From fictional character Lisbeth Salander to Greta Thunberg to comedian Hannah Gadsby, there seems to be this little trend on the progressive margins where women who never played along heart and soul with social hierarchy–and in fact go ahead and live and work just fine as any other non-elite, if not all sunshine and lollipops–women who do not labor day in and day out like neurotic, loyal dogs to bark out to other people phrases and images that will affirm a model average consensus–that these women can be profitably diagnosed as mental deviants, autistic. Psychologists use the “spectrum” contrivance to justify the notion that women who do not take responsibility for greasing the social interaction hustle all the time are the female equivalent of men who have no mirror neurons and cannot empathize. Same thing, different order of magnitude, the idea goes.
Psychologists define an autistic female as a female who relates to other people in a similar way to normal, non-autistic males. To understand what is going on here requires the capacity to take social context into account, and in particular to think about how the institutionalized load of hierarchy, equality, inequality, and inegalitarianism works in a social species.
Let me introduce an idea from far outside of psychology, an idea that incorporates societal context: What will happen to girls when gendered parenting breaks down, and girls are raised by dads? Might not such females be socialized by their dads to relate to people in a way that common-sense and psychology currently associates with normal males? Wouldn’t it be weird to understand this as a medical condition or pathology?
Let me throw a real doozy at you. What if hallowed gendered socialization itself produces its own gravediggers–or at least female “autism”– through intergenerational socialization? What would happen if being a normal female, through normal self-abnegation, produced crippling depression, for example? What if, because of an unequal and inegalitarian societal context, normal socialization into “normal” female pro-social relationship behavior is not unvexed, but rather, contradictory?
Let me give you a true-life case to chew on. You have to think both about how contradiction works over time, and about socialization across generations. I know a woman whose post-war mother was very social and believed that it was her duty as a smart, good-looking white woman to have children, lots of them. After spending the very early years of her marriage in a thrilling and satisfying adventure of altruistic, internationalist work overseas, she give birth to her first child and promptly imploded in post-partum depression. The depressed mother weaned the baby girl within three months, handed that three-month old baby over to her clinically-depressed sister-in-law (left for years with four children while her military husband was in Vietnam), and the baby’s mother went camping in the mountains with her husband for that summer. When the parents returned at the end of the summer, the father took up some of the care work for that daughter, which consisted of things like teaching her to box out a very large opponent in basketball, playing burnout catch, and combatively debating politics and law. If that daughter was as a result not as socially female-normal as we would like to see, wasn’t the probable root of her “abnormality”–even by psychological-theory standards– a socialization that resulted from her mother’s generation not having established sufficient distance from feminine social expectations, a failure that caused the mother to fail to thrive, crippling her capacity to perform the “normal” self-sacrificing female role? This example suggests that the female pro-social ideal may not be stably reproduced, except possibly under highly-supported conditions, and that we should not be assuming it as the psychological norm for women at all.
If today’s famous, very “high functioning” autistic women (fictional or real) want to both live in the painful (There is no non-painful option.) but more liberated state of hierarchy refusal, while at the same time asking other people to give them more cooperation and credit–via the culturally-resonant tactic of donning a recognized, masculine mental deviance label with a politicized network protecting it– then good luck to them! Kind of a new take on “I was a tomboy,” it is one survival strategy, available to those people who easily trust medical population management and psychology as a profession. I think that if you need a medical diagnosis to explain to not only others but yourself as well the distance you maintain from normative social interaction to live as a woman with healthy boundaries, you are in fact intensely social, very socially aware.
