Netflix's Extraordinary Attorney Woo is breaking the mould - here's why
The Korean drama tackles ableism in a way rarely seen on-screen.
Did you know that 3.1 per cent of characters on television are disabled? This is concerning when you consider that, in the UK, 21 per cent of working age adults and 42% of pension age adults are disabled. In children's television, that meagre representation drops below 1 per cent – and that's a 10 year high, which means when a show that centres disabled characters arrives on our screens, such as Extraordinary Attorney Woo, it matters.
Like Squid Game and Twenty-Five Twenty-One, Netflix's new Korean hit has topped the streamer's television charts and captured imaginations globally. Extraordinary Attorney Woo follows the titular Woo Young Woo, played by allistic actress Park Eun-bin (The King's Affection), an autistic lawyer who has recently been hired by the Hanbada law firm. The series takes the time to explore the challenges she faces while navigating an allistic world – well, ish.
When disability is represented in film and television, it is overwhelmingly for the benefit of able-bodied, neurotypical viewers. We are inspirational stories; objects of sympathy and pity. Extraordinary Attorney Woo, unfortunately, is no different. It gets a lot of things wrong in its approach to autism. But it does succeed in one particular area.
As a disabled viewer, what I find most relatable is how the series portrays ableism.
We're all familiar with how prejudice is typically presented on-screen. It's overt and aggressive, showcasing the most extreme forms of right-wing ideology. By contrast, covert discrimination, which is often much more prevalent, rarely features in TV shows and films.
By always centring the former, it creates complacency for viewers. They come away thinking, 'I'm not like that, so I can't be bigoted.' And it also makes them blind to the discrimination unfolding around them every day, from systemic bigotry that has seen tens of thousands die within the UK’s welfare system to the casual discrimination disabled people face every day that props up all other forms of ableism: the sly comments behind smiles, the exclusion of disabled voices from conversations about inclusivity, the resentment of colleagues regarding small accommodations, and now the complaints about remote work.
It's this ableism that Extraordinary Attorney Woo brings to the forefront in a way few other shows do.
In episode 3, Woo Young- Wo is charged with defending Jeong-hun, an autistic man accused of murder. There is an immediate undertone. "Are you assigning me this case because I'm autistic?" she asks.
The answer is yes.
It's not an intended slight, but that's irrelevant. The fact that his first instinct is to assign a case involving an autistic client to an autistic lawyer is ableism in action.
Later, Hanbada argues that Jeong-hun – who is on the more severe end of the autism spectrum – isn't always able to understand his own behaviour, to which the prosecutor argues that Young Woo must be unfit to defend him given that he is also autistic. Both examples demonstrate how readily able-bodied, neurotypical people perceive those on the disability spectrum as a homogenous group.
As a disabled person, it was meaningful to see something myself and other disabled people are all too familiar with tackled in a show which is widely watched by able-bodied, neurotypical viewers.
It also demonstrates that light entertainment and the grim realities of life can co-exist without compromising one another. Extraordinary Attorney Woo is, fundamentally, a romantic comedy, but it doesn't suffer from showing at least some of the realities of disabled and autistic life.
Not long after I became disabled, I remember discovering the Golden Girls episodes in which Dorothy tries to convince doctors to take her chronic fatigue seriously – much as I was at the time. As I watched her defend herself in the face of callous medical professionals, it felt like she was standing up for me – and it still succeeded in making me laugh.
It takes a delicate hand to highlight realistic struggles while keeping the tone light, and more often than not the episodes that tackle weightier topics feel separate from the general rhythm of a series. But those moments are seamlessly baked into Extraordinary Attorney Woo, which makes it far more representative of the real world, to a certain degree at least.
Inversely, the show also takes steps to ensure that it remains palatable to allistic audiences. When Jeong-hun's mother makes a comment about her hope that he will "get better", Young Woo says nothing. She looks flustered but remains silent – as she does in the face of all discrimination. Instead, it is up to her able-bodied, neurotypical colleagues to defend her because we couldn't possibly have a show about disability without giving able-bodied people something to pat themselves on the back for.
Of all the unrealities in the show, Young Woo's colleagues being as supportive as they are is probably the least realistic. In reality, disabled people have to be their own advocates because no one else really cares.
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It would be no different for Young Woo, and she's better placed than most to know her rights.
While Extraordinary Attorney Woo shows some of the realities of disability, it stops short of unpacking how the challenges that disabled people face in an able-bodied, neurotypical world could be addressed.
But its portrayal of ableism chimes with my own experiences of discrimination in a way that is rarely seen on-screen. Able-bodied, neurotypical viewers might not see it – the show does a lot to make sure they don't feel guilty – but the fact that it's there is important because if it's not part of the cultural conversation, how will we begin to recognise it in real life?
Extraordinary Attorney Woo is available to stream now on Netflix. Check out our lists of the best series on Netflix and the best movies on Netflix – or see what else is on with our TV Guide. Visit our Drama hub for all the latest news.
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