Edward Scissorhands was the first film directed by Tim Burton where he was also the story-writer. For the story of Edward Scissorhands, he worked with Caroline Thompson; this was their first film together, though the pair collaborated on several other projects after Edward Scissorhands. Tim Burton’s reputation as a film-maker has achieved something of a cult status; the dark and sometimes disturbing imagery employed in many of his films can either alienate or elevate a person, depending on their preference; Edward Scissorhands is also something of a cult film. His unique and recognizable visual art and tendency to sympathize with the outsider has led some to see Burton as an auteur. The singularity of his movies may have less to do with Burton as auteur, and more to do with the people commonly involved in his films; musician Danny Elfman, costume designer Colleen Atwood, and actress Winona Ryder are a few examples of some Burton collaborators involved with Burton projects aside from Edward Scissorhands. Nevertheless, this film seems to aptly support the notion of Burton as an auteur, as the allegorical structure of the film is supported by its cinematography, and its message is in keeping with the common theme of disability and the well-meaning outsider often explored by Burton in both films and books; here, it seems as though Burton has, either accidentally or intentionally, constructed a near-perfect allegory of a man afflicted with the autistic spectrum disorder known as Asperger’s Syndrome.
Asperger’s Syndrome has recently been the center of much attention; the disorder was reported in 1944 by physician Hans Asperger, at around the same time autism was being discovered. It was not until 1994 however, that Asperger’s Syndrome was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), in its fourth edition. Before then, many individuals with the syndrome went undiagnosed, or were misdiagnosed with either Attention Deficit Disorder, or other similar disorders (Kirby). The disorder is characterized by severe impairment in social faculties, particularly in recognition of social or emotional cues (empathy), and in social or emotional reciprocity. Often, individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome desire social interaction, but are unable to perform socially due to this deficit in interpreting subtle and unwritten social rules. Often individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome will excel in one particular intellectual subject, which they pursue with abnormal intensity and focus. In adults with the disorder, a lifetime of social retardation can lead to withdrawal from social situations, focussing on their work.
The character of Edward Scissorhands seems to fit the profile of an individual with the disorder. At the beginning of the film, he is isolated and withdrawn in a highly ornate mansion overlooking a bright pastel-coloured suburban neighbourhood. He works intensely on his lawn sculptures, which are fashioned down to intricate detail. He is taken into the neighbourhood by Peg Boggs, his real social awakening. The transition is confusing, and he has trouble adjusting, yet he desires to be loved and to socialize (his first words to Peg are “don’t go,” suggesting a desire for social contact in lieu of isolation). He is admired for his talent as gardener and hairdresser (which his scissor hands make exceptionally easy), and yet his manner is disaffected or sometimes inappropriate (as in the scene where Joyce Monroe unsuccessfully tries to seduce him). He is eventually coerced into breaking into a house, under the suggestion of Kim Boggs. When he is arrested, he is examined by a psychiatrist who says that he will be alright out in the world. After the community turns against him, and he again runs afoul of the law, he returns to the mansion again to live in isolation from the world.
These details, when symbolism is applied with a psychoanalytical approach to the character of Edward Scissorhands, reveals the allegorical nature of this film. The most obvious symbol is the set of scissors Edward has for hands. These represent his social faculties, and the difficulties they present to him. Throughout the film, Edward is shown to be greatly impaired when it comes to everyday activities, such as dressing, using eating utensils, or turning a doorknob. While this could be taken simply as allegory for physical disability, there are a few other instances which suggest social impairment as it occurs with Asperger’s Syndrome. Edward is constantly cutting and scarring his own face accidentally; this scarring could represent the emotional scarring of failed social attempts caused by inability to subtly manipulate social situations.
While driving home with Peg, he reaches across with his hand to point at something, causing Peg to yell with distress. He is embarrassed afterward with his behaviour, once it is apparent he has done something wrong. His scissors actively impair him from becoming close to a person romantically; Kim Boggs asks Edward to hold him, to which he replies, “I can’t.” This is also a desire but an inability to reciprocate emotionally. This is perhaps mitigated by the editing, where in the next scene, we cut back in time to a memory of Edward’s inventor dying before being able to give him the hands he needs to manipulate (or, in this allegorical reading, function socially). The ice sculptures are perhaps an attempt to show affection in an indirect and demonstrative way; he makes a statue of Kim as an angel, and she dances about in the “snow” that flies from it as he sculpts. Though he cannot connect with an individual on a reciprocative and empathetic level, he can still make affection known through an outward display of it. Though he cannot touch Kim directly without hurting her, he can “touch” her through the snow that falls upon her. Here, the scissors represent an AS individual’s attempt to compensate for social deficit with other more advanced mental faculties.
