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Neurodiversity Takes Center Stage in Netflix's Geek Girl

House of the Dragon's Emily Carey shines in the adorkable new YA series.
  • Emily Carey and Liam Woodrum in Geek Girl (Photo: Netflix)
    Emily Carey and Liam Woodrum in Geek Girl (Photo: Netflix)

    It’s a tale as old as time: a hopelessly geeky teenage girl gets a makeover and transforms into a stunning beauty overnight. Suddenly, everyone wants to be her friend, all the boys flock to ask her out, and the world finally seems to notice her. Who knew all she had to do was take off her glasses and straighten her frizzy hair? The ridiculous trope has been around forever, as seen in everything from The Princess Diaries to Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide to Pretty Little Liars.

    At first glance, Netflix’s Geek Girl seems like just another variation of this theme. The YA series — which is based on the novel of the same name by Holly Smale — centers on Harriet Manners (Emily Carey, who played the young Alicent Hightower in House of the Dragon), an awkward 15-year-old girl whose life is turned upside down when she unexpectedly becomes a model. However, Geek Girl turns out to be a pleasant surprise with its refreshingly authentic portrayal of neurodiversity.

    The show, which premiered May 30, doesn’t provide a specific diagnosis for Harriet, but makes it clear from the get-go that there’s something different about her. Her neurodivergence isn’t built on her being a self-described “geek”; rather, it’s demonstrated through the unique way she moves through the world. She’s obsessive about her niche interests, struggles with social cues, and deals with sensory overload. She wears headphones to drown out loud noises and can be seen stimming (engaging in repetitive, calming behaviors) when she’s overwhelmed. 

    The show’s clever choice to use voiceover also makes the story feel more intimate, plopping viewers directly into Harriet’s head and giving us insight into how her brain works. “Just find something to focus on,” she tells herself when she becomes overstimulated on a class trip in the pilot. “Anything.”

    Geek Girl could have simply depicted Harriet as a stereotypical outcast who sports braces and thick glasses and loves math. Instead, the show puts a fresh twist on the “nerdy girl” trope by focusing on Harriet’s neurodivergence and how it shapes her. She’s conventionally pretty, her outfits are perfectly fine, and she’s not in desperate need of plucking her eyebrows — but because she acts differently from her peers, she’s still targeted by them. She can’t be “fixed” with a makeover, and she doesn’t need to be.

    Carey identifies as autistic, which adds another layer of authenticity to Harriet’s character. Smale, who modeled a lot of Hariet after herself, is also autistic — however, she wasn’t diagnosed until she was 38 years old, after the Geek Girl books were published. “Harriet in the books is so obviously autistic that the National Autistic Society emailed years ago and said, ‘You know she’s autistic, right?’” the author told The Times in a recent interview. “I was like, ‘No, because I’m not [autistic], so that would be really weird.’ And then I had to go back with my tail between my legs afterwards and go, ‘OK, I’m sorry.’”

    Over the years, neurodivergent characters have been featured (albeit, often controversially) on TV shows like Monk, The Good Doctor, and Atypical. Historically, however, there hasn’t been much representation when it comes to young women and girls. That’s slowly starting to change — tween series Home Sweet Rome! centers on a 13-year-old girl with ADHD, Young Royals’ Sara is autistic and also has ADHD, Ginny & Georgia’s Max is ADHD-coded, and The Owl House made a point of embracing neurodiversity

    Ultimately, Geek Girl is a fun, breezy watch that shines a light on the experience of growing up neurodivergent. Harriet isn’t defined by her neurodivergence; rather, it’s simply part of what makes her, well, Harriet. She’s just trying to find her way in the world and figure out who she is, and that’s something everyone will find relatable.

    Geek Girl is streaming now on Netflix.

    Kelly Martinez is a TV Reporter based in Los Angeles. Her previous work can be found at BuzzFeed and People Magazine, among other outlets. She enjoys reading, spending time with her cat, and explaining the plot of Riverdale to people.

    TOPICS: Geek Girl, Netflix, Emily Carey, Holly Smale, Neurodivergence, YA Dramas