The way mental illness is discussed in children’s animation is changing a lot. And for the better. What once was never spoken of or nothing more than a morality tale for small children to learn to respect the differences of other people has become something else entirely. Steven Universe Future had its titular character be diagnosed with PTSD after his deeply stressful and traumatic childhood, and receive help and therapy for this deep-seated trauma. Even cartoons like Arthur have almost by-passed the “disabled people: they’re just like us!™” by showing secondary main characters being diagnosed with things like dyslexia and depression, and a tertiary cast of regularly-appearing disabled characters in stories that don’t relate to their status as such.
However, it’s slow-going. These are breakout examples, not the status quo. Mentally ill characters exist in this place of metaphor and allegory, where based on how a character acts or the narrative treats them, the audience is supposed to read between the lines. The character Boyd from Ducktales is said to be “wired a little differently” or “over-stimulated,” language that is heavily codified for autism… but he also happens to be a robot. In much the same way that using monstrous or alien beings to represent non-binary and agender people isn’t always the best considering the damaging stereotypes, using robots to represent autistic people in place of humans pushes a singular idea of what autism can be. It also places a label of “inhuman” on a very human experience that doesn’t get a light shined on it very often.
However, with this noted, Huey, the highly intelligent older sibling – who does things like rave enthusiastically about his interests and seeks out structure and routine – relates to Boyd a lot, and is heavily invested in him being seen as just a normal kid, like him, or anyone else for that matter. Boyd isn’t explicitly “autistic,” but anybody familiar with autism will see something there that the average viewer may not. However, what does that mean for Huey? Is Huey supposed to be autistic as well? Is this ever going to be discussed in relation to Huey in any meaningful way, or was it just a different point of view for the audience to consider? How much of this was intentional, and how much of this was just fans scrounging for scraps in a world where they’re used to being tossed bones and gristle? Who’s to say really, because I, as the author, am not an unbiased party, viewing this from a place of cynical detachment.
However, in this sort of sad state, The Owl House is a shining example of not just neurodivergent coding, but a narrative that so thoroughly supports such a reading, that any audience member “aware” enough to pick up on it wouldn’t be surprised if Luz flat-out said she had ADHD in the same breath she said she was bi.
If you, as a reader, have not heard of Disney’s newest animated show, The Owl House, rest assured. The conservative parents in the 90s who were rallying against Spongebob’s “homosexual agenda” would have an actual aneurysm over this. It’s about Luz Noceda (Sarah-Nicole Robles), a bisexual Dominican teen, and her time spent in the Hieryonomous Bosch-inspired demon realm, with her shrewd mentor, Eda (Wendie Malick), a criminal known as “The Owl Lady,” and her roommate, King (Alex Hirsch), a megalomaniacal demon who’s always running some new gambit to gain some kind of power, as she learns how to be a witch.
Viewers immediately began to latch onto Luz as a heavily ADHD-coded character. From the way she talks to the way she acts, it says something, and it says something loud and clear for those who are listening to it.
For one, she carries a lot of signs. From her lacking focus and impulsivity to her trouble in school and hyperfixation on all things magic and witchcraft-related – especially her favourite book series, Good Witch Azura – anyone familiar with ADHD can see it, especially when episodes feature Luz’s friends acknowledging her impulsivity, and not just finding the ability to work ahead of it, but to support her when she does accidentally lead them into some unfortunate adventure. Sure, it might be easy to mistake Luz for another hyperactive cheerful Disney girl protagonist akin to somebody like Mabel Pines or Star Butterfly or Webby Vanderquack, but that just opens up the same kind of analysis that’s being spoken of now for those characters in question.
However, more than anything else, the thing that substantiates the claim that Luz is coded to have ADHD is the narrative itself, and oh, how unambiguous it is.
The audience meets Luz as she’s in the principal’s office, and it’s established that she doesn’t have any real friends and that although she shows a fervent interest in her classes and extracurriculars, the way she views life through the lens of her favourite book series leads to some serious problems of the spider and snake kind. In response to this, Luz is supposed to be sent to a conformist summer school. “Supposed to” is the operant word, as she ends up actually traveling to the Boiling Isles, and, well, the series takes place.
