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.
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.
In 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 was 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.
And 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.
Toph 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.
Game 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.