I’m sure this won’t be news to you; we need better disabled characters. Portrayals of people with disabilities tend to misinform, sensationalize, stereotype and outright villainize them. There are thousands of articles out there on harmful disability tropes and more still to be said.
But you know what I’d rather do than write another one of those articles? Talk about some disabled characters I love. I think that, when talking about disability representation, or any other kind of representation, it is easy to get bogged down in the difficulty. I don’t just mean the labor of research or the ethical questions about which stories are yours to tell; I also mean the emotional consequences of submerging yourself in pain. It is not creatively energizing. It puts you into that “everything sucks” mentality, and going straight from that to writing can turn into the toxic editors “everything I write sucks” mentality. This is especially damaging when it comes to diverse characters, because, on the way to writing awesome representation, you will probably write some shitty representation. Not because you’re a bad person, but because all your writing is shitty when it’s on it’s way to being awesome. Representation isn’t different, it’s just extra emotionally charged.
I also think writers need “dos” as well as “do nots.” While it’s good to be aware of problematic tropes, I think that when you actually sit down to write it’s better to have an idea of good representation to focus on. You don’t hit a bullseye by focusing on the people in the crowd who you are hoping not to shoot. You know the bystanders exist, but you keep your eyes on the target.
Besides, this has been a rough year for all of us, and it’s nice to spend a little time dwelling on happy thoughts.
I’ll start with Keisha, from the podcast Alice Isn’t Dead. She has chronic anxiety, like me, and I don’t think I’ve ever found an anxious character so relatable. I don’t just see myself in the way she talks about panic attacks. I also relate to the natural kinship she has with other anxious people, and the way her anxiety sometimes forces her to be stronger, and the fact that those advantages don’t negate the ways it is hard for her. I love that managing her anxiety takes work. Some days she gets the better of it, and sometimes she doesn’t. Her experiences are honest about the complexities of mental illness, and every writer should aim to portray that level of nuance.
In general, I love when writers give their disabled characters a way to cope with their disability, but give that method limitations. One of the best I’ve seen comes from Avatar: The Last Airbender (not the shitty movie, the awesome TV show). Toph Bei Fong is blind, but has elemental earth powers. She senses vibrations in the earth and uses that as a kind of echolocation. Most of the time, she can navigate her environment unaided, and the constant use of her powers mean they are incredibly well honed; she can Earthbend better than most adults. But this skill doesn’t work for every situation. When the main characters have to cross a desert, she says the slippery sand makes things “fuzzy.” It’s even worse when they are on water, or flying. She’s completely out of contact with the earth, and it’s disorienting. The writers even considered the social implications; in a world without braille, for example, she’s illiterate.
In addition to the coolness of her superpowers, she is a great, well rounded character; a snarky rough and tumble tomboy who loves to mess with her friends, but is always there for them. She’s badass and delightful.
And speaking of blind characters, there’s this fantastic thriller from 1967 called Wait Until Dark. Audrey Hepburn plays a recently blinded woman, and two con men construct an elaborate ruse where both of them adopt different voices and pretend to be multiple people. Instead of making her either helpless or magically omniscient because some “blindness heightens your other senses” bullshit, the movie actually talks about how she is going through therapy to learn to navigate her environment. She has to learn to pay attention to her other senses, to trust her instincts about who to believe, and to think ahead. She makes mistakes, learns from them, and tries again. It makes for both a relatable character and a tense story. I can’t personally vouch for the accuracy of the techniques she uses, but I think the concept is disability positive in a rare way.
I can vouch for the accuracy of another great thriller with a disabled protagonist; Memento, one of Christopher Nolan’s first films. Actual neurologists have complimented it. Accurate representations of any sort of traumatic brain injury are rare. Most writers, like society, would rather dismiss people with TBIs than try to work with them. This film embraces his disability, his coping strategies and his perspective to make one of the most lauded thrillers ever filmed. It launched Nolan’s career too, which means we have accurate disability representation to thank for the Dark Knight trilogy. Just sayin’.
You know what other highly praised and financially successful film accurately portrays anterograde amnesia? Finding Dory. It’s a slightly different form, as Dory can sometimes recall things or form new memories. It just takes a lot of hard work, concentration and repetition. She can store semantic memories more easily than episodic memories, and even her breakthroughs come through fragmented. Brain problems don’t tend to come in a single, monolithic form; some people with amnesia are more like Leonard Shelby and some are more like Dory. So yeah, I’m gonna go ahead and praise the accuracy of a movie about an animated talking fish, because they took more care in being honest to the experiences of people with TBIs than most Serious Dramatic Films of Seriousness (TM).
And it’s not just the portrayal that makes Dory honest. It’s the fact that there’s no magical epiphany cure. Being around supportive people helps, but her symptoms don’t disappear, they just become more manageable. Dory’s happy ending is a loving family, both chosen and biological, who love and appreciate her for who she is. In the end, that’s what we are all looking for.
