Is 'Extraordinary Attorney Woo' helping or hurting the autism community?
ENA series “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” continues to see higher viewership ratings each episode as the titular lawyer Woo Young-woo — a lovable genius with autism spectrum disorder played by actor Park Eun-bin — steals the hearts of viewers worldwide.
While dubbed a “healing K-drama” due to its wholesome portrayal of Woo’s autism and her supportive colleagues, “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” is not without criticism in regards to how realistic the story is and how it will actually influence Korean society’s perception of autism.
According to data analytics company GoodData, "Extraordinary Attorney Woo” is, without doubt, the most-talked-about television show in Korea right now. It started airing on June 29 on the newly-founded cable channel ENA and saw a 0.9-percent viewership rate for its first episode. That rate rocketed to 9.6 percent for its sixth episode aired on July 14, a number that would be considered a notable achievement even among major TV channels in Korea. It is also currently the most-watched show on Netflix Korea and topped Netflix's weekly Global Top 10 chart in the category of non-English TV series.
In the show, Attorney Woo is depicted as a lawyer who graduated from Seoul National University, one of Korea’s most prestigious schools. She is on the autistic spectrum but is high-functioning with an IQ of 164, depicted as a genius who memorizes every single thing she reads, including legal texts which helps her outstanding performance as a lawyer.
Although she graduated top of her class, she is initially unable to find a job for six months. Then she joins big-name law firm Hanbada. Each episode of the series revolves around a different case and the people she encounters. At her workplace, Woo’s bosses and coworkers have their doubts at first but soon accept her as a competent colleague.
Woo proceeds to resolve each case using her unique thought process and crushes the prejudice of people who look down on her for her autism.
“Extraordinary Attorney Woo” is generally receiving praise from viewers and experts alike for featuring a protagonist with a developmental disability but not viewing her through a sympathetic lens, which the media is often guilty of doing.
“As Woo takes the role of narrator during her soliloquies throughout the show, viewers are able to see the world and think through the eyes of the lead character who has a disability,” said pop culture critic Kim Sung-soo.
“The show does not take a condescending tone to patronize or reprimand non-disabled people either. At the same time, it does not depict people with disabilities as people who need sympathy or always require help from others.”
One scene that conveys such message is when Woo begins her first trial after joining the law firm — stammering, but remaining calm just like any other lawyer on the show.
“I ask for your understanding. I am... I have autism spectrum disorder, and it may seem... I may speak slow and look awkward to you. But I am just like any other lawyer in the sense that I love the law and respect the defendant.”
However, some say that the series and Woo's character are popular because she is high-functioning and only displays relatively mild symptoms of autism. Not only that, Woo is portrayed as a highly-accomplished genius who graduated from the nation’s most elite university and is played by a conventionally attractive actor.
As Woo’s autism simply seems like adorable quirks to viewers, some accuse the show of using the topic as a device to make the character and plot more interesting. There are concerns that it may end up imposing an unrealistic standard upon real people with autism.
An online post related to “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” that sparked a debate earlier this month reads, “Will this really alleviate our society’s prejudice toward autism? If anything, people may start asking, ‘Why can’t they [autistic people in real life] be like Woo?’ It creates an unrealistic standard of achievement. Korean society already wants people with developmental disabilities to stay at home or at facilities all day. I fear people will start saying, ‘If you’re not as high-functioning as Woo, just stay home.'”
Estas, a Korean organization for adults with autism, published a statement in December 2021 when the show’s synopsis — depicting a young female lawyer with autism who shows her brilliance at a major law firm — was first released. Estas’ statement accused the synopsis of depicting the disorder inaccurately and reinforcing some negative stereotypes about autism.
While the series did reflect some of the feedback and is now praised for its usage of accurate terminology, Estas still maintains a critical attitude toward the show. Some parents of autistic children have also been voicing their concerns that the show portrays an extremely rare and unrealistic case of high-functioning autism, known as Savant Syndrome.
However, while experts and family members of people with autism agree that the story is unrealistic, they hope it can serve as a stepping stone to raise awareness in Korean society.
“It is realistically unlikely for an autistic person to have a high IQ and actually become a lawyer, but I still think this is a helpful approach to make people more interested in understanding autism,” said Kim Yong-jik, an attorney and president of the Autism Society of Korea who contributed to establishing the nation’s Developmental Disabilities Act.
Officials at the Autism Society of Korea added that “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” did spark Koreans’ interest in autism and its symptoms, portrayed through Woo's quirky behavior. For instance, Woo is extremely sensitive to noise and always wears headphones for that reason. She only eats gimbap for her meals as she finds comfort in the fact that the dish is “reliable” because all the ingredients are visible at a glance. The character also has an intense fascination with whales and often starts to recite facts about the marine creatures out of context.
The show’s screenwriter Moon Ji-won consulted with early childhood special education Professor Kim Byung-gun of Korea Nazarene University over the span of a year to try to accurately depict symptoms of autism. Experts say this will hopefully make autism seem more familiar and non-threatening to the general public who currently don’t have much understanding of the topic.
Some point out that the truly unrealistic part of Woo’s story is her accepting coworkers at the law firm. The characters at Hanbada law firm who understand Woo’s differences and treat her as an equal have earned the show monikers like “wholesome K-drama” and “healing K-drama.”
For instance, the head of the law firm tears up the last page of Woo’s resume where she specifies that she is on the autistic spectrum. The scene indicates that her boss only cares about Woo’s credentials and abilities listed on the front page.
When Woo displays echolalia, a symptom which refers to meaningless repetition of something another person says, or starts talking about whales out of context, her boss plainly states “No echolalia” in a calm manner.
Woo’s fellow attorneys explain social cues in a way she can easily understand, but also treat her as an equally competent colleague.
Her workplace forms a safety net around her and shows a stark contrast from the "outside world" depicted in the show, which has people who yell “So what? You’re autistic!” at Woo or try to discredit her in the courtroom citing her autism. This may be a more realistic depiction of society than Woo’s kind-hearted colleagues.
While some viewers reacted that Woo’s work environment is “pure fantasy,” it serves as a setting for viewers to reflect on and think about how Korean society today actually treats people with autism.
“Even in the show, Woo would not have been able to fully show her excellence if people around her did not understand her and complement what she relatively lacks,” said Kim Hyo-won, a pediatric psychiatrist and associate professor at Seoul Asan Medical Center. The professor who treats over 2,000 autistic child patients a year has been an avid fan of the series since it launched.
“What we should gather from this seemingly fantastical work environment is that we actually need to see them in real life,” she said. “Like her fellow lawyers in the show, we need to see more supportive people who make it possible for autistic people to thrive as independent individuals. This support network also has to made into a system in society as a whole.”
Pop culture experts agree that the series’ seemingly unrealistic setting will leave viewers with a constructive message in the long run.
“Woo’s boss is initially a bit skeptical about if she can actually be successful, but soon becomes very supportive of her,” said pop culture critic Jeong Deok-hyun. “There is no villain among the people around her. It tells us that in order for Woo to overcome inconveniences caused by her disability, unprejudiced support from people around her is key.”
“Sure, Woo’s surroundings look like fantasy, but it sparks hope that it can one day become a reality,” said critic Kim.
BY KIM JEONG-YEON, HWANG SU-YEON,BY HALEY YANG [email@example.com]