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This the ninth 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.

 

Metaphorical Disability

Disability is frequently used as a metaphor, especially for negative things. This can happen when disabled characters are used to symbolically represent something about the world around them, such as poverty or intolerance. In this case, disabled characters are used as helpless objects of pity, as Tiny Tim was in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Other times disability is used to represent something about who the character is, such as when villains like Captain Hook and Darth Vader are portrayed with menacing prosthetics and medical devices in order to symbolically represent their cruel and inhuman natures (Villainous Disability). Either way, when disability is used as a metaphor, the meaning of that metaphor comes from societal ideas about what disability is. Whether disabled people are being portrayed as helpless, pure, bitter, villainous, or inspirational, these portrayals promote harmful stereotypes. This means that the act of using disability as a metaphor includes reinforcing harmful ideas about disability.

In addition, reducing a character to a metaphor is a dehumanizing process. These characters are frequently simplified down to the single message they are intended to give, losing the fullness of human complexity and agency. Even when these characters remain complex, taking disability and making it into a metaphor for something else denies an important part of the lived experience of being disabled. That is because making a character’s disability about something else (whatever the disability is a symbol of) means that the oppression and struggles that the character experiences around their disability also becomes about that something else too. For example, if disability is being used as a symbol for poverty, then the oppression experienced by a poor disabled character will be interpreted as being about their poverty only. However, being a poor disabled person is a very different experience than being a poor able-bodied person. While the two things may be connected, pretending they both are the same is harmful because it hides an important part of this complex reality.

Blindness is used as metaphor particularly often, so much so that it can be said that, “We’re just going to put this out there right now: any play/novel/story of some sort that features a character getting blinded is also probably saying something about metaphorical blindness. Like always,” (King Lear Vision and Blindness Summary). These metaphors exist on a continuum that ranges from common English phrases, like “turning a blind eye” and “being blind to the truth,” to major plot themes. Whenever a character lacks judgment or otherwise refuses to acknowledge the truth, metaphorical blindness is rarely far away. It is quite common for these sorts of stories to involve blind characters or to culminate in a formerly sighted character becoming blind, as happened to the Earl of Gloucester in King Lear (King Lear Vision and Blindness Summary). All of this together sends a terrible message about what it means to be blind.

Finally, I want to close by saying that these metaphorical uses of disability make stories exclusionary to disabled people. That is because metaphors based on a specific disability will have a totally different meaning to the people who share that disability. How are people who use respiratory devices supposed to feel about Darth Vader’s ominous labored breathing? How are people with mobility aids supposed to feel about Tiny Tim’s crutch being used to represent him as a frail burden? How are blind people supposed to feel about a character being blinded as a “poetic” punishment for their lack of judgment? I think the answer is that disabled people aren’t supposed to feel anything because the creators of these works never really thought about the fact that disabled people are actually members of their audience. This sends the message to disabled people that they aren’t part of the intended audience of these works.

What to do instead:

In general, I strongly recommend against using any oppressed group as a metaphor for anything else, whether it is in a big or small way. This is especially true if the person creating the metaphor isn’t a member of the group they are turning into a metaphor. There is a huge risk of bringing in myths and stereotypes about that group. And even if that pitfall is avoided, the process of turning an oppressed group into a metaphor denies an important part of the experience of that oppression. In addition, it sends the message to members of that group that this story may be about them, but isn’t for them because the creators never actually thought about what their experiences as audience members would be.

One way to avoid these problems is to keep symbolism to objects, animals, and the physical environment. However, there are many stories (or even whole genres like fairy tales) which do add a lot of meaning by making heavy use of symbolic human characters. These characters can be symbolic for different groups, social issues, interpersonal dynamics, or approaches to life. That can work out just fine as long as oppressed identities aren’t being drawn on as part of the symbolism. The key is to carefully examine each symbolic character and ask, “What makes this character symbolic?” Are any aspects of their symbolic personality, behavior, or physical traits that are strongly associated with an oppressed group? Also, be sure to think about what oppressed identities the character has and if there are stereotypes about those groups that might interact badly with the intended symbolism.

There is an important side note I want to make here. There are some long running metaphors in Western society that view blackness as symbolic for painful, sinister, and evil things and whiteness as symbolic for pure, true, and good things. These metaphors are so deeply ingrained in mainstream United States culture that some people actually think of them as universal associations, but they aren’t. Multiple cultures associate blackness with fertile soil and whiteness with death (black symbolism, white symbolism). These long running metaphors are actually heavily racialized, something that is often clearer in older works like fairy tales (for example, Mother Holle). Please be aware of this as you search for alternative metaphors.

Finally, once again, good representation of disabled characters comes down to creating characters who are complex people with agency and full lives. Our disabilities aren’t punishments, and they don’t make us sinister or pure or helpless. And while disability might impact many aspects of our lives, that does not mean that disability is the central focus of our every endeavor. Disabled characters deserve to be more than metaphors for somebody else.

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