Moving beyond the stereotypes

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?

63 thoughts on “Moving beyond the stereotypes

  1. If you’ve never seen The Guild, you can watch Venom’s introduction here. (Hint: Venom’s the one in the wheelchair – her main intro is at 3:15 in the video.)

  2. Question I have asked again and again, what is positive representation of disability? If a disability is secondary to the person, then if fails to show the person as a whole. Complex questions about identity.

  3. Not sure I’m getting your question right with this response, louhicky, but I would venture to state that a positive representation of disability is one in which a disability is NOT secondary to the person. It’s why I rather appreciate the example of Joey Lucas on the West Wing, whose deafness was integral to her identity and at the same time, not the center of every story in which she appeared. The man who liked her learned sign (AmerSLan) because he liked her, all of her. Her disability was an integrated part of her character.

  4. Do Cyclops (X-Men) and Geordi (Star Trek TNG) count? (Their disabilities are accompanied by new abilities.) Also, for the older folks, there was Ironside, the detective from the 1960s show.

  5. How about Tony Shaloub’s character in “Monk”?

    Agree about Dinklage. His character is far and away the best thing about the show.

  6. For those who prefer literature, could you recommend some fiction which depicts disabled people without stereotypes?

    Thank you.

  7. How about Bobby from supernatural, he becomes disabled and struggles with reconciling himself to life in a wheelchair in season five. There was Channel Four show called The book Group in which one of the cast was in a wheelchair. This is hard when you get started.

  8. swallerstein: Game of Thrones is based on a series of novels. Also: Oracle is from the Batman comics. The more examples the better, of course: but half of the examples in the post are from literature.

  9. Mike – I’m not sure whether Cyclops counts, in part just because I’ve never been sure how is laser-eye-thingagig affects his daily life (other than having to wear that rad 80s-looking visor, obviously). But Prof. X definitely counts! (And he’s a very cool, very complex disabled character – except when they make him non-disabled, as they seem obsessed with doing from time to time.) Geordi is an interesting case – he’s definitely a rich character, but his experience of blindness is *so* affected by the Magic Future Technology and the utopian future attitudes that he doesn’t really reflect a lot of the lived experience of most disabled people. (That’s nothing to do with the genre setting – most disabled people don’t have to negotiate power struggles in the vacuum created by the overthrow of the dragon-blooded ruling dynasty the way that Tyrion does, but he nevertheless really manages to resonate, on a personal level, with a lot of disabled people.)

    Anonymous – It is hard, isn’t it! Disabled characters are thin enough on the ground as it is. Disabled characters who manage not to conform to stereotypes are even rarer.

  10. I know this is going to sound elitist, but I’m a bit elitist and I don’t consider comic books to be literature.

    So, to be more specific, can someone recommend fiction about disabled people without stereotypes, equivalent in literary quality to fiction about African-Americans by
    Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, etc.?

    Thank you.

  11. Swallerstein – to me that doesn’t sound elitist, it just sounds wrong. Comics are literature – and at their very best they are some of the best literature out there. (And I say this as someone with a massive appreciation for classic literature.)

    But if you want recommendations of non-graphic novels with non-stereotypical disabled characters. . .try A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin.

  12. Thanks for the recommendation.

    Proud to be elitist and always (in theory at least) willing to accept that I’m wrong.

  13. Be warned, though – if you’re willing to dismiss the entire genre of comics as not being literature, I’m also willing to bet that A Game of Thrones won’t meet your standard for “real literature”. On account of the dragons and stuff.

    In general, it’s often struck me that genre fiction – more so than “non-genre fiction”, whatever that means – is a goldmine for rich, complex disabled characters. I’ve often wondered why that is, actually.

  14. Ursual Hegi’s _Stone’s from the River_ might count as literature, although I am not sure how snobbish we’re seeking to be here.

  15. Just anotherfemalephilosopher:

    Thank you for the recommendation.

    By “elitist”, I mean that there are certain “objective” standards of literary quality, which may vary from culture to culture, but then again, Shakespeare and Homer both are considered to be of great literary quality in lots of cultures and have been considered to be great for a long time.

    If I’m derailing, my apologies.

  16. Swallerstein, people can agree that there are objective standards of literary merit and still think comics are literature. It’s just that some people think comics (at least some of them) are excellent works of art. The issue isn’t whether or not the standards are objective. It’s whether comics can be good literature – you think they can’t, a lot of other people think they can.

    But anyway. Back to talking about stereotypes and disability. . .Thanks for the tip, Anne. I’ll have to check that out.

