After Lena Dunham’s new movie “Sharp Stick” was criticized on Twitter by an autism activist who claimed she was approached to be a consultant on the project, the filmmaking team behind the Sundance film says that the central character, Sarah Jo, was never written to be on the spectrum. Producers say the drama about a young woman’s sexual awakening was inspired entirely by creator Lena Dunham’s personal journey, dealing with severe endometriosis which resulted in a hysterectomy.
“Sarah Jo was never written nor imagined as a neurodivergent woman,” a spokesperson for the film says, in part, in a statement to Variety. “Nothing about Sarah Jo was coded to suggest or convey neurodivergence. In drawing this very personal portrait mined from her own experience, Lena did recognize that audiences would identify with Sarah Jo in myriad ways. This is the power of art, in this case, film. It leaves the imagination of the creator and lives in the experience of audiences — at best a very intimate and emotionally resonant experience.” (The full statement is below.)
Ahead of the film’s debut last week at the Sundance Film Festival, a Twitter thread from Amy Gravino, an autism sexuality advocate was posted in which stated she was approached to advise the “Sharp Stick” team on bringing Sarah Jo to the screen, but was then “ghosted.”
“One year ago, I was asked to consult on ‘Sharp Stick’ because the main character was written to be (yet never identified as) autistic. Right before I was set to meet with the lead actress and Lena Dunham, a decision was made to no longer have the character be autistic,” Gravino tweeted. “What also surprised me about the change of course was that I was told Lena Dunham had done research on me and was excited to meet me.”
Sources close to the production say that while Gravino was initially contacted, a meeting was never set with Dunham because the character was never written or conceived to be on the spectrum.
The “Sharp Stick” team says the complaint boils down to a miscommunication: The film’s star, Kristine Froseth, reached out to Gravino while she was exploring and researching her role. Shortly after, Dunham clarified that the character was not (and was never intended to be) neurodivergent.
“Sharp Stick” follows Sarah Jo (Froseth), a 26 year old whose development was affected by the trauma of getting a hysterectomy in her teenage years, resulting in a lack of social and sexual experiences. The coming-of-age story sees the young woman enter into an affair with her older employer (Jon Bernthal), discovering her sexuality for the first time.
Speaking for the first time since tweeting, Gravino tells Variety that her business manager was blindly approached by Froseth, who during her own character research had come across Gravino’s 2016 Ted Talk on autism and sexuality, and decided to reach out. Gravino was excited about the opportunity to provide much-needed insight to the portrayal of autistic women onscreen, but was also grateful for a rare, paying job in this space.
Gravino was sent a script, and acknowledges that the character was not written as autistic. But in her eyes, the characteristics were apparent.
“Kristine had said that she believed the character was neurodivergent. In the script, this character wasn’t being called autistic, even though she very clearly was,” Gravino tells Variety. “You can’t just say the character isn’t going to be neurodiverse; the coding is still there and it comes across that way in the writing and acting choices, even though it’s not explicitly stated.”
Gravino cites a familiar example. “On ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ Sheldon Cooper was never explicitly identified as autistic, but the coding was there,” Gravino says. “You can definitely see that he is neurodivergent.” Speaking again about “Sharp Stick,” she continued, “From what I’ve read in the reviews, people have watched this and they see something.”
The filmmakers praise their breakout star, Froseth, and explain that she had contacted Gravino during her own character exploration, but then, when the actor raised the prospect of hiring an autism consultant, Dunham quickly clarified her vision for Sarah Jo, who was never intended to be neurodivergent.
“As relevant as [Gravino’s] work is to understanding the many paths to embracing sexuality, we declined to pursue a further conversation so close to the onset of filming because clarifying that Sarah Jo’s experience of the world was written to reflect Lena’s life experience (which happens to be as a neurotypical woman) was essential to Lena’s vision,” the statement says.
“Lena unequivocally feels, as we do, that neurodivergent characters should be performed by neurodivergent people,” the statement continues. “And that everyone is entitled to react to — or reject — the film for any reason. For those who see any aspect of themselves in the film, Lena hopes the work is thought provoking.”
To that end, in “Sharp Stick,” a young character, Zach, has special needs; the role is played by actor Liam Michel Saux, who has Down syndrome.
