Magical Mondays: Trading Magic and Disabilities

It’s no secret on this blog that we greatly dislike the mystical healing trope where magic cures people of what would otherwise be lifelong disabilities. Often, this is because our disabled protagonists are portrayed as broken and needing to be fixed, and are just special enough that the mystical forces of their world deem them worthy of healing—but not the other disabled characters, like the villains.

ariel little mermaidBut what about the opposite? What about when magic makes characters disabled instead of curing them? This is a trope that I love so much more, since hey, I could use more disabled characters in my life, but it’s usually combined with the mystical healing trope, which means that it unfortunately runs into some of the same ableist problems.

Over the years, I have come across a number of characters who have suffered adverse effects from magic—some of those characters willingly and knowingly sacrificed their own health for the sake of magical powers. These are characters like Odin from Thor, who gave up his eye for wisdom, or Peter Pettigrew from Harry Potter, who chopped off his own hand to raise Voldemort, or even Mozenrath from the Aladdin TV series, who also sacrificed his own arm for the sake of power.

In some ways, I really love these stories, because they add a lot of depth to the characters, and sometimes, like with Mozenrath, we end up with some badass disabled villains. Mozenrath especially intrigues me, because though we don’t learn a lot about his character on the show, we can infer plenty about his history from his willingness to sacrifice his own health. What we know about Mozenrath is that he trained under a powerful sorcerer named Destane, and he eventually acquired a magical gauntlet. Mozenrath, being a student of magic, knew that once he put on this gauntlet that it would slowly drain the life out of him and kill him. The gauntlet would also rip the skin off Mozenrath’s arm, leaving him with nothing but bone. And the gauntlet would make what life he had left dependent on it, ensuring that he can never take it off. Despite knowing all of that, Mozenrath put the gauntlet on anyway in order to overthrow and kill his master Destane.

mozenrathMozenrath presents himself as someone desperate for power and control, but his willingness to take on a power that will eventually kill him—which he cannot stop or control—tells us a lot about his character. Most fans, myself included, believe that Destane used to abuse him and that Mozenrath used to be a good person before his training, that he was simply taught to be evil and doesn’t feel he has a lot of other options. His goal in life is to rule the seven deserts, but why he has this goal is never properly explained outside his need for control. It’s just something he does. Mozenrath’s disability, failing health, and willingness to put himself in this situation only serve to make his character more layered and interesting. And he is hardly the only villain out there that willingly injures himself for power.

At the end of the fourth Harry Potter book, Peter Pettigrew preforms a blood magic spell in order to return Voldemort back to human form. Peter’s reasoning for doing this isn’t for magical power, but political. He wants approval from Voldemort, because he recognizes Voldemort as a powerful wizard and desires his protection. Voldemort in turn rewards Peter for his sacrifice with a silver hand. This hand isn’t cursed the same way Mozenrath’s arm is, but it nevertheless ends up being his downfall. In the last book, the hand turns on Peter for failing to pay a life debt and kills him.

While both Mozenrath and Peter Pettigrew are antagonists, protagonists will also often trade physical ability for magical ones. But unlike villains, the heroes are often cured before the story’s end.

Ariel as a human with EricThe Little Mermaid is another Disney classic that I love because of nostalgia. But like so many stories that are products of their time, it has some pretty horrible lessons. The story goes that the mermaid Ariel makes a deal with a sea witch to trade her voice for a pair of legs. Arguably, Ursula, the witch, tricks Ariel into this deal, but the result is still the same: she loses her voice, and spends the rest of the movie disabled and struggles to communicate.

In other stories, such as Percy Jackson, the characters don’t willingly perform magic that will hurt them, but instead are born with disabilities due to who they are. Percy, like all the other demigods, suffers from dyslexia because their brains are “hotwired to read Greek and nothing else”. Though this creates problems for him in school and his social life, his dyslexia never becomes a problem for the plot. His demigod status just allows him to read anything written in Greek that he might need to read, and his disability is all but erased. Even Ariel gets her voice back at the end of The Little Mermaid, while also being allowed to keep her legs. Ariel doesn’t learn anything and instead gets everything she wants without consequences.

I adore Mozenrath’s character and like that he is disabled, but I hate that Ariel gets her voice back. I hate that Percy Jackson’s dyslexia simply disappears once he reads something in Greek. The difference between antagonists and protagonists when it comes to disabilities and magic is that the antagonists have to live with the consequences while the protagonists don’t. Ariel gets her voice back, but Peter Pettigrew is killed, and Mozenrath is going to eventually die as well. Disappearing disabilities seems to be a staple of being a hero, with very few exceptions. So while I like the idea of magic causing disabilities, I greatly dislike that the heroes tend to find or be handed ways around those disabilities. When our narratives constantly heal the heroes or make them “better”, they reinforce the idea that disabilities are a punishment, and that the only people who have disabilities are evil.

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About MadameAce

I draw, I write, I paint, and I read. I used to be really into anime and manga until college, where I fell out of a lot of my fandoms to pursue my studies. College was also the time I discovered my asexuality, and I have been fascinated by different sexualities ever since. I grew up in various parts of the world, and I've met my fair share of experiences and cultures along the way. Sure, I'm a bit socially awkward and not the easiest person to get along with, but I do hold great passion for my interests, and I can only hope that the things I have to talk about interest you as well.

