In Brightest Day: Characters Don’t Get to Stay Disabled

If you have seen “Breezy,” the most recent episode of Adventure Time, then you will know that something really awful happened. That’s right—Finn grew his arm back. Just grew it back. And maybe I would be less annoyed if 1) I didn’t expect better of Adventure Time, and 2) this wasn’t symptomatic of a bigger problem. “Curing” disabled characters is one of those things that happens a lot in genre fiction and it sends an awful message.

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Whether they’re shows intended for adults, teens, or children, chances are you’ve seen a show with a character who is disabled and then “cured” of their disability.

6a00d834518cc969e2013480967427970c-200wiIn Supernatural, Bobby Singer, while possessed by a demon, stabs himself in an attempt to stop the demon from controlling him. It’s revealed that Bobby’s injuries are bad enough that he will never be able to walk again and must use a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Bobby is pissed about this and even makes allusions to feeling useless and wanting to kill himself. While this is a really problematic view of disabilities, it was in character for Bobby, so I let that slide in the hope that Bobby would grow as a character and realize how badass he still was, even without the use of his legs. But that never happens. Bobby makes a deal with Crowley, a demon, which gains him the use of his legs once again. Even after breaking the terms of their deal, Bobby still manages to keep his ability to walk. It’s bullshit, and basically affirms Bobby’s earlier belief that he’s only useful and able to live his life if he isn’t disabled.

Teen Wolf pulled some similar bullshit with one of their recent villains, Deucalion. Deucalion dukeheadshot-originalwas introduced as a villain in Season 3A as a badass leader of the Alpha pack who happened to be blind, and I fell in love with him instantly. But first the writers turned Deucalion into one of those disabled characters who isn’t “really” disabled by claiming he could see when he was in his werewolf form—sending the message that the only way that Deucalion could still be a capable Alpha was by basically still being able to see despite being blind. On top of this,  Deucalion seemed to become evil after he lost his eyesight, and only became a good guy again after he magically regained his eyesight. This sends the awful message that disabled people are evil, but if they can be “cured” they’ll be good people again.

adventuretime-2And now we have Adventure Time. In every alternate universe and past life that we see Finn in, he is missing his right arm. So if you were anything like me, you waited anxiously for the same thing to happen to this universe’s Finn, because then the main character of the show would be disabled. And when Finn finally lost his arm and it didn’t magically grow back or anything I was thrilled. I was so excited to see Finn develop as this amazing adventurer who also happened to be disabled. But alas, it was not to be, and the flower on Finn’s arm grew into a tree, then cracked open, revealing a shiny new hand for Finn. This immediately excited a depressed Finn who was now seemingly back to his old self. It was mega bad!

Why do these stories suck so much? Well, they are horribly ableist, for one thing. Basically what all of these stories are saying is that being disabled makes you less than human, or even evil. It implies that someone with a disability can’t be a hero or an adventurer or even just a badass villain, because they aren’t “physically capable”. What all this really says was that the writers were too lazy to do any research and finally give some good representation for disabled people. It’s certainly not impossible a few shows have done this before.

20120429145921!TophToph from Avatar is one of the more skilled earth benders in the entire world—she even invents metal bending. One of the reasons for this is because she’s blind, not in spite of it, and as such, must use the vibrations in the ground in order to “see”. However, she is still limited by her disability; she can’t read or write, she can’t “see” something that flies, and in her earliest years, she had little to no social life, because her parents thought that her being blind made her frail and locked her away from the world. Her limitations are something she has to deal with. Yet her blindness itself is not viewed as part of the problem, but a strength and part of her.

Tyrion-Lannister-tyrion-lannister-30474710-1024-576Game of Thrones, for all its problems, actually has several really well-developed characters with disabilities. Probably one of the best and most well known is Tyrion Lannister. Tyrion is a dwarf, and because of this, he’s viewed as a disgrace by his father and is constantly demeaned by his family. But Tyrion is arguably the most cunning and intelligent of the Lannisters and at one point even almost single-handedly saves his family from Stannis Baratheon. He may be limited in some ways by his disability, but he proves that he is just as powerful as any other member of his family.

I think writers of many shows just view disabilities as a way to cause drama and never even attempt to actually show someone living with a physical disability. All it takes is a little research and an attempt to write a person with a disability as a human being, and not as a plot device.

29 thoughts on “In Brightest Day: Characters Don’t Get to Stay Disabled

  1. Thanks for this. I’m having a conversation about representation of disabilities in media with a friend of mine, and my sister just sent me this link. These examples and the critique are very helpful.

  2. This is a great post. There’s just one thing though– you may not be aware of this but the phrase “bound to a wheelchair” is pretty offensive to a lot of people who use wheelchairs. You might want to consider saying something like “Bobby’s injuries are bad enough that he will never be able to walk again and needs to use a wheelchair” or just “that he’ll never be able to walk again.” I’ve got a post here on language and disability if you’re interested: http://rosebfischer.com/2014/02/18/redefining-disability-3-what-word-do-i-use-changing-paradigms-by-creating-a-common-language/

    • I did not know that.Thank you so much for pointing this out. I have changed the wording in my post and all our authors will endeavor to avoid using such offensive phrases in the future. I apologize for any offense and please let us know if we miss anything else like this.

