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NYNM Chapter 5: What the World Taught Me Is Wrong

I’m going to take a moment to jump back into the present for a moment. As of this writing, it is closing in on the beginning of October and my favorite season of the year. Two days ago, I watched a documentary called This Changes Everything on Netflix.

Watching this film affected me in a big way, and it ties intimately into this portion of my story—my first year of marriage.

Mostly because it was one of the most painful transitions of my entire life.

To just give you a timeline of events would be to miss the greater context of what was happening to me—and what has always happened somewhere to women all over the world for thousands of years, I believe. So I want to first describe the two thoughts I had after watching this film, and how I decided to go about telling the painful story of the first year of my marriage. Firstly, it seems apparent to me now that the state of sexism in, at minimum, my own country, is due in large part not to blatant and transparent chauvinism, belittlement, hatred, or condescension but a very, very gradual societal and systemic change brought on little by little by actions of unconscious bias. Secondly,

If you want to view an authentic reflection of sexism in society, talk to a woman on the spectrum.

It follows logically, doesn’t it? We’ve tried to elucidate for years how we develop our manner of social behavior based on how we perceive and digest the behavior of others around us. And not just our friends and family—we digest and internalize what we see on screen like a school lecture on a woman’s nature and what she is supposed to be in the world.

From what I understand, Geena Davis saw the disparity between men’s and women’s involvement in Hollywood, but when she tried to present this reality to the heads of big studios, they genuinely didn’t see the problem. Not necessarily refused to see it, but genuinely thought the issue had been resolved based on a handful of examples of “breakthrough” films featuring women in some groundbreaking way.

What is vital, in my opinion, to understand here is that a lot of people are simply unaware of the reality. They are unconsciously feeding a system that favors men based on how they grew up, how they were educated, and what has been reinforced generation after generation. They are not all ugly monsters sitting at the top maliciously and consciously planning the demise of women in society—I wholeheartedly believe that most individuals do not fully comprehend that they are contributing to a problem. And it’s not just men.

What Geena Davis decided to do was elucidate the problem for them with cold, hard facts and numbers. When the evidence was presented in this way, suddenly people began to realize the scope of the problem that they had previously been unaware of. The head of FX is featured in the film as someone whose eyes were opened and who immediately took action to rectify the situation in his own company, resulting in the quite rapid appearance of women at the forefront of new releases and in the director’s seats.

My point in highlighting the connections between the portrayal of women on screen, how that affects a young woman’s psyche from a young age, and my experience as a woman on the spectrum is that for the Aspies out there, this effect is not only magnified but transparent for anyone who chooses to look.

As the film states over and over again, representation in the media is important. A strong example of this is the common complaint that people tend to not believe people who say they are autistic if they don’t “look the part.” That is, if they don’t look or behave similar to the only representation of autism most people are familiar with—Rain Man. Or the myriad other lesser-known representations of people with neurological differences—usually men—that appear on screen, usually portraying a very one-dimensional, stereotypical set of visual and behavioral characteristics.

So what are these effects being magnified in women on the spectrum? Well, to try to describe it as concisely as possible (from my perspective and limited scope as a heterosexual female):

  • Because women on screen tend to be secondary considerations compared with men on screen, we learn that women are secondary as human beings.
  • Because women on screen tend to be objectified through the lens (think of how often you get a zooming in on a woman’s butt versus a zooming in on a man’s chest or dick, except in an absurd, comical way), we learn that the most important aspect of being women is how attractive we are to men.
  • Because the subject of most women’s conversations in film/TV tend to revolve around men, we learn that men should be the center of our lives and aspirations.
  • Because women tend to be jealous and hateful towards each other based on a competition for the attention of men on screen, we learn that we are worthless or lesser if we attract less attention from men than other women. On the flipside, we learn that, if we are seen as more attractive and gain more attention from men than other women, we are superior to those other women.

These are just a start. But I think these things are not new discoveries in any way. And the major difference in the effect this has on a neurotypical girl versus a girl on the spectrum, I feel, is that we women on the spectrum fuse our identities to these world lessons in the absence of the capacity to personally relate and connect to the people who are actively involved in our lives. Our friends in school, teachers, and even loved ones are caricatures of the models we see in the media. Because we’re unable to conceive, or are slow to develop a conception, of ourselves and other women as people in their own right, our brains must fill in the blanks the way it does in other brain processes in order to make sense of human behavior. These two things—reality and fantasy—become fused at a young age, and it then becomes our life struggle to untangle the mess and rebuild ourselves at some point after our realization, if that even comes about at all.

