Superhero stories have a disability problem
In both our real and superhero-filled worlds, the fear of anything imperfect and different is seen as something to fix or destroy.
Disabled people don’t get to be superheroes. We often only get to be villains.
In the larger cultural landscape, we view disability as punishment and cannot see or make sense of the full spectrum of disability. We fear disability instead of trying to understand it. People with disabilities are never the guy that gets the girl, the person who saves the day, or the hero who gets the victory parade.
We are the villains — the bad guys with dark, ominous wardrobes, living in shady neighborhoods and taking what we think is rightfully ours. We are the ones you root against, the ones on the “wrong” side of justice, the people you look at with disgust and fear.
This fear of disability and disabled people is by design. In our visual and written narratives, disability is viewed as a punishment, something to loathe and fear because we often fear what we do not understand. I understand this reality intimately because I am disabled — I have Cerebral Palsy.
The Inverse Superhero Issue challenges the most dominant idea in our culture today.
I navigate the world with a very noticeable limp. My right hand has fingers that bend at angles and are usually so tight they ball into a fist involuntarily. I’m a Black, disabled, queer woman who subconsciously holds my breath while I walk, needs to take sitting breaks, goes to physical therapy twice a week, and has respiratory issues.
I live in an inaccessible world. There are never enough places to sit comfortably in public when my body begins to ache, elevators are often broken when I need them most, and I usually can’t climb four or more flights of steps. I often find that handrails are loose, nonexistent, or don’t provide enough support when I need it.
Usually, when we see villains in films, they struggle with these things too and have to adapt accordingly. In fact, these obstacles end up shaping their villainy. On top of the inaccessibility they must contend with, these villains usually have some sort of facial or limb difference to visually signify their scariness because nondisabled people don’t think about how it makes the people who live with such disabilities feel. Let me assure you, it feels degrading and cheap.
These negative representations make so much of the world not only physically inaccessible but emotionally inaccessible, too. The inaccessible world we live in is one superhero worlds are modeled after. In fact, many of our customs, ideals of good and evil, right or wrong, of what we should welcome and what we should fear, are mirrored in the worlds our superheroes inhabit.
Living in both real and imagined worlds, disabled people must prepare for inaccessibility at almost every turn and it gets exhausting. We are tasked with finding workarounds to broken elevators, curb cuts, entrances with stairs, handicap parking, and more. Most days, it feels like disabled villains have more than a few valid points. You try spending each day fighting for the right to exist in a world not designed with you in mind and see if you don’t end up feeling a little resentment.
The trouble with the creation of most disabled villains is that inaccessibility is never at the root of their issues where it should be. Disabled villains reflect the warped notion that disability itself is a punishment. Take Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. His physical appearance changed (notably his nose) because he delved into dark magic. Darth Vader has scars he hides under a dark mask and cloak. Dr. Poison in Wonder Woman is seen as horrific because she has scars all over her face that she tries to hide. The audience is meant to assume her scars are a result of her work with poisons, toxins, and plagues.
Scars and disability or disfigurement do not and should not make anyone evil. But in fictional worlds it does and that has real-life consequences. I spent so many years of my life hating the scars on my body that came from necessary surgeries for my Cerebral Palsy because every time I saw anyone with similar markings, they were portrayed as evil or bad. I am not alone in this. Many disabled people can share similar stories of their own about the impact of this type of representation in the media. So, why are these narratives so popular and prevalent?
Because we are taught to fear what we don’t understand. The fear and panic around disability began long ago. Some of the first instances of disabled-based fear began with psychiatric hospitals. Certainly, not all psychiatric hospitals are bad but disabled people often end up stuck in psychiatric hospitals because of a lack of mental health programs that could benefit them. When we see people in psych wards in movies and television, the depictions are intended to scare and inflict harm. And yes, most of these people are physically disabled as well as mentally.
“We are more likely to be coded as a threat than to be imagined as heroes.”
In The Dark Knight (2008), the Joker, in a nurse’s uniform, blows up Gotham Hospital. This scene, while very well acted, is used to further showcase his mental instability which implies that mentally unstable/disabled people are going to wreak havoc and otherwise do terrible things just because they can. The stigmatization of disability is, in part, a consequence of movies and roles like this.
When we see characters like the Joker or Clifford DeVoe, a supervillain in season four of The Flash — a disabled evil genius who became a wheelchair user after his “Thinking Cap” filled with dark matter, rendering him unable to walk — we are led to believe their disabilities are a result of them being evil. This framing links evil and disability despite the fact that disability isn’t the consequence of evil in reality. Disability just is. Some of us are born with it, while others acquire it over time. Despite how hard disabled activists and creators are working to shift the narrative, in our real and superhero-filled worlds, the fear of anything imperfect and different is seen as something to fix or destroy.
