115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Asperger's Project: Examining the Ethics of Humor in Graeme Simsion's The Rosie Project

Hollie Adams, Red Deer College

My paper analyzes Graeme Simsion’s novel The Rosie Project (2013) and its portrayal of Asperger’s Syndrome as it is embodied by Don Tillman, the novel’s protagonist. Using the work of disability theorists, my paper questions the ethics of using a fictional character’s neurodevelopmental disorder as a source of humor.

Proposal: 

My paper analyzes the international bestselling novel The Rosie Project (2013) by Graeme Simsion and its portrayal of Asperger’s Syndrome as it is embodied by Don Tillman, the novel’s protagonist. The Rosie Project functions ostensibly as a romantic comedy: the novel recounts Don’s courtship of Rosie, their budding romantic relationship, and the humorous mishaps and setbacks that occur along their way to finding love. These mishaps and setbacks, however—and the majority of the novel’s humor—are all produced by Don’s repeated failures to understand social norms, to accurately read people and social situations, and to behave in socially acceptable ways as a result of his having Asperger’s Syndrome. While the novel does not explicitly diagnose Don as having an autism spectrum disorder, Don is ascribed many of the stereotypical characteristics associated with being on the spectrum, and Simsion has confirmed this diagnosis in interviews. According to Incongruity Theory, humor is produced by “something odd, abnormal or out of place, which we enjoy in some way” (John Morreall), and Don’s behaviors are exactly that: seemingly odd, abnormal, and out of place (for neurotypical readers), but simultaneously enjoyable for their comedic effect.

Using the work of disability theorists, my paper questions the ethics of using a fictional character’s neurodevelopmental disorder as a source of humor. Much of the scholarship regarding disability and humour focuses on humour produced from within the community, produced with intent by those who themselves identify as disabled (i.e., “crip humour”). As Marian Corker writes, “The humour of disability is in its inscription by disabled people and the particular way in which it jokes with ‘disability.’” As Gary Albrecht notes, “inside jokes add to disability culture by providing a bond to this minority or marginalized group; hence ‘crip humor.’” Simsion, however, as someone who does not identify as having ASD, is not a part of this marginalized group, and as Albrecht posits, “What [marginalized individuals] accept from their peers, they may not tolerate from others because of the perceived intent of the language or joke” (73).

The laughter produced by The Rosie Project is not shared with Don but rather aimed at him: Don is, for the most part, completely oblivious to the humor created via his social missteps and his overly literal interpretations. In this way, I argue that Don functions as what David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder term “narrative prosthesis,” by which they refer to the phenomenon of disability being used in literature and film as an “opportunistic metaphorical device” to serve “as a primary impetus of the storyteller’s efforts.” Rather than “take up disability as an experience of social or political dimensions” (Mitchell and Snyder’s plea for what representations of disability should do), Don’s disability is useful for moving the plot along, for providing the necessary tension and stumbling blocks that fulfill the conventions of the genre, and, above all, for producing the novel’s humor.