Autism in Media: Rain Man Got a Bad Rap
Welcome back to my Autism in Media series! This is it, ladies and gentlemen, this is the big one. Today I’m tackling 1988’s Rain Man, that scourge of autistic people everywhere who get asked if they can count cards and other such nonsense. I was dreading this, because I knew it was a thing that NTs referenced as a shorthand for autism, and that’s terribly dehumanizing, beside the fact that autism is such a broad spectrum that there is no shorthand for it. But I had never actually seen the movie. Honestly, all I knew going in to this was 1) Dustin Hoffman’s character is autistic and Tom Cruise’s character’s brother, 2) Runt from Animaniacs was a play on that character. I am as surprised as anyone else to have to tell you that Rain Man gets a bad rap. It’s actually really worthwhile, if seen the right way. Let me explain.
Why It Gets a Bad Rap
The legacy of Rain Man is not what it should have been. Instead of the representation breakthrough that it should have been at the time, this movie created an image that the NT community fixed in their minds as meaning “autistic”. That image is the non-responsive human calculator, the asexual card counting machine who memorizes everything he reads but doesn’t understand humor or sex or other things that NTs consider the “basics of life”. This is unfair to all autistic people, to the NTs who would actually like to know better, and to the movie itself.
What It Got Wrong
For the record, YES there’s plenty wrong with Rain Man. Some of it I’m willing to blame on the lack of understanding of 30 years ago, some I consider bad filmmaking, and some is just plain wrong. Most egregious, in my opinion, is Raymond’s meltdowns. They’re treated more like tantrums – they stop when he gets what he wants. He doesn’t want to fly, he goes into a meltdown, Charlie (Cruise) promises him they won’t fly, and the meltdown stops immediately.
This. Is. Not. How. It. Works.
Meltdowns are caused by overwhelm, and once we get started, we can’t just stop. We have to work through it until we’re done, although that can sometimes be sped up by removing some stress. Meltdowns are NOT goal-oriented, we don’t have them to get something from people. We melt down because we just can’t anymore and it takes some time before we can again.
In the casino, despite all the lights and noise, Raymond never shows any sign of distress until Charlie grabs him in an excited hug or there’s a crowd around them. That’s just not realistic – casinos are prime territory for overstimulation. Also, the casino management says they’re using six decks at the blackjack table. Raymond didn’t know they were using more than one, so how did he count that many? And before we leave the casino, let me address that scene where Charlie’s girlfriend kisses Raymond:
Dancing with him was fine; he knew what that was and he wanted to do it. But he didn’t understand what kissing was, let alone that it was a form of sexual touch, plus Raymond has a touch aversion anyway! (Admittedly, that touch aversion comes and goes in accordance with the needs of the plot.) It is NEVER ok to force touch on anyone, especially not someone who doesn’t understand the meaning of that touch. Raymond may be a savant, but he doesn’t understand enough about sex to consent to anything! It was played as though she were giving him a gift that he would never get to experience otherwise, rather than assaulting him. Raymond doesn’t seem upset by it, but that’s some NT savior complex bullshit.
Lots of professionals say things about Raymond and autistics in general that are either outright wrong or very outdated. “Most autistics can’t speak, they can’t communicate.” Dr. Bruner tells Charlie that Raymond “isn’t capable of having a relationship with you” when the whole movie has debunked that, and that Raymond can’t make his own decisions because he doesn’t understand enough.
And I take issue with Raymond’s constant babbling. I’ve never met any autistic person who does that. We do have a tendency to rattle on about our special interests even when people aren’t interested, but I’ve never met anyone who says the same things over and over just for the sake of talking. That’s a much more NT thing, in my opinion, but I could be wrong.
What It Got Right
Here’s where things get surprising, folks! From the very beginning, Dr. Bruner calls Raymond “an autistic savant”, distinguishes that term from “retarded”, and makes a point of how “high functioning” he is. (Though I wonder how high functioning he can be if he was still institutionalized.) Autism itself is explained as “a disability that impairs the sensory input and how it’s processed” – that’s pretty exact! I know today we might not use the terms “disability” and “impairs”, but otherwise, spot on. Dr. Bruner then describes Raymond: “[he] has a problem with communicating and learning…. He can’t even express himself or probably even understand his own emotions in a traditional way.” Communication problem – check. Learning issues due to communication problem – check. As for the rest, I’ll give it half and half. I have difficulty understanding my emotions sometimes, especially negative ones, and I often struggle to express myself in non-written forms, so this could totally be true, even if it’s condescending as all hell.
Dr. Bruner goes on to explain that Raymond uses routine and rituals to protect himself from all the dangers of the world and that deviation is very scary for him. Raymond’s aide, Vern, tells Charlie that Raymond recites the “Who’s on First?” routine when he’s nervous: “it’s his way of dealing with you touching things”. He also explains that Raymond doesn’t touch people. It’s all very non-judgmental and accepting, all said with a loving smile.
