The newest season of RWBY was, in my opinion, one of the better seasons: the animation was beautiful and the characters continued to grow in impactful ways. There were unsurprisingly a few missteps, but one of these missteps almost ruined the entire season for me—and while it didn’t, it certainly took me out of a couple episodes. Before this season, RWBY didn’t offer too much in the ways of characters with physical disabilities, but the characters they did show were pretty badass. Torchwick’s right hand woman, Neo, managed to be intimidating, skilled, and infuriating (in a good, villain-y way) all without use of her voice, and Cinder’s companion, Mercury, used his prosthetic legs as naturally and dangerously as any trained warrior would. Their disabilities didn’t define either one or hold either of them back, it was just a part of who they were. Which is why I was disappointed and frustrated that in RWBY Season 4, the characters now learning how to live with their new physical disabilities weren’t given the same sort of narrative support—a problem most heinously shown through the character Yang.
RWBY’s third season left the audience wondering how Team RWBY’s own Yang would recover both from being abandoned by her close friend Blake and from losing her arm during the fall of Beacon Academy. With how Mercury and Neo were portrayed previously, I had a lot of hope for Yang’s recovery arc, but unfortunately this hope was dashed with how shittily everyone around Yang treated her. It makes more than enough sense that Yang, who put all her pride in how strong she was, really took a hit after losing her fight against Adam—losing both her arm and one of her best friends/potential love interest in the process. Recovering physically and mentally from such an event can take a really long time (or never happen at all) and it can also happen at different paces for different people. Tragically, though, neither the show nor Yang’s father Taiyang seem to be willing to trust Yang in her own recovery.
Taiyang does have a lot going on in his own life, what with taking care of Yang and Ruby being out on her own, but he clearly doesn’t understand what Yang’s problems really are. When Yang expresses that she’s afraid of getting back out into the world, he seems to sympathize, but then says that once she “stops moping” he’ll be happy to get her back out there. This also comes right after she refutes one of her old professors about her “returning to normal”, explaining that “this (the absence of one of her arms) is normal now”. The juxtaposition of these two conversations comes off as though Yang’s attempting to accept her new physical reality is somehow just her wallowing in her own despair. The sentiment comes full circle near the end of the season when Taiyang, relieved that Yang has finally started wearing her prosthetic, acts as though he can finally get into training her “properly”, as if Yang missing an arm ruined her chances at ever being a proficient fighter again.
Now, it’s absolutely true that different people have different ways of healing and coping with trauma, but Yang has two things working against her here. First of all is the sudden change in character with Taiyang. Though not a major player in the previous seasons, Taiyang has always been shown to be a kind, gentle man who does whatever he can for his two daughters to make sure they’re safe and know they’re loved. Though this is still present, suddenly Taiyang is a smartass and apparently jokes enough with his daughter that he can say things like “if you think that, then you lost a few brain cells along with your arm” in a non-joking tone and have it be understood as it’s a joke. In a real life family this would be fine, but in a narrative story where this sort of personality has never been shown before in this character, it comes off as extremely jarring, and makes Taiyang come off as abrasive and callous to his daughter’s struggles.
Secondly, every other person in the show this season treats a loss in physical ability as something bad. There is nothing wrong with wanting or getting prosthetics, but in Yang’s case it’s presented as the only option available to make her “normal” or worthwhile as a person. There’s so much talk about getting back to normal or what’s normal for who that the show appears to be saying that if you’re missing anything that a “normal” human would have, why are you even bothering? Yang didn’t need the prosthetic to be a badass; there were other ways she could have achieved this as long as she had the support of her family. Even Jaune, a likable character, mentions to Ruby that in a way, she lost her sister, implying less that the trauma has really took its toll on Yang, and more that Yang is less of a person because of how she is now.
But this doesn’t only go for Yang. After enduring the brunt of Ruby’s attack in the Season 3 finale, Cinder appears this season with severe damage to her vocal cords, making it nigh impossible for her to speak. Despite all of her accomplishments—successfully running the attack on Beacon and inheriting the powers of the Fall Maiden—her peers only look down on her, acting as though her inability to speak makes her completely useless. Not even her friends, Mercury and Emerald, speak up for her at any point.
Where Cinder and Neo differ in their representation has everything to do with the power they’re given. While Neo was alive, she was always shown as competent both in fighting and in strategy. In fact, Neo even bested Yang during Season 2 in an one-on-one battle and continuously held her own as a threat to Team RWBY and maintained her autonomy, free of the various villain organizations, only sticking by her friend Torchwick (who never belittled Neo for any reason). Comparatively, in Season 3 Cinder was shown as having almost literally all the power. She had just planned the destruction of Beacon, planted doubt and suspicion of Beacon’s staff in the minds of everyone in Vale, and inherited the Fall Maiden’s powers when she fell to Ruby’s sudden mysterious powers. In a whiplash change from this, Season 4 showed Cinder immediately being mocked by Salem’s other lackeys at every opportunity for little more than being unable to defend herself verbally. While both Mercury and Emerald could have kept silent due to them not wanting to get killed or potentially ruin the chances Cinder had for harnessing her new powers, not even Salem expressed displeasure at how her three henchmen continued heckling Cinder. Cinder has no back up. And with her inability to properly harness the Fall Maiden’s powers for the entire season, she has no power and is basically reliant on Salem. In this way, the development of her near-mutism seems like an additional punishment, rather than representation or something Cinder will adapt to.
It feels obvious to me that Cinder will end up destroying her naysayers and that Yang will once again grow comfortable on the battlefield at some point. Yet showing these struggles side by side presents me with a season that both refuses to show that people with physical disabilities can be badasses and refuses to call out the people who seem to think having these disabilities make someone less of a person. I don’t have much hope for things getting better next season in this respect, but I can always hope that it will. At least Cinder’s (hopeful) destruction of Salem’s goons will be cathartic.