[I am a long-time genre fiction/media fan. I’ve been reflecting on disability in genre fiction recently, especially in superhero stories. This is an extended version of part 2 of a series posted elsewhere. See note on my use of the term ‘ableism’ at the end.]
Image descriptions: Left: an image of Clifford DeVoe, a wheelchair-using villain from the TV series ‘The Flash’, with his wife. Right: DeVoe in his villain persona, The Thinker, who uses an oversized black floating chair.
So. We have another wheelchair-using villain on The Flash, and I’m getting bored. Where are my disabled heroes? Or even just my friendly disabled ‘Jitters’ barristas?
In part one of this series, I looked at one specific issue with the representation of Clifford DeVoe/’The Thinker’ in last week’s episode ‘Therefore I Am’ (The Flash 4×7) — his on-screen request to his wife to “let me die” in the face of becoming disabled).
But there are issues with disabled villains existing at all.
There are several ‘disabled villain’ archetypes in genre fiction. In each case, the image of disability communicated is a serious problem.
1. Bitter Cripple is Bitter and Crippled
The way that disability is used to motivate villains reveals much about how we think about disability in society. ‘Fridging’ of women to motivate male heroes is horrific, but at least those deaths lead to something good (if only for the hero). There’s nothing good about disability as a motivator in genre fiction – it only leads to evil. When the ‘bitter cripple’ archetype is at play, disability is represented as a horrific tragedy, the source of nothing but bitterness and anger at the world… and, often, a somewhat inexplicable obsession with becoming the dictator of your own personal fascist globe. A famous example of this is Shakespeare’s Richard III. One of my least favourites is Felix Gaeta from Battlestar Galactica (2004 TV series), who loses a leg and becomes evil, when he has somehow managed to stay good through all kinds of prior suffering including the genocide of the human race. You can see how this archetype is code for disability is the worst thing that can happen to you.
There are slightly better variations on this trope, where villains may be motivated by something disability-related, but at least they aren’t just angry at the world. This is how I see the DC comics villain-turned-hero Hartley Rathaway/Pied Piper. His father, ashamed of his deaf son, had his hearing restored with implants – which led Hartley to become interested in sound wave engineering. Yes, it’s yet another example of an (almost-)magical cure of impairment. But at least this is a more nuanced story of the social oppression of disabled people… Until the Flash TV series took that away from the character. There, Hartley’s motivation was altered to better fit the ‘bitter disabled villain’ archetype. The injury to his hearing (which now becomes a fictionalised sci-fi injury rather than congenital deafness) is turned into his reason for seeking revenge. And then Hartley, like DeVoe last week, expresses the sentiment that he’d rather be dead than disabled:
“I only hope that he leaves you in better shape than he left me. If you’re lucky, you’ll only be dead. Because every day I have to live with the agonizing, piercing screaming in my ears.”
– Hartley Rathaway, The Flash 1×11 ‘The Sound and the Fury’
Current The Flash supervillain DeVoe may not fit this trope exactly, but he draws on it. He becomes more power-hungry once he is disabled, willing to do anything to overcome his poor broken body. It’s his motivation for evil.
My life is not a tragedy, and I’m not bitter about it. It comes with its difficulties, but most of those are caused by society. Even the parts of my impairment that can be really painful and difficult, don’t make me bitter or angry at the world. Associating disabled people with this trope is pernicious.
2. You Can’t Trust Someone With A Bionic Arm
In genre fiction, signs and symbols of disability are used as instant coding for the bad guy. Think Doctor No with his mechanical hand, and every villain ever who has a prosthesis or is Darth Vader. Disability as a sign of evil.
This is what The Flash was drawing on with the Eobard/Wells character. They associated their first supervillain with a wheelchair in part to show he was evil. That wasn’t the only purpose of his wheelchair, but it worked (as soon as we realised he was faking, which also meant we didn’t need the other societal response we might have had for him: pity). The symbolism was all there in the first episode, and I nearly stopped watching right there and then when he stepped out of that wheelchair at the end, in a move that might as well have been accompanied by an evil cackle. They knew what they were doing.
[Clarification: Plenty of wheelchair users can get up out of their wheelchairs. I’m a part-time wheelchair user myself. It’s all about the framing of a move like this. It was in a secret room, accompanied by villainous music, in the context of the villain’s other lies, among the character’s regular references to not being able to walk at all. As with all these tropes, they are framed with cinematic visual language that makes the difference.]
