Feed on
Posts
Comments

This the seventh post of my Trope of the Week Series.

Tropes are conventions (or repeated patterns) used in storytelling. They can include themes and plot devices. Underdog characters triumphing after dedicated training is an example of a trope, as is goodness being associated with physical beauty, and villains revealing their secret plans to heroes they have just captured.

Some tropes reinforce oppressive messages, and in this series I will be going through a list harmful tropes that are used in the representation of disabled characters. Because knowing what to do is just as important as knowing what not to do, I will end each post with suggestions for ways to fix things.

This series an expansion of my list of Common Harmful Representations of Disability from my Guidelines for Game Masters page.

This picture illustrates two common tropes in the depiction of disability. On the left a toy Darth Vader points at the audience. On the right a silhouetted person stands, raising two crutches over their head in a triumph pose.

This picture illustrates two common tropes in the depiction of disability. On the left a toy Darth Vader points at the audience. On the right a silhouetted person stands, raising two crutches over their head in a triumph pose.

 

Fragile Body, Magic Mind

Of the protagonists who have physical disabilities that significantly impact their lives, nearly all of them are given mind-focused powers to the exclusion of all other kinds of abilities. With the exception of characters whose abilities or technology compensate for their disabilities, there is a notable absence of physical powers being given to physically disabled characters. For example, while there are multiple paraplegic superheroes like Professor X and Oracle who have mental powers, I don’t know of any paraplegic superheroes with physical powers who are frontline fighters (which they totally could be with superpowers).

The justification behind this pattern is the idea that not all physically disabled characters have bodies that are well suited to being frontline fighters. And while there is some truth to that, it doesn’t explain the absence of physically disabled characters with physical roles and abilities. This absence is rooted in the idea that disabled bodies are not powerful or capable of physical accomplishment. In many cases, this harmful idea is further reinforced by plots that turn disabled characters into burdens for the able-bodied characters. Bran Stark from Game of Thrones is a blatant example of this. In one iconic scene his unconscious body was literally dragged to safety while his mind was trapped in visions.

Here I think that it is important to bring up the “supercrip myth” as it often fits into this larger pattern. The supercrip myth is the idea that having a disability in one area of life means that the person will gain a special ability to compensate for it. This myth is the reason that, even in stories where few characters have magic or supernatural abilities, the characters who receive these gifts are frequently disabled. Sometimes these special abilities directly compensate for the disability, like Daredevil’s super senses which compensate for his blindness. In other cases, like Bran Stark, the abilities are mentally focused and intended to give the character a role in the larger plot.

One of the problems with the supercrip pattern is that it implies that disabled characters have nothing to contribute without special powers. Their value becomes centered in and limited to their special abilities. This sends the message that most real world disabled people, who obviously don’t have superpowers, don’t have inherent value or things to contribute. But because disabled people are also viewed as inspirational, those disabled people who do accomplish things are expected to achieve superhuman levels of achievement and perfection in order to prove their worth.

What to do instead:

Give disabled characters the full range of powers and abilities that you would give to able-bodied characters, including physical powers. Having disabled characters with mental powers isn’t a bad thing; the problem is the absence of disabled characters with other kinds of powers (especially physical powers). Because of this pattern, be careful about any situation where the only disabled character (or the most prominent disabled character) has only mental powers. The best thing to do is to have multiple disabled characters, each with different types of abilities. Continue Reading »

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In this foundational episode of Unfamiliar Heroes, which I’m calling Episode Zero, I start off with a discussion of disability representation and the reasons why I feel that this project is so needed. Next I go over the ways that participants who live at the intersections of oppression are centered in this project. Finally I discuss the eight game ground rules which are designed to keep games accessible and inclusive.

I am super excited to be releasing this special episode, Unfamiliar Heroes Episode Zero, one week before the release of my first Unfamiliar Heroes game episode. I truly hope that all of you will enjoy getting to hear about the ethics and background for this project.

