“I do not want to walk like everybody else. I do not want to be like everybody else,” wrote author Amanda Leduc about her cerebral palsy. “But sometimes it feels like that’s all the world wants you to be.”
As I read through Leduc’s enlightening nonfiction book, Disfigured, I realized as an able-bodied reader and consumer of media that I had a distinct blindspot. She shares the definition of disability according to the World Health Organization, which refers to it as an umbrella term that includes physical difference, limits of activity or participation, or difficulty participating. So, disability isn’t relegated to the individual, but rather a mix of realities of the body and the society in which the body moves and how accessible (or inaccessible) it has been made.
Leduc frequently sprinkles in mind-blowing examples of movies, TV, and books either demonizing or pitying disability. In fact, she gave so many examples that I walked away in disbelief that I had missed them, and even worse, how so many others like me had missed them too. The narratives of these disabled characters make a symbol of their difference, either as a deserved ill, a representation of their inner evil, a sympathy tool, a comedic premise, or something to overcome and be rid of in the end. Less. Other.
“If the disabled narrator can only successfully complete the quest… their disability will be lifted from them and they’ll occupy an abled space in the world once more,” wrote Leduc.
“The disabled villain, by contrast, occupies a place of disability that is permanent and somehow warranted. They are at once bitter and angry because of their disability and also disabled because of their bitterness and anger,” wrote Leduc. “For the villain, it’s a vicious cycle from which there is no escape.”
Why do they go unseen? Why do those with disabilities have to bear the burden of showing the able-bodied community how we have misrepresented them?
How have we missed the Red Skull, the Seven Dwarves, Quasimodo, the Evil Queen, the Little Mermaid, Maleficent, Deadpool, Darth Vader, Gregor and Sandor Clegane, and so many others (all of these examples came directly from Leduc’s fantastic mind.)?
I’ll stick to the criteria that Leduc used, pointing out narratives that show disability as a mark of evil, a brief obstacle in the way of greatness, something to be fixed, something to be feared, etc.
All this aside, here are some of our favorite narratives that demonize, infantilize, pity, poke fun at, and other disabilities both visible and invisible. (Full disclosure, I am an able-bodied person, and cannot speak to the experiences of disabled people. However, this list is flexible, and is designed to bring awareness to pop culture’s obsession with marking disability as “bad”.)
Yennefer, the main character and love interest to the Witcher, Geralt, undergoes a painful transformation, and gives up her chances at motherhood, to rid herself of her hunch and the facial difference that repeatedly gets her made fun of and harmed.
Prior to her transformation, she is sold into slavery, given terrible tasks, called names, and not expected to succeed. While she does find love, we are meant to distrust her lover’s intentions, because “how could anyone love her with her disability?”
In the end, she becomes “beautiful” and able-bodied, and while her narrative is one of dissatisfaction even after her transformation, it still treats disability as a curse to be rid of.
The character of Dwight is mocked and pranked relentlessly by the other office staff, especially the supposed-to-be-favorite Jim, and his “abnormal” nature is often a point of comedy in the show.
Yet it is theorized that he has a paranoid personality disorder, anxiety, and a host of other invisible disabilities.
While not confirmed explicitly in the show, the perception that fans have of Dwight and his possible difference, combined with the ridicule he experiences throughout the nine seasons, sends a message of difference equals bad.
The James bond Franchise
Leduc brought up how a host of James Bond villains are often scarred, burned, or generally have some kind of facial difference that is meant to signal their evil nature.
While already mentioned by the author, it deserves a spot on this list for the recurring use of facial differences to signal the darkness within them.
Even the most recent James Bond movie, not yet in theatres, has actor Rami Malek playing into the scarred villain trope with a burn covering half of his face, after years of activism by the likes of the “I Am Not Your Villain” campaign to counter this narrative.
The Justice League, like Marvel, builds its stories on the celebration of difference. Yet its treatment of invisible disabilities remains…questionable.
Frequently, its villains have what could be considered an invisible disability. Lex Luther, the Joker, Harley Quinn, and more all have some kind of mental illness or difference, that causes them to exact violence on many. Never mind the historical link between women and “hysteria” or “craziness” that stereotypes mental illness among women, this relationship is toxic to our understanding of invisible disabilities and mental illnesses.
The violence cannot be defended, but we can criticize the persistent link between invisible disability and “bad guys”. Why is it that something has to be inherently wrong with the villain in order to make them the villain?
Now Leduc does acknowledge that current narratives are getting better at making villains evil through some misunderstanding on their part, rather than making it something about them that they can’t control. Even Harley Quinn’s character has gotten somewhat of a facelift in recent films, as she walks the line between hero and villain.
However, superhero films at large continue to portray villains as inherently different, and thus inherently evil.
Marvel built its entire brand on celebrating difference and making those of us who don’t fit the norm into heroes, yet they have also fallen into the trap of using disability as a brief obstacle, a stepping stone to greatness.
