Playing My Song: Queer autistic representation in Given

By: Alex Richardson November 8, 20190 Comments
Mafuyu on stage. subtitle: I was just thinking about how I was actually allowed to say that much.

SPOILERS for the given anime.

When I first heard about given shortly before it started airing, it was described to me as “the gay band anime.” Naturally, I was intrigued. I watched the first episode and was immediately hooked, largely because of protagonist Mafuyu. He was my favorite character, but it went beyond just liking him. I related in a way that was different from how I’d ever connected with a character before. 

He was queer. He was coping with loss. He was socially awkward. And, most importantly, he was autistic-coded to the max.

Mafuyu immediately sticks out because of his extreme awkwardness during social interactions. With that said, his demeanor and actions don’t suggest shyness so much as a difficulty understanding social cues. His reactions to other people are frequently delayed or only come after repeated questioning, prompting other characters to wonder what’s going on inside his head. 

Ritsuka shouting at Mafuyu. subtitle: Seriously... Say something, would you?!

There’s a sense that he’s operating on a different wavelength, and I don’t mean anything defamatory by that. He’s kind, funny, talented, capable of love, and many other positive attributes—all of which autistic people feel, despite stereotypes that say otherwise. He is also, importantly, plainly himself in ways that set him apart and that he never apologizes for.

Mafuyu is also strikingly bold and literal. His speech and reactions tend to be fairly monotone and to the point. There are also a number of instances throughout the anime where he fails or takes longer than others to pick up on subtleties in conversation. On the flip side, when he expresses his emotions, he doesn’t tend to dance around anything, His declarations of his romantic feelings for instance are very plainly spoken: “I like you” and “I love you.”

He also definitely has a flat affect (a term describing a lower than average propensity for emotional expression), and it’s one that can’t be reasonably attributed solely to the grieving process or depression. His behaviors and ways of interacting with the world remain largely consistent across the course of series and in flashbacks to prior events. He’s not simply a character who suddenly becomes withdrawn only when dealing with trauma. 

ghostly arms embracing Mafuyu as he holds his guitar. subtitle: you're there in all of them

As the show progresses and Mafuyu finds more healthy coping mechanisms and deepens his relationships with others, he’s still not one for loud exclamations or over-the-top expressions. There are occasional exceptions to this, primarily when he’s performing live, but that doesn’t detract from the point. Having a flat affect doesn’t mean one never expresses themselves in ways akin to neurotypical standards; just that said expression is reduced.

Even more noteworthy is the fact that Mafuyu isn’t just a supporting figure, but rather one of the two lead protagonists. And of the two, he has the most character development by far. The arc of the show’s plot largely stems from his growth over time. 

That includes, very significantly, his romantic feelings. Between mourning his ex-boyfriend and developing new feelings for Uenoyama, he’s at the center of multiple romantic plot lines. 

Close-up of Mafuyu's lower face. subtitle: I like you, Uenoyama-kun.

For an autistic character to be not only the driving force behind a story but also involved in a love story is downright unheard of. Many of the worst and most insulting misunderstandings of autistic people frame us as incapable of having personal choice, agency, or fulfilling love lives. 

Mafuyu defies all these expectations. He loves Uenoyama, follows his own desires, and performs his heart out.

His musical performances also reflect an aspect of his (perceived, though not textually explicit) autism. Many autistic people, myself included, use the term “special interests” to describe hobbies and topics that they are particularly enamored by. Mafuyu’s passion for music can definitely be viewed through this lens, especially when it comes to his guitar-playing. He walks around with his guitar at all times, desperately keeps asking Uenoyama to teach him, and attends several of the Seasons’ practices before actually joining the band.

His devotion to music is a major driving force in his life. As previously mentioned with his self-expression, these aspects of the character are present while he’s grieving, but they can’t be neatly attributed solely to trauma. My interpretation of music as a special interest is rooted in how he approaches the topic, not how he came to like it. Mafuyu’s hardships may have considerable impacts on his life, but they don’t explain away all his quirks or behaviors.

This intersection of various factors in Mafuyu’s life only further contributed to my becoming enamored with the character. His autism doesn’t exist in a vacuum, just like mine doesn’t. Neither does Mafuyu’s queerness, or my own. 

Finding queer or autistic characters in media who I can actually relate to is difficult enough, but finding a character who is (or can be read as) both is like winning the lottery or a freak lightning strike. Mafuyu exists at an intersection of aspects of myself that no other figure ever has. As a result, I’ve grown very attached to him, despite the show only debuting a few months ago.

Mafuyu from given with wide eyes and sparkles around his head

It would be wonderful if there were more canonically autistic characters in media, but I’ll take representation where I can find it. Yes, creators explicitly stating Mafuyu is autistic would mean a lot in terms of people like me having characters they could point to as their own. But even if the word “autistic” is never uttered on screen, Mafuyu still has all the traits I previously mentioned. The bluntness, the special interests, the difficulty with social cues; all of those aspects to him are blatantly on screen. They’re also major aspects of my life, and have been since before I ever knew I was autistic.

If anything, the lack of explicit labeling is yet another thing I can relate to. For various reasons, I was never diagnosed as a child. It could have been due to my symptoms and behaviors being attributed to other causes, or the adults around me knowing little-to-nothing about autism, or both, or any other number of reasons. Regardless, the result was my living with sensory issues and communication problems but not knowing there was a term for what I was experiencing. 

At best, I knew that I was different, weird, or operating on a different wavelength—much like Mafuyu. To limit my search for representation in characters who are explicitly autistic could, in its own way, result in me ignoring figures I might relate to a lot and who would especially resemble my younger, undiagnosed self.

Mafuyu on stage. subtitle: I was just thinking about how I was actually allowed to say that much.

I’ve liked a number of such characters over time, chief among them being Izzy Izumi from Digimon Adventure and L from Death Note. I came across these characters long before I even suspected I was autistic, but they resonated with my as-yet-undefined sense of being somehow “other.” 

Both of them stand out among their series’ larger casts due to their social difficulties and extreme examples of special interests. Both of them fit within the “genius” archetype that can potentially be harmful when handled carelessly (i.e., autism-coding and Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory), but I’ve never considered either character offensive. Partially because they’re not explicitly autistic, but also because even if they were, they’re not presented in dehumanizing ways.

Either way, a younger me resonated with their otherness in a way that felt wonderful and true to myself. Even now I still have affection for those characters. With that said however, neither of them breaks as many boundaries as Mafuyu. L never expresses any clear sexual or romantic attraction to anyone; his genius is so exclusively the focus that the possibility never even comes up. 

Izzy, meanwhile, is occasionally hinted at either having a crush on Mimi or possibly being a potential partner for her. These romantic tensions are mostly relegated to older versions of the character, however, such as Digimon Adventure 02 and Digimon Adventure tri., spin-off series where Izzy gets much less screen-time than in the original Adventure. Not only that, but these scenes are solely comedic. We see Izzy as a flustered butt of jokes; he never gets to drive a romantic plot forward with agency like Mafuyu.

I now have the language and understanding of myself necessary to describe my autistic experiences, how they’ve affected me, and how I find reflections of myself in other people and characters. My relationship to Mafuyu as an autistic adult finding a semblance of myself in him is taking place now. It’s not just a matter of looking back on childhood favorites and recontextualizing them, but of seeing a character like myself in ways I never have before, and also having the vocabulary to describe it. 

There’s something powerful in the feeling of being seen, especially by a character who’s so easily viewed as weird and “off” by others. In those misunderstandings, I find understanding of my own, and a reflection of myself.

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