Last updated on June 18, 2019
Primer articles explore the complex web of disability representation focusing on far reaching tropes and their consequences.
Disabled characters with superpowers and disabled villains. These two clusters of disability representation are not hugely similar, but given the very nature of good versus evil conflict work well together. At their core, they both use disability with little to no regard for the lived experiences of people with disabilities and can lead to some deeply ingrained subconscious misconceptions..
Disabled characters with superpowers definitely have a connection to the general heroism I discussed in my previous article. There are, however, distinct issues that come with the “super” part of these heroes. The biggest fish to fry is when superpowers are used to negate the effects of a character’s disability. The example that many people in the community will use is Daredevil who is blind but essentially has sight through his other senses. This negation brings thoughts such as “he wasn’t good enough blind” to the foreground. In the anime Dororo, Hyakkimaru is blind, deaf, and has prosthetics in place of three limbs. Even with all of these disabilities he can still fight with swords, part of his arm prosthetics, better than anyone else encountered. He also has the ability to see the souls of things and can travel without an assistive device. His disability is used to create conflict for himself and other than that is completely negated except when a more dramatic beat is called for. Negations like these can alienate disabled viewers from the representation they so desperately crave. Or worse, can lead to people thinking they are not good enough in their very real state of being.
Hyakkimaru also leads us nicely into what is, in my opinion, the second issue of this trope, the superpower being portrayed as compensation. In the case of Dororo, this is abundantly clear. Hyakkimaru’s strength, combat skills, and regenerative capabilities are framed directly as compensation for what he “lost” when his father made a pact with the demons. When superpowers are framed as compensation for being disabled it compounds with the aforementioned idea of not being good enough. Why would a merciful god make someone disabled without giving them something in return? This question inherently furthers the idea of being disabled as being lesser.
If Daredevil is the most frequently used example of a disabled character with superpowers then Captain Hook is the same for villains.
The trope here is a pretty straightforward one. A character becomes villainous or evil due to their disability. Likewise, this can also appear as characters that are not strictly evil becoming injured in a fight with a protagonist and their newfound physical disability is used as a symbol of them going over the edge and embracing their evil side. For example, Andrei Strasser from the movie Mighty Joe Young is already a poacher and a murderer, but when the titular gorilla bites off a couple of his fingers he swears revenge against Joe. These stories add fuel to the misrepresentative idea that disability leads to such embitterment that someone is willing to seek revenge against a person or the world with no regard for anyone else. It’s used as a visual and storytelling shorthand to say “look at how depraved this character is”, with little to no
So what do we do?
All of this said I want to make it clear that this is not saying that disabled characters can’t/shouldn’t have superpowers or be villains. Rather, that due diligence needs to be used to represent these things well. If a disabled character has a superpower, don’t make it negate the disability. There are so many options to play with! Don’t frame it as compensation for something lost. And most importantly make their disability a lived experience, not just a means for story devices and tokenism.
For villains give them a back story that doesn’t revolve around their disability leading them down this villainous path. If all the story needs is a stock villain character because the villain’s backstory isn’t important then don’t give them a disability. It isn’t needed and helps move the narrative forward.
Leave a comment discussing any superpowers or villains that left a sour taste in your mouth because of these tropes. Or superpowers and villains that you think manage to avoid them.