8 thoughts on “Magical Mondays: Trading Magic and Disabilities

  1. Thank you for this post! I’ve recently been thinking about ableism and the magical healing trope in reference to Welcome to Night Vale.

    In “Episode 49: Old Oak Doors Part B,” the evil corporation StrexCorp is in the process of taking over Night Vale, and one of its representatives suggests, using the conformist brand of forced sunshine characteristic of StrexCorp, that Cecil Palmer’s niece Janice will be offered an opportunity to be “healed” when she enrolls in the corporation’s school. Janice has lost the full use of her legs and uses a wheelchair, and her father strongly resents the implication that there’s anything wrong with his daughter, saying, “Try and tell me there’s something about her needs ‘fixing’!” Cecil agrees wholeheartedly even though he hates Janice’s father, which emphasizes the nonpartisan “rightness” of this position.

    The point is supposed to be that people with disabilities are just as normal as everyone else, and I can get behind that, yet no one asks Janice what she thinks or allows her to make her own decision regarding whether she will be “healed.”

    Furthermore, the StrexCorp representative who offers that Janice be healed is a radio host named Kevin, who is described as either having completely black eyes or having no eyes at all. Kevin presumably uses other means to “see” the world around him, which he perceives in a distinctly different manner than Cecil does. StrexCorp therefore offers Janice the possibility of regaining her legs but respects Kevin’s preference regarding his eyes. The “evil” corporation thus apparently gives people a choice based on what they personally consider to be a “disability” on an individual level.

    There’s so much going on here that I’m not sure what to make of it. Are you listening to Welcome to Night Vale? Do you have any thoughts of this sort of situation?

    • I’ve listened to the first couple episodes, but I’m not caught up yet. I do remember Lady Geek Girl telling me about Janice and StrexCorp though. She told me pretty much what you said, and that Night Vale handled the scene really well. By showing Cecil and Janice’s dad agree on this one issue Nigh Vale lets us know that there is nothing wrong with Janice. Also StrexCorp’s unwillingness to consult Janice goes to show a big problem with our society–we don’t talk to people about their disabilities or take what they want into consideration. Society often feels the need to make decisions for us, especially if we’re disabled.

      • I apologize for being a stickler here, but I was attempting to argue the opposite.

        Cecil and Janice’s dad, by not consulting her about whether she wants to be healed, are in the wrong. Who knows, maybe she does.

        Meanwhile, StrexCorp seems to not impose “healing” on any of its affiliates, as Kevin retains his blindness (or whatever eye-related condition he has) without being hassled about it.

        In other words, it’s weird that the “evil” corporation actually seems to be in the right here.

        This situation points to what is, to me at least, a tricky intersection of ableism and bioethics. Namely, how does one reconcile the genuine desire for more and less problematic representations of diversity with positive discourses concerning human enhancement?

        • Oh, sorry. I guess I misunderstood you. All I know about the situation is what you and Lady Geek Girl have told me. I guess I’ll just have to listen to it before I can say one way or another. I think a big problem though is the lack of choice. The impression I got was that StrexCorp was planning on “curing” her without her consent. I think it’s perfectly fine for a disabled person to not want to be disabled, and to seek a way to become able-bodied. But I also think it’s perfectly fine for a disabled person to be not want a “cure”. From what you and the LGG have said–again, I’m sorry that I misunderstood–it sounds like no one is giving her a choice at all, which would be problematic. But I still haven’t actually listened to that episode. 😦

          • This is a fascinating conversation and I appreciate you adding it to the comments, both of you. 😉

            Allowing disabled people their agency in narratives is super important.

  2. Back in the day, Smallville did this on multiple occasions, with Clark getting a new power like super-hearing by temporarily making him blind, and with a disability, and then he’s healed by the end of the episode and can see fine but still has super hearing. (The episode “Whisper” in season 3.) It’s more sci-fi than magic, but it’s the same idea. And The Flash might be currently doing something complicated but similar with Dr. Harrison Wells’ character. We’re unsure at this point what, exactly, is happening with this man who uses a wheerchair and is seemingly “pretending” to be unable to walk at all. The story isn’t complete yet.

    Even Nikita did this a bit with good-guy Michael losing his hand, and then some sci-fi-ish plot about essentially getting back a biological-prosthetic that was pretty much identical to him never having lost his hand in the first place.

  3. Mozenrath was an amazing character… I too believe his hunger for power is a sort of response to the fact that he was either a slave or an abused apprentice to Destane, considering the fact that not only did Mozenrath kill Destane, he also turned him into a zombie slave, and seemed to take pleasure in putting him down in front of Aladdin and his friends. Zombie Destane doesn´t even have a higher rank than the other mamluks (undead servants); he’s indistinguishable from them. Sounds like a fate worse than death for someone who was undoubtely a very powerful and proud wizard- makes one wonder what Mozenrath had to endure under his command…

    I think somehow Mozenrath- who is obviously highly intelligent and naturally proud- was trying to make up for all the time he was a slave under a more powerful man’s boot, somehow trying to bury his lowly past under tons of conquers and achievements, but maybe not even he was fully aware of it… I remember an episode in which he has this large spinning wheel with the different kingdoms on them, and he says something like “Agrabah… not a particularly interesting place, why conquer it?” and then he immediately answers himself “Oh, because it’s there!!”

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