Difference, Not Indifference: Violet Evergarden, autistic representation, and the social model of disability

By: Devon Buchanan June 8, 20180 Comments
Luculia looks over at Violet, who is sat at her desk silently

The scene in Violet Evergarden which most vividly reflects my experience of autism is the one where Violet fails an exam. The protagonist of the series, Violet, is training to become an Auto Memory Doll (usually referred to as “Dolls”). These are employed to write letters in a society where illiteracy is common, and they are also expected to skillfully identify emotions and express them in writing.

During Violet’s training, she performs well at rule-based skills like grammar and vocabulary, but fails an exam where she has to identify hidden meaning. It’s a skill other students are shown doing automatically and which Violet knows she’s bad at. Violet finds out she failed when she waits for her name to appear on a list of candidates who passed, but hers is never called out.

Like me, Violet has always found it hard to perform a skill most people do automatically, and she found out she failed an important exam exactly as I did. The scene makes me feel like I did back then—isolated and fearful that I would never improve, never achieve the things I wanted to.

Violet seems to feel the same way. While other people discuss what they’ll do next in their career, Violet sits silently. She later asks, “Will I be able to become an optimal Doll?”

Violet and Luculia walk along a bridge. Violet tell Lulculia "I have been told the same thing before."

Violet does become a Doll, and how this happens is an important theme throughout the first five episodes of the series. During this arc, Violet positively portrays the behaviours and difficulties commonly experienced by people with autism, and the way she becomes a Doll reflects an important idea in disabled activism: the social model of disability.

Autism is a lifelong condition where people have difficulty socialising, difficulty using and understanding language, and unusual or specific interests. Many of these difficulties arise because social and communication skills are things most people learn and do automatically, but which autistic people cannot.

Though autistic people share many common features, the difficulties they have and their severity is variable; hence autism is often referred to as a spectrum. Throughout the series, Violet displays several behaviours which resemble those commonly found in autistic people.

Violet pins a customers arms behind his back while asking him "Please be specific. Please give us some guidance."
Assaulting customers was the most extreme form of socially inappropriate behaviour Violet displayed.

First, Violet has difficulty behaving in a socially appropriate way. Autistic people can behave in a socially inappropriate way because they find it hard to follow unwritten rules for social conduct. People without autism usually learn and apply these without needing to be taught, but people with autism don’t always learn these rules or notice when they should be applied.

Violet seems to behave in this way when she and Erica (another Doll) write a letter of apology for a client who is upset. Partway through the letter, the client breaks down into a fit of sobbing, and Violet tells her, “Crying gets in the way of our work. Please stop crying immediately.” Erica and the client are both shocked by this, and Violet later learns her customers are complaining about her.

Most people would agree that in this situation you should follow a rule like: “when somebody cries, you should offer a sympathetic comment.” Violet’s reason for breaking this rule isn’t given, but her matter-of-fact tone gives the impression she isn’t aware of it and isn’t aware her actions are socially unacceptable. Her behaviour reflects a common problem for autistic people, one which can cause troubles with employment as it does for Violet.

Violet’s interpretation of language also reflects autistic behaviours. Autistic people can have difficulty interpreting language because when people use language, in addition to the literal meaning of the words they use, there is also often an implied meaning.

People with autism tend to be bad at identifying these implied meanings, and may interpret statements literally when they weren’t intended to be. Failing to pick up on an implied meaning is clearly not unique to autism, but autistic people are affected by it to a greater extent than people without autism.

Violet faces the colonel beneath the light of gas street lamps, telling him "I'm not burning" with a confused look on her face.
Violet doesn’t appreciate the figurative use of the word “burning” either.

In the test described earlier, Violet finds it difficult to identify implied meaning. In the test, Violet has to interpret and express the emotions of her classmate Luculia by writing a letter for her. Luculia addresses her letter to her parents, and implies that she might be grieving by talking about how she hasn’t thanked her parents and the places she wanted wanted to go with them (suspiciously using the past tense).

