first person

Seeing Myself in WandaVision

Photo: Disney

In the second episode of Marvel’s Disney+ series WandaVision, Wanda (Scarlet Witch) is sitting in a planning committee meeting led by Dottie, a particularly vicious housewife. Wanda eyes the housewife (played by Emma Caulfield of Buffy fame) not to listen to what she’s saying but to imitate her actions. When Dottie drops ice into her drink with elegant tweezers, Wanda does the same. As she stirs, Wanda copies her. When Dottie sips, so does Wanda. She sits prim and alert, tilting her head when it seems required of her, making sure that she’s sipping and sitting and existing in just the right way so as to avoid being noticed.

Wanda’s keenness not to draw attention to herself isn’t just a quirk — it’s a necessity if she’s to survive in the black and white mid-century world she and Vision, her partner and fellow Avenger, have found themselves in. Set after the events of Avengers: Endgame, WandaVision appears to take place in a reality where Vision did not die in Infinity War. Instead, the android and mutant cohabit in a surreal kind of domestic bliss, hiding their powers and cycling through decades of sitcom tropes for reasons not yet fully clear.

Desperate not to blow their cover despite not really knowing why they’re there, they partake in all of the little suburban rites and rituals that will enable them to pass through the world smoothly. Those rules, though, are often not just the rules of this specific world but the world we occupy, too. Watching Wanda and Vision work overtime to fit in, I saw my own awkward, autistic self reflected back at me.

You might recall a recent controversy over a certain wig-faced musician deciding to write and direct a movie about an autistic character starring a neurotypical actor. That misstep opened up a conversation that neurodiverse people have been having among ourselves for decades: Autistic representation is dire. Our stories are told onscreen often, but we rarely get much say in how they’re told, meaning that we get countless shows and movies about autistic people who are either a burden to their caregivers or have magical, savantlike abilities, à la Rain Man. We lack direct representation, and so we find our own, often in little moments like Wanda’s ice-stir-sip mirroring.

I don’t necessarily read either Wanda or Vision as stand-ins for autistic people. We have a pretty painful relationship with robots, aliens, and AI generally, as they’re often used as lazy shorthand for our perceived lack of empathy, whether it’s Spock or something more sinister. In Ex Machina, the robot Ava makes a joke, which a character calls a “non-autistic” response, demonstrating an awareness of both her mind and her own, which is … uh … painful. It isn’t that Vision or Wanda are relatable because they’re not quite human but that, through their experience trying to “pass” in a world that is on a different wavelength to them, I see reflections of my own life.

I see my experience in WandaVision, not because it shows how weird Wanda and Vision are but because their insertion into that sitcom universe illustrates how weird society’s unusual, unspoken little rules are. When I was assessed for autism spectrum disorder at age 27, many of the questions asked revolved around how well I picked up on these rules that nobody would ever say out loud. My question to my psychiatrist — not a well-received one — was, well, am I really wrong to want to communicate clearly? To not have to navigate a complex webbing of lasers lest I sound the alarm that I am not quite like other people? Would it not be easier for everyone if we said what we mean, explained clearly what we need from others?

These are the questions that, intentionally or not, WandaVision asks and attempts to answer. In showing Wanda and Vision often unsuccessfully attempting to adhere to the rules of sitcoms and suburban America, it exposes the inherent ridiculousness of society’s rules. Vision, who excels at his job, still has to prove to his boss that he’s a team player because he just seems a bit weird. When the pair have Vision’s boss and his wife over for dinner, a complex social politics plays out as the couple attempt to follow the “European” rules of their home; the lobster door-knocker, breakfast for dinner, a “Sokovian” greeting. The rules of their universe, and in turn society, are not only ever shifting culturally but completely arbitrary. They’re so arbitrary that the arbiters, Vision’s boss and his wife, can’t even keep up.

Vision has difficulty impersonating the physicality of humanity, like pretending to have a skeleton, or that he eats. But it’s Wanda where I saw myself, her issues primarily social. She has a more difficult task than Vision, despite passing more easily physically — she has to fit in with women, their rules of conduct impossible to always get right even for neurotypical women. Autistic women are often diagnosed late, in part because we “mask” or “camouflage” our differences and difficulties, imitating the people around us and mirroring their behavior back at them because we think it’s what they want to see. In the first episode, Wanda misquotes something a friend told her in an effort to break the ice: “Married men are killing single men at an alarming rate!” she cries out as her guests glare at her for being a little too dark, too weird.

Watching Wanda clumsily imitate the women around her is like looking in a mirror all its own. When she and new neighbor Agnes (Kathryn Hahn) are heading to the planning committee meeting, she’s given advance warning to be as fake as possible in order to get in Dottie’s good graces. “Or maybe I could just be myself, more or less?” she hedges, but Agnes’s response, cackled laughter, shuts that down. She panics that she’s wearing pants where the other ladies wear skirts; she lags behind when the other women say “for the children” in unison; when Dottie says they should give themselves a hand, she claps, only to be sneered at and told, “At the appropriate time, of course.”

The importance of etiquette is reiterated but never really explained, and after expending great mental energy trying to keep up with Dottie, Wanda takes her aside to try and clear up their bad blood with words, with clarity. Dottie glitches, infers that she knows something about Wanda, and while it’s actually a hint to what’s wrong in Westview, it’s also an allegory for every time I tried to “act normal” at a sleepover by forcing all the girls to watch Donnie Darko while I recited facts about it at them and told them they “didn’t get it” and weren’t allowed to fall asleep before the end.

Science fiction and fantasy are often the first frontiers for representation, whether it’s race, sexuality, or disability. WandaVision isn’t even the first time I’ve seen snippets of myself in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whether it’s Guardians of the Galaxy’s Drax struggling with jokes or Captain America noting down cultural references to research and talk about after he emerges from the ice. But it’s Wanda’s inability to mesh with people who should be her peers that really makes me feel, for the first time, actually seen.

If this sounds like a reach, that’s because it is. But for the autistic community, as with all underrepresented groups, sometimes a reach is all we have. Finding ourselves in the less obvious moments is the same impulse that leads to all the best fan-fiction; where people are not intentionally represented, they will perceive or project their own experience. Autistic friends of mine claim everyone from Blair Waldorf to Elle Woods as their own, and until we get real, meaningful neurodiverse representation on TV, that is their God-given right. I want nothing more than to see authentic stories onscreen played by autistic actors, written by autistic people. I want to see stories as diverse as we are, portrayed with the empathy, humor and warmth we possess. In the meantime, however, I’ll take an awkward, endearing Wanda trying to fit in.

Seeing Myself in WandaVision