So another question for Fay Onyx. With villainous characters like Darth Vader & the Joker it seems like the best thing for the disability community is to focus on a single flawed element of the villain rather then an entire condition. But what if the villain is a new take on an old archetype? Would a more modern take improve things or would it better to narrow the focus to a single element (fear of losing a war, trouble focusing in combat, or some kind of relatable phobia) of the character instead?
Thanks for the question! Creating disabled villains that portray disability respectfully is definitely challenging. There are a lot of different things to think about here. For me, a lot of this comes down to the disability that is being represented and how the villain functions in the story. Disability can be represented in speculative fiction in three main ways. The approach that is used shapes the requirements for creating a respectful portrayal of disability.
The first option is to portray a real-world disability. In this case, there is an ethical responsibility to represent real-world disabilities realistically because inaccurate representations spread misinformation and stereotypes. Most often this means doing research and putting a lot of effort into portraying the full nuance of the disability. In addition, the more the disability is connected to the plot, the more work will be needed to create an accurate portrayal.
The second option is portraying a fictional disability that comes out of magic, technology, or other speculative fiction elements. Because this isn’t a real disability, there is more flexibility in how it can be portrayed. For example, one of the things that I like to do is to take one specific symptom and make a fictional disability that is just that symptom explored in detail. However, when doing this approach, it is still important to be aware of both general stereotypes about disability and stereotypes about any real-world disabilities that are similar to the fictional one. For example, if you have a fictional disability where the souls of two people are trapped in one body, you will want to do some research on stereotypes of dissociative identity disorder so that you can avoid reinforcing them.
The third option is to represent disability by portraying multiple sapient species with different access needs. This approach is often used to emphasize the ways in which the physical and social environment shape experiences of disability. For example, human cities are not designed for the physical needs of merpeople, so an ablebodied merperson might need to use a mobility device, like a wheelchair, to get around. Even though the characters in these scenarios are typically ablebodied and neurotypical for their species, they still represent experiences of disability, so it is important to be aware of any relevant stereotypes.
Different approaches are going work best for different situations. A lot of this is based on context. In regard to villains specifically, there are a few additional things to be aware of. Most villains need to be threatening, especially if they are the main villain, and this can bring a lot of complications. Far too often, disabilities are used to make a villain more threatening, which reinforces harmful stereotypes. This means that it is important for a villain’s disability to be separate from their villainy. The article Five Common Harmful Representations of Disability discusses this in detail.
One of the other challenging aspects of villains is that some of the techniques for making them threatening can be counterproductive to creating a nuanced representation of disability. For example, keeping a villain mysterious is a key technique that is often used for making a villain threatening, but it greatly reduces the depth and nuance possible for disability representation. This means that the disability chosen for a character needs to be carefully matched with how they function as a villain. For example, if you want to portray a villain who struggles with depression, a sympathetic side villain that the audience gets to know in detail would be a much better fit than a mysterious main villain that is only ever glimpsed at a distance.
Finally, there are some disabilities, such as schizophrenia, that are regularly stereotyped as violent. Because these stereotypes are so damaging, it’s generally a good rule to avoid having villains with these disabilities, especially if you don’t have any personal experience with a specific disability.
I really hope that this answers your question, and I wish you the best of luck with your storytelling project!
Fay from Writing Alchemy