Update: This post has been edited to use identity first language.
1. Characters’ Bodies Are Used for Jokes
In the 2017 show A Series of Unfortunate Events, a henchman is introduced who has hooks for hands. He’s an amusing character who lightens otherwise threatening scenes with humor. Unfortunately, part of the henchmen’s comedic routine is his disability. Viewers are intended to laugh at his awkward attempts to grab doorknobs, make phone calls, and handle a deck of cards.
Similarly, popular stories still think it’s acceptable to mock people for being heavy. In the Netflix series Trollhunters, the main character is a slim high schooler. His best friend Toby is heavy, and the writers constantly use Toby for fat shaming intended as humor. For instance, after the hero and Toby hop on their bikes to ride away from danger, they naturally find an alley so narrow that Toby gets stuck trying to escape.
Must I explain that mocking people because of their bodies is demeaning and disrespectful? This kind of mockery not only has a direct psychological effect on the people with those conditions but also encourages real-life harassment. Even without direct shaming, using characters with similar bodies for comic relief over and over again spreads the message that they exist to entertain able-bodied people. We’ve created a cultural climate where people with short stature or obesity feel pressured to be funny.
Never forget that physical activity isn’t possible for some disabled people, and high body fat can be caused by numerous diseases. Fat shaming supports ableism. And even if that weren’t true, fat shaming still wouldn’t be okay.
How to Fix It
Look for any place where you’re using slapstick humor and make sure that slapstick isn’t generated through a character’s disabilities or impairments. Then, make some of your protagonists heavy, and don’t make them funny. Give them emotional depth and an important character arc. That doesn’t mean characters with disabilities can’t make jokes or others can’t make jokes about them, but those jokes shouldn’t be both at their expense and because of their disability.
2. Disability Is a Great Tragedy
In the 2009 movie Avatar, Jake Sully is driven by his desire to cure his disability. He’s a paraplegic and dreams of having freedom of movement. Because Mr. Evil Military Man promises that he’ll “get his legs back,” Jake is persuaded to be a double agent against the people he cares about. Everything turns out okay though, because Team Good can also remove his disability. Jake’s new avatar form is big, strong, and able-bodied, and it’s continually contrasted with his small and weak paraplegic body.
And Jake isn’t the only hero driven to get rid of a disability. In the 2016 Dr. Strange, the titular doctor is injured, resulting in shaky hands. He goes to the far side of the Earth in order to learn magic in hopes of putting his hands back the way they were. Heroes like Jake and Strange never actually adjust to their disability or accept it. For them, it is a sign of their inadequacy.
The few disabled characters with unquestionably permanent impairments are usually designed to be objects of pity. Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol is a classic example. He doesn’t have his own personality. He exists to be an innocent and tragic figure, more like a lost kitten than a human being.
Just imagine for a second that you were a bit short, or slightly tall, or had some other uncommon physical trait – which you almost certainly have. You go to the movies, and the threat of becoming like you is motivating the heroes to take terrible risks. The one character who is already like you is constantly bemoaning their state, relying on the charity of others, and being pitied by everyone. Some protagonists – such as the main character of the 2016 Me Before You – even choose to die rather than live as you live.*
That is the reality for many disabled people. They’re just people living normal lives, and they’re doing fine. They aren’t brave fighters, or sources of inspiration about the human spirit, or woobies to be pitied. Turning their lives into a tragedy is an attack on their value as people. Don’t do it.
How to Fix It
There is a place for stories about people’s struggles with disabilities, but they are best left to those with direct experience. Otherwise, disabled characters should have similar struggles to able-bodied characters; they shouldn’t be defined by their disability. Instead of using the threat or continuance of a disability as a stake in your story, look for another way to motivate your protagonist. Maybe they lose their career not because they gain a disability but because their reputation is ruined. Maybe instead of a cure, they want the money to buy their way out of an unhealthy situation. Whatever you were using to make their disability meaningful can still be used, just without the disability.
3. Disabilities Miraculously Disappear
When John Locke wakes up in the first episode of the TV series Lost, he finds that, somehow, he doesn’t need his wheelchair anymore. In the Netflix Original The OA,* the series starts with a woman returning after a long disappearance. She was blind before, but now she can see. Time and time again, speculative fiction writers just can’t help converting disabled characters into able-bodied people. For your next trick, are you going to convert important characters of color into white people?
In numerous shows from Star Trek to Supernatural, characters are given disabilities for an episode just to cure them before the finish. We see them grieving over how horrible it is to be disabled, but we rarely see them accept their disability and adapt to their new lifestyle. Of course, despite almost every disease being magically cured in Lost, the character with a heroin addiction is still an addict. If we admitted that addiction was a disease and not a personal failing, we wouldn’t be able to just throw addicts in jail anymore.
