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Attorney Woo Not Quite Whale Done

Rowan Lee
K-drama “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” was a hit across the globe for its autistic protagonist, but representation still has a long way to go.

Legal dramas are not typically at the top of people’s watchlists. Released on Jun. 29, “Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” however, lives up to its name and does the extraordinary, clocking in 24 million viewing hours in its first week on Netflix.

The show revolves around the autistic rookie lawyer Woo Young-woo (Park Eun-bin) as she tackles court cases and stigma in her workplace. Although the show is a legal drama, the mostly silly and entertaining cases in each episode highlight Young-woo’s unique approach to life. “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” is a bright, fun binge-watch with a dimensional autistic protagonist, but the representation falls short with its rose-tinted approach to autism and reliance on stereotypes.

Though Park Eun-bin isn’t autistic, she collaborated with professors who specialized in the disorder in attempt to portray autism as accurately as possible. Park realistically emulates being out of touch with neurotypical peers while showcasing a sensitive side to the often vilified disability. Audiences empathize with the on-screen struggle to mask: Young-woo suppresses the urge to infodump about her special interest in whales and naturally “odd” habits for her peers’ comfort. 

The character is a comfort to many neurodivergent viewers, but the portrayal also comes off as cliché. The line between autistic representation and stereotypes is thin when it comes to “looking” or “acting” autistic, which dramas alongside “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” oversimplify with the same stereotypes. 

Young-woo’s extraordinary talent in law — exemplifying savant syndrome, in which an autistic person demonstrates incredible genius in a specific area — is not representative of everyday autism and bodies the overdone trope of a brilliant genius on a comically different wavelength. The drama’s portrayal glorifies an ultra-rare aspect of autism to the point where it glosses over the setbacks Young-woo faces because of it. 

“The fact that the vast majority of characters with autism in media is portrayed as having a superpower, or that autism is really a blessing in disguise muddies the waters and can confuse the public as to what autism really is,” said Autism Partnership Korea employee Son Da-eun in an interview with Polygon.

The show also frames Young-woo’s autism as cute quirks instead of a daily struggle she faces. Young-woo’s autistic traits are engineered by the show writers to be cute and palatable, seen in her strict counting before she enters a room or struggles to perform ordinary tasks like going through revolving doors. Her peers laugh at her for these and call her childish, which, consequently, dulls representation in the drama and feeds into the infantilization of autistic people. 

What’s appreciated about “Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” despite its flaws, is its holistic approach to Young-woo. Viewers recognize Young-woo’s disability but understand she is not a caricature; she is fleshed out and headstrong, with a personality beyond her autism. 

“In the drama, Woo messes up, learns, and grows along with others. What usually happens in media is that we focus on autistic people who don’t seem like humans with full personality and interests,” said Haley Moss, Florida’s first autistic lawyer, in an interview with newspaper PhilSTAR Life.

The popularity of “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” is groundbreaking, especially in Korea where mental disabilities are still denounced. Autism remains a tough topic to tackle in media but Young-woo takes a step toward dismantling the stigma.

About the Contributors
Haley Nguyen, Arts & Entertainment Editor
Haley Nguyen is a M.I.D. (majestic, intelligent, and delicious) junior and is going into her third year of Gamut. For this 2023-2024 school year, she will be Gamut’s A&E editor as “it’s more interesting than the other sections” and is looking forward to getting to know the new additions to the Gamut family. Haley is also involved in Key Club and VSA (Vietnamese Student Association), which she danced for at the annual International Show. Aside from school, she is super big on typology such as MBTI and is an ENFP, a Word Hunt Fiend, and a chronic afterschool napper. Her prized possession is her light blue HydroFlask, which you might see her carrying around. Although it’s dented, can’t stand up straight, has a hole at the bottom, and more, she treasures it as it’s been with her through thick and thin since seventh grade.
Rowan Lee, Art/Layout Editor
Aside from finally graduating, Rowan Lee is looking most forward to serving as The Gamut’s Art and Layout Editor for their final year of high school. Their go-to hobbies are drawing and painting: an explanation as to why they immediately applied to join The Gamut staff after learning there were drawing positions available, along with their having illustrated for The Gamut for the past 3 years. Outside of the Gamut, Rowan takes their fascination with Japanese culture to the OA Japanese Club, where they serve as Tech Chair. When they’re not busy taking on their various roles at school, drawing fanart for Jujutsu Kaisen (their favorite anime of all time), or jamming out to their 3-hour long SE SO NEON playlist, Rowan guiltily admits that they spend their free time playing Valorant or watching VTubers (virtual YouTubers). Rowan honestly confesses that their Senioritis has been kicking in since Junior year, but as the diligent worker they are, they vow to push through till the very night they toss their cap into the air at Handel Stadium.
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Attorney Woo Not Quite Whale Done