I’ve gotten a bunch of questions and general confusion about what good representation should look like — or at least what I think it should look like. I’ve had some extended dialogues about metaphorical representation (specifically the X-Men and Elsa from Frozen, but I’ve also used a lot of examples from Star Trek. Star Trek is the King of metaphorical representation.) Additionally, there seems to be some confusion about where the line is, since I’m saying I don’t want to see characters whose roles revolve around their disabilities, I hate whiny plot-arcs about feeling useless, etc, but I do want characters who talk about and acknowledge having a disability. I think the best thing to do is for me to touch on all of that and then close the post with a look at some things I do and don’t want to see in the media.
Metaphorical representation is pretty common in science fiction and fantasy. It’s when there are characters and/or plot elements that parallel or provide analogies for real-life minorities and the problems they face. The X-Men are a great example. In Marvel’s cosmology, mutants are usually marginalized and feared, even though the mutant gene seems to be relatively common. Historically, the same thing has happened to people with disabilities. It’s happening to LGBTQ+ people in the United States, and there are examples of conflict over race and ethnicity all over the world. The X-Men movies wrestle with whether or not the mutant gene is something that needs to be cured and tackle the question of whether mutants can co-exist peacefully with humans. Along the way, the movies touch on common experiences that people from lots of different minority groups can have. Star Trek is so full of morality plays like this that sometimes I wonder why anyone liked it in the 60s. The Internet seems to be picking up on Elsa from Frozen as metaphorical representation for lesbians. I know a lot of young people with disabilities who identify with the character and cite all of the same points that other folks see as evidence she’s gay. Elsa’s powers and how people respond to them in the movie totally fit the criteria that I talked about using when I look at representation for people with disabilities. The X-Men’s powers do too. (And I realize everyone’s already made the X-Men jokes about Elsa.)
That’s how metaphorical representation works. Just about any person who has been marginalized in some way can probably relate to the X-Men, and there are a lot of different groups who can pick up on the same things and identify with Elsa. That’s why they’re important. Metaphorical representation removes the tendency toward knee-jerk reactions, preconceived ideas, and cultural contexts. It lets audiences — and creators — engage with ideas and come to their own conclusions in a safe, neutral environment. Another thing it does is help foster a sense of common ground with other people in real life. It’s helpful and important to know they were not alone in our experiences. It can be profoundly eye-opening to realize that a person we thought we had nothing in common with actually identifies with the same experiences we do in a character. Like how I mentioned the various different groups of people who identify with Elsa. Maybe there’s a way we can use that as a springboard for dialogue. I’ve done it before using examples like Geordi and Mary Beth Lacey.
The problem I see is that people also need stories and characters that they can relate to on a more specific, experiential level. People just want to see their own stories represented in the media. We look for characters who represent our experiences of the world, and sometimes we want (need) to see more than a metaphor. Stories also have the ability to engender empathy and create understanding for people who have not shared our personal experiences. So, metaphorical representation is great to point, but it’s not enough.
But what does literal representation look like?
There seems to be a lot of confusion and uncertainty about that, and all I have offer our my own opinions. This next part of the post is just my viewpoint and you should take it with a grain of salt. I’m a cynical, picky audience member who analyzes things to death and gets impatient with stupid plots or lazy storytelling. These are the things I want to see most, and the things I don’t want to see any more of.
General things I want to see
- Characters with disabilities in lead roles when stories are not about having a disability. The best example I’ve got right now is Tony Stark.
- Characters who identify as having a disability. Tony Stark, Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Nick Fury, and Bruce Banner all have disabilities. To my knowledge, none of them have ever been shown to acknowledge, talk about or identify themselves as persons with disabilities.
- Characters living and coping with mental illness in responsible ways. I’ve seen characters with bipolar disorder, characters with PTSD, characters with dissociative identity disorder, characters with all kinds of undefined but obvious mental health issues. I rarely ever see a person with mental health problems who is also successful, healthy, and managing their illness in appropriate ways. People need to see that. Newly diagnosed people need to see that there is another side. People managing their illnesses need to see other people — even fictional people — doing the same thing. People who do not have mental illness need very much to see positive portrayals of mental illness and what it means to live with one. I’m getting up on my soapbox for minute here, but I am sick to death of mental illness being used as a plot device that causes damage but never allowing characters to grow or achieve healthy, positive change. Usually, if we get to a point in the story where the mental illness is being managed appropriately, that’s the end of the story arc, and there’s no follow up. I have actually heard writers tell me that they lose interest in characters once they’ve started coping in healthy ways because that’s not “interesting.” My response to statements like that is probably not appropriate for this blog, but the comments themselves illustrate the problem. Mental illness (disability in general) doesn’t always have to be a plot device or story focus to be important.
- Young women with disabilities who have healthy self-images. Oracle is the only one I can think of right now, and there need to be more. Self image and body image are big issues for a lot of women, and it seems to be especially true for women with disabilities. These women need to see themselves represented in the media. Is that going to solve everything? Of course not. But one character for the entire population is just ridiculous.