Like other under-privileged groups, people who have disabilities get very little representation in our stories. So you might imagine how infuriating it is to watch the few disabled characters magically transform into able-bodied people. And in most cases, these characters have problems accepting their disability that are never addressed. What should be their character arc is completely abandoned in favor of just “fixing” them.
How to Fix It
Give some of your characters permanent disabilities. Start the story with them already well adapted to their disability. It can give them occasional trouble, but it shouldn’t be the focus of their character. If one of your characters acquires a disability during the story, they should keep it. Show them adapting to their new lifestyle, and then move on. Don’t make getting rid of their disability a plot point of any kind.
4. Mental Illness Is Threatening
The TV series Gotham stars an impressive lineup of villains that rotate between being out on the streets and inside the infamous Arkham Asylum. This happens even though none of the villains appear to have an actual mental illness. In the city of Gotham, villainy and mental illness are considered interchangeable. And the DC universe is far from alone in using mental illness to explain away villainy or increase the threat factor its villains have. From American Psycho to The Ring to M. Night Shyamalan’s new atrocity Split, popular stories are teaching everyone that the mentally ill are violent and dangerous.
Movie after movie, such as Twelve Monkeys, Gothika, and Shutter Island, feature protagonists who are packaged as neurotypical and then get stuck inside asylums. Once they’re inside, their fellow patients are just another part of the fear factor. Storytellers create a host of mentally ill characters just to put them on display in a fictional freak show. Then, despite showing how these asylums are full of rampant abuse, heroes who escape never wonder if they should free all of the genuinely ill patients who definitely aren’t getting better in there.
The truth is that mentally ill people are much more likely to be physically abused by others – including the police – than they are to harm anyone else. Stereotypes associating mental illness with violence increase the chances that those with mental illnesses will become targets. Oh, and those asylums? Abuse still happens there. Unless you know what it’s like to live under the threat of being dragged away, locked up, and given shock therapy, think again before including scary asylums in your story.
How to Fix It
Break the stereotypes that link villainy with disability. Your villains can be weird or eccentric, but never frame them as “insane.” Watch out for body language or behaviors that would make them resemble people with a real condition. Then, provide some positive representation for mentally ill people. Give a protagonist a mental illnesses, but don’t use it to drive the plot. Just let it hinder them a little on the odd occasion. Mentally ill characters should have a specific medical condition that you have researched and are depicting accurately.
5. Characters Fake Having a Disability
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Professor Quirrell is a shy, polite man who has a stutter. Only at the end of the book do readers learn that Quirrell’s disability was just an act he put on to make himself look innocent. And Professor Quirrell is far from alone. The famous surprise villain of The Usual Suspects pretends to have a limp. In Smallville, Lionel Luther pretends to be blind. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Spike pretends to need a wheelchair after he’s recovered.
Then, twist! The disabled person doesn’t actually have a disability; they are an able-bodied antagonist. Sometimes heroes even get in on the fakery, as with Daredevil in the Netflix TV series and Mei in the 2004 House of Flying Daggers.
Yeah, I get it, characters pretending to be disabled provides the story with a shocking reveal. But first, keep in mind that this trick only works because of harmful stereotypes about disabled people. Audiences dismiss disabled characters as innocent and incapable of mischief, both of which are demeaning. This trope reinforces that pity stereotype by making the character able-bodied the moment they are revealed to be capable and possibly threatening. And when villains do have genuine disabilities, it’s usually done for some gruesome shock factor that is equally damaging.
Able-bodied people continually dismiss real disabilities. They assume the disabled people they meet are just lazy or aren’t exerting enough willpower. It’s bad enough for people with clearly visible disabilities, much less the large number of people with disabilities that are invisible. You can’t tell by looking at a person whether they will need a wheelchair. Continually parading around characters that lie about having a disability makes audiences suspicious of real people with real medical conditions.
How to Fix It
Don’t let any of your characters lie about having a disability. They can lie about everything else, but the disability should be genuine. This goes beyond the technicalities – you could argue that Daredevil is actually blind, but he is clearly pretending to be more impaired than he is. It’s also important to remember that a character who lies about a disability is completely different from a character who sometimes needs assistance and sometimes doesn’t. In the Star Wars prequels, Yoda puts aside his cane, has a terrible CGI battle, and picks it back up again. It’s easy to conclude that he was using the force to assist his body and that he can’t do that all the time. Many real people can walk for short distances but not long ones or have symptoms that vary in intensity. By including characters who have intermittent symptoms and never sowing doubt about their truthfulness, you’ll help build a positive outlook in real life.
Most of our popular stories have been created by able-bodied people with little regard to the messages they send about everyone else. Unfortunately, their bad habits are easily picked up by the rest of us. Defeating those harmful messages in your own work requires research, thought, and the willingness to re-examine the tropes you once admired.
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