The Comic Book Industry has had a lot of focus put on it in regards to representation. Characters of colour and female characters (and their respective creators), are most often the subject of movements and evolution – often to the point of controversy. Frequent Spoilerites will remember my editorial on Why We Need Women In Comics Month from earlier in March and that set me off down the rabbit hole of diversity and representation across all geeky media. A group that is very deserving of representation, yet most often left out of the argument, is the disabled community.
I know that some people take issue with the word “disabled” in-and-of itself, in as much as it belies a certain amount of condescension, but please know that my employment of it here is not meant to be derogatory.
Secondly, I would like to address the fact that I, myself, am not a disabled person. When I first thought about going down the road of writing about this subject I consulted my amazing cousin Holly. Holly is deaf and leant their own insights and quotes that you will see featured throughout and they also served to keep me honest in the questions I was asking, plus they are a dyed-in-the-wool geek!
The disabled community has many different faces, with a variety of unique challenges and life experience. The label is ephemeral and more difficult to grasp than “female”, “transgender”, “Muslim” for the average person and yet disabled people appear across any and all party lines. For that reason, disabled representation in the Comic Book Industry and all related media (movies, television, et cetera), deserves more attention than it regularly enjoys in the mainstream. It matters.
“Representation of disabled characters in media is important since most of the popular media available to the general public typically paints a picture that a person must be perfect – the ability to hear, having their vision (most of the time sans glasses), perfect speech, mentally sound and in great shape.” Holly reminds me, “This leads us to believe that we must put ourselves through a lot of trouble to look the same as the characters represented in media and this honestly is something that can be avoided. Also it is a great thing if children are able to see their heroes as beings who are not perfect such as needing strong glasses or being blind, unable to hear properly without cochlear implants or hearing aids and having trouble communicating with the general hearing population and having to find alternative ways of communication, or having mental issues such as PTSD, anxiety or depression that disrupts with their life. We’re not all perfect.”
It’s a truism, but also a salient point – we aren’t all perfect. Even though, as Grant Morrison is famous for posturing, superheroes are the equivalent of North American Gods and Myths. They are coming more and more to be reflective of their creators, which has often included a variety of imperfections.
Barbara Gordon’s stint as Oracle might be the best representation of this. Not only is she confined to a wheelchair, but she is visually impaired and wears glasses on a regular basis. Exceptional intelligence aside, she represents a more “realistic” version of a disabled person, while at the same time being the most intelligent character in the DC Universe who effectively leads the Justice League (made up by the most powerful heroes of the DCU), via the information she supplies them with.
This was a bold statement on behalf of DC Comics and could have led to a compelling statement about the necessity and value of disabled characters had Barbara not been returned to a state of full mobility following the New 52 reboot. Not to split hairs, but she doesn’t wear her glasses that often nowadays either … it’s really become more of a Clark Kent disguise thing.
Naturally, this leads to the question: how does the disabled community feel about representation of their respective experiences in mass media?
Holly had these thoughts, “So far I have been disappointed with the representation of my own disability – deafness – in television shows and movies but what I have seen recently with Doctor Who (Under The Lake episodes) and Supernatural (Into the Mystic), I do have high hopes that they will eventually get the whole deaf character part right. I can’t say much for other disabled folks but I’m liking how the recent new programs are showcasing the disabilities in a more positive light – well, more of a correct light rather than the whole concept of making the deaf person hear, the blind person see, the mentally ill person right again.”
Notice that none of the characters Holly mentioned were superheroes? Or even comic book characters? Where is the medium and community that purports to be inclusive coming down on this line?
There seems to be a trend, as Holly mentioned, of giving disabled characters the opportunity to overcome their challenges by “fixing” them (see: Oracle statements above). Where does that leave a character like Daredevil? Matt Murdock can effectively see, his disability being negated by his radar senses? What about his Netflix co-stars Frank Castle and Melvin Potter with their respective brain injuries? Do these three men reflect and represent disabled characters in media?
“Of course I consider those characters disabled characters. Everybody, at least at one point in their lives, will experience a disability, temporarily or permanently.”
This was the most insightful statement I took away from my questions to Holly and it really gave me a lot to think about.
“Daredevil is blind but he finds a way around his blindness and he’s able to function, Melvin Potter’s able to do the same and so does the Punisher. The point is that I’m pretty glad with the way that media shows them as people who are able to find a way to get around their disability.”
