Content warning: discussion of ableism
Shy is a show about empathy. It is the protagonist Teru’s defining quality: a stalwart refusal to dehumanize the people who she is fighting against, no matter how brutal their actions towards her.
This belief in empathy is drawn less from the superhero genre and more from the magical girl genre, where the battles often are proxy fights over the hearts and societal problems that the characters are facing. The villains of these shows are often represented as manipulators: They may intuit the emotions of others and then twist them to their benefit–corrupting the precious dreams of those around them, as the villains in Sailor Moon SuperS do, or using girls’ despair over a patriarchal world as a source of fuel in Puella Magi Madoka Magica. We can see such a narrative at play with Stigma, who uses the pain and trauma of others to fuel his ambitions, twisting Iko’s survivors’ guilt around her parents’ deaths to make her curse the world.
Watching these arcs as an autistic person has often felt complicated to me. Most of these shows go to great lengths to set up a dichotomy between the deeply feeling, empathetic protagonist, whose humanity is their superpower, and the uncaring or unempathetic antagonist—whose assumed inhumanity justifies their punishment and death. With shows like Madoka Magica and its descendants, where the villain is straight up incapable of empathy, it is often less the actual actions of the antagonist that justifies this punishment, but their position as an abomination—somebody so heartless they cannot be allowed to live. It is hard not to see the ghost of eugenics underlying the narrative arcs of these villains—people whose neurological state is so horrifying as to borderline on an eldritch monstrosity, requiring their death. This is especially troubling given that lack of empathy is one of the calling cards of stereotypes about autistics.
I had myself experienced this stereotype first hand for years–being forced to go through applied behavior analysis, take on “social skills groups,” and be generally punished constantly, all to beat into my head that I should be more empathetic. All of it, of course, had the opposite effect–leading me to retreat further and further into myself, and cut myself off further from others.
All of these experiences made me heartened to see Shy trying to tell a different story. Shy’s fourth episode in particular, A Heartless Person, introduces the character of Stardust, the hero of England and the titular Heartless Person, or “psychopath.”
I will not be using this article to discuss narratives around “psychopaths,” other than to say these narratives are used to justify carceral sanism, as honestly I am not qualified in any way to discuss it. However, I do feel qualified to say: Stardust’s arc I believe challenges many narratives around the ways lack of empathy is often read onto neurodivergent people, and how they can internalize that reading. Instead, it frames his experiences through what is often called the Double Empathy problem–how, regardless of any deficit in empathy that autistics do or do not have, it is neurotypicals’ refusal to empathize with autistics that causes much of their social struggles in the first place.
Shy is able to get through to Stardust because, in contrast to the rest of the world, she refuses to dehumanize him as heartless and refuses to believe he truly lacks empathy, and works hard to empathize with him herself. The show’s embrace of a Double Empathy Problem framing reveals larger tensions in the struggle for autistic self-determination, both allowing a deeper understanding of the process of Stardust’s self-conception and also revealing the limits of the mainstream culture’s understanding of “empathy.”
Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria as Internalization of Rejection
When I was halfway through undergrad, I listened to the podcast Invisibilia. In the episode I listened to, an autistic woman named Kim describes her childhood growing up being bullied constantly. She was told she has no understanding of social situations, no ability to read social cues, no empathy–at one point, other campers at a summer camp bound her, gagged her, and left her outside in the rain. As an adult, she enrolled in an experimental trial of magnetic resonance therapy that promised to give her a brief glimpse of a feeling she had allegedly never felt before: empathy. The hosts of the podcast describe autistics as being like children in a cave, never seeing light, and Kim as being given the light of empathy for a moment through magnetic treatment, then it being taken away.
That episode destroyed me. I had already been through applied behavior analysis. I had already been told by professional after professional that I had no understanding of social cues, that I was a hopeless case, doomed to be friendless unless I learned to mask. And here I was, listening to an episode that naturalized the idea that I would never, ever experience empathy, and that the best I could hope for would be to be cured of my autism with magnets. It was condescending, infantilizing, ableist, and degrading, and its effects on me were horrific. I went weeks asking myself over and over again as I spoke to my friends, “Am I feeling the feelings that they’re feeling? Or are my mirror neurons fundamentally broken?”
Most of Stardust’s introduction takes place during an extended fight with Shy, in which he plays the role of villain–come to strip Shy of her hero status if she loses, he constantly professes his heartlessness. He even emphasizes if she does not learn to embrace her powers, he will kill her.
As one watches it, it feels clear that this is an act he is putting on–there is a distinct contrast between what he says outwardly and his internal monologue. He constantly says that he is heartless and has no interest in or cannot feel others’ emotions, but acutely notices the ways that those around him looks at him, particularly how Shy has no hatred whatsoever in her eyes. It would seem he has become hypervigilant for the hatred of others–for any signs of their disgust that could indicate rejection of him.