      • No offense taken. Wheelchairs and other adaptive equipment are things that most people with disabilities view as liberating, not confining. Adaptive equipment gives people the freedom to go where they want independently.

        The only other thing I’ve noticed is the phrase “disabled person” or “the disabled” instead of “person with a disability.” This is more of a gray area. Most people I know prefer people first language, but some don’t.

        The post on a whole is on target and, like Gene’O said, very helpful. I stopped watching SPN a long time ago, so Iactually didn’t know about Bobby’s injury. I may link to you in future posts on this topic over at my blog.

  3. Any thoughts on X-Men: Days of Future Past in relation to this? It seemed to me like they made up a way for Charles to walk just out of convenience, but they actually did seem to handle it well and make it an issue without making it THE issue.

    • Well, I admit I didn’t see Days of Future Past because of major issues I have with the director. But I saw in the trailer that Charles could magically walk again which I thought was bullshit, but… the X-Men movie canon is super screwed up. Charles could walk in the flashback when he and Magneto went to recruit Jean in X-Men: The Last Stand. He could also walk in the first Wolverine movie. So since I knew he would be a disabled character again no matter what I saw it more as the writers fixing a plot hole that they created to begin with. But I don’t know if there was anything more problematic brought up in the context of the movie since I didn’t see it.

      • Well, it’s not a permanent cure. It allows him to walk but takes away his mental powers, because Reasons, so by the end he’s using his chair again. It was really portrayed more as an incidental thing though, not a big angsty tradeoff — Charles angsts about getting his powers back, not that he’ll have to give up walking to do it. So, that’s why it seemed like mostly a convenient way to let him walk around in some scenes… I’m not sure why he couldn’t have just had a drug that suppressed his powers instead of tying it up with him being able to walk or not. (This explanation may not make sense without having seen the movie…)

  4. Agreed 100% on your post, that was why I also liked how the first How to Train Your Dragon ended, because it opened up a hopeful life for the main character even if he had to get used to using a prosthetic leg at a young age. And from the trailer of HTTYD 2, it looks like it definitely doesn’t stop him from being a badass.

    • I’m SO EXCITED for the How to Train Your Dragon 2! It really does look like Hiccup will remain a disabled character, and to have a main character who is disabled and still portrayed as an awesome bad ass is just amazing! I can’t wait to geek out over that movie!

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  7. One of the first characters from pop culture that I remember being a) disabled and b) not being offered a cure for it as a sop to the audience was Cutter John from “Bloom County”, the wheelchair-bound vet. He was this amiable dude who just happened to be paralyzed from the waist down, and I liked the way Berkeley Breathed portrayed him as being a character first and not either a showcase for a disability as a storytelling device (see: Sontag, “Illness as Metaphor”) or, again, a sop to the audience’s need for everything to be fixed in the end.

    On my end, I’m considering a novel based loosely on the adventures of a friend of mine, who is mostly blind and mostly deaf and will one day be entirely blind and entirely deaf. He’s decided not to let that stop him, until it does stop him.

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  9. What are your thoughts on Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead comics? I have not read the newer issues, but he loses his hand and does not get it back. How do you feel Robert Kirkman handled that? What about Matt Murdoch AKA Daredevil who is a blind lawyer/superhero? I am in no way disagreeing with you, in fact you bring up great points. I’m curious what you think of how those characters are portrayed

    • I feel as if they “cure” disabled characters to make nondisabled people feel more comfortable, or because disability isn’t supposed to exist in a “perfect” fantasy world. It seems weird to me, because while for example, you can live in a totally white upper middle class gated community and be clueless about race, everyone knows disabled people- whether physical, learning, cognitive, etc. I don’t know why disability is such a well, blind spot when it comes to diversity. BTW, check out Rose F’s blog, she has a great series analyzing disabled characters.

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  11. I found this through Seventh Sanctum, and first of all, I have to say, DAMN FINE JOB, MA’AM.
    Second, what are your feelings on prosthetic limbs and such? I’m thinking here especially of Ed Elric in Fullmetal Alchemist. I think FMA is one of the more complicated such situations, where the prosthetic takes away a disability in exchange for new, different problems, like bolts snapping and extreme sensitivity to heat and cold.

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  13. Agreed! I was very disappointed that Finn got “fixed” (especially since his alternate and past-life selves made do with robotic replacements). That its symbolic use seemed to conflate it with feeling bad wasn’t great either. I had hoped for better from AT, especially since HTTYD’s Hiccup is missing a leg and doesn’t even bother to bring it up unless it’s relevant to matter at hand.

    “Breezy” was a weird episode in a lot of ways but, while Finn’s losing his arm has been foreshadowed for a long time, this restoration was out of the blue and very anticlimactic even if the “fixing the disabled” cliché is ignored.

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  17. I understand your concern, particularly where it overlaps with viewing being disabled as being Evil

    But, out of curiosity, would you consider the accounts of Jesus dealing disabled people examples of this trope?

    Fiction is about Wish Fulfillment, and many people with disabilities wish they didn’t have them, that the disability could be magically removed?

    It seems like your saying in order to be accepting of Disabled people you have to believe they were meant to be disabled.

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