Fantastic! We can prove that there is an entire television show (I’ll even throw in Jessica Jones and the lead’s struggle with PTSD and count two), whose focal characters encompass the idea of representation in a manner that, at the same time, does not look down on them as needing to be fixed. I mean, we all want to be as badass fighters as Daredevil, right? As capable with design as Melvin? As dedicated as Frank? There is a focus in Daredevil on what is admirable about these men, rather than what they cannot do.
Not enough proof about the importance of disabled characters portrayed as capable? Here’s a thought from Holly about why this matters:
“They’re extremely important – I would love to see a lot more disabled superheroes because it makes me happy to see representation in media! And I wish I had Daredevil on television when I was a little kid, so that way I could be aware that I could overcome my deafness and figure out a way around it and be functional in the world rather than having lots of self doubt as I was going through my teenager years. It can show the kids today that there are amazing superheroes that go around saving the world despite that they are disabled.”
It would be pretty easy for readers to conclude that, with the work done on Daredevil, we’re in good shape, however, to steal a quote from my Why Women in Comics Month Matters:
“One is a token. Two is a minority. Three is equality.”
Is one television show from Marvel really enough? It’s an important question to ask ourselves. How many other characters are readily available for adaptation that would fulfill this need for representation?
“I would love to see more of Deaf Hawkeye – I mean, it’s canon.” Holly brings up thinking of the Matt Fraction and David Aja Hawkeye run immediately, “I LOVED that they wrote a comic about this, I felt like I was a little kid all over again, looking at the pages in wonder and being so amazed that they used American Sign Language in a Marvel comic. I never thought I’d see this in my lifetime. (Hawkeye #19) It was like a dream come true and I’m hoping that I’ll see more of this. I might be a bit selfish here hoping that I’ll see more of Deaf characters in television and media, but at the same time it’ll be wonderful to see more disabled characters in general.”
Now, our musings focused a little more on Holly’s specific disability. Placing Clint Barton aside, how many other characters that were deaf or hard of hearing existed in mass media? Or geek culture? We mentioned actress Sophie Leigh’s work on Doctor Who season 9 above. For those who are familiar with the Under the Lake two episode story. Not only is Leigh’s characters Cass deaf and working with an interpreter (played by Zaqi Ismail), who is the Captain … again, making her the most powerful character in the story (Time Lords aside).
What does Holly, a deaf viewer think of Cass?
“Amazing. This episode was utterly amazing. Mind. Blown. They used British Sign Language on national television! And on Doctor Who! A program that I’ve been watching since I was a little tyke! It was pretty true to what a normal deaf person would do in a real life situation similar to that – it makes me so happy to see that they would apply this to major media rather than put a hearing person’s perspective towards the story.”
As an interesting side note: there has been a movement within the Doctor Who fandom to get Sophie Leigh’s Cass to be the Twelfth Doctor’s companion in his coming adventures. The necessity of representation aside, Cass is one of the most kickass characters introduced in last year’s season of Doctor Who and I, for one, would absolutely love if she were to join the show full time. Perhaps it could even mark the inclusion of characters of disability in leadership roles across geek media?
“Of course I would love to see more disabled characters in leadership roles.” Holly states, “They do have the motivation to be great leaders. There are already great leaders who are disabled in the world these days, why not make ’em leaders in the sci fi genre? They do not necessarily have to be normal people after all. I feel like being disabled does give them more of a perspective – they have gone through the struggle of being disabled and finding a way around their disability to overcome their odds.”
“I’m all for Cass being the new Doctor’s companion. I would love the Doctor to be in my shoes for once – I have to struggle daily in the hearing world, finding a way to communicate with (clueless) hearing people. Doctor would have to find a way to communicate with Cass and this will also answer my long burning question about the TARDIS’ translation matrix – will it actually translate sign language???”
The conclusion that is left to be drawn here, is perhaps an obvious one: we’re doing better on the representation of disabled characters in media is better than we think. Isn’t it outstanding that able viewer can look at the characters across brands mentioned above – Oracle, Hawkeye, Cass – and not view them as disabled? They’re just unique characters inhabiting their respective world with creative stories and individual obstacles? Ideally, this will be the way all viewers will look at characters or all kinds going forward and that this attitude will encourage creators to include characters with a variety of disabilities in their storytelling going forward.
“The media definitely needs more representation of disabled folks is my bottom line!” Holly concludes.
What could sum it up better than that? The world of geek media we inhabit has made a good start, but it is just that: a start. The view from either side of the aisle is that we need to do better. Everyone needs a hero to identify with.
You can find Holly on twitter at: @hollzilla.
If you have a favourite disabled character that we did not include in this editorial please share it with us in the comments section!