I came across this article by teen vogue via tumblr, discussing the disabled villain trope and the harm it does. Now, as someone who is disabled in a number of ways, this hits close to home. And I had a lot of thoughts about it. I mean, this is partially one of the reasons why disabled and other marginalised individuals prefer villains over heroes. We are already automatically type-cast as the Bad Guys because of our disfigurements, our deficiencies, our inabilities, our race, our ethnicity, our gender, our sex… we’re lesser at the start.
So much character analysis of villains seeks to explain their actions, their behaviours, and the rationale behind them in a way that mainstream media just doesn’t. Darth Vader is bad because x, y, z; the end. That’s all you get. You get no right to justify, to explain, to defend. Alternative narratives are not accepted or considered; in fact, in some cases, they’re outright rejected by the majority (or did you really think that Loki in Marvel Comics Universe is truly evil by design and not by nurture when all he faces is Sif throwing racial slurs at him, Odin commenting on his deficiencies, and everyone always saying he can’t do anything right? Something Marvel Cinematic Universe mirrors).
So few villains that are popular exist in mainstream media that aren’t disabled, marginalised, or discriminated against in some way, shape, or form. I mean, for pity’s sake, Magneto from X-Men is considered a villain (or by some a sort of anti-hero) because he has a hatred of humanity and seeks to make his fellow mutants (whom he considers to be homo superior) safe from the very same persecution he suffered as a Jew during World War II. Yet, for many in the mainstream, and even those who fleetingly know of Magneto because of the new reboots, he’s a bad guy. A bad guy who most likely has experienced extensive psychological trauma since he was a child and has been constantly alienated, assigned as Other, and discriminated against for something that is innate.
In the same way people with learning disabilities (such as myself) have to deal with constant discrimination and judgment and, “oh but you can spell pretty good, what do you mean you’re dyslexic?” or “but you’re not sat in the corner crying, how can you be autistic then?”
This is not new, and it’s certainly not unusual or rare. There are days when I just want to scream at people and lash out at them because, how dare you assume to know me or to regulate what I can and cannot do based on arbitrary norms that only work for you?
I can recall a handful of characters from shows and movies that are more than their disabilities, or at least, appear to be. And, ironically enough, these characters all tend to be found in comedy rather than drama or action, sci-fi or horror, or fantasy. It is as though disabled characters—and by extension disabled people—are comedic in value and worth. To make a joke or be the butt of one, that is the worth of the disabled.
Emily Davidson on fashionesta has written an article about disabled characters and their representation in media. It’s an interesting breakdown of the major tropes that disabled characters fall into: the villain, the victim, or occasionally, the hero. Villains like Freddy Kruger and Captain Hook are disabled through their requirement of prosthetics, victims like Tiny Times are disabled through his illness and inability to care for himself, and heroes that Daredevil are disabled through blindness yet somehow suffer no real impairment from this because of magically heightened senses. Disabled characters more often fall in the categories of villains and victims than they do the hero category, and when they can be classed as heroes, their disability is minimalised to such a point that it might as well not be present at all.
We have hardly any positive role models in shows and movies that are meant to provide us with moralistic and ethical role models whom we learn to emulate, while at the same time not diminishing the reality of disabilities and their impact on our ability to navigate the world around us. Our role models tend towards the vein of educators of disability, as though that is our immediate and primary purpose to exist; to teach the abled what it’s like to be us. Or our role models are the comedic value stereotypes where we make jokes about everything to do with our inability to navigate the world when it hardly bothers to cater to us (or we’re given the villains to see ourselves in and, really, relating to the Bad Guy is such a bad thing in our society that we’re immediately excluded, isolated, seen as Other or alienated, pitied, or hated for it). These are the characters we’re given, yet as children and because of the media and our culture, we’re automatically expected to root for the Good Guys in action blockbuster summer hits like The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Captain America. But I don’t relate to Thor, or Captain America, or Wonder Woman. I don’t relate to The Good Guys because they’re not marketed for me; they’re marketed for people who aren’t like me.
And this really screws up self-esteem because if all the other kids in your class are all about Captain America and “being a good citizen and helping people out because it’s the right thing to do” but then they make you the bad guy in todays Let’s Play Pretend, how are you ever going to think that you can be the hero too? Especially when children have some of the bluntest, most straightforward, no-filters reasoning about: “but miss, they can’t be the hero, they can’t talk right” or “they can’t walk” or “they don’t look normal”.
You can try and correct this thinking in children, tell them: “it’s not about how they look or talk or if they can walk, it’s about giving everyone the chance to be good and supporting them” and all that other drivel, but you’re still ignoring the root of the problem: where are the heroes that are explicitly for us and why are we so often assigned to the recesses of comedy, pity, or villainy? When do we get to be the hero because we get bit by the radioactive spider but still can’t walk and that’s okay? When do we get the awesome super serum that doesn’t magically cure us of our ‘undesirable’ conditions? When?