The Influence of the ‘Other’: Why are outsider stories so popular?

Right to left: The Outsider, The Grinning Man, Edward Scissorhands

I recently watched a recording of the musical, The Grinning Man. It’s a good case study in outsider fiction as with the caveat of being made available for a week in lockdown, you can’t buy the recording, there isn’t a soundtrack. The show has developed a cult fan base among those who have seen it live.

The tragic comedy is based off a Victor Hugo novel (no, not that one) which has inspired multiple outsider stories, including the character of the Joker. It tells the story of a boy found on a beach, his mother drowned, his mouth cut into a hideous grin. Growing up he struggles with forging an identity, wondering who afflicted him. Raised by a travelling circus, he becomes a symbol of rebellion – a stuggle which draws him into the heart of the kingdoms monarchy, where he discovers his family history and learns the mystery behind his face.

I loved the musical, yet it got me thinking – what is it about the cult of ‘the outsider’ that is so popular? Its the premise behind numerous classics including Oliver, The Catcher in the Rye,’The Outsider’ by S. E. Hinton, and countless films and stage shows.

The easy answer would be that we see our own experience of being cast out in these characters, and I can certainly attest to that – I spent a lot of my time at school being generally uncommunicative, I experience things in an overly sensory way – both physically and emotionally, and I do worry about the way my autism will affect my relationships, friendships and prospects later in life – this blog post is going to try and dig a little deeper.

Outsider Stories

One point to raise about outsider stories is that they frequently involve a character being taken from the world they are familiar with and placed in a world which is forbidding, cruel and ill suited to thier abilities.

In ‘The Catcher In The Rye’ we see an image of a 1940’s society painted with our lead character – Holden Caulfield, struggling with the concept of maturity. The adult world to him is a forbiding place of ‘phony’ traditions.

“Among Other things you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused, frightened even sickened by human behaviour. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now”

Salinger, The Catcher In the Rye

At the centre of this is the idea of society vs. the individual – in the case of the Catcher in the Rye the motivator is that the world has lost its sense of innocence. In Brave New World, the central point is that humans are becoming emotionless, consuming machines. At the core of outsider fiction is always a critique of society from the perspective of a character who tries to fit in while suffering severe disadvantages.

A more accurate analysis is that we relate to the disillusionment with society that is portrayed, rather than the characters themselves. Part of the reason outsider fiction works is due to the fact that the characters presented to us fill us with fear. They present a forbiding view of our insecurities, that we’re eerily familiar with. 1984 was written after the fall of Nazism, just as Brave New World was written in reaction to the ‘modernization’ of the 20s’

Atwood makes the point that novels of idealism or dystopia tend to surface in times of great social change and upheaval:

“Insofar as they are critical of society as it presently exists, but nevertheless take a dim view of the prospects of the human race, utopias may verge on satire, as does Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels; but insofar as they endorse the view that humanity is perfectible, or can at least be vastly improved, they will resemble idealizing romances, as does Bellamy’s Looking Backward. The first world war marked the end of the romantic-idealistic Utopian dream in literature, just as several real-life Utopian plans were about to be launched with disastrous effects. The Communist regime in Russia and the Nazi takeover of Germany both began as Utopian visions”

Margret Atwood, Everyone is Happy Now

Looking at this on a more personal level, there’s a scene in Edward Scissorhands where our lead character is asked ‘what would you do if you found a suitcase full of money?’. This resonates with me I do struggle to understand concepts like money. Being used to thinking about complicated subjects in a certain way, can disable you from being able to understand different or ‘normal’ ways of comprehending those concepts.

The prevalent theme isn’t always society. In Phantom of the Opera and The Grinning Man the central theme is relationships, although both utilise huge sets which present the ‘real’ world as forbidding, and feature characters with cartoon-esque character flaws. These can ring true as I can struggle to regulate my emotions when it comes to friendships, relationships or not getting on with someone. Mimicking melodrama is something I do quite a lot, and harnessing the ability to have a natural interaction which doesn’t feel forceful or based off of learned attributes or sayings is something I really struggle with.

All outsider texts place a character with a unique skill trait in an absurdly out of context environment in order to emphasise that idea of dislocation. Furthermore, the fact that they tend to end in some form of resolution for the main character without a change in society reinforces that feeling of hopelessness in the face of huge challenges.

A scene portraying the ‘suitcase full of money’ question

The ‘Other’…

One criticism of some outsider fiction is its tendency to turn characters into gods who earn the admiration or ire of those around them purely for thier special ability, or trait.

“Unfortunately, this type of detective’s existence is only justified by his skill. He isn’t loved for who he is. He is tolerated for what he can do. As a child, I found that inspiring. Perhaps I could be accepted if I could just be good enough at something. But as I enter my 30s, I am more wary of the exchange. What happens to autistic people when our skills are no longer of use? And not all of us have exceptional skills in the first place”

Cynthia Erivo, Autistic people on TV are often white men. ‘The Outsider’ tells a different story.