Unfamiliar Heroes is a podcast series in which three disabled, neurodiverse, and/or chronically ill players and a game master play story-focused tabletop role-playing games where all of the player characters have disabilities, diverse minds, and/or chronic illnesses. In its core values, this project centers the experiences of people living at the intersections of oppression. Unfamiliar Heroes is part of the Writing Alchemy Podcast.

Listen now!

This illustration depicts three characters, each from a different genre of story, and each with a disability. On the left is a black gnome archer riding in a chariot pulled by a large brown dog. The chariot has a chair in it so that they can sit instead of stand. In the middle is a Latina woman manipulating a tech device on her wrist as she begins to go invisible. She is wearing an air filtering mask of the type that people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity sometimes wear. On the right is a white muscular superhero wearing a very gay, blue superhero outfit. He has lightning crackling between his two hands, which are shaped atypically. This beautiful work of art was created the amazing Rose Adare!

This illustration depicts three characters, each from a different genre of story, and each with a disability. On the left is a black gnome archer riding in a chariot pulled by a large brown dog. The chariot has a chair in it so that they can sit instead of stand. In the middle is a Latina woman manipulating a tech device on her wrist as she begins to go invisible. She is wearing an air filtering mask of the type that people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity sometimes wear. On the right is a white muscular superhero wearing a very gay, blue superhero outfit. He has lightning crackling between his two hands, which are shaped atypically. This beautiful work of art was created the amazing Rose Adare!

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This the sixth post of my Trope of the Week Series.

Tropes are conventions (or repeated patterns) used in storytelling. They can include themes and plot devices. Underdog characters triumphing after dedicated training is an example of a trope, as is goodness being associated with physical beauty, and villains revealing their secret plans to heroes they have just captured.

Some tropes reinforce oppressive messages, and in this series I will be going through a list harmful tropes that are used in the representation of disabled characters. Because knowing what to do is just as important as knowing what not to do, I will end each post with suggestions for ways to fix things.

This series an expansion of my list of Common Harmful Representations of Disability from my Guidelines for Game Masters page.

This picture illustrates two common tropes in the depiction of disability. On the left is a black and white photograph of an empty wheelchair on a road as a semi-transparent person walks away down the road. On the right is a life-sized plastic statue of Captain Hook.

This picture illustrates two common tropes in the depiction of disability. On the left is a black and white photograph of an empty wheelchair on a road as a semi-transparent person walks away down the road. On the right is a life-sized plastic statue of Captain Hook.

 

Magical Cures and Disability as an Obstacle

Many classic fairy tales involve magical cures for illness and disability. For example, at the end of Rapunzel the prince is blinded by thorns and then wanders for years until he finally finds Rupunzel again. Thereupon they embrace and her tears restore his sight so that they return to his kingdom to live happily ever after. In these kinds of stories, disability is treated as a temporary obstacle. Magical cures become a reward for the perseverance of the heroes. This pattern isn’t limited to fairy tales. Magical cures are commonplace in everything from Star Trek (in the episode “Ethics” Lieutenant Wharf undergoes a risky surgery to replace his damaged spine) to stories like Forest Gump which are supposedly set in the real world (here Forest’s childhood leg braces miraculously fall to pieces as he suddenly discovers his exceptional running ability).

When disability is treated as a temporary obstacle to be overcome on a journey toward gaining able-bodied status, it sends a harmful message about what it means to be disabled. In these stories, being able-bodied is treated as an all-important goal that eclipses everything else in the disabled character’s life. This reduces the character to their disability and robs them of the chance to do other meaningful things. It also sends the message that disability is a terrible thing and that being disabled is inferior to being able-bodied.

There is a common myth that disabled, chronically ill, and neurodiverse people just need to do something different in order to improve their conditions. This includes eating differently, getting more exercise, taking certain herbs, and switching medications. Because of this myth, real world disabled people are barraged with well-meaning, but ignorant advice whenever they bring up accessibility needs or challenges they are struggling with. Stories where characters cure their disabilities through perseverance feed this harmful pattern. The idea that that hard work and a positive attitude can overcome disability leads to real disabled people being blamed for their struggles.

