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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.

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