As I mentioned in this post, unhelpful stereotypes about disability are commonplace in film, tv, and literature. You can read more about disability-related stereotypes here and here. (I also highly recommend watching the opening scenes of “Shameless: the art of disABILITY” – linked in this post – in which a group of disabled people watch a selection of films and tv shows and discuss the stereotypes involved.) For a quick primer of what I’m talking about, here are a few of my personal favorite disability-related stereotypes:
- Disability as an outward sign of an inward flaw – Examples: Captain Ahab, Quasimodo, Captain Hook (hmm, maybe there is also prejudice against sea captains?) These characters are “flawed” externally in a way that is meant to mirror their internal flaws, and also make them extra-strength creepy. (Fun exercise: count up the number of famous villains that have some sort of physical disability or disfigurement. This may take you a while. I’ll be here when you get back.)
- Disability as punishment or judgement – Examples: Mr. Rochester. Oh Mr. Rochester, you naughty byronic hero you. You’ve been a bad boy, but you wind up tamed and worthy of redemption once you’re blinded in that fire.
- Disability as a moral lesson for the non-disabled – Examples: Tiny Tim, Beth in Little Women. This is the disabled character whose main plot purpose is to teach the non-disabled hero a beautiful life lesson (bonus points if the disabled character dies in the process). The most common form of this stereotype is the “tragic overcomer” – the saintly cripple who teaches us all a lesson about strength and perseverence. But it can take on other forms as well (e.g., Jude Law’s character in Gattacca).
- Disability as comic relief – Examples: Timmy from South Park, Mini Me from Austin Powers. Haha, look at that disabled person! They’re so strange! They face such amusing difficulties in their everyday lives! Isn’t it hilarious! (NB: the objection here isn’t to humor involving disabled people, or to humor centered around aspects of someone’s disability. Both kinds of humor can work really well – cf., the episode of 30 Rock guest starring Peter Dinklage. The objection is to laughing at disabled people and disabilities – laughing at their perceived otherness.)
The weight of the stereotypes above – and so many others – is heavy. And that’s why rich, multi-layered disabled characters are something to celebrate. They’re rare – but maybe, just maybe, they’re becoming increasingly visible. Here are a few of my favorites:
Tyrion Lannister, A Song of Ice and Fire
He’s not exactly Tiny Tim. And he may be one of the richest, most well-developed disabled characters out there. The books do a great job of portraying the difficulties he faces because of his disability without any hint of “tragic overcomer”. I’m not a big fan of HBO’s A Game of Thrones series (mostly because their method of adaption seems to be “Yeah, that scene was pretty awesome in the book. But do you know what would make it more awesome? Boobs. Lots and lots of boobs.”) but it’s worth watching just for Peter Dinklage’s performance as Tyrion.
Joey Lucas, The West Wing
The coolest thing about Joey Lucas was that she was a disabled character whose disability was completely incidental. She was of interest because she was a political consultant and pollster, because she was love interest for the deputy chief of staff, etc. She was all those things, and she just happened to be Deaf. That almost never happens. That is, you almost never see a disabled character whose story arc isn’t primarily about the fact that they are disabled. It’s nice when you do.
Venom, The Guild
What’s that? You haven’t seen The Guild? Why not??? It’s awesome, it’s written and produced by super-excellent female polymath Felicia Day (who also plays the lead role), and you can watch it online for free. The best thing about Venom is the way the character explicitly plays on stereotypes about disabled people – to excellent comedic effect. Venom is a caustic, swearing, sexy goth girl who is mean to pretty much everyone. She knows that people feel sorry for her because she’s in a wheelchair, and she takes advantage of their pity. She also knows she’s hot, and takes advantage of that too.
Barbara Gordon, Batman
Barbara Gordon was a marginally interesting character when she was Batgirl. Then she lost a fight with the Joker and wound up in a wheelchair. After becoming disabled, she reinvented herself as Oracle – and became so much cooler than Batgirl ever was (and significantly more effective at fighting crime than she had been when she wore spandex and kicked people). Sadly for those of us who like rich, interesting disabled characters, DC comics has recently “rebooted” their main line of comics – and in the process they ret-conned Barbara Gordon’s disability. And then they seemed surprised at how upset a lot of comics fans were.
My list is of favorites is obviously skewed toward the geeky. Other good examples?