While the scissors represent his awkward social faculties, they also represent the facility many AS individuals have with a certain specialized topic area. The most obvious is the lawn sculptures and ice statues. These might represent a kind of social surrogate, fantastic constructs to replace actual people with a more predictable model. This seems to be supported by the fact that ice sculptures of finer detail supplement the lawn sculptures after Edward has been socially awakened. Also important to note is that before descending to the neighbourhood, he did not sculpt figures of people, and that the first sculpture of a human that he did was of the Boggs family, his first real social contact. At least one of the sculptures in the mansion courtyard represents a desire: the hand sculpture, on a literal level, represents his desire for functional hands. On the allegorical level, it represents his desire for the tools necessary for social interaction, a common desire among AS individuals. This is exacerbated by the placement of the hand sculpture both centrally in the set, and centrally in the frame on many occasions when it is shown. When working with his scissors, either sculpting, cutting hair or chopping vegetables, he takes on a facial expression of intensity and drive, which is at the same time blank, shutting out the world outside of his work.
This is similar to the focus certain AS individuals experience when concentrating on a project that piques their interest. Edward also feels an odd compulsion to cut or groom things, sometimes to distraction, as in the scene where he stops to snip at a hedge while on his way to break into Jim’s father’s house. Many AS individuals, during conversation, tend to perseverate, or continue to return to a certain discussion topic of interest to them, despite changes in the flow of conversation (Bauer). Sometimes, due to difficulty interpreting a person’s intentions, someone with Asperger’s Syndrome can be exploited for various purposes; Edward experiences something similar on two occasions: when he first unlocks the door for Jim and Kim, and when Kim asks him to break into Jim’s father’s house, at Jim’s request. His particular talent for picking locks with his scissor hands is exploited. He also seems unable to tell the difference between who is really a friend and who is exploiting him; the scene following the initial unlocking is of him on a talk show. His response to the first question of what he most enjoys about living in the neighbourhood is “the friends I’ve made.” When he breaks into Jim’s father’s house, he tells Kim that he did it simply because she asked him to.
On several occasions, he hurts others or destroys by accident, or a misunderstanding about his scissors leads to trouble. The first such occasion is when Peg first sees Edward, and is terrified by his scissors. The scarring of his face I’ve already mentioned. He nearly ends up shot by the police when they ask him to “drop [his] weapon” as he is leaving Jim’s father’s house. He accidentally cuts Kim’s hand as he is finishing the ice sculpture, and he cuts Kevin Boggs’ face while attempting to console him after almost being run over by Jim. When his “father”, the inventor, dies before giving Edward his hands, Edward attempts to caress the inventor’s face, and in doing so, cuts it. These accidents could represent the damage an AS individual may inadvertently cause through ignorance of social cues; often AS individuals can say or do things which may be considered rude or insensitive simply because they were unaware of how hurtful they were. When Edward cuts the drapes, towels and wallpaper in anger and despair after being betrayed by Jim, it might represent the anger and acting out at certain developmental stages, due to difficulty coping socially (Bauer).