You should be considered every bit as socially-attuned as the woman who eats and eats and eats garbage in bright wrappers to psychologically offset her endless self-depleting efforts to demonstrably affirm and reproduce a model average consensus, to chase the maximal social approbation available to women (Which is not much.)–popularity, as the kids say. Normative in an unequal, inegalitarian society becomes very unconvincing. If you’re female, dedication to winning social approbation is not a rational-actor self-optimization strategy–particularly not over time, as Mary Wollstonecraft (1792) observed upon “the great art of pleasing.” But because, unlike some women, psychological theory cannot take context into account, the underlying assumption is that irrational self-abnegation is normative for women. That’s how our culture, at the lowest-common-denominator, unconscious common sense (which is often the same thing as psychological theory), reflexively understands pro-social female behavior. I would even say that not being able to take context into account as one navigates the world is masculine-autistic, and psychology is institutionalized masculine autism, or at best a collective gaming a hierarchy. Either way, it’s got a masculine bias that makes it a dubious authority when identifying and treating female normativity and deviance.
For the sake of argument with what I think is just an historical culture, and not a necessary or beneficial one: Just because women can reproduce humans with their thinking bodies does not mean that they also need to reproduce patriarchies and other hierarchical shitshows as well. Women are humans, we’re not unqualified reproduction factories. We’re not 3-D printers. Demands for smooth, machine compliance with mostly-unpaid, self-destructive, 24-7 reproduction work will be met with breakdowns of one sort or another, not least because we live in a commodity economy that does not reward that compliance, but rather mines it. Considered comparatively, transhistorically, rather than within the fishbowl of our culture, it is really odd that some women’s refusal of self-abnegation speed-up is classified as autistic. Is the female-autistic concept supposed to be some sort of amazing progress upon the 1970s diagnosis of bitch? If there were still mental hospitals rather than just prisons for surplus working-class people and immigrants, women would be in about the same cell we were in Freud’s day. In fact, we recently saw that the biosecurity strategy employed during the COVID19 pandemic did without blinking corral women indiscriminately into the home cells, in order to reserve the remnant public space for the masculine work of policing. Conservatism springs eternal.
Because I’m a prof, all day long I take care of other people’s emotional states–a lot of people’s various emotional states, up and down the social hierarchy. Because I’m female, people expect me to do it, and they punish me sanctimoniously if I wander away from the task. Yes, I had to adjust to that responsibility. And I did it pretty quick and well. Yes, occasionally, over the flow and gush of caretaking demands, I am caught not resonating at high emotional intelligence intensity, and I underperform. But mostly, under my ministrations, people get taken care of in their full human complexity. I help people to develop. Helping people to develop in our society is, very grotesquely, not recognized as pro-social behavior. That’s because it is an input into the labor factor of production, and thus must be discounted so that business can acquire labor cheaply and owners can secure profits.
It’s harder for me than for, say, performers who mostly work alone or entrepreneurial psychologists, to convince myself deep down that when I don’t want to expend the energy to play nice with, fix, and generally Mrs. Dalloway other people, it is because because I’m mentally abnormal, rather than because people in an inequality-normative society are socialized inegalitarians–sexists, capitalists, racists, etc., relentlessly “managing” (dehumanizing people as populations) and thoughtlessly withholding credit and cooperation from social subordinates including myself. Socialized inegalitarians tap the well. I cannot stay a functioning organism, get work done, and simply secure the necessary commodified inputs to thrive, while constantly bending over and self-sacrificing to other people’s benefit and advantage, as much as is socially prescribed in this unequal, inegalitarian society. The female-autism diagnosis, I suspect, is a displacement from recognizing inegalitarianism as culturally-embedded antihuman autism.
It is nonetheless true that over the many years, by frequently distancing myself from the responsibility to reproduce the ever-worsening social hierarchy and throw my elbow grease into creating a sparkly polish for that assholery, I have come to think and act differently from other people to some extent.
As well, as an old person, I can see now that the extent of that difference has been overplayed by my diligent patriarchal discipliners. It is a normative woman’s experience to slowly realize over time that all the disturbing things that rang bells for you, and in vain you asked other people to work with you to address, turn out to be real, trenchant problems, and on a very long lag, other people begin to show that they see them too. I see stunted people.
But if “high-functioning” socially-aware women are autistic, then holy shit, most people are autistic. Wow. So amaze. Much drug profits.