  17. Mark Haddon’s The curious incident of the dog in the night-time is good literature and an amazing attempt to write from the point of view of an autustic child.

  18. Great post! Rosemary Sutcliff’s Warrior Scarlet is a children’s novel featuring a disabled boy in a traditional culture (British Bronze age).
    Sutcliff was disabled herself (Still’s disease) and does an excellent job at portraying a well-rounded character dealing with disability and other issues in a warrior culture.
    SF has some examples as well. There’s, for instance, Heinlein’s Moon is a Harsh Mistress, where the main character is Manuel Garcia O’Kelly-Davis, who lost his lower left arm.

  19. magical:

    I didn’t say that comics are not works of art. I said that they are not works of literature.

    I might be wrong and some comics might be works of literature, but in general, the genre of comics does not lend itself to literary quality.

    While I have a certain vague idea of what are standards of literary quality, I have not the slighest idea of what quality in art means these days.

  20. One of the two main characters in the film “Beeswax” is disabled and uses a wheelchair, yet this is not what the film revolves around. It struck me as a positive (or at least non-stereotypical) representation of disability, though I’d be curious to hear what others thought (if anyone’s seen the movie).

  21. Swallerstein, is it just *calling* them ‘comics’ that makes you feel like they couldn’t be literature? What if you call them ‘graphic novels’? Or maybe it’s a matter of the seriousness of the theme — have you read Maus?

  22. Interesting. I never considered Peter Dinklage or any healthy little person to be among the disabled.

  23. Jamie:

    No, I’ve never read Maus. Thank you for the recommendation.

    However, let’s take some works of what are recognized as great literature by almost everyone in Western cultures: Oedipus (Sophocles), Hamlet (Shakespeare),
    Middlemarch (Eliot), The Brother Karamazov (Dostoyevsky), The Trial (Kafka),
    To the Lighthouse (Woolf).

    One thing that marks all of the above is the depth, the richness of meaning and of psychological analysis. You can get lost in all of them. You read and reread them without exhausting them.

    The characters, in the above mentioned works, suggest implicit motives and intentions. One can get lost in them, just as one can lost in people one knows. Even more so since one never fully sees them, not even on the stage, since one can always believe that the actor does not play Hamlet or Oedipus well.

    Comics, as graphic narratives, are flat (the word is used descriptively, not as a criticism). All or almost all meaning seems present; there is little or no depth (once again the word is used descriptively). The characters (since one fully sees them visually and hears all they say) suggest very little or suggest nothing.

    Why would one reread the comic (if one reads it with attention the first time) since there is nothing or very little hidden?

    Now, once again, it is possible that the depth of great literature is attained in a few comics, but the genre does not lend itself to communicating that depth.

    Once again too, comics may well be a new art form, but I do not feel that they in general form part of great narrative literature.

  24. Merry, the question of whether Peter Dinklage is disabled is of course one for him to answer. (I don’t know whether he self-identifies as disabled.) I do worry, though, that when people want to say of groups like Little People or Deaf (with-a-capital-D) people that they aren’t disabled, they’re just importing pejorative views about disability. But in any case, whether or not Peter Dinklage is disabled, the character that he plays in Game of Thrones – Tyrion Lannister – is definitely disabled.

    Swallerstein: if you think you can’t get lost in comics, that they can’t have much depth, or that the characters “suggest very little or suggest nothing”, then I suspect you haven’t read very many good comics. A round of applause Jamie’s mention of Maus. See also: Persepolis and Fun Home. (Fwiw, Fun Home affected me more deeply than anything else I’ve read in the last several years. And yes, I read a lot of “proper literature” too.) You might also benefit from Understanding Comics.

  25. Could also add Bonnie Richmond from Jericho to the list. Like Joey Lucas, she is a character who happens to be deaf (and this is a instrinc part of her identity), but her storylines aren’t about her deafness.

  26. How do you think Whistler from Sneakers rate in terms of the “disabilities without stereotypes” front?

    Inasmuch as that is a movie with poor character development to begin with, within the context of the story he is entirely part of the team.

  27. Oracle is a great choice, but I cannot help feeling resistant to delineating Tiny Tim’s role as that of a mere device designed to teach Scrooge a lesson. It’s been a while since I read Dickens, and I admit all of his moralism tends to yield somewhat simplistic characters, but in my memory Tim was a good soul, not incidentally disabled but it wasn’t the disability that taught Scrooge a lesson. Hmph. This bothers me, I’ll have to think about it.