Finally, stories about magical cures don’t accurately represent the experiences of disabled people. For most real world people, disability is ongoing, even when it changes. Magical cures that remove a character’s disability create a false image of disability which makes it harder for real disabled people to identify with the characters. How is a person with a long-term condition supposed to feel about a story where a disabled character is magically healed in the end? Magical cures rob audience members of the opportunity to experience a disabled character with a meaningful future in front of them. The magical cure makes the story less about the experiences of a disabled person and more about the fears and desires of able-bodied people.

What to do instead:

Avoid making disability into a temporary obstacle for a character to overcome, and don’t give a character a magical cure as a reward. Instead, think about disability as a long-term part of the character’s life. Their condition may improve with life changes, medication, and physical therapy, but if their condition wouldn’t go away in the real world, be cautious about making it go away in fiction. Do the research needed to make any changes to the character’s condition realistic. Some conditions get better over time, some get worse, and some change in other ways. Please work to portray this full range. Continue Reading »

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This the fifth post of my Trope of the Week Series.

Tropes are conventions (or repeated patterns) used in storytelling. They can include themes and plot devices. Underdog characters triumphing after dedicated training is an example of a trope, as is goodness being associated with physical beauty, and villains revealing their secret plans to heroes they have just captured.

Some tropes reinforce oppressive messages, and in this series I will be going through a list harmful tropes that are used in the representation of disabled characters. Because knowing what to do is just as important as knowing what not to do, I will end each post with suggestions for ways to fix things.

This series an expansion of my list of Common Harmful Representations of Disability from my Guidelines for Game Masters page.

This picture illustrates two common tropes in the depiction of disability. On the left a toy Darth Vader points at the audience. On the right a silhouetted person stands, raising two crutches over their head in a triumph pose.

This picture illustrates two common tropes in the depiction of disability. On the left a toy Darth Vader points at the audience. On the right a silhouetted person stands, raising two crutches over their head in a triumph pose.

 

Inspirational Disability

The internet is full of inspiring quotes and videos about disability. While they may seem uplifting at first, underneath them are many harmful messages. This damaging kind of inspiration frequently turns up in characters that are intended to be a positive representation of disability. Movies like Forest Gump, for example, create a heart-warming story at the expense of reinforcing stereotypes about disability. These stereotypes include viewing people with intellectual disabilities as eternally innocent, the myth that disabled people create the obstacles in their own lives, and the idea that a positive attitude is the only thing disabled people need in order to overcome the barriers in their lives.

Inspirational stories of disability also take away from the humanity of the disabled characters. For example, despite being the main character of the movie, Forest Gump is not fully characterized. Instead he is a caricature of eternal innocence who reacts to the people around him in a way designed to create humor and social commentary. He follows the directions of others and even takes the majority of his interests from the people and situations around him. Forest Gump is not intended to be a character that the audience identifies with. Instead he exists to teach lessons to others. This is a common pattern with inspirational disability; disabled characters are created not to tell their own stories, but to teach lessons and expand the minds of the people around them.

Within inspirational disability there are two other common patterns to watch out for. The first is portraying disabled people as brave or inspirational for getting through their daily lives. This often comes with a dehumanizing fixation on the bodies of disabled people. Underneath this kind of inspiration is the idea that the lives of disabled people are so terrible that just getting through an ordinary day requires extraordinary courage and perseverance. It also demonstrates low expectations for the capacity of disabled people to achieve anything. While it is important not to erase the struggles and pain that many disabled people experience, doing an everyday thing shouldn’t be treated as exceptional.