As a person living in a body that is often destroyed or killed before the end credits roll in a movie or TV show, I face the world and some of the people in it, trying my best to shield myself from their obvious disgust and discomfort. I’m treated poorly in airports by other passengers and airline employees who either think I’m faking when I transfer from the wheelchairs at the airport to my airplane seat or insist that wheelchair assistance is a courtesy and not a right. I have been screamed at in stores for walking too slowly. Strangers have put their hands on my body to physically move me without my consent, shouted jokes at me in stores, and made fun of the way I walk.
The worst of it happens online. If I say something that goes viral, no matter the subject, I inevitably will have hundreds of tweets making fun of my disability with people finding whatever GIF or picture of a person in a wheelchair they can. The fact that I am not a wheelchair user doesn’t matter, I am still inundated with images of villains like M.O.D.O.K., Dr. Evil and Mini Me, or Mr. Glass. Each tweet requires at least one disabled person losing a fight or getting hit. In the captions of these tweets, the trolls insist that my life must be as miserable as the person’s in the images or that I deserve to die. The others who mention disability as a jab go for the tired idea that I hate myself and should be focused on trying to take over the world, as is often the motive for disabled villains. Flawed, narrow cultural depictions of disability only exacerbate my real-world experiences.
“Let me assure you, it feels degrading and cheap.”
Able-bodied people look at disabled people in real life and in imagined worlds as if to say, Duh, of course they're evil. Look at them, I’d be evil too. This is what happens in a culture that not only fears disability but demonizes it. All too often, when they see disability on screen, it is a foil to the good guys, our beloved superheroes. I learned at a very young age that the people who would take issue with my disability would do so because they have been taught that disability is the absence of something, that no one with a disability has a life worth living. When disabled people, myself included, are told by multiple able-bodied people that they would want to kill themselves if they were us because life just seems so hard, it is a result of disability stigma: the belief that disabled people have a lesser quality of life simply because we are disabled.
Many able-bodied people who tell us they don’t think they would survive or want to survive with a disability believe they are complimenting us. Instead, telling us that death seems like the best choice is only furthering disability stigma. In some ways, I see why people jump to this conclusion. Death is often the only ending disabled people receive, which explains why people are so afraid of disability and why disability stigma is causing lasting harm.
In an essay for Vox, educator, editor, activist, and author Alice Wong writes:
“Even the notion of ‘quality of life” as a measurable standard is based on assumptions that a ‘good’ healthy life is one without disability, pain, and suffering. I live with all three intimately and I feel more vital than ever at this point in time, because of my experiences and relationships.”
We should celebrate the complexities of life, including the messy aspects. One thing I know for certain is that my life is worth living and celebrating. Villainy is part of the mess of life. I’m not saying disabled people should only ever be the good guys. We are complex just like everyone else. In the same way our disabled identities don’t make us inherently evil, they don’t make us inherently good. The issue is that we are more likely to be coded as a threat than to be imagined as heroes. Our redemptions often never come. We are not given the benefit of the doubt or the room to grow or evolve. Instead, we end up leaning deeper into evil until we eventually perish like Bond villains, M.O.D.O.K., Two-Face, and more.
While there are far too many villains to name, there are few instances where the odds are in our favor and we get to be superheroes. DC’s Barbara Gordon became disabled and started helping other heroes with her computer skills as Oracle. Professor X has the power of telepathy and uses it to conquer his enemies and encourage his students. Cyborg has super strength, speed, stamina, and can talk to computers, making him an indispensable part of the Justice League. Echo, one of the first deaf superheroes, has the powers of telepathy, superhuman strength, and flight. But the existence of these heroes who embody strength in disability makes me long for more opportunities where I don’t have to conduct a Google search to find any reflections of heroism reflected in bodies like mine.
People with disabilities deserve to be popular superheroes too, with all the generous trappings of that kind of visibility. These aforementioned superheroes matter because they allow disabled people to see that our fates are destined for more than evil. Knowing that there are disabled superheroes allows us all to dream bigger and remember that we don’t all have to be straight, white, thin, and superhuman to create change in the world. I want all of us to see the complexity of disability, the joy, the struggle, the truth. There is so much more to me and to the disability community as a whole.
I am not evil nor is my disability a consequence of evil. I am just a disabled Black queer woman and there isn’t an exciting or tragic reason for it. That’s okay too. I am not a superhero but I’m starting to think I should be. It would mean a lot to see someone like me saving the world and taking no shit. Maybe I’ll create that superhero myself, in my own work. Maybe she’ll face challenges where she will be counted out only to come back better, stronger than ever. Her uniform will be sensible and cute, probably the bisexual flag colors because she should be queer too. And like me, she will be super, but unapologetically human.
The Inverse Superhero Issue challenges the most dominant idea in our culture today.