- Women with disabilities in relationships and/or raising children.
- Characters who see their disabilities as both assets and challenges. Why? Because that’s how most people I know think of them, and if more people saw that in the media, we could get away from so many of the stereotypes that people still hold. Injury victims would have a better chance of being able to adapt and cope well in the early stages of their adjustment if they had empowering examples in the media, because then their own conception of disability might not be “horrible tragedy that’s going to make me useless and a burden.”
- Characters with disabilities in non-genre stories. Especially, characters with disabilities who are not superheroes. Superheroes are great. Superheroes with disabilities can be empowering. I’m not going to argue against having them. But there need to be characters with disabilities in other genres as well. There need to be police officers with disabilities. There need to be kids on teen dramas with disabilities. There need to be people on sitcoms with disabilities. I talked about this before in my post about Game of Thrones. The show is doing great things, but it’s not enough.
- Characters who were born with their disabilities. Especially characters who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices. Right now all we have are individuals with spinal cord injuries, usually paraplegics. Those stories are important, but they don’t represent the whole body of experience for people who use wheelchairs or walk with adaptive devices. My life is vastly different that of a paraplegic who acquired her injury.
- Innovative use of technology, both in terms of adaptive equipment and in terms of the potential that technology has to cause disability. I’ve said before that I think the media’s use of technology in order to assist characters with disabilities lacks imagination. I want to see more things like Logan’s exoskeleton on Dark Angel — things that can assist a person with a disability, not just technology that acts as a panacea. I also want to see more characters like Sarah Corvus, for whom technology is not a miracle cure but the cause of her problems. (I’m not sure why I want to see the second thing, it’s not really related to promoting disability awareness. I’m a scifi nerd and maybe I just LIKE to see balanced portrayals of technology.)
- Characters with disabilities in healthy romantic relationships. There are only a handful of characters I can think of as examples when it comes to romance. Adam and Mary Kendall from Little House on the Prarie were the first ones I’d ever seen. Professor X had a romantic relationship on X-Men the series in the 90s. Corky and Amanda Thatcher from Life Goes On are the most recognizable. Max and Logan from Dark Angel had a complex romantic subplot. Tony Stark and Pepper Potts count, but their relationship seems more affected by Iron Man than Tony’s ARC reactor. I tried to work up a separate post about romance and disability, but there really wasn’t enough material to draw on. That’s a problem in itself. (I know there are some on Game of Thrones, but I’m not really comfortable discussing that franchise indepth. It’s not my fandom.)
- Villains with disabilities who are not one dimensional caricatures. See this post about Motive.
- More discussion about war veterans and what it means to live with the long term consequences of combat injury (including PTSD and other psychological problems.) The only good example I have right now is Joe Dawson, from Highlander, and that show aired in the 90s.
- Better and more consistent utilization of service animals (especially for characters with emotional/behavioral disorders or seizure disorders.)
- Positive portrayals of individuals with traumatic brain injuries.
- Characters with cognitive disabilities of any type who live and work independently of family members or paid caregivers. There are only two good examples that I know of: I Am Sam and The Other Sister. Both were popular films based on books, but I’ve seen nothing like them in years. I Am Sam deals with parenting and disability in a really awesome way, and The Other Sister explores the concept of self-determination. Both of those topics need to be moved into the forefront when it comes to discussions of disability in the media. I wanted to do a separate post on each of them, but I don’t feel confident that I can speak to the experiences of individuals with cognitive disabilities.
- Discussion of long-term chronic illnesses. There are some good movies about AIDS. The most well-known one that I can think of is Philadelphia with Tom Hanks. Television has a decent track record with portrayals of breast cancer. That started in the 80s with Mary Beth Lacey, continued with Dana Scully, and the most recent I’m aware of is Laura Roslin from the new BattleStar Galactica. I stopped watching BSG in the third season, but I kept up with Roslin’s cancer arc because I’m interested in females in positions of political power and in anything to do with breast cancer. I think it’s a shame that we only seem to see strong female characters deal with this issue about once every decade. I also want to see more varied portrayals of chornic illness in general. Cancer and AIDs are devasting, but they are FAR from the only two diseases that warrant attention in the media.
Specific things I want to see
- A senior command officer — most preferably the Captain — on a Star Trek show who uses a mobility device. Why? Because forgodsake, we’ve had Captain Pike since the sixties. We have Geordi, so there is precedent for people in the Federation either choosing or needing to use adaptive equipment rather than getting “replacements.” We also have Riva, so there is precedent in the Federation for disability being an accepted and even celebrated part of a culture. It is time to put a person with a disability in the chair, and I want to see it be someone who uses a mobility aid.
- A Jedi like Tenel Ka who chooses not to get cybernetic replacements, or at least a Jedi who has to spend time adapting to them. Why? Because the media portrays disability as something that always needs to be “fixed” instead of something that is simply part of the way an individual experiences the world. Real people with disabilities don’t always want to be fixed, cured, or made like everyone else.