The other common pattern is treating the accomplishments of disabled people as is they are supposed to mean something about the ability of able-bodied people to accomplish something. For example, this would be treating the fact that a specific wheelchair user trained to be an impressive athlete as if that means that an able-bodied person who doesn’t exercise should stop making excuses. This pattern places disabled people in constant comparison to able-bodied people, preventing their accomplishments from being recognized on their own merits. It also sends the message that disability is a huge terrible obstacle that disabled people must overcome in order to accomplish anything. Finally, this pattern also buys into the idea that disabled people are inherently less capable of achievement.

What to do instead:

Start by doing some research and portraying disability in a realistic manner. Disability is not life destroying, but it will present real challenges in the lives of the characters. It should be clear, however, that many of these challenges come from society and not just from the disability (such as a lack of sign language interpretation or an absence of meal delivery programs). Importantly, a positive attitude should not be the main thing the character needs to address those challenges. As Stella Young so eloquently put it, “No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp.” Continue Reading »

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

We continue the discussion as artist, activist, disabled survivor iconoclast billie rain shares hir Chronic Illness Bill of Rights. Then we jump into a conversation about societal response to chronic illness, myths about disability, ways of supporting people with chronic illnesses, and how we can create more inclusive communities.

This is another great conversation with billie that covered an important topic with both insight and lots of laughter.

Listen Now!

This graphic is a black and white cartoon-style drawing of two tough-looking anthropomorphized cats with their hands in their pockets, looking up enigmatically at the viewer. They are both wearing air-filtering face masks that cover their noses and mouths (these are a kind of mask often used by people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity). The cat on the left has stripes on their face and is wearing a white hoodie. The cat on the right has a black patch on their right ear and is wearing a black and white jacket.

This graphic is a black and white cartoon-style drawing of two tough-looking anthropomorphized cats with their hands in their pockets, looking up enigmatically at the viewer. They are both wearing air-filtering face masks that cover their noses and mouths (these are a kind of mask often used by people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity). The cat on the left has stripes on their face and is wearing a white hoodie. The cat on the right has a black patch on their right ear and is wearing a black and white jacket.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This the fourth post of my new Trope of the Week Series.

Tropes are conventions (or repeated patterns) used in storytelling. They can include themes and plot devices. Underdog characters triumphing after dedicated training is an example of a trope, as is goodness being associated with physical beauty, and villains revealing their secret plans to heroes they have just captured.

Some tropes reinforce oppressive messages, and in this series I will be going through a list harmful tropes that are used in the representation of disabled characters. Because knowing what to do is just as important as knowing what not to do, I will end each post with suggestions for ways to fix things.

This series an expansion of my list of Common Harmful Representations of Disability from my Guidelines for Game Masters page.

This picture illustrates two common tropes in the depiction of disability. On the left is a black and white photograph of an empty wheelchair on a road as a semi-transparent person walks away down the road. On the right is a life-sized plastic statue of Captain Hook.

This picture illustrates two common tropes in the depiction of disability. On the left is a black and white photograph of an empty wheelchair on a road as a semi-transparent person walks away down the road. On the right is a life-sized plastic statue of Captain Hook.

 

Helpless Disability

The repeated association of disability with charity portrays disabled people as pitiable, vulnerable, and pathetic. The character of Tiny Tim from The Christmas Carol is a classic example of this. Unfortunately, this stereotype makes it all too easy to portray disabled characters as helpless victims. Indeed disabled characters on television are more likely to die than their able-bodied counterparts.

It is true that in the real world disabled people are more likely to experience violence than able-bodied people. In fact, there is a long history of violence against people with disabilities in many Western cultures. However, portraying disabled characters as passive victims with no agency of their own is not an accurate representation of this reality and it perpetuates the myth that disabled people are helpless (another version of the idea that disabled people are incapable of accomplishing things).

Helpless disability can even happen to otherwise powerful characters if their disability is treated as a vulnerability that makes them helpless in way that is different from the other vulnerabilities they have. This manufactured helplessness may also be used to make a disabled character into a plot challenge for able-bodied characters, who are then tasked with transporting and protecting them. When this happens, the disabled character becomes an object or burden for the other characters.