Speaking of healing and neurodiversity, Girl, Interrupted is a fantastic movie. I love how it shows the blurry boundaries between “disability” and “different kind of normal,” in a way that both criticizes the mental health profession and acknowledges the need for it. There isn’t a simplistic message there, just an acknowledgement that minds are complicated, and journeys to healing are multifaceted and different for everyone. You aren’t here to judge someone else for their success or failure, just to walk your own path as best you can.
And good representation doesn’t only come in perfect films. I’m not the biggest fan of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, but Arnie Grape is the best mentally disabled character I’ve seen, and I’ll recommend it just for him. He’s funny and troublesome. He has routines he won’t budge from, but he will break any rule in order to climb something. He loves telling jokes, sometimes the same one over and over again. In short, he’s not passive. He has his own agenda in life and you have to interact with him as, you know, a person, with his own priorities. I’ve never seen any other intellectually disabled character who actually is a person.
Oh, and Community‘s Abed! I love how he breaks out of the mold of autistic characters who are obsessed with math and trains and geek culture. I love how he uses his obsession with movies is also part of an active coping strategy, where he uses tropes and narrative themes to interpret the world around him. And I really, really love how, despite having trouble with conventional social skills, he is in many ways the most empathetic and emotionally stable member of the group. I’ve met many autistic people like him in real life, but rarely in fiction.
I love it when a disability is there to influence a character’s perspective, rather than what they can do. Like in The Chaos, by Nalo Hopkinson. There’s a disabled queer Sri Lankan woman named Punum who is pissed as hell at a world that marginalizes literally every aspect of who she is, and she uses that rage to fuel her as she stands up to every asshole in a world falling apart. Fuck yeah disabled activists!
And also, I love it when characters just have a disability that is not a big part of the story. Just, this is a part of their life, but they’ve dealt with it, and built a life that centers around something other than a handicap. Charles Xavier in his wheelchair. Imperator Furiosa with her prosthetic arm. Chirrut Imwe’s blindness. Oh, and on Welcome to Night Vale, Cecil’s niece Janice has spina bifida, and it’s not even the first thing you learn about her. It’s not the most interesting thing about her. Janice Palmer; smart kid, girl scout, wants to join Tamika Flynn’s militia of bibliophiles, uses wheelchair to get around, likes sports, really loves her uncle. I love her.
I love stories that point out how often a disabled person’s struggles aren’t about the disability itself, but the way the society treats the disabled person. There’s pointed criticisms, like Sarah Norman in Children of a Lesser God. When I was studying sign language, we watched this movie over and over, because it spoke so authentically to our Deaf teachers’ experiences. And yet, it’s not didactic. It’s just raw and honest and beautiful.
Ableism can also feature as a subplot, embedded in a larger social message. There’s Leo McGarry’s alcoholism and Josiah Bartlet’s multiple sclerosis on The West Wing. Both men have their medical issues well in hand. Both men sometimes have to deal with days where their medical issues get the better of them. But for both men, the stigmas and the pressure to hide an invisible disability causes far more damage than the disabilities themselves.
Then there’s Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird; ableism as one of many instances of social oppression, talking about the problem of a difference that people don’t know how to quantify or appropriately deal with. Just by honestly reflecting on things she had seen, Harper Lee talked about autism before most people even knew the word.
And, if I may step off my highfalutin’ philosophy/social commentary soapbox and just fanboy for a minute, I love Erik from Phantom of the Opera. And listen, he belongs to not one but two tropes that I generally despise; the disabled villain whose motivation is essentially bitterness over his disability, and the disfigured villain. Yet Erik is one of my favorite characters of all time. I think it’s because, out of all the takes on those tropes, this is one of the few that lets you sympathize with his point of view. Society shunned him and locked him away, along with all his musical and technical genius and deep human hunger to be loved, just because they didn’t like his appearance. Now he drops chandeliers on people, but can you help but love him anyway? No, no you can’t.
Even with him as an example of the disabled villain tropes done well, I don’t think we need more disabled villains. But I do think the focus on his perspective is worth imitating. He is an example of how marginalized characters can have flaws, even serious ones, and still be fascinating, complex, sympathetic and delightful.
But you know who I love the most? It’s gotta be Tyrion Lannister. I really, really, really love Tyrion Lannister. He’s like every good part of this list rolled up into one person. And he’s also himself, and doesn’t need to be anything else, because he’s fucking wonderful. I love his jokes and his wine and his outsmarting everybody and his strength and his brokenness and his scruffy scarred face. He’s Tyrion motherfucking Lannister.
There, that felt good, and that was reason enough to write it.
I hope you all have a happy New Year’s, and in all your 2018 endeavors, may you be aware of the problems to be fixed, but focus on emulating the good in the world.