Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies

Why Sheldon Cooper Can’t Be Black

The Visual Rhetoric of Autism and Ethnicity

Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies (2019), 13, (1), 57–74.

Abstract

Played by actor Jim Parsons, the character Sheldon Cooper has become the cornerstone of the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory and a fixture in conversations about autism in popular culture. As a brilliant but socially inept and irritatingly precise physicist, Sheldon embodies some of so-called Nerd Culture’s most prized attributes: an eidetic memory, immense mental processing speed, and immunity from political movements, social complexities, sexual expectations, and cultural conventions. He has become a common reference point for people with autism and for the families, educators, and clinicians who comprise the autism community (Winston). Pop culture consumers speculate about his place on the autism spectrum and use his mannerisms as a guide for explaining certain autism behaviours. While many people in the autism community, from bloggers to clinicians, have commented on his autistic traits, there has been little scholarship concerning portrayals of autistic figures as uniformly white and male. Is this pattern in portrayal a coincidence? Is there a reason that Sheldon Cooper is not black? The article engages in a critical examination of a largely unexplored intersection of autism and race and argues that autistic characters tend to be white for a reason.

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Matthews, Malcolm