What to do instead:

Knowing that violence happens to disabled characters more often, think carefully about how much violence is directed at the disabled characters in your story and whether or not those characters die. Because disabled characters do die more often than their able-bodied counterparts, error on the side of not killing disabled characters. The fact that their aren’t many awesome disabled characters for people to identify with makes having living disabled characters with meaningful futures in front of them all the more important.

The kind of violence that happens to characters with disabilities also matters. In particular, depictions of completed suicides or mercy killings are especially bad as they send the message that it worse to be disabled than dead. This is especially chilling when viewed in light of historical violence that has been perpetrated against people with disabilities. It doesn’t matter if there is a plot excuse for it. Change the plot. Don’t do this.

That said, I do want to acknowledge that most stories are about adversity, something which naturally includes having bad things happen to the characters. This gives the main characters obstacles to overcome. So I’m not saying that bad things should never happen to characters with disabilities, but that disabled characters shouldn’t be made into helpless victims for other characters to rescue or avenge. In my mind, the key to this is portraying disabled characters as people who are capable of actively responding when bad things happen to them. Not every action they take needs to be successful, but they should always be doing something to deal with the situation. Finally, at least some of their actions need to have an effect on the story. Having an effect on the other characters and the story is what gives their actions power and prevents them from being helpless.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This the third post of my Trope of the Week Series.

Tropes are conventions (or repeated patterns) used in storytelling. They can include themes and plot devices. Underdog characters triumphing after dedicated training is an example of a trope, as is goodness being associated with physical beauty, and villains revealing their secret plans to heroes they have just captured.

Some tropes reinforce oppressive messages, and in this series I will be going through a list harmful tropes that are used in the representation of disabled characters. Because knowing what to do is just as important as knowing what not to do, I will end each post with suggestions for ways to fix things.

This series an expansion of my list of Common Harmful Representations of Disability from my Guidelines for Game Masters page.

This picture illustrates two common tropes in the depiction of disability. On the left a toy Darth Vader points at the audience. On the right a silhouetted person stands, raising two crutches over their head in a triumph pose.

This picture illustrates two common tropes in the depiction of disability. On the left a toy Darth Vader points at the audience. On the right a silhouetted person stands, raising two crutches over their head in a triumph pose.

 

Disabled in Name Only

Another common pattern happens when a disabled character gains magic or technology that gives them the same abilities as an able-bodied person. A classic example of this is Luke Skywalker’s bio-mechanical hand in Star Wars. And just as happened for Luke, in this pattern once a character gains their magic or technology, their disability no longer has a significant impact on their life. At its extreme, this pattern can result in disability being treated as a cosmetic choice that has no impact on the story, where a character is given magical or mechanical body parts just to make them look more hard core.

The biggest problem with this pattern is that these characters fail to represent the lived experiences of actual people with disabilities. In the real world, disability impacts a person’s daily life in large and small ways. People with disabilities encounter accessibility barriers, such as buildings that are inaccessible to wheelchairs. We have to make trade offs, such as medications with unpleasant side effects. And many of us have to carefully manage our physical and mental resources, such as someone with limited energy choosing not to run errands so that they able to prepare their dinner.

I also want to point out that having a character’s magic or technology be focused on “making up for” their disability places a limitation on the abilities of disabled characters that able-bodied characters don’t have. It sends the message that disabled people are incapable of accomplishing things without fictional powers, that disability is a terrible thing that defines the entire life of a character, and that becoming able-bodied is an essential goal in every disabled person’s life.

What to do instead:

The challenge here is finding a balance where disability affects the life of the character without overshadowing everything else. If magic or technology is available to the character, it makes sense for them to use it to address their access needs. There is nothing wrong with a character having a prosthetic or assistive device. The way to make these feel real, rather than just be a way to turn a disable character into an able-bodied character, is to make it clear what the device can and can’t do. What are its benefits and limitations? Does it have any side effects? How about hidden costs? Does it require maintenance or charging? Can the character use it constantly, or do they need to remove it at times?

