Representation matters By Gabe Bergado
The Power Rangers generated plenty of buzz leading up to its premiere last weekend (March 24). Some were skeptical about the gritty reboot, while others were excited to see an update to the iconic show that was part of so many of our childhoods. Much of the chatter regarding the movie has also been with regard to the diversity of the characters, featuring a racially diverse main cast and an LGBTQ-identified Yellow Ranger played by Becky G — aspects that have long been lacking from big-budget superhero movies.
But another major win for representation in this movie has been the rewriting RJ Cyler’s Billy character the Blue Ranger as a teen on the autism spectrum. By including this element of Billy's character, Power Rangers committed to more than the typically discussed forms of diversity (racial, gender, and sexuality), introducing an integral team member who just so happened to be a little different from his peers. Some have also pointed out the intersectionality of Billy’s character, who is autistic and black. As Charles Pulliam-Moore at Fusion notes, portraying a character who's both autistic and a person of color is significant because often in pop culture, people with autism are only depicted as white.
“What was important to us from the very beginning was to make sure this movie felt diverse,” movie director Dean Israelite tells Teen Vogue. “Not just diverse in terms of ethnicity, but diverse in terms of representing voices. We wanted to take a character like Billy and celebrate those abilities and manifest in a movie the idea that without Billy and without the qualities he has, this team would never be victorious.”
Whether or not someone enjoyed the movie, it's clear that having this sort of visibility is super important and awesome for young people with autism. Considering how common diagnoses are — according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 68 children are on the autism spectrum — it's unfortunate that this community doesn't often get to see itself in popular culture. But thanks to characters like Billy (along with a new addition on Sesame Street), it looks like entertainment is making more of a point of increasing visibility of people with autism on both the big and small screen. Creators are finally realizing that there are a lot of people out there who don't see themselves in the movies and shows they watch, and that it's time they aren't left out.
In the movie, there’s a couple of signs that Billy’s autistic. For example, Billy’s seen perfectly lining up his colored pencils while in a classroom (being particular about the exact order and lining up certain objects is sometimes a signifier). Later on when Billy’s doesn’t fully comprehend Red Ranger Jason’s jesting, sarcastic tone of voice, he just lets his friend know matter-of-factly that he’s on the spectrum and that he doesn’t get the joke.
Israelite explained that the writers chose to rewrite Billy as autistic because the original character (along with RJ’s version) was always very mathematical — a skill that some autistic kids hold because of how their brain organizes information. When John Gatin started to write the script, he and Israelite decided that they shouldn’t be vague about Billy’s diagnosis.
“We think it’s really important that the community at large begins to see some of the strengths that people with autism have,” Lisa Goring, head of Family Services at Autism Speaks, tells Teen Vogue, “as well as some of those challenges, and how the community can support them when those challenges arise.”
Representing children and young people who have autism with the Blue Power Ranger has already proved to be valuable for those people living it. Co-star Becky G posted an emotional Instagram tribute that gave her brother Alex, who has autism, a shoutout because he was positively impacted by RJ’s character. And people who have seen the movie have also posted on social media their feelings about the character. One person wrote, “Blue ranger's portrayal of autism made me bawl. Can't wait to tell my siblings there's a power ranger like them.”
In the end, it’s not just one of the Rangers that can save the day. It takes all of them working together, coming to terms to who they are. and embracing what makes them different to save the world. Of course, having a ginormous Megazord also helps.
“I think why in this superhero movie, part of what this movie is about thematically is kids owning who they are and really celebrating who they are and what they have and who their tribe is,” Israelite says. “It’s great to represent someone on the spectrum and let character are diagnosed in that way realize that they too can be superheroes
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