- More than one Disney Princess with a disability. I’ve been giving this a lot of thought and talking about it with other women I know. It seems like each of us want to see our own experiences of disability reflected in this franchise, and there’s no way I can argue that my experiences deserve to be represented but someone else’s don’t. So. We need more than one, but we also don’t want to end up with a class of “special” princesses for the disability community. That’s going to be tricky.
- A mom with a disability on a sitcom. I don’t even like sitcoms. They just have a wider viewership than anything I actually like to watch, and I think it would do so much good to put a woman with a disability in a role like that, where she can be shown as a woman with a lot of facets who happens to have a disability. I’m envisioning someone like Claire Huxtable for anyone who remembers her.
General things I don’t want to see
- Whining. I hate this. I don’t know any person with a disability who whines and angsts about not having a purpose, not being able to contribute usefully to society, or runs around trying to prove that he/she doesn’t need help with anything as much as the characters I see on television and in the movies do. It’s self-absorbed, stupid, and drives me crazy. In the first place, I’ve never done that in my life. In the second place, even people who have acquired injuries move on from that stage and learn how to cope. Healthy people with disabilities learn that needing help sometimes is NOT a big deal, because everybody needs help in one way or another. More importantly, kids with disabilities are still growing up in environments where they’re treated as less capable than their able-bodied peers. They need to see adults who know how to ask for what they need and treat it like advocating for themselves is normal. They don’t need to see assholes who think that asking for what they need is the end of the world and cause more problems because they try to do everything themselves or just sit around feeling sorry for themselves all day. Kids need to see people who can speak up and advocate for themselves in order to learn that people will listen in real life, and that the things they need help with are no different than someone who needs help reaching a high shelf or someone who needs help with understanding math or anything like that.
- Characters whose disability is their story purpose. That’s not to say disability can’t be relevant to a story. The Book of Eli is one of my favorite movies. (And I normally don’t like post-apocalyptic stuff, so that should tell you something.) It’s a great example of a movie that incorporates disability into the story without making it the focus. Eli’s blindness is integral to the story’s revolution. The ending wouldn’t work if if the character wasn’t blind, and he (probably) wouldn’t have been able to do what he needed to do. The reason it works is that story itself doesn’t rely on the disability to frame the character for the audience, and the movie isn’t about disability. As a character, Eli is defined by his bravery, compassion, determination, and the fact that he knows his world and how to survive in it. The movie uses disability as a “twist,” so it isn’t obvious that he has one on first viewing, but there are ways that blindness is shown to affect his daily life. It just isn’t done in such a way to call attention to the fact that the character is blind. When we have characters whose whole development path revolves around having a disability, it sends the message that any person with a disability is automatically in a special class.
- “Overcoming disability” movies and the “inspirational” films like Forrest Gump. There can be times when a disability is a tremendous obstacle in a character’s life. I’m not suggesting that we should minimize or ignore that. Temple Grandin is a fantastic, empowering movie about a woman who learns to cope with the challenges of her autism and use the atypical perceptions it gives her to make huge innovations in her field. Temple never tries to “overcome” her autism though. She’s fighting to be heard and accepted the way she is, not fighting to “defeat” a part of herself so that she can function the way neuro-typical people do.
Specific things I don’t want to see.
- This plot:
- character with a disability is marginalized and misunderstood.
- Character with a disability gets (or already has) special caretakers/guardians who are the only ones who realy understand how amazingly special the character is.
- Character with a disability makes some amazing personal breakthrough
- everyone suddenly realizes that character with a disability has AN INCREDIBLE TALENT/Amazing Perceptive Abilities that no one else can compete with. Because of the disability.
- Character with a disability gets a special job that only he/she can do.
- Character makes a terrible error or has a personal meltdown
- Character’s “guardians/caretakers/whatever” come to the rescue and advocate for the character to get another chance or have the opportunity to correct the mistake.
- Character performs some Incredible Feat of Perception/Imagination/Etc to save the day and impresses everyone.
- As a cosmic reward, character gets his/her old job back and no one is concerned about another meltdown/mistake, because it was all a big misunderstanding and we’ll know what to do next time.
Variations of that storyline have been played out in almost every story I can think of with a major character who has a disability. More recent works are moving away from it (Hunger Games and The Inheritance Cycle are outside the scope of this series but deserve mention anyway. The conflicts in this story never address, allow, or encourage integration. They send the message that a person with a disability should be given special/preferential treatment, and while I’d rather see someone whose disability is an asset than a person who whines about being useless, this is really just the other end of the spectrum of isolation and segregation. You may also want to check out this post for more on this topic.
So, I’m a little surprised, but this post has pretty much wrapped up every topic I wanted to cover. There are a few characters I haven’t mentioned, but all of the issues I wanted to talk about and concepts I wanted to explain have been addressed.
I said a while ago that I was thinking about posting examples from my own fictional worlds, and I do plan to do that. It’s going to take me some time to put that together. Right now, Gene’O and I are putting our heads together on ways to keep this discussion going in the interim. If anybody else has questions/comments, or ideas, go ahead and chime in. The more the merrier.