Violet doesn’t pick up on this implied meaning and interprets Luculia literally, writing: “Regarding the places we have been and desire to go, I have nothing to report.” Violet’s class is surprised by this, and her teacher says it “cannot be called a letter.” Judging by her teacher and class’s reaction, the others expect Violet to understand Luculia’s hidden message. Her failure to do so means she doesn’t qualify as a Doll.

Finally, Violet’s limited non-verbal communication reflects a feature of autism. Non-verbal communication consists of the expressions and gestures which most people naturally use to convey messages, usually about their feelings. These are used much less by autistic people.

Throughout the series, Violet visibly uses few gestures and her expression changes only when she experiences a very strong emotion. This is clearly intentional because other characters use a wide range of facial expressions and body language to show how they feel. Violet’s lack of non-verbal communication is even explicitly mentioned when Princess Charlotte, a client of hers, complains “Can’t you be more expressive when you talk?”

Violet pushes her cheeks upward to create an absurd grimace.
Please appreciate Violet’s efforts to be more expressive.

Violet is a positive portrayal of autism because her behaviour accurately reflects autistic people’s experiences and promotes a positive attitude toward them. Her portrayal is accurate because of the variety and consistency of autistic features she appears to have, and the way they have consequences for her life.

The series also avoids reinforcing misconceptions about autism, such as the beliefs it involves not caring about others or not having emotions. Instead of being a stereotype defined only by a disability, Violet has multiple personality traits and motivations.

Interpreting Violet as a portrayal of autism isn’t the only possible interpretation—she could be seen as a person who’s shy and finds it difficult to understand others. Both of these interpretations are supported by the series, because in real life the experiences and behaviours of both groups of people can be very similar. Accurately portraying these and promoting a positive attitude towards them is beneficial for both groups.

That said, I think it remains worthwhile to identify Violet as a portrayal of autism. Shy characters who find it difficult to understand others don’t have to be written like a person with autism—they can also be written as inexperienced, conceited, lacking self-esteem, anxious, or depressed. These characters wouldn’t reflect common features of autism the way Violet does, and I wouldn’t see my own experiences reflected in them the same way I do with Violet

A gas street lamp is reflected in a puddle while Erica narrates "I'm the one who isn't suited to being an Auto Memory Doll."
Characters who didn’t appear autistic still saw parts of themselves reflected in Violet.

Violet’s autistic features cause problems for her while she pursues her career as a Doll, but most episodes see her succeed in expressing a person’s true feelings in their letter. There are many tropes for how disabled people succeed at things they find difficult. They may be cured, or they may “overcome” their disability with extraordinary individual effort. Violet doesn’t succeed because of these, though—instead, her success portrays the social model of disability.

The social model of disability emphasises how economic, physical, and cultural barriers prevent people with disabilities from taking part in society. It does this by distinguishing between impairment and disability: an impairment is a biological difference or limitation, while a disability is the disadvantage created by a society which doesn’t adapt to these impairments.

These definitions are not agreed on by everybody, but they do challenge assumptions about disability. They challenge the idea that disability is the inevitable consequence of impairment, as well as the idea that responses to disability should just treat individuals without changing how society works.

Violet’s previously described difficulties with socialising, language, and non-verbal communication are impairments. During the first five episodes of the series, Violet tries to take part in society as a Doll but often doesn’t succeed, which is a disability. Her disability is never treated as an inevitable consequence of her impairment, however, and when she succeeds as a Doll it’s consistently because changes to society succeed in removing barriers for her.

Erica implores to the colonel "I don't think we should make her quit."

First, Violet’s employer and her colleagues are aware of her impairments, but they assert that she can still become a Doll. For example, after clients complain about Violet’s behaviour, Iris asks their boss to make Violet quit to protect the company’s reputation. Both their boss and Erica refuse, describing Violet’s positive qualities and saying they believe she can learn and improve with time.

