This is a repost from my old blog.
I’ve been involved in a lot of conversations discussions about portrayals of people who use wheelchairs in prominent television and movie roles. There are only four that I can think of.
Ironside debuted in 1967 and ran until 1975. A recent attempt to reboot the series was canceled after only eight episodes. I think Ironside was significant enough to warrant its own post, since it was the first show to have a character with a disability in the title role. I’ll be discussing Logan Cale later on when I talk about romance and disability in the media. This post will look at Professor Xavier and Oracle
Professor Charles Xavier
Professor Xavier has been a media presence outside of comic books for a long time. I remember him appearing in Spiderman and His Amazing Friends in the early 80s. I was too young to know much about comics. I knew what they were, but I didn’t have any money to buy them, so I thought of them as incidental to the superhero stories I saw on TV. I was thrilled because it was the first time I’d seen a character with any kind of mobility impairment in an important role. (He only made brief appearances in a couple of episodes, but the idea of the X-Men having a teacher who used a wheelchair was pretty phenomenal because the X-Men were superheroes.) I had a similar reaction in 1992 when X-Men: The Animated Series began its run on Fox, and then again when Patrick Stewart took the role of Professor Xavier in the live action X-Men movie series. In all that time, from 1983 to 2000, Charles Xavier has been the only consistently well-known character with a mobility impairment on television or in the movies. Thanks to Patrick Stewart, Professor X is iconic now, but as awesome as he is, there’s a problem. In fact, there are several problems. I’ll be getting into more detail on that further down.
Barbara Gordon (Batgirl/Oracle)
Barbara Gordon is iconic in her identity as Batgirl. I first encountered Batgirl in reruns of the old Adam West show, and she was my favorite superhero at the time. I think I was around four years old, and Batgirl was the first female superhero I had ever seen. She also wore purple, which endeared her to me, but that’s beside the point. The character’s evolution from Batgirl to Oracle is less well-known. From what I’ve read, she is described as “iconic” by a fairly large segment of comic readers who have disabilities. I do know of some people who only read Oracle-related comics and/or got into DC because of her. There are still a lot of people who have no idea who she is because they don’t read comics and there’s never been an explosively popular media franchise around the name “Oracle.” If I said, “Batgirl” to 10 random strangers on the street, eight or nine of them will probably know who I was talking about. If I said, “Oracle,” I would guess maybe two or three would know who I meant. I’m including her because I think enough people are aware of her that it wouldn’t be fair to leave her out.
Oracle’s origin stems from a 1988 graphic novel called The Killing Joke. In it, Barbara was shot by the Joker and became paralyzed. In later stories, she reinvents herself as a computer hacker and information broker who makes her services available to the DC universe heroes.
That’s the back story used in the 2002 television series Birds of Prey. The show was based on a comic book series of the same name. It ran one season and actress Dina Meyer played Barbara. In Birds of Prey, Oracle and two other heroines (Helena Kyle, the Huntress, and Dinah Lance, the daughter of Black Canary ) are the main defenders of the city of New Gotham. Huntress and Black Canary handle most of the fieldwork while Barbara directs them from the Clocktower, acting as a mentor and handling anything that needs to happen behind the scenes. There was only one episode I remember where Barbara did anything in the field. Like Professor X, Barbara was a strong character in a necessary role. It’s important to have intelligent, seasoned characters like her acting as mentors for younger heroes, and it was great to see a woman in that position. She turned out to be my favorite character on Birds of Prey, and I think of her as one of my favorite examples of a strong woman on television. She’s definitely inspiring in a lot of ways, but as a person with a disability, her role leaves me unsatisfied.
Characters with disabilities are too often given story purposes and roles that emphasize “disability.” This singles the characters out and places them in a special class, instead of allowing them to be shown as individuals with varied skills and talents. It’s especially true of any character with a mobility impairment.
Wheelchair users are consistently seen in the position of having given up active, hands on field jobs to take on the role of the mentor, the “special” information supplier, hacker, or tech whiz. Writers usually give them some sort of adaptive martial art or fancy technology that they can whip out and show how badass they still are in an emergency, but they never use these skills or technologies on a daily basis. Badassery is left in the hands of their ablebodied counterparts.
While that may be necessary or realistic in some cases, those should not be the only development paths for characters who use mobility devices. That’s especially true in superhero stories where far-fetched, pseudoscientific technology, and/or magical elements routinely aid or empower superheroes and supervillains.
Of course, not all characters need to use violence. Professor Xavier is an intellectual. He prefers nonviolence, he prefers to be a teacher, and he was conceived as a mentor for the X-Men. There’s nothing wrong with that. His back story was written in the late 60s, and for that time, he was very progressive.
There should also be superheroes with mobility impairments in visible, physical, costumed roles JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE.
