Representation of Autism in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? What's Eating Gilbert Grape features representation of a character who falls on the autism spectrum.
Autism Spectrum Disorder is a developmental disorder that affects people in a range of varying severity. For many children it is characterized by slowed developmental progress (Frith, 2008). Arnie's autism is severe on the spectrum. He is not capable of caring for his own well being.
Arnie Grape is a young adult who relies on his family for everything in his life. Arnie is a supporting character in the film. He is the younger brother of Gilbert. The "drench hypothesis" suggests that memorable, minority characters leave a positive association that may affect public perception of other people and characters belonging to that minority group (Farnall & Smith, 1999). Media representation has the ability to boost public perception. "Positive attitudes are produced when exposure to persons with disabilities is powerful enough to overcome a stereotyped perception by either reducing the discomfort or uneasiness of the nondisabled person or providing enough information to 'unfreeze' a stereotype" (Farnall & Smith, 1999, p.
661). Characters like Arnie Grape and Forrest Gump have the ability to make people feel more comfortable with disabilities and help them relate on a more personal level to different types of people (Dynell, 2011). Arnie is portrayed with disability stereotypes in play. He is represented a pitiable and a burden to everyone around him. He is also seen as being unable to live an independent life (Wood, 2012).
He cannot participate in conversations without saying things that are not socially acceptable. For example he repeats phrases he hears the same way a child would. Arnie's sister makes a snarky remark about their father being dead and Arnie jubilantly repeated "Dad's dead." His mother shook and hit the table until he stopped his repetitive tick. He overall is childlike. He tried to help with things and usually ends up making more work.
For example when he went on a delivery with Gilbert he dropped a customer's groceries. His vulnerability and inability to care for himself make him an example of an extremely dependent mentally challenged individual. Characters like Arnie Grape can be described as the "Other." The other is a separation of one's self from other human beings. Any character that is polarized from the rest of society can be put into the category of other. People who do not have an understanding of a topic will categorize all unlike themselves as other.
Those who are not autistic not only do not identify with Arnie Grape but they categorize him differently than how they categorize themselves (Goodley & Van Hove, 2005). Arnie's life is in rural Iowa. His father committed suicide and his mother is morbidly obese. His siblings care for him. "Chaos narratives" are storylines that lead the viewer to believe in a constant, spiraling lifestyle or the characters inability to improve their quality of life.
Autism is described as the equivalent of "living with perpetual interruption" (Osteen, 2009, p. 17). The chaos narrative is reinforced because an air of hopelessness leads the viewer to believe that nothing good can happen for the Grapes. The Chaos narrative is further reinforced with Arnie Grapes behavior and his interactions with those who look after him. In the opening of the film Gilbert is narrating.
He lets the audience know that Arnie was not supposed to live long an he could go at any time. He also stated "some days you want him to live., some days you don't" (What's Eating Gilbert Grape, 1993). Even Arnie's closest caretaking felt that at times he was a burden. The Grapes are seen as social outcasts. The intersection of disability and class meet.
The public's reaction and perception of Arnie Grape may have been different if he was for a higher class family. Perhaps viewers feel bad for his socioeconomic status and life as told by the chaos narrative. However, generalizations can be assumed based on what viewers do not know about a disability. Some may fill in the blank spaces of what they do not understand. Perhaps some people after viewing the film believe that children with autism are only born to poor families.
The narrative of the Grape family being poor is in line with what may be expected from a story about a family with an autistic child. His father committed suicide alluding to mental health problems. Children born to parents with schizophrenia are more likely to be on the autism spectrum than children whose parents do not have schizophrenia (Newschaffe & Cole, 2005). Socio-economic status creates variables in things like maternal education and overall quality of life. The more highly educated a mother is the more likely it is that she will be able to best care for herself. She is less likely to engage in unhealthy lifestyle choices such is an unhealthy diet, smoking, drinking and engaging in dangerous activities (Newschaffe & Cole, 2005).
