Hit Drama Sparks Conversations about Autism and Disability

"Extraordinary Attorney Woo" portrays an autistic legal savant.

Hit Drama Sparks Conversations about Autism and Disability

Photo: Poster for Extraordinary Attorney Woo.  Credit: ENA.

Add another one to the growing list of South Korean television dramas that have found global success. Extraordinary Attorney Woo 이상한 변호사 우영우, produced by a small cable TV channel ENA, is topping both the domestic and international charts. Episode 8 of its first season, aired on July 21, hit a rating of 13.1% in Korea, the highest among all channels. On Netflix, where the show is distributed internationally, Woo was the top drama in all non-English speaking markets, and number three in TV shows overall.

Lead actress Park Eun-bin 박은빈 plays the eponymous role, a legal savant with autism. Woo Yeong-woo 우영우 is the top graduate of Seoul National University Law School 국립서울대학교 법학전문대학원 and a promising recruit of a big law firm Hanbada 한바다. Woo has 164 IQ and photographic memory; she also struggles with walking through her firm building’s revolving door. Through her unusual intellect and empathy, Woo finds unconventional ways of helping her clients and earns her place in the cutthroat world of big law with a group of (mostly) supportive colleagues and friends.

Park’s portrayal of Woo’s autism - including a stilted manner of speech, obsession with whales, and a peculiar diet of eating only gimbap 김밥 rolls - is at the same time realistic and sensitive, in order to avoid stigmatizing a disability. Many with autism spectrum disorder have expressed their appreciation that the show depicts the realistic challenges that an autistic person might face, rather than reducing them to a pendulum swing of stereotypes like a hyper-genius or a helpless imbecile.

Woo is also starting difficult conversations about how South Korea has dealt with disability. Several columns noted that even as the show about a disabled person is being received well, disability rights activists are still protesting for the right to access public transit. (See previous coverage, “Disability Rights Groups Protest.”)

Many also note that Woo presents a sanitized version of how the Korean society treats over 30k persons with autism spectrum disorder. Casual bigotry is rampant, while the system of care is insufficient. Particularly since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down schools, clinics and welfare centers, as many as 18 disabled persons and their families have committed suicide, unable to bear the stress of care while social distancing.

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