It is important to note that the character of Edward Scissorhands is probably not intended to have Asperger’s Syndrome; merely the allegorical construct is representative of the difficulties facing an individual with Asperger’s Syndrome. Nevertheless, Edward does have some personality traits that are in common with AS individuals which stand independent of the allegory of the scissor hands. His facial expression is blank and uncommunicative. Many AS individuals, due to perceptual difficulty, do not learn to interpret or communicate non-verbally through facial expression, except in basic ways. Individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome also tend to have a neutral tone of voice, with odd or inappropriate inflection; throughout the film, Edward speaks in a monotone. He has trouble interpreting figurative language or subtlety. When the bank manager speaks to him condescendingly about his handicap, Edward smiles as though the bank manager has made a friendly gesture. When Bill Boggs uses the idiom “soup’s on!” Edward does not understand, and replies through a full mouth, “I thought these were shish-kebab.” Bill responds by telling Edward not to take things so literally. Some AS individuals have difficulty interpreting figurative language, sarcasm or idiom until learned. It is telling cinematographically that this scene is immediately followed by the scene in which the inventor is attempting to teach Edward about etiquette. Toward the end of this scene, the inventor decides that this is too “boring”, and reads a humorous limerick. Edward must be told where it is appropriate to laugh. During one scene, before Edward must meet the neighbours at the barbecue, Peg tells Edward not to worry, and that all he needs to do is be himself. This seems reminiscent of an anecdote told by an AS individual about the difficulty of fitting in socially. “I decided to follow the advice people had been giving me for a very long time. I decided to BE MYSELF (sic) … I'm not completely sure what kind of an impact this had on other people but during my second year, they would sometimes tell me I was too genuine and that I needed to put on a bit of a mask. I simply couldn't win either way.” (Segar chapter 7).
Cinematographically, the audience is given hints of Edward’s peculiarity, and is meant to sympathize. Due to their lack of context for social niceties, AS individuals often perceive the world of human interaction as absurd and superficial. Through visual and narrative cues, the neighbourhood is portrayed as exceptionally absurd. The odd pastel coloured houses are one such cue; as is their constant gossiping behaviour, which is taken to excess. They are so eager for information that they manage to fill Peg’s entire answering machine tape. This allusion to the absurdity of the neighbourhood’s social behaviour might give the audience some context for understanding the AS individual’s perception of the world.
Ultimately, and most supportive of the theory of Burton as an auteur, is the defeatist point that a person with a disability cannot function in society, and must be isolated for their own good and the good of their loved ones. Peg remarks, toward the end of the film that she didn’t think things through when she brought Edward into the neighbourhood, and it might be best if he went “back up there”, meaning the mansion (or allegorically, into social withdrawal). This is supported in at least one other work by Tim Burton: the pseudo-children’s book The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories. In the headline story, a boy who is half-oyster seems to be the cause of his father’s impotence. Since oysters are an aphrodisiac, the doctor suggests that the man should eat his son. The implication here is that disability can cause severe emotional problems to those who must care for or deal with the disabled; and that while cruel, the disenfranchisement or isolation of the disabled is a dismal solution to these problems. The book itself is filled with several tales on similar lines; one of a boy who is born a robot (again, a suggestive symbol for someone on the autistic spectrum) is among these stories.
The most puzzling question this allegorical reading raises is this: why would Tim Burton, who seems to have had no knowledge of autism or Asperger’s syndrome have written such a precise allegory for the disorder? I would guess that the only way Tim Burton could have written this story, with all its implications, both subtle and overt, is if he himself is an individual with a disorder on the autistic spectrum, or was very close to a person similarly afflicted. Burton himself is described as an “introverted, unassuming person” (Jackson, McDermott). In his own biography, Burton on Burton, he says, about his childhood, that he was often alone, and had trouble retaining friendships. “I get the feeling people just got this urge to want to leave me alone for some reason, I don’t know exactly why. It was as if I was exuding some kind of aura that said ‘Leave Me The Fuck Alone (sic)’” (Burton 2) Of course, with no psychoanalysis of the man, there is no real way to say for certain that he falls on the autistic spectrum; yet Edward Scissorhands suggests a certain sympathy for the symptoms and circumstances of individuals who do.
Bauer, Stephen. “Asperger Syndrome”. OASIS. 12 November 2004.
Burton, Tim. Burton on Burton. London: Faber and Faber, 1995. 18 November 2004.
---. The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories. New York: William and Morrow and Company, 1997.
Edward Scissorhands. Dir. Tim Burton. Perf. Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder, and Diane Wiest. 1990. Videocassette. Twentieth Century Fox, 2000.
Jackson, Mike and McDermott, Arran. Biography. The Tim Burton Collective. 2004. 12 November 2004.
Kirby, Barbara L. “What is Asperger Syndrome?”. OASIS. 12 November 2004.
Segar, Marc. “The Battles of the Autistic Thinker”. Marc Segar: 1974 – 1997. 18 November 2004.