There are some whose knowledge of autism starts and ends at ‘Rain Man’. For many of us, this is the only opportunity we’ve had to see autism represented. In defining outsider fiction I’m referring to characters who are hopeless in the face of insurmountable challenges.

Let’s talk about H.P Lovecraft…

The father of modern horror, Lovecraft spent his life as an Outsider – an insular character, plagued by fears. He also relegated others as outsiders. A racist and homophobe he once penned ‘“If the dog and bitch promiscuity of the earliest new moralists could be excused on the ground that our normal disgust is only old fashioned prejudice, it is not remarkable that nauseous and abnormal sodomy should make an equal claim“. Ironic then, that his work would become an inspiration to so many marginalized groups…

His work employs fear of the unknown and forbidden knowledge to appeal to our primal terrors. Among them is short-story ‘The Outsider’which you can read here. Lovecraft portrays a character who emerges from a dark castle, into the light of a new world. As he encounters human civilization he see’s people fleeing frantically, struck by inhuman fear. Estranged, our protaganist turns around and see’s a vile, inhuman freak approaching him. Perplexed, he reaches out his hands to touch the creature. To his shock he realises he’s touching “a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass

This may be taking outsiderism to an unrealistic extreme. However, I point to the creeping anxiety I can feel in at times, how difficulty socializing can lead to isolation, the panic attacks I used to have when I was on my own.

Autistic people can become anxious when they realise they are staring down the face of mammoth challenges. Autistic climate activist Greta Thunburg has described how she became depressed at a very young age when she realised the magnitude of the environmental challenges we’re facing. I have been sick with worrying about political and environmental issues, as well as fretting over those times in my life where my personal circumstances have made me feel as if I’m not making progress and stuck in a routine of worrying about the future. Worried I wont get into university or fail my degree, worried I’d fail my PIP assessment, worried my career will disintegrate. I still have days like that, as I’m sure many of us do. However, there are times when I’m optimistic.

“This is what I think autism societies should be about: not mourning for what never was, but exploration of what is. We need you. We need your help and your understanding. Your world is not very open to us, and we won’t make it without your strong support”

Jim Sinclair, Don’t Mourn For Us

Another element in outsider fiction is acceptance. Our lead character has to learn that their difference dosent devalue them, and the problem lies with the way the world see’s them. My intention with this blog is to demonstrate how the world surrounding autistic people often ‘disables’ us, stopping us from ‘functioning’. For those that have felt that sense of estrangement, the burden is not on you to change yourself and you’re not broken inside just ’cause you’re being made to feel like you don’t belong.

Charlotte Amelia Poe is an author and artist. In one interview she discusses being part of a community of ‘outsiders’, pointing to her love of fandom conventions, as somewhere she can express her individuality as part of a group, in the same way as I do with music. She takes care to note “with the rise of populist politics and an insular society, at a time when the notion of ‘us versus them’ is increasingly common, people with autism have really important viewpoints to share”

While we may be ‘outsiders’ we’re not outsiders everywhere. Those senses of community and togetherness are really important for autistic people. Through those communities we are free to express ourselves.

An Atypical Perspective…

A disconnect with society can be relatable: the principle reason outsider fiction works is that it presents an extreme juxtaposition of a character with society, and often paints the world as strange or surreal. This works ’cause we’ve all felt like that, autistic people especially. In struggling to communicate and interact with others at times, in struggling to cope with over stimulation, and to regulate my emotions, Its occasionally easy to feel like an ‘outsider’ – perhaps that’s why I relate to that sort of fiction so much.

Fear of the Unknown’ is a powerful theme, in fiction and reality: In outsider fiction, there are two types of ‘fear of the unknown’ – there’s the fear our character feels in facing seemingly insurmountable challenges, and there’s the fear everyone else feels towards them and the way they see the world. This is relatable in the sense that even small challenges like understanding money can be difficult for some, and yet the ability to do that is considered ‘normal’ by most. By presenting this dichotomy outsider fiction asks the spectator to look on thier own vulnerabilities, or those of others which they’ve witnessed and question the societal norms and ways of thinking that castigates those vulnerabilities as abnormal or frightening.

Our disabilities don’t devalue us: I criticised some outsider fiction earlier for leaning too heavily on ‘savant syndrome’ as a representation of autistic characters. For reference, while I hold to those criticisms, I do think these stories can help show that autistic people have skills which are valuable. More than that though, by giving characters sympathetic traits, skills or a meaningful bond with one or more characters, they accentuate that sense of acceptance. This can be witnessed in the real world through the communities we form alongside our special interests, and our commitment to our work and creative endevours.

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