    (swallerstein, I’d agree that much of comix (to use Art Spiegelman’s term) are more analogous to film than to written literature; like film, more of the visual details are richly supplied in comics, and less of the narrative is multilayered. But Maus, MausII, and special outings like Dark Knight are more like narrative than film. I’d go on, but this isn’t the thread!)

  28. Profbigk, I think what a lot of people find problematic about Tiny Tim is the moralistic quasi-saintliness with which he’s portrayed. (If I’m remembering correctly – at one point he says something to the effect of “it’s good for people to see me at church – because they can see me and then reflect on how blessed they are” or something like that. His disability makes him tragic, his perseverence “in spite of” his disability makes him heroic, and the whole thing combines to tug Scrooge’s heart strings (especially since Tim the fragile cripple *kind of* dies as a part of Scrooge’s lesson – he’s dead in the 3rd vision). It’s this depiction of the “saintly brave cripple” that bugs a lot of people. (Out of interest, Prince Myshkin from Doestoevsky’s The Idiot is often mentioned in the same breath when talking about the “saintly cripple” image, but personally I find him a much more complex and non-stereotypical character. I suspect that how stereotypical a character seems may depend a lot on the reader, and how the reader is interpreting the character.)

  29. Magical:

    Just so that we can agree about something, let me note that you are so right that Myshkin is no stereotype nor even a saint.

    He is just a character who out of good intentions, generally says and does the “wrong” thing, given that he lives in a society where no one else has particularly good intentions.

  30. Aha, found it! This is the passage from A Christmas Carol that I was looking for:

    “And how did little Tim behave?” asked Mrs Cratchit, when she had rallied Bob on his credulity and Bob had hugged his daughter to his heart’s content.

    “As good as gold,” said Bob, “and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”

  31. Swallerstein has never read Maus, perhaps the most popular contemporary comic book in the world, but nonetheless feels perfectly justified in defining comic books and ascribing them certain negative features. Ha! One wonders if Swallerstein has read any comicbooks at all! I suspect not. It is not surprising that someone would attribute negative views to a medium that they have never bothered engaging with, but you might try not making it so obvious that you are ignorant if you want to sound persuasive in your attempt at degradation!

    Anyway, more wonderful comic books that newcomers would enjoy are Will Eisner’s Contract With God, or The Sandman by Neil Gaiman. Both will definitely make you cry. Then once these have shed your comic book biases, you might then consider looking at the more traditionally “comic-y” looking but nonetheless beautiful series like Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis or The Invisibles by Grant Morrison.

    For every literature class I take, I try to purchase some amount of representative material that we did not actually read in class. Usually this involves a short novel or book of poetry (reading Lorna Crozier’s Inventing the Hawk right now!), but in the case of my comic book course, I could not help but spending 200$ on comics for this event. I have re-read both series I bought in two months. There is a absolutely wonderful amount of comicbook out there, and it is a shame that popular prejudice keeps people from enjoying it.

  32. Alright, no need to get personal, Jarrod (or at Jarrod, swallerstein, although I realize you’re just asking. Still, let’s not do this).

  33. Posting this separately, just incase you want to moderate/delete the first part:

    On Topic: I was just poking in my universities “K-12 collection” and came across Lynda Barry. Her comic books often deal with issues that involve (dis)ability, and I would certainly recommend her! A warning, however, to those who only consider Homer literature: Barry’s drawing could be called crude, her language is simplistic, and she doesn’t give a shit about how you feel about her. Here is an article about her in the NYTimes (

  34. A few of the webcomics I read have interesting or at least non-offensive disabled characters, I suspect because there’s so much less pressure to appeal to the lowest common denominator with such things.

    In no particular order:

    – Hannelore from Questionable Content (OCD)
    – Melody from Girls with Slingshots (Deaf)
    – Murai from digger (unnamed PTSD-like mental disability – highly recommend this comic in general)
    – Gene from Templar, Arizona (developmental disability; also at least one other character is strongly implied to have a mental disability of some as-yet-undisclosed type)

    Also, not a webcomic, but Toph (blind) from Avatar: The Last Airbender is pretty awesome.

  35. I always thought that Timmy and Jimmy of South Park were positive examples of disabled characters. Yes, their speech impediments are played for laughs (and there’s a whole episode called “cripple fight”), but I think the show generally does a good job of treating them as characters in their own rights rather than mere objects of pity, amusement, or ridicule. Jimmy and Timmy strike me as genuinely likeable, sympathetic people, unlike, say, Dustin Hoffman’s character from Rain Man, who comes across more as a loveable puppy or child (which is ironic, because the South Park character *are* children.)