While unrelated to autism specifically, the typewriter functions as a physical change which removes barriers as well. Violet previously had both of her arms amputated and uses elaborate mechanical prosthetic arms instead. When she starts training as a Doll, she makes it clear that these arms are not dexterous enough to write with a pen—an impairment. However, this doesn’t affect her ability to become a Doll because they always use a typewriter and Violet’s arms can operate these.

The typewriter also removes barriers for people with other impairments. This happens at the end of one episode where Erica narrates the story of the typewriter’s invention, explaining that it was invented by the husband of a novelist so that she could continue writing after she became blind.

Violet does qualify as a Doll after failing her initial letter writing exam, and she accomplishes this because the people around her adapt to her difficulty understanding implied meanings by being more direct about their feelings. When Luculia meets Violet again at the Doll school, she explains that her parents died in the war and her brother Spencer blames himself for their deaths. Luculia wants to tell Spencer she was glad he survived the war to reduce his guilt, but she isn’t able to.

When Luculia describes her feeling more directly, Violet is able to express them in a letter. This allows Violet to qualify as a Doll. The series also gives the impression that this also allows Violet to learn how to write about emotions and how to encourage others to be more direct about their emotions.

Iris sits in a railway carriage holding a bundle of iris flower while Violet asks "Did the letter successfully reveal your emotions to your parents?"
One of Violet’s methods for figuring out others’ emotions: ask somebody who knows.

Even after Violet qualifies as a Doll and learns skills which help her adapt, the challenges she encounters can’t be overcome by her alone but also require others to be understanding and adjust their behaviour.

For example, Violet upsets Iris at her birthday party because she does several things which Iris doesn’t want her to do, but which Iris didn’t clearly explain. The series resolves this conflict by having Violet tell Iris that she finds it hard to understand emotions. Iris knows that Violet didn’t have malicious intentions and starts communicating in a more direct way with her.

In all of these cases, the social model of disability is a theme. Assumptions that a Doll should use a pen or be able to automatically understand implied meanings could have been barriers to Violet becoming a Doll.

Instead, the environment Violet works in enables her to become a Doll. Violet does learn and change as an individual, but the series makes it clear that the changes society makes to accommodate her are a large part of what enables this.

The camera looks down from the ceiling at Spencer, who lies asleep on a sofa with rubbish food and spilt drink surrounding him.
Spencer is not portrayed in the same way as Violet.

That said, the show’s portrayal of the social model of disability isn’t entirely consistent. Firstly, after Violet failed her Doll exam, it was her friend who helped her eventually qualify. The school she attended didn’t adapt its teaching for her and this was never questioned or challenged. Secondly, Luculia’s brother Spencer has several impairments (his left leg is paralysed and he appears dependent on alcohol), but the audience is encouraged only to feel sorry for him instead of questioning which social structures contribute to his disability.

It’s also worth noting that the social model of disability is not usually used on its own to understand disability. In addition to identifying and removing social barriers, disabled activists also ask for appropriate treatment of impairments, and have questioned whether some impairments are part of normal human variation instead of being “limitations.” Nonetheless, the social model of disability has been influential and remains a useful way to draw attention to the role of society in disability.

For autistic people, portrayals of the social model of disability are especially significant. Autism cannot be cured—that is, people with autistic features will keep them. However, autism can be treated. Some treatment is delivered by health care professionals, but for autistic people to fully participate in society, the barriers in schools, workplaces, and culture as a whole need to be removed as they were for Violet.

Violet failing her Doll exam reminded me of how I felt failing an exam under similar circumstances: isolated and fearful that I’d never improve or achieve the things I wanted to. Though Violet Evergarden is a fantasy, seeing how Violet resembled me, and seeing her succeed at understanding others, made me feel better about myself. It made it seem like I could improve and achieve the things I wanted, too.

Violet's Doll teacher smiles and tells her "I hope you become and optimal Doll."

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