It’s easy to assume that a person who behaves in a particular way might be on the spectrum or developmentally disabled in some way, especially these days. It has become more common for people to be diagnosed with things like ADHD, Aspergers, and other differences, even well into adulthood. We know more, socially, about autism, than we did 10 or 15 years ago; We’re more aware; But not as aware as some people would like to think.
Having a disability (or any specific category of life-experience ) certainly affects the lens through which someone is seeing the world and it always offers a different insight. However, having a disability does not give someone the right to label or “out” others that they perceive as having the same disability. Pro tip, this rule applies to most other things — we all remember the rule about assumptions, don’t we?
I just read a piece in Insider Magazine — ‘Elf’ makes fun of disabled adults through Buddy — whether purposefully or not. To say that this piece is problematic is not a big enough term, so lets unpack this unexpected Christmas present together!
Here’s problem one. The writer of this piece suggests that Buddy The Elf has a cognitive disability because of his behavior.
What Is Wrong With Outing A Fictional Character?
In the Insider article, Buddy the Elf — as played by Will Ferrell, is “outed” as having a cognitive disability. But who cares, because he’s just a fictional character, right? Wrong.
So, here’s the scoop- it’s actually quite important that we do not mislabel fictional characters. Suppose this piece I’m responding to was well received; suppose five million people were like “Yeah, right on. Elf was inappropriate!” And then those five million people might each tell two friends about that point of view.
Fictional characters are just one of many cultural tools we use to interpret the world, so today we need to talk about Buddy the Elf and why he is one hundred percent not on the spectrum or otherwise cognitively different.
Not only do I feel this is a misstep on the part of the writer, the bigger issue is that this was posted (even as an “opinion piece”) by such a big-name publication.
The completely unanimous rage in the comments on the Insider’s Facebook page tells me I’m not the only one who might hold this point of view!
I was born with a disability, so I thought for a moment about why this article brought me such immediate rage. I mean, what’s the harm of a little critical thought about something, even if it’s not accurate. I had to ask myself whether I can really feel disgruntled over an opinion piece- because, after all, who cares- just an opinion.
But that’s exactly what the problem is- this wasn’t presented as an opinion- it was presented as a blanket judgement that affects a lot of people. It’s not someone addressing a suspicion and toying with an idea- it’s an admonition of a beloved movie.
It’s not a well-thought out criticism or a critical thought piece- it’s an accusatory outing of a character with a claim that a beloved film is “making fun of disabled people” when it is not doing that at all.
This key problem in the surface analysis of why Elf is allegedly problematic shows us a bigger overarching problem —
Context Is Everything
This piece is problematic because it makes a large and harmful assumption and fails to look at where things are actually coming from. The writer claims that because Buddy the Elf eats cotton balls and believes in Santa Claus (as an adult) he’s exhibiting signs of disability. Out of context, that could make sense, but not if you’ve actually watched the film and thought critically about it.
Stepping apart from this as a piece of art and one of the BEST Christmas movies of all time, I can take into account where that sentiment is coming from and how a disabled person can see similarities to those they’ve been in community with. But these aren’t just silly speculations, they are problematic.
Calling out specific characteristics as “this is something disabled people do” is actually harmful and judgemental. A better choice would be to look very deep before making this accusation of a movie or worse, a person in the real world.
This is a very simple analogy, but it makes me think of the fidget toys that are all the rage these days. I was looking at one earlier- a fidget ring. I don’t have any “need” for a fidget toy, though I think they’re fun!
But if you see me with a fidget ring, that doesn’t give you a “clue” about me. That’s just not how it works, friends! If someone saw me fidgeting with a fidget ring and they used that as evidence in their armchair analysis of a perceived disability, that’s super problematic, and that’s basically what this article did.
Let’s just talk film plot and clear up who Buddy is and debunk this accusation so it never ever surfaces again — I mean, we’re still in a pandemic — haven’t we all been through enough? There are actual, offensive things all around us, but Buddy the Elf (as played by Will Ferrell) is not one of them.
Why Is Buddy The Elf The Way He Is?
Buddy the Elf is a human who was raised among elves. He’s not disabled or cognitively different. When people use Buddy and use the word special, they’re not talking about a disability, they’re talking about how he is different- he’s more of a different species. I mean, are elves even technically human? In most Christmas movies, elves live indefinitely, and obviously, logic tells us they have superhuman powers to make things at factory speed.
Buddy the Elf doesn’t only make a handful of toys while his peers make hundreds because of a disability- he makes a measly handful of etch a sketches because he’s a human. He’s an average human with big man-hands- and this is a toy that’s probably made by a machine? That’s a guess. Honestly, I don’t know how Etch A Sketches are made…
Buddy is not hyper-fixating (and exhibiting signs of autism) when he does an overnight makeover of the department store for Santa’s arrival- he does it because that’s what he learned at the North Pole.
Now if the movie had gone in a different direction to make Buddy actually disabled, that would be incredibly offensive. But no, the writers and production team didn’t “fail to commit” to the idea- they didn’t have the idea.
According to the article in question, “Buddy is a hero… his implied disability is an afterthought in the film, which is perhaps a sad metaphor for how disabled people are often treated as an afterthought by society.”
This accusatory statement about Buddy having an “implied disability” is misinformed, and it’s problematic. It’s problematic to decide that someone has an “implied disability” without backing it up, and even with evidence, to really make that kind of argument denouncing something this way in regards to mistreating a potential issue like this, there should be a healthcare professional involved.
The statement about the implied disability being an “afterthought” is where this article really becomes hurtful. The thing is- if it was just an exploration about whether there is anything implied, that would be slightly less tone deaf, but turning it into a metaphor about society dismissing disabled people is why this type of discourse should be backed up very carefully.
No, Friends. Buddy is NOT Autistic.
However, here is something you probably missed if you were busy judging this fictional character or the delightful actor and production team who brought him to life.
Not only is Elf not problematic or tone deaf, it actually does something skillful and fantastic. It normalizes excitement as something adults can have without it being attributed to have cognitive differences.
Yes, I understand the straws you’re grasping for. Buddy is particular- he’s ridiculous. He’s LITERAL. As an adult woman with no disabilities, I relate really heavily to Buddy’s ridiculous personality- his joy. And on the opposite side, he also runs the full gamut, showing us his ignorance — the scene where he calls a little person an “Elf” actually should have been enough for people to avoid picking on this film. The jokes in that scene were not at the expense of anyone, nor was it a sign of mental illness- it’s about a person who has experienced one reality and has no reason (yet) to relate to NYC as so different from his upbringing at The North Pole.
While Buddy is decidedly not on the spectrum, I don’t believe he does any disservice to people who have been disenfranchised for behaviors they might see in Buddy. If anything, Buddy’s exuberance and confusing behavior normalizes different personality types. It challenges people to look at others and stop judging them.
This Insider piece was not the first to bring up the theory that Buddy is Autistic. Huffpost addressed it in 2016, and many Autism Blogs have taken a ride on this mini-train as well. But what is really egregious about this new hot take is that it so deeply misses the point, and turns an assumption into a major judgement. But then again, isn’t that what always comes of assumptions?