The Invisible Man: speculative fiction and disability

That’s how we roll in sci-fi.

I don’t know if any of you have seen the infographic floating around about representation in science fiction movies or not, but I wanted to talk about an issue I had with it, namely what constitutes a “protagonist with a disability”. I won’t post a link to the infographic here because my intention is not to call it or its creator out. In fact, I applaud them for raising awareness of representation issues. However, I am bothered by the infographic’s problematic take on this specific issue, as well as by this discussion in general (which seems to happen every few years when there is a renewed controversy over Barbara Gordon).

Somehow, this particular infographic pointed to Jake in Avatar as the sole “protagonist with a disability” in recent high-grossing science fiction movies. For starters, I don’t know how Professor Xavier didn’t get on this list. I suppose he isn’t disabled until the end of X-Men: First Class and may not be considered the primary protagonist of the earlier movies, but surely X-Men: Days of Future Past counts, even if it may illicit mixed reactions from the disability community.

Narrowing our definition of “protagonist with a disability” to “protagonist who visibly and permanently requires a wheelchair” is rather limiting and erases a lot of people and their struggles. It also reinforces the so-called disability binary, where people are either completely and visibly disabled at all times or they’re faking for the disability benefits or the sweet, sweet parking space. You can see it in memes that call out people for standing despite having a wheelchair or the angry notes many receive for legally parking in a handicapped spot while not looking disabled enough (a pretty regular occurrence in the invisible illness community). Fun fact: many wheelchair users are, at least to some degree, ambulatory and many disabled people do not use a wheelchair at all.

There is a whole spectrum of disabilities and medical conditions that can change in severity over time or from day to day.  These realities are met with enough skepticism, judgment, and misunderstanding as it is. So-called progressive circles further propagating this mindset in a well-intentioned attempt to draw awareness to the representation of disabled people is one step forward and three steps backs.

At least in my experience, sci-fi and fantasy have far more disabled characters; some visible, some limiting, some overcome by futuristic technologies, some medical, some more speculative or supernatural in origin, some obvious commentary or allegory, some hardly important to the story or character at all. But not only do these characters exist in fantasy and sci-fi, they’re often better written, more fully fleshed out, and somehow more true to life. Yes, even the supernatural ones. Perhaps especially the supernatural ones, as it gives people a little more license to say what they want without the burden of accurately representing all experiences (an impossible feat for any single character or story).

Thus, I find more truth, catharsis, and nuance in speculative fiction’s portrayal of disability and illness than I ever have in medical dramas or Hallmark-style movies about overcoming adversity. This may be because narratives about disabilities elsewhere tend to be stuck in the Amazing Inspirational Story of Triumph mold, which doesn’t always allow for a lot of ambiguity, negative emotion, or continued dynamic character growth and struggle after Overcoming the Odds. Narratives about medical issues are also limited to one of two outcomes: either the person heroically overcomes their illness (usually with a newfound prospective on life) or they tragically succumb and exit stage right (usually after giving someone else a newfound prospective on life).

This dual narrative does not allow a lot of room for issues that go unresolved or undiagnosed, that drag on or worsen, or that come back. And this limited two-option Choose Your Own Adventure doesn’t just exist in fiction, it’s everywhere. From the commercials for various charity walks that slap a beauty queen smile or cute catchphrase on everything to greeting cards limited to “Get Well Soon” (a feat not always possible and sometimes quite insensitive) to the thinning patience of acquaintances when a trip to the hospital or a procedure does not immediately fix everything to the fact that Facebook has a Life Event for overcoming an illness but no options for being diagnosed with one (by far the more common occurrence and certainly no less life-changing or important).

Real life is not House. Not everyone is diagnosed and treated in the span of one hospitalization, one doctor, and one 60 minute time slot. Yet real life has little room and even less patience with medical issues that linger, either because they have not yet been diagnosed, have been improperly diagnosed, are being ignored or not sufficiently treated, or are chronic issues.

I can’t tell you how many times people have expressed disapproval or confusion that I am not better yet. One teacher even became angry and suspicious with me when doctors had not been yet able to find out what was wrong with me after one trip to the hospital. Yep, telephone tag with my insurance company over that ambulance bill, seizing in the waiting room, and leaving with one arm bruised and one with the vein blown out (courtesy of a mean-spirited and unprofessional nurse) was all part of my master plan to get a two-day extension on a paper that the teacher had already granted for the whole class anyway.

