Monday, March 27, 2017

Go Go Power Rangers! How Saban Knocked It Out Of The Park With Autistic Representation

I was a big fan of the Power Rangers when I was young, as I think most kids who grew up in the 90s were. Despite that, however, the series has not aged well at all, and when I went back to watch it for nostalgia’s sake, my rose-coloured goggles shattered rather painfully (oh god! The glass! My eyes!). In light of this, I really didn’t expect much from the newly released reboot movie. After all, if the original series was that bad in retrospect, it really had nowhere to go but up, right?  With that in mind, a friend of mine and I went to the movies to watch Saban’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers remake, and I have to say that while the movie was more or less exactly what I expected, one thing threw me for a happy loop; it had one of the best, fairest and most positive representations of Autism I’ve ever seen in a big-budget Hollywood movie.

Billy Cranston, AKA the Blue Ranger, has always been a geek. That was part of his charm in the original series; he was the loveable nerd that you couldn’t help but see yourself in (if you were anything like me in the 90s). In his new iteration, however, he takes this to a new level. When you first meet him, he’s obsessively ordering pencils in a certain way on his desk in detention, has a fixation with technology and explosives, rambles on tangents that touch on every topic under the sun in a train of thought that most assuredly only makes sense to him, and for the life of him doesn’t seem to understand social mores, despite knowing details about everyone in school and who they associate with. In short, Billie is Autistic, and even admits it at one point in the movie (he very bluntly tells Jason that the reason he’s a little odd is because he’s on the spectrum), and while at first I cringed, bracing myself for the inevitable autistic stereotyping which usually follows, in this case I have to say that – much like the whole movie itself – I was pleasantly surprised.

Through Billy, we as moviegoers get to see all the positive traits of being on the spectrum, and even some of the endearing neurosis. He uses his formidable intelligence to figure things out before anyone else on the team, and is the only one super interested in learning everything he can about Zordon, Alpha-5 and the advanced technology they brought with them to Earth. He’s also the most human; when all the other rangers jumped off a cliff at one point in the movie, Billy was the only one pacing back and forth nervously, weighing the pros and cons of how safe it would be for him with his new powers, coupled with what would happen to his family if he did die. As someone with Anxiety and Aspergers, I knew all too well what he was going through. The best part of it all though, is that Billy is never shown as anything but a fully capable and contributing member of the Ranger team, and the others rely on him and his friendship as much as he relies on theirs. As an Aspie, I saw so much of myself in Billy, and his character arc in the movie was one of the best-yet-unexpected parts of this movie for me.

Coming out of the theatre, I was impressed by how good Power Rangers actually was. Sure, the movie itself won’t win any awards for originality, but the writers clearly knew their source material, had a good sense of humour, and didn’t take themselves too seriously. Most importantly, however, the creative team at Saban gave us the new version of Billy Cranston – who in my opinion is right up there with Pidge Gunderson of Team Voltron in the “positive representations of Autism in media” category. For this reason alone, this movie will have a special place in my heart as a Neurodiversity activist. Simply put, the world needs more positive portrayals of Neurodiversity in general and more characters like Billy and Pidge in particular. We’re fortunate to live in a time where writers seem to be waking up to this idea, since normalizing it is so very important. Even still, however, more needs to be done.

Despite that though, I’m happy to report that, no matter which team of pilots who operate mechanical beasts that combine into a massive robot you prefer, those of us on the Autism Spectrum will always have a place on it.

Not saying I want Emperor Zarkon, Lord Zed or Rita Repulsa invading this planet anytime soon mind you, but still….

As always yours in diversity,

Adam Michael

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