The other big thing is to not make disability into the focus of the character’s powers and abilities. In a story where most characters don’t have extraordinary abilities, don’t give a character a superpower just to make up for the fact that they are disabled. Disabled characters don’t need special powers to accomplish their goals or to give them value. In stories that are about characters having extraordinary abilities, don’t choose an ability for your character that is designed to perfectly make up for their disability. Instead give them an interesting ability that fits the story or their personality.

Once the character has their special ability, then it is time to figure out how the character addresses their access needs. Maybe they can use their power in a clever way to assist themselves, or maybe they get what they need through ordinary abilities and training. Real blind people can use sonar to perceive the world and real paraplegic people can use their strength to get their wheelchairs up stairs. Research what real people can do and don’t assume that every obstacle a disabled person encounters needs be addressed in a fictional way through special powers.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

This the second post of my new Trope of the Week Series.

Tropes are conventions (or repeated patterns) used in storytelling. They can include themes and plot devices. Underdog characters triumphing after dedicated training is an example of a trope, as is goodness being associated with physical beauty, and villains revealing their secret plans to heroes they have just captured.

Some tropes reinforce oppressive messages, and in this series I will be going through a list harmful tropes that are used in the representation of disabled characters. Because knowing what to do is just as important as knowing what not to do, I will end each post with suggestions for ways to fix things.

This series an expansion of my list of Common Harmful Representations of Disability from my Guidelines for Game Masters page.

This picture illustrates two common tropes in the depiction of disability. On the left is a black and white photograph of an empty wheelchair on a road as a semi-transparent person walks away down the road. On the right is a life-sized plastic statue of Captain Hook.

This picture illustrates two common tropes in the depiction of disability. On the left is a black and white photograph of an empty wheelchair on a road as a semi-transparent person walks away down the road. On the right is a life-sized plastic statue of Captain Hook.

 

Bitter Disability

This is the pattern of portraying disabled characters as deeply bitter about their lives and their disabilities. Shakespeare’s Richard III is a classic example of this life-consuming bitterness. This pattern of bitterness is frequently combined with other stereotypical depictions, such as characters who are villainous, pathetic, helpless, a burden, self-defeating, or even self-destructive.

When a bitter disabled character is a villain, as is the case for Richard III, their bitterness is typically an important cause of their evil. Sometimes they are getting revenge on the world for their misfortune of being disabled (whether they were born with a disability, or they became disabled later in life). Other times the character simply decides, in a horrifying twist of logic, that because they can’t be a hero, they must be a villain.

Underneath all this bitterness is the assumption that disability is a terrible, life-destroying tragedy that prevents people from having fulfilling lives. After all, if these characters did have fulfilling lives, they would have no reason for bitterness. In addition, the idea that a disabled character would choose to be a villain simply because they inherently can’t be a hero is toxic and comes from the false idea that disabled people can’t accomplish meaningful and heroic things.

What to do instead:

Be cautious about creating a disabled character who is bitter. Think about what the purpose of the character’s bitterness is and if it is actually necessary. What does it accomplish for the story? Be particularly cautious if their bitterness is connected to any other stereotypical traits like being villainous, pathetic, helpless, a burden, or self-defeating.

If bitterness is an important part of the character, be sure that there is a clear cause for their bitterness that it is not simply the fact that they are disabled. There are a lot of things that a character could be bitter about. For example, they could be bitter about politics, or their messed up family, or even the biased way they that are treated because of stereotypes about their disability (please be sure to make this distinct from being bitter about their disability). Also, because bitterness is such a common representation of disability, I strongly recommend having other disabled characters in the story who are not bitter.