Fantasy and Sci-Fi avoids these pitfalls and limitations more than any other genres I am aware of. Admittedly, many times health issues and/or disabilities are Deus-Ex-Machina-ed away (Or Deus-Ex-Scienced away), such as in the case of Captain America, Spider-Man, Christopher Nolan’s Batman (Exactly how did Bruce do that? What about his leg? What about his ribs?), Kevin in Eureka, or any number of characters who get around their illnesses/disabilities via magic or other supernatural loopholes.

But then there’s Bran Stark being told he’ll never walk again because so what if there are dragons, disability still exists and you have to deal with that. There’s Jojen Reed having seizures. They may be magical green-sighted seizures, but I’m sure my often barometrically-induced symptoms would get me labeled as a fairy or a demon or a shamanic go-between to the wrathful storm gods pretty quick in many a mythically-inclined pre-industrial culture, so that doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it may others.

And while we’re on the topic of seizures: there are three recent shows I am aware of with characters who have seizures: Under the Dome, Teen Wolf, and Game of Thrones. Up until Under the Dome just completely dropped them with no explanation, Teen Wolf was the depiction I related to the least, despite being the only completely medical, non-supernatural seizures of the three (although Erica does want to be a werewolf because she believes it will cure her). Jojen’s seizures in Game of Thrones not only hit close to home for me but for my boyfriend as well, who related to Meera Reed in that scene more than he had anticipated.

Meanwhile, in more child-friendly fare, How to Train Your Dragon offers not one but two main characters with prosthetic limbs. This is a great example of something that neither dominates the plot nor disappears when its inconvenient, no longer necessary to the story, or when the writers change whether it exists and how limiting it is from episode to episode. It simply is, showing Hiccup’s ability to overcome and adapt without sugar-coating the reality of permanent consequence and loss. This shows viewers, particularly children, that things like prosthetic limbs exist and are something people do have to deal with and adjust to, while simultaneously normalizing it and, thus, taking the fear and anxiety of how to react away. The titular pilot in Starfox also comes to mind, though his amputated leg is never addressed and, given his profession, may have actually been, at least partially, a choice.

For whatever reason, fantasy and science fiction seem to be the places where illness and disability can seep through onto the pages and the screen and are allowed to linger without a clear resolution one way or the other. Perhaps this is because of the genres’ legacies of body horror, metamorphosis/transformation, and Otherness. Perhaps it is because the genres lend themselves to ongoing inner struggles, suffering, mysterious afflictions, the line between science and superstition, the limits of science or modern medicine, social justice/social commentary and allegory, a “price” paid for magic/scientific advancement/some other ability, or the juxtaposition of physical frailness or youth with inner power/strength/ability (even if that can also lead to other unfortunate or overused tropes). Perhaps it’s that these genres are where our dreams, fears, and anxieties run rampant, giving us a safer space to explore, analyze, and process them, even if in the guise of metaphor.

Or maybe there’s just something to the old stereotype of the kid with asthma and all the allergies being the one who reads–and, thus, ultimately goes on to write–fantasy and science fiction, and so may have a greater awareness or empathy for those who struggle with things others take for granted. It may be no coincidence that Bram Stoker was a sickly child unable to walk for much of his young life and H. G. Wells was bedridden with pneumonia as a young boy. In fact, many writers became writers because they were ill. Experiences with illness and physical limitation, especially before TV and the internet,  leaves people with a lot of time and not much to do besides read, think, and maybe write. Similarly, illness, disability, and looming mortality–whether one’s own or that of a loved one–certainly do get one thinking about the kind of things that make for good fantasy, sci-fi, and horror stories, such as in the case of Anne Rice or Edgar Allan Poe.

Whatever the reasons may be, this greater awareness and range of disability and disability narratives is one of many things that has made speculative fiction so compelling to me through the years, whether as a reader, a student of anthropology, or a writer. So, yes, there’s plenty room for improvement. The fact that some translated editions of Harry Potter felt the need to remove his glasses from the cover (because no one would believe a hero with glasses) highlights just how entrenched our expectations of heroic perfection are and how far we still have to come. But the rest of the literary, video game, television, and cinematic world could also stand to learn a thing or two from speculative fiction’s example, including the oft-forgotten or overlooked fact that there are other forms of disability out there besides paralysis, whether visible or not.

Anyway, that’s my two cents. I leave you with this Tumblr gem from fantasy author and half of my childhood bookshelf, Tamora Pierce.

One thought on “The Invisible Man: speculative fiction and disability

  1. Reblogged this on Bound and Gagged and commented:
    From Geordi La Forge to Jojen Reed, Fantasy and Sci-Fi offer a greater range of disabilities and disability/illness narratives.


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