ranging from 14-ish to over 200, with most in their late teens/early 20s (depending on the season). But they can’t handle this one character who’s just a bit odd and talks in a way that makes other people uncomfortable and seems unnatural. For several seasons, she’s obviously upset by her continued attempts to fit in and everyone else’s continued rejection of her and attempts to silence her. And this is an improvement. In her first go as a human, back in the 800s, she mentions that she talks to people but no one will talk to her other than to tell her to leave. My heart hurts for her in pretty much all her scenes. Luckily she also says something funny in most of them that just makes me want to hug her and tell her she’s wonderful.
The other characters do eventually accept her, but it takes time. And for most of that time, even after they start to think of her as truly one of them, they’re still critical of the way she talks and acts. They don’t like that she’s so blunt, while she complains occasionally that no one ever says what they mean. Right there with you, Anya.
In “The Body,” where everyone is mourning a recent death, Anya is getting on everyone’s nerves by saying seriously inappropriate and insensitive things. She asks questions like “are they going to cut the body open?” and finally the character that has had the most conflict with her (Willow) snaps and tells her she has to stop talking like that. Anya gives the most powerful monologue I can remember hearing over the whole series, crying as she explains that she doesn’t understand what happened, why the dead person can’t just get back in her body, how unreal it seems that she’ll never do things like brush her hair or eat an egg.
Just ridiculous things that are exactly what I think when someone dies. Just this total inability to understand what death means and how it happens. All the things you’re not allowed to say because people are mourning and not being able to brush their hair is not the worst thing about death but it is because it just doesn’t make sense. How someone goes from a person to a body. What death looks like and how we manage it. Anya can talk about these things, because Anya never says the “right” thing anyway. So while everyone else is trying to hold it together and say/do the right things, Anya says what they all want to say and that finally lets them move on and get going.
Anya is so important. And she’s important because of everything she is, which includes a disability. I think Anya was the first character I saw that I felt reflected my own difficulties with other people, and the first one that made me feel like the things that caused those difficulties were okay, even good. Anya is good. Despite all the rejection she faces, she keeps trying and she knows she’s good enough on her own regardless of what they say about her…but she still wants them to like her. I think we all do. It’s not the point, it’s not what determines our worth…but it’s nice. And it’s okay to admit that while still refusing to stop being who you are to gain that acceptance.
I was going to do a separate section about why all this matters…but I think the above pretty much says it all. It is so important to find characters who make you feel less alone. There are so many ways I felt different from my peers and could never understand. I didn’t have words for those differences (and neither do the characters mentioned here), but I could see them on the screen. And it always matters. Even when they’re not done well, even if they’re not stated as autistic, even if it’s just tiny scraps of representation, it matters. It’s that little bit of recognition that you belong somewhere, that in this one way you’re not alone. Someone understands, and when that someone is a character you admire and that is popular among fans of a show/book/movie, it makes you feel like maybe, just maybe, they’ll be able to accept you one day too.
It’s not enough. We need better, we need more representation. Representation that uses the words and shows the real ways it impacts our lives. But it’s a start, and it can lead to better things. For me, just writing this list and thinking about some of the characters (okay, mostly Leslie) has had a huge impact and is helping in some important ways. I’ll talk about that later, this post has gotten long enough. But whether anyone else agrees with an interpretation or not, seeing ourselves matters. I’ll be talking about that later too, in reference to real people rather than just fiction. Lots to talk about. I’ll be back soon.