The best way to avoid sending the message that disability destroys a person’s life is to make sure that disabled characters have meaningful lives. Every disabled character should have more to their life than just their disability. What activities do they do? Do they have a hobby, job, or volunteer position? Who is in their life? Do they have a romance, caring friends, or a supportive community? Even if a character is struggling in some ways, there should be meaningful things in their life.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

New Fairy Tale Podcast!

In the fourth segment of The Wishing Dildo Series, the adventure continues as we find out more about the mysterious and regal Jewel. Then the six companions take a secret detour to the Kingdom of Waterfalls. This story is followed by a discussion about trauma in which I talk about myth, reality, resilience, healing, and community with artist, activist, disabled survivor iconoclast billie rain. This discussion goes deep places, but it also has a lot of laughter too.

At this point in the Wishing Dildo story, the effect of trauma in the lives of the characters is starting to become apparent (although still portrayed subtly), so I wanted to start a conversation about trauma and how it affects people. Far too often stories either ignore trauma or treat it as terrible thing that destroys a person’s life forever. It is my goal to portray my characters as whole people who are impacted by the things they go through, but who are also strong and capable. I’m very excited that billie rain joined me for this conversation and brought both wisdom and laughter to it.

This image is meant to capture the feeling of an exciting adventure. A road traverses a rocky, mountainous landscape that is dramatically lit by the setting sun.

This image is meant to capture the feeling of an exciting adventure. A road traverses a rocky, mountainous landscape that is dramatically lit by the setting sun.

The story for this episode is a segment of The Wishing Dildo Part 1: It is said that the Wishing Dildo can grant any wish relating to sexuality or fertility, as long as that wish is consensual. Prince Hart sure hopes that is true as he and his friend, trickster Tala, embark on a quest for it. As they travel, they soon discover that sometimes the greatest adventure is the people you meet along the way.

Listen now!

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This the first post of my Trope of the Week Series.

Tropes are conventions (or repeated patterns) used in storytelling. They can include themes and plot devices. Underdog characters triumphing after dedicated training is an example of a trope, as is goodness being associated with physical beauty, and villains revealing their secret plans to heroes they have just captured.

Some tropes reinforce oppressive messages, and in this series I will be going through a list harmful tropes that are used in the representation of disabled characters. Because knowing what to do is just as important as knowing what not to do, I will end each post with suggestions for ways to fix things.

This series an expansion of my list of Common Harmful Representations of Disability from my Guidelines for Game Masters page.

This picture illustrates two common tropes in the depiction of disability. On the left a toy Darth Vader points at the audience. On the right a silhouetted person stands, raising two crutches over their head in a triumph pose.

This picture illustrates two common tropes in the depiction of disability. On the left a toy Darth Vader points at the audience. On the right a silhouetted person stands, raising two crutches over their head in a triumph pose.

 

Villainous Disability

A disproportionate number of disabled characters are villains. Including prominent examples like Darth Vader and Captain Hook, the disabilities of these villains are used to make them more sinister and intimidating. Usually this is done by emphasizing the character’s disability in a way that draws on the idea that disabled bodies are broken, deformed, or less human, something that is exemplified in Obi Wan Kenobi’s description of Darth Vader as, “more machine now than man, twisted and evil.”

Another version of villainous disability is the mentally ill villain so often used in horror films and thrillers. Here mental illness is used to make the villain seem more threatening. This pattern is harmful because it perpetuates the idea that mental illness is inherently dangerous.

What to do instead:

If you want to create a villain with a disability, it is important to recognize that people with disabilities are over represented as villains. This by itself can be harmful, so the first thing to do is make sure that the villain isn’t the only character with a disability in the story.

Also, think carefully about why the villain has a disability and what role that disability plays in the story. The disability should in no way be used to represent the villain’s evil nature or to otherwise make them appear more sinister and intimidating. Instead, I recommend that the disability simply be a fact of the villain’s life that they live with; their disability affects them but is neither the cause of their evil nor a symbol of it.

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Older Posts »