Many things were brushed over in this loose explanation of the first episode, but the main thing that need to be emphasised is that Luz is going through an experience that a lot of neurodivergent children go through, especially pre-diagnosis. The experience of traditional educational systems not just failing you, but failing to understand you as an individual. Luz only finds happiness when she’s apparently freed from this highly conformist system, as well as from spending time with Eda and King, who aren’t just different but very proud of it.
From there, Luz, already interested in all things witchy and magical, is highly excited by the idea of being able to do witchy and magical things herself…Except, she can’t. Magic on the Boiling Isles is produced from a bile sac — which, although gross in concept — could be used to say that magic works in this series as a “natural chemical,” like dopamine, or serotonin. Without these chemicals, Luz can’t perform tasks a witch with these chemicals could.
(Depending on how one might be looking at this, it could be used to suggest that Luz is only perceived as mentally ill because of the roles she’s attempting to perform in this society. As a human, the residents of the Boiling Isles sees Luz as normal, but as a witch, she’s seen as deficient. This is similar to idea that dyslexia is only really prevalent in societies with the written word.)
However, Luz figures out a different way to perform magic, one that makes sense for her and her abilities, but also one nobody has seen before. But, magic is magic, right?
This is the storyline for the first four episodes. Now, think of it like this.
Luz is shown to struggle with a task that all of her peers her own age are able to perform with ease, even excel at. However, no matter how hard she tries, she can’t do it. This isn’t her fault, it’s quite literally part of her biology to not be able to perform such tasks. However, when given the opportunity to pursue alternative methods, she doesn’t just perform the way she’s supposed to, but she excels! The only difference between her and any other student is that she needs different kinds of support and resources, but when she is granted these things, she’s shown to be quite bright and has a lot of skill.
When it’s phrased like that, wouldn’t it be natural to say that Luz has some kind of mental illness or learning disability?
Furthermore, The Owl House contains a legitimate school arc, where we as an audience can see more examples of how Luz interacts within such an environment, as well as some minor examples of neurodivergent coding, from her anxieties about being placed in a slower class out of the fear of not being capable enough, to Luz being looped in with a group of trouble-makers who don’t struggle with school out of a lack of genuine care, but rather, because they care too much, and wish to pursue multiple different tracks of study, finding just one track to be limiting, the same way Luz does, and the same way that her mentor Eda does.
Finally, the thing that really puts the nails in the coffin about Luz’s coding, more so than any traits or lists of textual examples ever truly could, is how the audience perceives Luz. Coding rides and dies with the audience’s perceptions, and every day, if you’re looking in the right places, you can find someone new every day taking a look at Luz and saying “she’s just like me.”
Hearing those four little letters will be sweet, when and if it does really happen, but at the moment, even now, back in the subtext, there’s something very kind about ambiguity in the grand scheme of things, really.
by Julia Samborski
Julia Samborski is a recent high school graduate who spends far too much time drawing, writing, and thinking about cartoon characters. Find her on Twitter and Tumblr.
Categories: Anything and Everything, TV
Ok so I agree with almost everything in this post except for the thing about BOYD. The whole point of BOYD is that he is a inversion of the usual robot has autistic traits trope. Usually the robot is someone who longs to be human, someone who isn’t human. But with BOYD it’s different BOYD knows he’s human it’s everyone else who needs to get with the program. BOYD isn’t a robot like he says, he’s a definitely real boy and that’s the point.
For the most part, I enjoyed this article. However, I feel it is important to note that, “neurodiversity,” and, “mental illness,” are not the same thing. Mental illnesses are things that are inherently harmful, are separate from, “you,” and are usually developed in life due to environment/situations. Examples of mental illness are depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD. These are things that occur from a change in the brain’s chemistry or the person’s experiences, rather than being inherent to the biology of the person and their brain.
Neurodiversity, such as ADHD, Autism and dyslexia, while they come with challenges are not 100% a detriment to the person’s life and rather than being developed or learned based on the person’s surroundings, these are part of the natural development of that person’s brain. If you have ADHD, are autistic and/or have dyslexia, you were born that way and it’s always been there and, though I can’t speak for dyslexia as I don’t have that condition, I am autistic and have ADHD and these, rather than being something separate and attached to me, are part of who I am in pretty much every aspect of my life.
Having anxiety problems makes me mentally ill, not my autism.