I had it all planned out. I was going to write an article about how the musical Wicked, while amazing, gets disabilities wrong with its handling of Nessarose’s paralysis. I was going to complain that when Elphaba “cured” Nessa, the Wicked Witch of the West gave the message that the disabled are broken and need to be fixed. I had it all planned out.
But I got beaten to the punch. And I could not be happier.
You see, in my research about this specific topic of disability studies, I came across an article written by Beth Haller of Towson University. In the article, Haller discusses the negative message that Wicked portrays with Elphaba magically curing Nessa. Her thoughts were just like mine; the move tells the audience that those disabled should be considered broken.
I call it, personally, the ‘cracked watch’ theory. A physically disabled person can be compared to a watch that suffered damage and became cracked. For some people looking from the outside at this cracked watch, the only option is to fix the watch. Until it is fixed, the watch serves no purpose and should be discarded.
However, a cracked watch, like someone with a disability, is still a unique piece that should be treasured for what it is. That watch may not be able to tell time, but it can definitely serve as a great piece of art or jewelry. Likewise, physically disabled people, like Nessa, may not be able to run, but they can still be brilliant in their chosen career path. Just because someone is disabled doesn’t mean that that someone needs to be fixed.
Haller noted that:
The most disturbing part of the ‘cure’ was the audience response. When Nessarose took her first steps, most of the audience (a matinee performance filled with high school groups) gave a hearty round of applause. The audience members’ reaction to Nessarose’s “cure” seemed to convey their belief in an underlying ableist message that disabled people are broken and need to be fixed. The added factor that so many of the audience members were teenagers disheartened me about how many young people’s attitudes are just as antiquated as their elders.
But that’s not the worst part. Listen, I cannot tell those with a physical disability to not look for a cure if it exists. That’s their choice, and I support them for that. But the musical “cures” Nessa, only to make her more evil, at least in the eyes of the audience. Sure, Nessa could’ve been just evil period, but it seems that the cure makes her take literal steps that push her toward evil, instead of removing the only roadblock she had toward being completely evil.
Haller’s article is a great read, and I implore our audience to give her some love. For me, Haller helped me explain that, once again, curing disabled people through magical means in fiction rarely, if ever, ends well.