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Lena Dunham’s ‘Sharp Stick’ Criticized by Autism Activist Over Allegedly Neurodivergent Portrayal

Actress Kristine Froseth allegedly reached out to neurodivergent advocate Amy Gravino before production to consult on her portrayal of the film's lead character.

Kristine Froseth and Jon Bernthal appear in Sharp Stick by Lena Dunham, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Kristine Froseth and Jon Bernthal in “Sharp Stick”

Sundance

Following the 2022 Sundance premiere of Lena Dunham’s third feature, “Sharp Stick,” autism activist Amy Gravino took to Twitter to allege that she was approached to be a consultant during production, though her services were never utilized. Gravino, who specializes in de-stigmatizing autism sexuality, tweeted on January 20 that she “was asked to consult on #SharpStick, because the main character was written to be (yet never identified as) autistic.”

“Right before I was set to meet with the lead actress [Kristine Froseth] and [writer-director] Lena Dunham, a decision was made to no longer have the character be autistic,” Gravino wrote in her Twitter thread. “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.”

Gravino, who was diagnosed with autism at age 11, is on staff as a relationship coach for students with autism at Rutgers University’s Center for Adult Autism Services.

Per Variety, the “Sharp Stick” team responded to Gravino’s claims by alleging there was a miscommunication:  Froseth did contact Gravino after watching her 2016 Ted Talk on autism and sexuality, titled “Why Autism Is Sexier Than You Think,” but “Sharp Stick” producers stated that Froseth’s interpretation of Sarah Jo differed from Dunham’s intention for the character.

“Sharp Stick” follows the stunted sexual awakening of Sarah Jo (Froseth) after undergoing a hysterectomy as a teen. Now 26, Sarah Jo embarks on an affair with her older, married boss, played by Jon Bernthal.

Dunham exclusively told IndieWire as part of the IndieWire Studio at Sundance that “Sharp Stick” was a personal film that captured her experience undergoing a hysterectomy after years of suffering from severe endometriosis.

“I don’t think anyone should be synonymous with defining sexuality onscreen, and I never set out to be ‘the voice of female sexuality,'” Dunham said. “Because female sexuality, just like human sexuality, is as multi-layered as people are, and there are as many versions of it as there are human beings on this earth. … I just want to see lots of people exploring these topics in the way that feels right to them, and my hope is always more voices talking about these things.”

Gravino acknowledged that Sarah Jo was not identified as autistic in Dunham’s screenplay, but in her opinion, “clearly” exhibited signs of being neurodivergent. “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 told 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 said that she believes the characterization of Sarah Jo in the film adds to the “infantilization of people on the spectrum. … When we look at autistic people as kids in big bodies, it’s dehumanizing.”

In response to Gravino’s claims, a spokesperson for the film issued a statement to Variety that reads: “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.”

The statement continues, “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.” You can read the full statement here.

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