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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.

 

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