Gravino isn’t the only person who has struggled with the way “Sharp Stick” portrays Sarah Jo. Reviews have noted that the overwhelming childlike innocence of the lead character is jarring in sexually explicit scenes.
Much of Gravino’s work is rooted in ensuring that autistic people have the same access to explicit sex education as their neurotypical peers, which she says is not something frequently available to individuals on the spectrum. In “Sharp Stick,” Gravino says the characterization of Sarah Jo falls into the issue of “infantilization of people on the spectrum.”
“When we look at autistic people as kids in big bodies, it’s dehumanizing,” Gravino says.
The producers behind “Sharp Stick” attribute that childlike innocence to the trauma the character endured, not because she is neurodivergent.
Gravino, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 11, is an autism sexuality advocate. She is on staff at Rutgers University’s Center for Adult Autism Services where she works as a relationship coach with autism students and plans sex education curriculum. She has never consulted on a film, but she is a frequent public speaker, notably with her Ted Talk, titled “Why Autism Is Sexier Than You Think.”
The situation around “Sharp Stick” may be murky, but Gravino says she hopes that Hollywood does more to elevate stories about autism and to tell them authentically. She brings up Dustin Hoffman’s 1988 film “Rain Main,” which she believes informed audiences about autism — which she says is both good and bad.
“I don’t think ‘Rain Man’ was necessarily trying to bring autism into the public consciousness, but that’s what happened. And that became the sum total of what people think autism is, but it’s a reflection of a certain type of autism,” Gravino says. “There are so many different types of people with autism, so to have that all reduced down to the same stale representation — white little boys who are obsessed with trains — is really harmful to us. Our lives matter. And when you see yourself on screen, it matters, because you know you exist in the world.”
Here is the full statement from a spokesperson for “Sharp Stick”:
Lena Dunham wrote the character of Sarah Jo as a reflection of her own experience. Informed by Lena’s journey coming of age through the prism of chronic pain from both Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and severe endometriosis which resulted in a medically necessary hysterectomy at age 31, she describes her health issues as shaping her “in a vacuum.” Sarah Jo was never written nor imagined as a neurodivergent woman. Nothing about Sarah Jo was coded to suggest or convey neurodivergence. In drawing this very personal portrait mined from her own experience, Lena did recognize that audiences would identify with Sarah Jo in myriad ways. This is the power of art, in this case, film. It leaves the imagination of the creator and lives in the experience of audiences – at best a very intimate and emotionally resonant experience.
Audiences have projected attributes onto Lena’s complex characters for the entirety of her career. She welcomes responses and conversations of all kinds. In this case we all interrogated the portrayal and intention of Sarah Jo through casting and production. Sarah Jo was not written, nor coded, as a neurodivergent woman. Sarah Jo cares for a neurodivergent character, who is played by a neurodivergent actor. Sarah Jo is uniquely realized in the hands of Kristine Froseth, who breathed life into Lena’s words.
The psychological underpinnings of this character are all in Sarah Jo’s backstory, and in Kristine Froseth’s remarkable performance. Kristine researched the role from a magnanimous place, striving to do justice to a complex character some might project onto, as modern audiences often do. Lena and Kristine discussed Sarah Jo’s challenges understanding what is and isn’t safe — what is and isn’t provocative — and Sarah Jo’s exploration and reclaiming of her sexuality following debilitating and traumatic illness. Which Lena experienced. They discussed the way Sarah Jo feels different in this world — as Lena does. They discussed how she might be perceived as neurodivergent but how Lena did not write her as a neurodivergent individual. Sarah Jo is true to Lena’s experience and was written entirely through that lens.
Kristine independently reached out to Amy Gravino, whose important work we all respect and admire, a week before filming began, inspired by her Ted Talk. As relevant as her work is to understanding the many paths to embracing sexuality, we declined to pursue a further conversation so close to the onset of filming because clarifying that Sarah Jo’s experience of the world was written to reflect Lena’s life experience (which happens to be as a neurotypical woman) was essential to Lena’s vision.
Lena unequivocally feels, as we do, that neurodivergent characters should be performed by neurodivergent people. And that everyone is entitled to react to — or reject — the film for any reason. For those who see any aspect of themselves in the film, Lena hopes the work is thought provoking.