So why have things not changed much? Why is it still this way? Well, we could ask the same questions about a lot of aspects of society. The fact is, people tend to remain in relative comfort inside their own paradigms of belief unless something stirs them to question those beliefs. We all have this superficial understanding that woman should be valued equally with men, all men are created equal, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, patience is a virtue, etc. But these life lessons don’t really become relevant in any real way until we have a direct experience of them in our lives. We don’t see or believe we are doing anything wrong or inconsiderate until someone points it out to us in a way that elevates the logic in our minds above the inevitable and emotional defensive reaction.

In the case of the documentary, it took the numbers and research from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to show people and convince them that there really was this giant canyon between men and women in all roles of the film and TV industries.

When it comes to change in the world, we must assert the cold, hard facts first. But they must be accompanied by an emotional connection to the problem—and this is where personal stories come into play.

I wrote Chameleon to share how my neurological differences have affected my life across a wide range of experiences. But here, I wanted to begin to take a deep dive into one aspect of my life in particular, because it has become the most influential aspect of my becoming my own person over some painful years of growth and, essentially, rebirth.

So, let’s get back to Miranda.

The night before we were to leave the state for our new home almost ten hours away, I was understandably anxious and excited. But I was also starting to feel something else that was extremely unpleasant, evoking all kinds of negative emotions from inside.

When we were dating, my new husband and Miranda had spent little time together, much to her chagrin, as Allen shared with me early on. They had been the closest of friends, then suddenly Allen had started spending most of his time with me. I believe he once mentioned that she’d commented to him that they were “in the winter of their relationship.” Not having experienced anything like the friendship they shared, I never felt any strong feelings about the situation one way or another. All that mattered to me was myself and this new relationship with Allen, and, to this point, nothing had come in the way of the happily ever after that I unknowingly still held onto from childhood, and not just as a passing fantasy but with a death grip. Anything less, and I would have counted it as my having been made a fool of—one of the most unbearable things I’d ever experienced and something I swore to avoid for the rest of my life, if I could help it.

When she pulled up, I looked at Allen and saw something on his face that disturbed me on a deep level. He was genuinely sad. He’d asked—either out loud or subtly, I can’t remember—to have a few moments alone with her over by her car…and there it was again. This incredible pang straight to the heart that felt like deepest fear and deepest sadness all at once. And it made no sense to me. We were setting out on our first adventure! What room was there for pain or sadness? This was the part in the movie when the exhilarating music would start and all things from the past would be left in the dust, nothing to do but look forward…

I felt compelled to keep an eye on them. I instantly felt opposition to this as I tried to reason with myself about how absurd that was. What did I think was going to happen? They’d suddenly fly into each other’s arms and start making out right in front of me and his parents?

I watched them give each other a hug after a few minutes. I remember feeling something like, come on, come on, that’s enough. How long does it take to say goodbye? I had had no such partings with my family and friends. I’d coldly embraced my parents and had no close friends with whom I felt I needed some kind of parting ritual. I did not feel the sadness of leaving home, only the joy and curiosity of going on an adventure. These sad goodbyes from people simply washed over me as inconveniences, and nothing much more than that. After all, we’d be coming right back in a couple of months for a visit for the holidays. What’s the big deal here?

Allen walked back to where I was standing just inside the house as Miranda got back in her car and pulled out of the drive. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I just left him alone and took cues from him as to what he wanted or needed from me. A part of me recognized that what he was feeling was perfectly natural, but at the same time I was annoyed that he was letting this sadness overshadow everything else. The parting with his parents did not seem nearly as dramatic, and soon we were climbing into our respective vehicles to hit the road. I would drive my car while Allen drove the moving truck, his little sedan in tow.

A few hours in, we stopped for a break at the gas station, and I climbed into the moving truck to sit with him for a bit. I noticed his sadness had only grown stronger, and he was now weeping just a little as he listened to some music I’d not heard before. He told me Miranda had shared with him a playlist, and he was just feeling very sad about leaving his friends behind. I will never forget the conflict of emotions that washed over my heart in that moment, and none of them had anything to do with concern for my husband, I am ashamed to admit. I did not understand what he was feeling, and it felt like this sadness was never going to subside. Did he not really want to make this move with me? Was it all a lie? Why did he suggest moving away with me if this is how he really feels about it? We’ve been waiting for this day for months, and now it seems like the saddest day in the world for him. What the fuck?!

Incidentally, he’d also decided to quit smoking that day, of all days. But the long day and the frustrations of coordinating a major move would catch up with us by the time we crossed the South Carolina state line. Wanting to push ahead, he insisted that we not take any more breaks. But I was tired and desperately needed to walk around, so I whined a bit about getting a meal before pushing on. This made him extremely frustrated, and the cloud of unhappiness seemed to, again, cover every aspect of our lives in those hours.

Once we finally arrived at our destination, Allen immediately left again to go get a pack of smokes. This, of course, frustrated me, and I felt it necessary to call him out on it at the end of one of the most emotionally straining days of his life. He predictably went from sad to angry to outright pissed.

This was day one, essentially, of my marriage.