Many narratives featuring the lives of those with disabilities focus on the families of those caring for the disabled person rather than on the person with a disability. This viewpoint shows the perspective of those who take on the bulk of the responsibility for a person with a disability. This is not the most effective way to show discourse of disabled people because it is not coming directly from the person. Many people use movie and television characters to be representative of an entire disorder or disease (Holton, 2013). The film also focuses on Arnie's need for constant care being like a full time job for Gilbert. Gilbert takes Arnie to work every day and occasionally he slips away when Gilbert is not keeping a close enough eye out.
For example, he repeatedly climbed the water tower in town. This is not only a burden for his family but also for the town. Everybody needs to stop their work day in order to insure his safety. Towards the end of the film he reaches the top of the tower while he is on his third strike with the police.
He is arrested and his family has to plead with the sheriff to let him out of jail. Arnie Grape is portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio. He received wide praise for his method acting of this autistic character. Representation of those with a disability is also skewed when portrayed by actors who are not disabled.
An estimated 2.3% of those in the media industry have a disability recognized by the Developmental Disabilities Administration. Meaning that the role of Arnie Grape had a low probability of being portrayed by someone on the autism spectrum (Wood, 2012). Discourse written on autism is most often not written by people on the spectrum. Work created by people who are autistic may call into question to outsiders if they truly are autistic (Olsteen, 2009). Since autism is a spectrum some autistic people may not be capable of getting a book published.
High functioning individuals would be able to develop work from the perspective of a person with autism but may not face the same types of adversity others face. Arnie's character is talked about differently in the book compared to the film adaptation. The use of the word "retard" is used throughout the book. Gilbert used the word "retarded" to describe the type of adults that like Easter Chocolate. Then he goes on to say that is brother is retarded.
He does not make this connection in the film. The protagonist never calls his brother a "retard" (Hedges, 1991). Representation of Arnie's family treating him well sets an example to those watching the film. When his family treat him poorly it might leave the impression that caretakers often mistreat those that they are taking care of. Mistreatment of Arnie Grape is featured throughout the film by both his family and the community.
The people of the community Arnie's younger sister, age 15, is often critical of Arnie's behaviors and mannerisms. She refuses to play along with repetitive hide-and-seek games. Later in the film she tried to physically move Arnie and ends up pulling his hair and giving him a bloody nose. The community is overall impatient with Arnie. They are also blameful of his behaviors on his family. When Arnie was arrested the police were short with him and not accommodating of his disability.
They did not explain to Arnie why he was being taken from his family. They also were rough with him when he was put in the back of the police cruiser. Gilbert's personal life suffers because of the extreme demands being a fulltime carer entail. One day while giving Arnie his daily bath Gilbert tries to convince Arnie that he's a "big boy" and able to bathe himself. Gilbert sounds like he is trying to convince himself more of that fact than Arnie. He leave Gilbert in the bathtub to go on a date.
When he returns hours later Arnie is still in the bathtub. He is freezing and confused about what to do. Before another bathtime Gilbert reaches a breaking point and ends up beating Arnie. Gilbert runs away from home, feeling engulfed in guilt. Arnie does not have any reservations about forgiving what Gilbert did to him. He shows no sign of remembering the abuse when Gilbert comes back into his life (What's Eating Gilbert Grape, 1993).
In conclusion, Arnie Grape is a character that has represented what autism is to a wider audience. The movie's setting, characters and themes make it a poignant time capsule in the 90's of autism representation. With such a low percentage of autistic people in the media industry it is challenging to represent a character with autism in the most realistic way. He is a character that does not get to tell his own story.
Arnie's story is told by the people that take care of him. Arnie represents the other. The way that autistic characters are represented in film are contingent upon research. Every piece of discourse involving representation has some incongruence with a wide range of all experiences.
Arnie Grape holds some characteristics and mannerisms that are stereotypical. Representation of disabilities are important to help people understand a disability and to be able to relate the disability to something familiar. For many people Leonardo DiCaprio's portrayal may have been the first time they saw someone like themself or a friend or family member portrayed in popular media. Representation is important because it helps us experience new information and understand the world around us.