There is a common language that is thrown around with autistics, and neurodivergent people generally–that we have a “rejection sensitive dysphoria.” Similar to the discourses around autistics’ empathy, I want to challenge the notion that this is something inherent to our neurology. I think it is far more likely that this is rooted not in some difference inherent in our brains, but related more to our repeated experiences of rejection due to ableism–and the fact that that rejection frequently comes with dire consequences for our survival. Rejection means no job. Rejection means no life. Rejection means no future. So we become hypervigilant to it, having experienced it repeatedly–just like Stardust, constantly measuring others’ gazes towards us in terms of the level of disgust they feel, potentially crowding out our ability to empathize with the nuances of their feelings.
As psychologist Erik Erikson has theorized, identity formation is a process of both judging one’s self through others’ gaze and then judging that gaze based on your values and social groupings. There is no formation of identity that isn’t done in relation to other people’s gaze, and Stardust’s entire identity seems to have been formed out of this continual negotiation of the assumption that he has no heart, no empathy. His is an identity formed entirely through hypervigilance to others’ rejection–and he has chosen to embrace the stereotype, rather than attempt to fight back against it.
The Double Empathy Problem and the Challenge of Fighting Stereotypes
When we finally get a glimpse of Stardust’s past as a young boy named Davie, he’s being comforted by a friend in the aftermath of a fight with some neighborhood bullies who also called him heartless. His friend’s reaction cuts deeply at many of the tensions present in the double empathy problem.
Davie’s affect is deadpan. He speaks largely in factual statements, downplaying all of his emotions, saying he didn’t feel anything as he punched them, so they must have been right that he’s heartless. Studies have shown that autistic people have a higher rate of alexithymia than the general population, meaning that many struggle to easily describe their own feelings and the feelings of others–suggesting that Davie may struggle to articulate his emotions, and, because of that ambiguity, describe himself as emotionless because that is the narrative that is being read onto him.
However, there is no reason that just because something is difficult to describe that it is not present. Davie’s friend’s immediate reaction to the fight is to notice Stardust’s frustration–looking beyond his extreme deadpan expressions, to try to understand the real feelings behind why he fought. They surmise that he was frustrated by people saying he doesn’t have a heart, because, in fact, he does have a heart. They understand that, as studies show, struggling to recognize your own emotions or those of others has very little, to nothing, to do with one’s ability to care about other peoples’ emotions and act upon them.
Both they and Shy are emblematic of what the double empathy problem seems to suggest is the solution to the abjection of autistics–for non-autistics to double down in their empathy for autistics, refusing to only assume the grammar of neurotypicality for emotions and instead try to learn the emotional language of the autistic brain just as autistics are forced to learn the emotional language of the neurotypical brain.
However, their take also comes with its own weight. They tell him, half-joking and half-not, that he should “strive to be the nicest person in the world,” to “throw those bozos and the rest of the world for a loop.” This is an undue burden–the burden of breaking stereotypes–that is impossible to fulfill. Perhaps he did try to fulfill it, and that’s why he became a hero? But clearly, somewhere along the line, he realized such a goal was impossible–and so succumbed to the gaze of the neurotypicals around him. A heartless man once more.
Autistics should not have to prove our humanity, prove we have a heart. It is an exhausting answer to an ableist question.
However, such a suggestion is also framed through Shy’s fulfillment of it–she intuits from his actions that Stardust does, in fact, want her to succeed, or else he wouldn’t work so hard to play the role of the villain. Her compassion and intuition are what work together to create true empathy for him–and while her understanding of his reasons do not necessarily justify his actions in the episode, they show what neurotypicals simply standing firm in their professed values and extending those values to include autistics rather than exclude us can do to bridge the divide of communication between neurotypicals and disabled people.
One day, shortly after listening to the autism cure episode of Invisibilia, I sat with my best friend in a movie theatre. Constantly asking myself if I knew what the characters were feeling from their facial expressions, I broke down. In my panic attack I told my best friend everything I was going through, she sat with me, holding me, and said, “I don’t think I magically feel what everybody else is going through either. I don’t think anybody does.”
At one point in his flashback, Davie says to his friend that he does not even know what it means to have a heart. I’ve sat with that very question for many years. How much of what we call “empathy” is a reified object, a fetishized thing that is as subjective and arbitrary as anything else? I have come to believe it to be as abundant, ineffable, varied, and ambivalent as love. There is empathy that harms and erases, as Saidiya Hartman describes the sick empathy of white writers imagining the suffering of their enslaved Black characters. There is empathy that overwhelms, as I often feel as I enter a classroom full of children who do not want to be there and I feel the wave of sadness rush over me. There is also empathy that nourishes and supports–the empathy of my friend as she sat with me and refused to put me at a distance, or of Davie’s friend when they admit that in regards to knowing what having a heart means, “I don’t think anybody does.”
I hope that we can learn that truly liberatory empathy, the empathy we will need to build a better world, is not assuming we know exactly what somebody is feeling just from looking at them, and thus erasing their actual perspectives. As Mariame Kaba once put it, “abolition is not about your fucking feelings.” Liberatory empathy is that of acting in solidarity, of attempting to work through and struggle with the mess of confusion and build bridges across divides of experience to come to common action. That empathy can nurture as well as feel, can fight as well as sympathize. Maybe that empathy is something worth fighting for.