So this is the first in a new series of shorter, unpolished posts based on my frequent twitter rants.
Yesterday, some webcomic writer dude named Aaron Diaz (@dresdencodak) made the assertion on twitter that superheroes, as a genre, are fundamentally at odds with representations of disability.
There are a good fifty reasons why asserting that superheroes are in conflict with disability is, like, The Stupidest Thing Ever Said About Superheroes.
For starters, there’s the very obvious fact that the genre has represented characters with disabilities. Quite frequently. And often these have been some of the strongest characters in the genre. Oracle, The Chief, Robotman, Professor X, The Horsewoman and Daredevil all immediately come to mind. I don’t even have to think very hard.
But it becomes even more telling when we consider what, exactly, would compel anyone to make that ridiculous argument in the first place. The only possible explanation I can think of is that this person views ability as a straight line, a single variable. A binary spectrum with “superhuman ability” on one end and “disability” on the other.
I’m fucking sick of binaries. Even the spectrum kind.
But ability doesn’t work like that, and the entire genre of superheroes in fact is fundamentally based on the fact that there is more than one kind of ability. That our bodies and minds, and what they’re capable of, are immensely diverse, demonstrating a wonderfully broad range of possibilities, even without bringing superpowers into the equation. But when we do imagine a world with superpowers, the diversity of ability becomes even more explicit.
Can you imagine how intensely boring the genre would be if every superhero had the same powers as Superman, and the same weaknesses? Even if it shifted in degrees?
Yes, superheroes are extraordinary. But they’re extraordinary in different ways. Just like real human beings.
And having a limitation in one particular regard (or a few) does not by any means make someone “disabled” in some broad or essential sense. It just means that their abilities don’t quite fit into normative expectations.
There are numerous superhero books that directly deal in these themes. In addition to the presence of characters who are disabled in similar ways to real life people (such as being parapalegic, like The Chief, Professor X or Oracle, or being blind like Daredevil, or having had amputations, like Robotman or Cyborg), many books have used superpowers as a metaphor for disability, or being possessed of a non-normative body.
The Doom Patrol dealt with these themes quite a bit, all of the heroes being “crippled” in some way by the accidents that granted them their powers, and decidedly NOT being the kinds of characters anyone would ever want to be like (except perhaps Elasti-Girl… I never quite understood how she was supposed to be a “freak” and “outsider” like Robotman and Negative Man were). Later on, Doom Patrol also addressed other themes of marginalization like queer-ness, transsexuality, mental health, and so on. There’s a wonderful speech where, even as he’s in the midst of a horrifying face-heel turn, The Chief describes how becoming outsiders, “cripples” and “freaks” allowed all of them to become more compassionate and more human.
The X-Men also went down this road (another team of outsiders and “freaks” led by a super-smart man in a wheelchair), the premise being that all the mutants would in someway be “cursed” by their mutant powers as much as they’re granted extraordinary abilities, and that they’re treated as an oppressed, marginalized minority, second-class citizens, regardless of the immediate negative consequences of their mutations.
Extraordinary abilities… hmmm…
The word “extraordinary” offers a whole lot of ways to re-interpret things. Couldn’t we just as easily call a “person with disabilities” a “person with extraordinary abilities”? It wouldn’t be a false thing to say, just a rarely employed way of looking at it.
And, of course, Oracle / Barbara Gordon is pretty much my favourite character in the whole DC Universe. Not much more I need to say about that. At least not right now.
But even when superhero comics aren’t directly dealing in themes of marginalization, oppression, non-normative bodies and disability, the truth is that such themes work their way in regardless, if we’re willing to see them.
Disability is always relative. Always relative to a defined cultural normativity. Always. Blindness, for instance, would cease to be regarded as a disability if we lived in a society where everyone was blind. It’s also likely that a sighted person would be reviled and distrusted, and certainly outcast, in such a world. But we don’t live in such a world, so relative the normative level of human ability, it’s totally reasonable to think of blindness as a disability. And it does make life harder than it is for those of us with the privilege of being sighted.
As said, we don’t live in such a world. But what if we lived in a world where some people have superpowers? Relative to the standards of that world, suddenly I’m not quite sitting at the more-or-less “optimum” level of human ability anymore, am I?
Take for instance the Justice League. Within that dynamic, each character, relative to the others, has some form of disability. Batman, for instance, doesn’t have any superpowers whatsoever, but he more than makes up for it in being the most intelligent and resourceful of the Justice League. The Flash can’t fly, but he’s the fastest. Wonder Woman doesn’t exceed the rest of the characters in any particular regard, but she’s DETERMINED as all hell. Cyborg doesn’t have all of his body anymore. Aquaman’s extraordinary abilities are only useful in certain particular environments (such environmental limitations, of course, play out in the actual dynamics and politics of disability in the real world. Not every location is accessible for everyone). And even Superman is dependent on the yellow sun, weak to kryptonite, and easily manipulated.
Disability is relative.
I wonder if people with disabilities sometimes regard us the same way Batman regards the Green Lantern? We have the abilities, but we take them for granted and don’t really know how to use them properly.
You know Bruce Wayne would use that ring a lot more effectively than Hal Jordan does.
There’s a lot more I could say on this subject, but for now, I feel pretty confident that saying contrary to the original assertion, superheroes are actually a genre that’s fundamentally GREAT and well-suited for addressing representation of people with disabilities, and the nuanced, complex nature of ability itself.
So read some Doom Patrol. Read the classic Birds of Prey. Read the stupid bloody X-Men. And STFU with your able-ist bullshit.