Barbara Gordon was conceived as a counterpart to Batman. She was his intellectual equal, capable of physically confronting and stopping crime in Gotham City, and she didn’t have to have Batman’s approval to wear a bat symbol on her chest. I know there are debates about whether or not she was as effective or good in a Batsuit. I know there’s a whole feminist thing about whether or not she was essentially a “female copy of Batman.” All of that aside, she started out thinking it was important for her to fight crime physically, as a costumed hero.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with having Barbara develop other skills, grow past the Batsuit, and realize that she could be more effective in the role of Oracle than she was as Batgirl. Those are GOOD THINGS. Oracle was a non-violent hero who filled a vital role. That is a BETTER THING.
I’m not in any way implying that Barbara can only be useful as Batgirl. Nor am I suggesting that Oracle is a weaker character or a weaker hero. She isn’t. In fact, I think she’s stronger. There is a great scene in Birds of Prey where Barbara is looking at her old Batgirl suit , and Alfred tells her that, with the person she’s becoming, she doesn’t need Batgirl anymore. Alfred’s right. Still, using a spinal cord injury as the only catalyst for those changes by implying that the injury forced Barbara to give up the mantle of Batgirl has never made sense to me. It’s the main stumbling block I have in being able to identify with Oracle.
That ISN’T because I think Barbara should have gone back to being Batgirl. Oracle is a legitimate, necessary role in her own right. The problem is that the character’s backstory makes an assumption that the audience will just accept that a woman with a spinal cord injury would automatically need to give up being a costumed superhero. I don’t accept that.
In 1988, after The Killing Joke established her comics backstory, Oracle was progressive. In 2002, when Birds of Prey was adapted to television, I think the logic of the backstory was questionable, and a lot more could have been done without changing Barbara’s ultimate role.
I liked Birds of Prey as a show that puts women and female perspectives in starring positions. I like all of the three lead characters, and Barbara was my favorite. I think she was the strongest and the character with the most depth and potential. I don’t think her disability was the biggest part of her character development.
I still have some problems, although they may be more related to the show trying to stick to comics backstory that could have been different/better if it had been written a decade later.
(My first draft of this post had a much longer commentary on my issues with Oracle’s backstory, but I took it out, because I wasn’t sure whether the problems were really related to the Birds of Prey television show so much as they were related to the late 80s and common assumptions made about people who use wheelchairs when Oracle was conceived.)
By all accounts, Oracle’s story was handled with sensitivity and respect. The character has dignity, and she is an individual, not stereotype. My comic book friends tell me that between 1988 and 2011, she was the only superhero in DC’s lineup who used a wheelchair. In 2014, she is barely a blip on the average person’s radar, and the character has been essentially removed as a figure representative of Disability Awareness.
That leaves Professor X. I love Professor X, and I was supportive of Oracle. I know that a lot of fans identify with Barbara and consider Oracle to be a role model because of her disability. I don’t, but I respect that, and I’m not suggesting that we “re-write” Oracle’s story to suit my tastes. At some point, there still need to be prominent characters who say:
“I want to be a superhero. I’m going to go out, get myself a motorcycle, maybe a flying wheelchair that doesn’t look like one, some ranged weapons, grappling hooks to swing around on, learn martial arts, and make body armor and a costume that has a levitation belt or something to get me off the ground in an emergency.”
There’s another problem that has less to do with Professor Xavier and Barbara Gordon and more to do with media representation in general. Professor X, Oracle, Logan Cale, and Robert Ironside all have spinal cord injuries. When I made a list of characters who use wheelchairs in the media, even in less prominent roles, the only examples I could come up with who didn’t have spinal cord injury was a character on Game of Thrones who has gout, one character who was given bionics to make her disability go away, and a handful of amputees.
The experiences of people living with acquired injuries are important. They should be discussed, and they should be represented in the media. There is a whole other portion of people who use wheelchairs whose experiences are vastly different. While “disability” itself should not be emphasized, it’s a problem that the public rarely ever sees a person using a wheelchair who does not have an acquired injury associated with an accident or some other tragedy. Disabilities do not always have to be these great tragedies in a character’s life.
My disability is not a tragedy. I’m not looking for a cure. I don’t need to compensate for the “loss” of my ability to walk unaided. Stories like mine need to be represented alongside of Oracle’s and Professor X’s. Without them, the able-bodied public will continue to perceive disabilities as problems that need to be fixed instead of qualities that contribute to people’s identities. Now I would like to close again with some key points.
- There are only a handful of recognizable characters who use mobility aids in the media. Of them, there is only one who has been a consistent media presence in the last 10 years.
- Characters who use wheelchairs are capable of taking on physically active roles. They shouldn’t always be shown in position of mentors, teachers, and computer hackers.
- The media’s use of adaptive equipment and technology for people who use wheelchairs lacks imagination. We need to stop assuming that a character who has a mobility impairment needs a new job and start looking at ways to use technology to help that character keep doing what they wanted to do in the first place.
- The experiences of paraplegics and other people living with acquired injuries are important, but they do not represent the experience of every person who uses a wheelchair. The media needs to start showing characters who were born with mobility impairments.