James Rhodes, Tony Stark’s best friend also known as War Machine, falls from the sky in Captain America: Civil War and becomes paralyzed from the waist down. Tony uses this as a means to grow in his budding anger against Steve Rogers and his small army.
Rhodes doesn’t make an appearance for the rest of the film, until the end when he is given robotic supports for his legs, and all is made well again.
The disability happens, is overcome, is celebrated for its “defeat”.
Was Rhodes’s newfound disability used as a means of exacerbating Tony’s anger? Was it used as a tool for the audience to dismay over? The answer’s unclear, but the representation speaks for itself.
Why is it always the stories that are intended to celebrate differences that fall into the same traps?
In the very first book and movie adaptation, Grover’s disguise is a disability, as he uses crutches to get around.
However, as soon as Percy realizes his true parentage, Grover “takes off” his disability to reveal his real, “better” half-goat half-man form. While not saying that his real form is better than his disguise, the use of disability as a disguise to be taken on and off as a costume doesn’t do justice to reality. On top of this, Chyron, a centaur, also dons disability as a means of disguising his true identity, using a wheelchair to move through space.
Does he use disability as a disguise to be left alone, to not be expected of doing anything of consequence and thus overlooked? Whatever the purpose, it sends a disparaging message.
Sierra Burgess Is A Loser
“Did anyone like this movie” is the real question.
Sierra Burgess, the titular main character, pines after a boy that “would never look her way,” so to speak.
She pretends to be deaf to gain sympathy from her crush in order to grow closer to him, while covertly catfishing him with the help of another student.
This plays into the pity trope of disability, the one that says “good for you for doing things all by yourself”, to paraphrase Leduc. Again, the disability is used as a tool to gain sympathy, that can be switched on and off at will.
Not only does this misrepresent the reality of disability, but it shapes it as something to feel bad about and treat as lesser than out of sympathy.
This might break some hearts.
This beloved, oversaturated thriller sends quite the message, but its portrayal of disability is questionable, to say the least.
To put it simply, the young boy with a facial difference is viewed by the cult as a sort of mystic, and by the viewer as the foreteller of evil.
His paintings are scribbled-down versions of the grisly fate of the main characters.
We don’t see him many times, but he often appears suddenly on screen, accompanied by gently disturbing background music. His appearances onscreen are meant to disturb the viewer, his facial difference is meant to catch you off guard and give you a sense of foreboding.
Even the cult’s treatment of him as “different” from the rest of them, even for his abilities, associates his “otherness” as distinct, and not in a great way.
The resulting message is his facial difference is a mark of his evil, or otherness, and not just a fact of life. The idea that a visible disability represents something about the person, whether morally or otherwise, is a dangerous trope repeated across much of pop culture.
Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka
Ok, this one’s a little dated, but that doesn’t mean it’s not relevant.
The adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel presents Gene Wilder’s Wonka as an eccentric candy maker giving away his riches to one lucky child.
Each child, upon finding the golden ticket into the candy factory, is approached by Arthur Slugworth, a supposed representative of another candy company trying to purge Wonka’s secrets.
He famously has a distinct scar across his face, meant to mark him as the “bad guy” of the film. While this film was created before a lot of disability activism reached the mainstream, it doesn’t absolve it from perpetuating the dangerous association of facial difference with inherent evil.
The dark alleys he pops up in, along with the daunting background music, further reinforces his darkness.
“But isn’t he good in the end?” Yes, and that makes it worse.
The whole arc of Slugworth’s reveal as a “good guy” is meant to shock the viewer, yet that shock at his goodness is based on the implied perception of him as evil. His facial difference is meant to mislead us into thinking his evil is obvious.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire uses a very similar idea of baiting our expected understanding of disability=evil for the sake of a surprise ending.
Alastor Moody makes his first appearance in this film, only he isn’t really himself. Rather, he is Barty Crouch Jr. disguised as Moody to help Voldemort kill Harry Potter.
However, the reader/viewer doesn’t know this until the very end.
Moody’s limp and facial differences mark him as other automatically. His dramatic entrance into the main hall is accompanied by darkness and lightning, another sign that he is not to be trusted. Combined with the other professors saying he is “out of control,” the novel and film construct the relationship between difference and evil or untrustworthiness.
When we learn that the Moody that turned students into ferrets, tortured an innocent bug for class, and committed other evil turns out to be a mock version of him, we are meant to be surprised, yet again.
This surprise, as stated earlier, is built upon our understanding of disability equating to evil, even though the character himself isn’t. And though he turns out to be a “good guy,” the representation of him, and his otherness, as bad already transpired.
Harry Potter has a knack for representing difference as something to be celebrated and feared. Potter’s scar marks him as special, while Remus Lupin’s werewolf transformation scares the parents of Hogwarts students and ultimately forces him to leave or suffer ridicule.
Often stories that are meant to subvert narratives end up falling into the same traps as those who don’t.
The only way we can change this narrative is to point it out. Can you think of some negative, or positive representations of disability?