The Flash did at least make an attempt to get meta about this trope last week:
Barry: Guys, I’m telling you. Clifford DeVoe is not what he seems.
Cisco: That could just be the wheelchair. I mean you do kind of have a bad history.
– ‘Therefore I Am’, The Flash 4×7
They all-but-referenced the ‘you can’t trust a mobility aid user’ trope! Didn’t know whether to laugh or… well, mostly I groaned at the bad joke.
This archetype has an indirect real-world implication. I’m a part-time wheelchair user. I can walk a few steps, but not far. I am called a faker, or have this implied, quite often. (I am stared at when I stand up to reach something off a high shelf in the supermarket. People watch me very closely when I use my disability parking badge. I’ve had verbal abuse for getting out of my wheelchair.) ‘Scrounger’ rhetoric is rife in the UK media, which likes to make a fuss about how many of us ‘fake it’ for benefits – when statistics actually suggest this barely happens. Disability hate crime is rising (including against disabled children), in part thanks to the popular media/social image that disabled people are liars and can’t be trusted. Genre media tropes like this are not a direct cause of this, but they are one part of the puzzle of representation here.
3. Disfigured = Evil
This archetype is sort of the bridge between ‘the ugly villain’ and ‘the disabled villain’. The concept that what’s on the inside is reflected on the outside is a very old one (it’s in the Bible). Think Freddie Krueger, Voldemort, Doctor Poison, most of the Bond villains (as Bond producers cheerfully admit). I can’t write about this trope from any position of experience, so I’m passing you on to the excellent Alaina Leary, who wrote a superb piece about Doctor Poison and the problem of the disfigured villain, after Wonder Woman came out. She reflects on the visual ‘reveal’ of Poison’s disfigured face under her mask, designed to move the viewer from hate to pity. These being the two most acceptable responses to disability in our society…
Several times in The Flash now, the camera has focused on DeVoe’s body in a particular way. Disabled people are a source of constant curiosity from non-disabled people. A fascination with our bodies is often part of that (at least, when it’s our bodies that are different). So when the camera repeatedly pans up DeVoe’s legs until it slowly reaches his face, that’s the non-disabled gaze at work. Part of the message is: Be fascinated with this man’s broken body! Which reveals that he is evil! There’s an analogous camera move with women in film, but designed to elicit very different responses. That one is about the male gaze. When you’re a member of an oppressed minority group, society tends to think it owns your body, and boy does it like to show it in media.
4. I Did It To Myself With Science: Evil Act Leads to Disability
Just occasionally the trope gets reversed. Not so much ‘evil because you’re disabled,’ but ‘disabled because you’re evil’. Evil needs a symbolic punishment — and what’s a worse punishment than disability or disfigurement? Think Disney’s Captain Hook. Doctor Poison in Wonder Woman fits here, again — she becomes disfigured by her own research on poison gas for nefarious purposes.
In superhero fiction, this trope often gets more complicated: the punishment sometimes comes before the evil. As with Doctor Octopus, in the first Spider-Man movie series. Like another Spider-Man movie villain, Green Goblin, he changes his own body beyond recognition through science experiments, becoming evil in the process.
‘I did it to myself with science’ is another of DeVoe’s tropes, too. It helps us not to feel too sorry for him. Disability is a stock punishment for evil, so when he becomes disabled, there’s a hint that he must have been capable of evil all along.
But There Are Disabled Heroes!
Sigh. Thanks for telling me this. A lot. Yeah, there are… one or two.
I raised the question of the missing disabled superheroes online recently. I got dozens of suggestions of potentially-disabled superheroes. Cyborg and some of the X-Men among them. But if disability moves into entirely fictionalised territory, it’s no longer really disability. The sci-fi cyborg or mutant may be an interesting metaphor for disability, but they’re not (usually) disabled themselves.
There are a small number of disabled superheroes in genre TV/film/comics, although most are problematic – Marvel’s Daredevil and his powers based on the myth of the blind person’s enhanced senses, for example. DC’s Oracle, who was Batgirl before she was injured and became a wheelchair-user, is very interesting. But the comics eventually cured her… which could lead into a whole different post around tropes for non-villainous disabled characters in fiction, which include the obligatory magic cure.