    I can see how you’d say the show is guilty of the “They face such amusing difficulties in their everyday lives! Isn’t it hilarious!” attitude, especially when they put the disabled characters in ridiculous situations (Jimmy looks for a prostitute, Timmy leads a rock band, both of them get involved with violent gangs, etc.) But I don’t see how that can be avoided on a generally ridiculous show like South Park. I don’t think it would be appropriate to either (i) treat the disabled characters differently from other characters by not sending them on any ridiculous adventures, (ii) try to draw attention away from their disabilities by minimizing their observable effects, or (iii) not having any disabled characters at all.

  36. I agree that it is up to Peter Dinklage how to self-identify. However, if he chose to identify himself as a person with a disability, I would not argue:

    “Health problems commonly associated with achondroplasia include episodes in which breathing slows or stops for short periods (apnea), obesity, and recurrent ear infections. In childhood, individuals with the condition usually develop a pronounced and permanent sway of the lower back (lordosis) and bowed legs. Some affected people also develop abnormal front-to-back curvature of the spine (kyphosis) and back pain. A potentially serious complication of achondroplasia is spinal stenosis, which is a narrowing of the spinal canal that can pinch (compress) the upper part of the spinal cord. Spinal stenosis is associated with pain, tingling, and weakness in the legs that can cause difficulty with walking. Another uncommon but serious complication of achondroplasia is hydrocephalus, which is a buildup of fluid in the brain in affected children that can lead to increased head size and related brain abnormalities.”


    Not to mention that the world is not built for people of his size (think counters, stairs, chairs, etc.), nor does society treat people of his size particularly well. He is certainly differently abled.

  37. What Jender said. If everyone agrees to stay on topic for this thread, I promise I’ll do a separate post on the fabulousness of comics and then we can all fight it out. While being nice, of course.

  38. This is not a disability, but obesity is a condition that tends to receive a very similar treatment in films and TV (a fat character is either there to represent “fat issues”, or is there for laughs, or is there to play the role of the cuddly uncle).

    One character I found to be a really refreshing exception to this trend is Sookie from Gilmore Girls. Admittedly, she is a chef and is a bit clumsy (some stereotypes there?) but… she’s a real character, and is portrayed as having lots of friends, attractive, and having a really good romantic relationship. The fact that she’s overweight plays basically no role in the show.

  39. Magicalersatz, would you include graphic novels? They could been seen as an interesting comment on the literary merits of comics.

  40. Good find from A Christmas Carol, magicalersatz. Interestingly, Tiny Tim evokes in that passage another person whose “moralistic quasi-saintliness” was deemed “problematic” – albeit with more lethal real-world results for that fellow.

  41. Speaking of Christianity, that’s the problem with Dickensian examples out of context; most of Dickens’ characters are types and quasi-saintly, steeped in his particularly British and Victorian Christian virtues. But I’ll stop trying to argue for exemption for Tiny TIm!

    Gil Grissom on CSI, by the way, was interesting as an example of a complicated leading male role with Otosclerosis and hearing loss, as well as indirect references to his Asperger’s Syndrome. I appreciated that his disabilities were integrated into his story, without being ignored or centralized so much as intertwined.

  42. Not exactly a recommendation for good disabled characters, but still on topic: the British Film Institute has some interesting educational materials on disability in film: (note – they are in the process of moving these pages to a new website, so this link might die soon. I will probably forget to update it)

  43. Hi Cassie,

    We’ve talked about “Push Girls” on the blog before ( I’m afraid I’m not a fan – though I do think it’s great that they’re making an effort to depict the lives of disabled people.

    As I mention in the post, I share your distress about what the DC reboot did to Oracle. I’m a comics fan too, and Oracle – not Batgirl – was one of my favorite DC characters.

  44. I can’t believe nobody mentioned Toph from Avatar. She’s blind at the same time as she is the greatest earthbender in her world – probably in her world’s history. She’s also twelve – the show tends to challenge ageist thinking as well as ableism through Toph.

  45. My mum watches CSI and she said there was a woman who got hearing problems after an explosion and had to wear a hearing aid. Don’t know the character’s name, though.

    About people with dwarfism and the D/deaf – I know many D/deaf refuse to see deafness as a disability.

    Prof X and Oracle are certainly great examples I didn’t know about.

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