Author’s Note: The views and opinions expressed here are my own and are not intended to reflect the views and opinions of the wider disabled community as a whole.
Being born in the ‘90s, I was a kid that watched anime during the week before school and superhero cartoons on weekend mornings. My favourite was X-Men: The Animated Series created by Mark Edward Edens, Sidney Iwanter, and Eric Lewald. They had powers, there were characters with disabilities, and they were stared at and feared by the rest of the world.
While, yes, the younger me wished I had powers like the X-Men, the younger, disabled me related to the feeling of looking physically different from the rest of the world. Despite the fears and the looks, the X-Men were still heroes doing their best to protect humanity.
“People fear what they do not understand,” said Storm in episode one and that was something that stuck with me growing up, wondering why I was stared at by strangers every time I went out. While labelled as “mutants” in the Marvel Universe, X-Men were the disability representation on mainstream TV for my childhood.
There are estimated to be 1.2 billion disabled people worldwide; that is 15% of the global population. In Australia, there are approximately 4.4 million people with some form of disability: that’s around 18% of Australia’s total population. Seeing these numbers makes me question why disability is still unrepresented across all mediums?
Disability representations in comic books have Professor X, Daredevil, Hawkeye, Cyborg etc. Despite their disabilities, they are glorified as heroes because of their abilities. This can be viewed as a positive representation, but it does create the stereotype that a disabled person must be doing something extraordinary to “overcome” their disability for their life to be considered worthy in an environment that disables them. Disabled superheroes can fall into the disability stereotype that their superpowers make up for the disability. For example, people with visual impairments don’t experience a heightening of their other senses like characters such as Matt Murdock.
According to Lauren Appelbaum, Vice President of RespectAbility, “When disability is a part of a character’s story, too often content can position disabled people as someone to pity or someone to cure.”
The depiction of disabled characters in media largely influences society’s perception of disability. The perception is through the lens of pitying disabled lives, and their disability becomes the reasoning of why they are the villain or the hero of the story. The issue with this trope is that this does not reflect the lives of disabled individuals.
“Because often we’re the villain. We’re the scary character. We are the tragedy,” states Carly Findlay on the podcast ReFramed on the portrayal of people with facial differences. Findlay is an Australian writer and appearance activist with Ichthyosis.
The James Bond franchise is well known for this trope of its villains having facial differences or scarring, which it has previously been called out on. That trope that those with facial disfigurement and/or scarring represent “evil” in media reinforces society’s beliefs subconsciously onto those with facial differences.
According to the UK organisation Changing Faces, this type of representation in pop culture does have long-term impacts as 3 in 10 people have struggled with body image and low self-esteem.
Disability is diverse and cannot simply be defined or limited to a specific disability to represent the disabled community. When it’s written by a non-disabled person, it’s showcased through their lens of how they view people like myself. The spotlight is on the disability and not the individual; therefore, so often, the character’s disability becomes a lazy backstory, tragic trope or triumphant story that it becomes “inspiration porn” to non-disabled audiences.
“Inspiration porn” is a term coined by the late Australian comedian and disabled advocate Stella Young. To summarise, it is the objectification of people with disabilities in the media that makes non-disabled people feel good about themselves.
“Even though the number of disabled characters on screen continues to increase in recent seasons, an estimated 95% of available roles are portrayed by talent without a disability,” Appelbaum says of the barriers to authentic storytelling of disabled people.
As a kid, that never bothered me, watching Sir Patrick Stewart play the role of Professor X in the X-Men films, but when I got older and felt more comfortable about my disability, watching non-disabled actors portray disabled characters feels like watching them put on a “costume” for this role that they can simply take off at the end. Directors, writers and actors can study the experiences and attempt to mimic them, but they will never truly understand the living experience without hiring or consulting those with that disability.
It’s not all grim news; there has been a small and slow rise of positive representation of disability in pop culture. Like the recent comic, Harley Quinn: The Animated Series: The Eat. Bang! Kill. Tour, written by Tee Franklin, or graphic novels like Monstress written by Marjorie Liu and drawn by Sana Takeda. PlayStation’s Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales introduced a minor character named Hailey Cooper. Portrayed by Natasha Ofili, Cooper is a street artist and social activist with impaired hearing. There’s also Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon or Massimo Marcovaldo from Disney’s recent film Luca in animation.
On-screen, there has been a slight uptick in disabled actors being cast. Marvel’s film Eternals cast Deaf actress Lauren Ridloff (The Walking Dead) as Makkari. Marvel’s TV series Hawkeye cast Alaqua Cox, who is Native American and Deaf, as Echo – the series also brought on Deaf consultants as none of the show’s writers identified as being a part of that community. DC’s TV series Titans cast Deaf actor Chella Man to play Jericho, and in this recent season cast Savannah Welch, an amputee, plays the role of Barbara Gordon.
There’s even a children’s TV series titled Malory Towers casting Beth Bradfield, who has facial differences and plays the role of Jean.
“She is not a hero. She’s not a villain, she is just incredible… herself as the character. One of the things I really loved is they actually don’t mention she got a facial difference in the show,” says Findlay.
What makes these examples such positive representations is that the characters’ disabilities are not the primary source of their narrative. It shows the possibility of having authentic disability representation on screen, and that disabled actors can be cast into significant roles. It also highlights that disabled people can be not only be creative onscreen but can also shine offscreen in writer’s rooms and even as directors.
A disabled person is not there to teach, but a disabled person’s experience can be learned from when the creative industries create space for disabled people. So, when a specific group speaks up on the narrative of how their disability is represented, please listen.
To end this article, I leave a quote from Stella Young that sums up my hopes for disability representation in pop culture: “I really want to live in a world where disability is not the exception, but the norm.”
LEAD IMAGE: Lauren Ridloff as Makkari in ‘Eternals’