Now look at the numbers of disabled villains I’ve mentioned above, which is barely scratching the surface… and compare that to the one or two disabled heroes you can think of. And then tell me we don’t have a problem with disability representation in genre. (And this is before we even start talking about any non-villainous disability tropes in fiction, which are often problematic in many entirely different ways.)
Disabled Body, Damaged Soul
Media representation matters. It reproduces and reinforces social ideologies.
These disabled villain tropes all expose a subconscious societal belief that the disabled body reveals a damaged soul. And that’s such easy shortcut, isn’t it? If you look wrong on the outside, you must be wrong on the inside. A TV writer’s ideal source of villain coding.
Sociologist Tom Shakespeare calls disabled people ‘dustbins for disavowal’. We are the bin that society’s fear of death and physicality is thrown into. Fiction then draws things out of that ‘bin’, reducing our lives to plot devices — in what Snyder & Mitchell call a ‘narrative prosthesis’ that can quickly represent evil or psychological damage or hate. And the cycle feeds on itself. We continue to be further objectified, because we’re never represented as real people — or as anything good.
Beyond that, we are useless, and better off dead.
Uncovering the Representation: A Bit of Theory to End…
Disability theorist Paul Longmore, writing on disability representation in fiction, says that the way we write about disability reveals how much we fear it:
What we fear, we often stigmatize and shun and sometimes seek to destroy. Popular entertainments depicting disabled characters allude to these fears and prejudices or address them obliquely or fragmentarily, seeking to reassure us about ourselves. (p.66)
He argues that there are two connected tasks for disability scholarship and poltiical activism here:
The scholarly task is to uncover the hidden history of disabled people and to raise to awareness the unconscious attitudes and values embedded in media images. The political task is to liberate disabled people from the paternalistic prejudice expressed in those images and to forge a new social identity. The two are inseparable. (p.146)
Discussing these representations is vital. Pulling back the curtain of ableism is sometimes painful but always necessary. It is possible to be a fan of problematic things. But not without a critical examination of what we love, and how culture shapes us through it.
Or we could take the approach of the producers of the Bond movie Skyfall – who, when asked why all the Bond villains are disfigured, actually had the nerve to say:
I don’t think we ever want to have real politics in these movies because these are fantasy, action adventure films. Bond lives in a slightly heightened version of the real world… that’s where we feel very comfortable.
– Skyfall producer Barbara Broccoli
Yeah… I’m sure it’s where you feel very comfortable, Barbara. Me? Not so much.
I briefly considered supervillainy as a career move, but it turns out I’m too tired for world domination. In the real world, Doctor Poison would have been retired out of academia, DeVoe would be too exhausted to make evil plans… and Team Flash would have run medical tests on Wellsobard half an hour after he started using the wheelchair and the whole of The Flash season one would have been averted. (OK, jokes about how that might have been preferable for lots of reasons can now follow.)
A polite request for commenters to remember the point made in the amazing ‘How To Be A Fan of Problematic Things’, that uncritical defensiveness of fan-driven media can be a problem. People who speak about certain media from oppressed perspectives (such as disability in sci-fi) are used to being spoken over and having our criticism derailed.
My use of the term ‘ableism’ here follows the usage of Dan Goodley, who argues that individual acts of disablism cannot exist without the wider oppresive social system of ableism. If you don’t like the term, there’s also the related concept of ‘normalcy’ (Lennard Davis).
As someone who works on disability and the Bible as part of my research, I should add that over-simplification of any representation of disability in the Bible is also an unhelpful thing that happens a lot. To the extent that disability is represented in the Bible at all, the textual representations cross hundreds of years, many different societies and many social attitudes. For more on this, see the fantastic Disability and Biblical Literature by Moss & Schipper, which I reviewed here.
References & Further Reading
Allen, Kathryn (2013). Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure.
Goodley, Dan (2014). Dis/ability Studies: Theorising Disablism and Ableism.
Longmore, Paul (2003). Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability.
Mitchell, David T and Snyder, Sharon L (2008). Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse.
Shakespeare, Tom. (1994). Cultural Representation of Disabled People: Dustbins for Disavowal? Disability and Society. 9 (3), 283–299.