Throughout the movie, sounds are amplified and lights and visuals are accentuated to show how Raymond experiences the world. This is awesome and very effective! As someone who already experiences life in that kind of HD, the extra amplification made some scenes kind of overwhelming for me.
When Charlie takes Raymond to a doctor in some podunk little town, the nurse asks, “he’s artistic?” I shit you not, the lady at the unemployment office pulled the exact same thing on me when I mentioned my autism. Totally true to life!
Another thing they got painfully right was Tom Cruise’s Charlie Babbitt as Every NT In The World. He yells at Raymond, forces touch on him, disrupts all of his routines just to mess with him, bullies him into meltdowns, calls him an idiot, asks a doctor how to “fix” Raymond so he won’t have to “deal with this stuff”, and tells Raymond “you just don’t want to listen”, among other things.
Dustin Hoffman Did Us Proud
Hoffman is a great actor, and I’m a big fan. That’s part of why I was afraid to see this; I didn’t want to see that great talent used for a parody of real people. But I shouldn’t have worried. The portrayal of Raymond Babbitt is incredibly sincere and really respectful.
I was really impressed with the wandering gaze. He mostly avoids eye contact but he looks all around and occasionally meets Charlie’s eyes for just a second. That’s nearly exactly what Hans Asperger described. He also rocks back and forth on his feet while twiddling his fingers at chest level, which all feels really familiar to me. There’s also some slight echolalia throughout the performance.
Raymond freaks out at people touching his books – I do that, too! The mere fact of “an unannounced visit” upsets him so much he hides behind a door – I had to hold back a sob because everyone who knows me knows that you do not just “stop by” my house because I will not be ok.
At a diner, when things aren’t happening the way Raymond expects, he says “We’re gonna be here the whole morning with no pancakes and no toothpicks and I’m definitely not gonna get my maple syrup!” This is catastrophizing, and I do it all the time. One thing doesn’t go the way I’d planned, and I’m off to the races. This is just about my exact thought process, I just don’t usually do it about pancakes. Different priorities for different people.
At a traffic accident, the flashing lights and sounds overwhelm Raymond to the point that he jumps out of the car – but he doesn’t run, just wanders slowly away, so maybe it’s not exactly bolting. On a street, blaring car horns and engines and a man yelling get Raymond visibly overwhelmed, and the one real sign of distress he shows in the casino is covering his ears against the cheering crowd behind him. The hardest thing for me to watch was the scene where Raymond turns on the toaster oven, but can’t open it, so he puts the waffles back in the freezer and looks for something else to eat – I watched his executive function fail – until the toaster oven set off the smoke alarm, which caused Raymond to melt down. I’ve never set off a smoke alarm, but my lack of executive function has put me in positions that caused meltdowns, too.
Charlie Babbitt is NOT the Good Guy Here!
Here, in my not-so-humble opinion, is where this movie went wrong. Tom Cruise is a very likeable actor and in 1988, all of America was in love with him. But Charlie is not the good guy. Charlie Babbitt’s arc as a character is that of an asshole who hurts lots of people around him in his selfishness but then slowly learns not to be a dick and to put other people before himself sometimes. It’s marked by his girlfriend walking out accusing him of using her and Raymond, and her returning after Charlie’s forged an actual relationship with his brother. It’s good filmmaking and good acting.
But Cruise was just too relatable. Audiences loved him so much, just for being Tom Cruise, that the message got mixed up and somehow Charlie Babbitt became the good guy who was trying to rescue his poor, autistic brother from a cruel institution. With that idea, Charlie’s attitudes toward Raymond throughout the film, not just after his epiphany near the end, became fixed in people’s minds. Add that to Hoffman’s brilliant performance that was based on real-life savant Kim Peek, and that image of autism and how to react to it became cemented in the public consciousness.
The Movie is Not Bad
Not once in the whole film does Rain Man imply that all autistics are like Raymond Babbitt. On the contrary, they make a big point about how exceptional he is. Raymond isn’t portrayed as totally helpless, either. There’s a lot he never learned, just because he’d been in an institution for over 20 years. I think in today’s world he might be in a communal living situation rather than an institution, he might even be able to hold a job, and he would probably benefit from supported decision-making.
Rain Man was not made to villify or ridicule autistic people. That’s clear within five minutes of seeing Hoffman onscreen. This movie should have been a major breakthrough for autistic representation 30 years ago, but because so many people missed the point, it’s become a source of pain for many of us on the spectrum.
I encourage everyone to watch Rain Man again (or for the first time) and pay attention to how Hoffman isn’t doing a caricature of autism and how Cruise is playing a terrible person almost to the very end. I don’t know if we can get the NT community to stop comparing us to Raymond Babbitt, but we can at least be content that we were never targets of that character.
Do you hate Rain Man – or love it? Do you think the fact that it’s a good portrayal of autism makes up for the fact that lots of NTs have made it into a stereotype? Would it make a good starting point for conversation with NTs?