For our final discussion post, we asked our contributors the following question:
Which are your least favorite disability tropes?
My least favorite disability tropes may also be the most common (at least in my experience), which is precisely why they’re my least favorite. These tropes are some of the only representations of disability people see, which is very dangerous. After all, the media we consume greatly impacts how we view the world, so seeing these tropes only reinforces ableism and ignorance.
The first (though these aren’t ranked in any particular order) is that of the disabled saint. The pure, innocent, good little cripple. These characters serve largely as inspiration porn for both the audience and the other characters. Think Tiny Tim. It shows the ablebodied that those of us with disabilities are perfect despite (or perhaps because of) our tragic disability. So if we do anything outside those ideas of “goodness,” it’s quite a shock for the ablebodied around us. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cursed or talked about drinking with friends and have gotten actual gasps and nervous giggling, because if I’m in a wheelchair, I must be a saint, right? I must fit into their tiny, preconceived box of “good.”
The second is the disabled villain. Interesting how the two most common tropes dealing with disability are polar opposites and neither come even close to reality, huh? There are so many examples of the disabled, disfigured, disgusting villain: Darth Vader, Captain Hook, innumerable weekly baddies on shows, etc. The (typically visible) disability serves as a cue to the audience that this character is one deserving of your revulsion and fear. Yeah. That’s definitely a message I want sent to the world.
Apart from the whole disabled character as inspiration (see inspiration porn), one of the tropes I hate most is the magically healed disabled character. The one where, at the end of the quest or story, the crippled character finds himself able to walk again because he’s learned to be nicer, or the blind character finds herself able to see because she was willing to sacrifice herself for her friends. After all in real life, everyone wants to be healed/disability makes you incomplete/if you only try hard enough…?
Because that’s the implication of such story lines. That disability equals something incomplete at best and more often something that’s morally reprehensible. It implies that only if you learn how to overcome that, only if you learn you’re too be generous, you’ll be healed and happy and be able to reach your full potential. (And secretly, that’s what we all must want.) Heavens forbid you’re happy just the way you are.
Obviously, magical cures are a big frustration for me—the disability that is magically fixed to further the plot, the disabled person stripped of her identity as a disabled person by a cure (and usually so appreciative of being saved from the eternal suffering and torment that is disability). This narrative positions disability as something tragic and terrible that needs to be fixed, and sometimes as something a character should be ashamed of—only after the disability is cured does the character become whole.
I also really loathe one-note depictions of disabled characters, where the character becomes consumed by the disability and doesn’t have any other qualities or characteristics. This is often compounded by another trope, such as the super crip or bitter cripple, two other depictions of disability that also make me gnash my teeth in frustration. These one-dimensional depictions aren’t authentic to real experiences and they also contribute to ableist attitudes in society.
Disability-as-educational-tool is another trope that should have been taken out back and shot long ago. Disabled people are human beings, not object lessons or props for character advancement. If a disabled character is being used to educate other characters, give them some kind of motivation, or teach a Very Special Lesson to other characters and/or readers, that character is being abused. Every time this kind of depiction of disability comes up, it reinforces the idea that this is the role of disabled people in society, to teach and educate the people around them, rather than to live as just another person navigating a sometimes complex and always diverse environment.
In my opinion, one of the most damaging disability tropes is the idea that a disability can be “healed” through sheer force of will, without treatment. That instead of the infinitely more difficult task of living with the disability, you can simply eliminate it in one fell swoop by being “tougher” or not buying into the “system.” My experience with this has been mostly in the mental illness arena, which is tricky—some acute mental illnesses really do pass with time. But others, such as certain types of depression, bipolar disorder (my own disability), and schizophrenia, tend to be lifelong battles. You’ll have good days and you’ll have bad days, you’ll have days where you accept it and days where you don’t, but the truth is that it’s never going away and you just have to deal with it—no matter what pop culture tells you.
My first pet peeve is the disabled relative—sibling, parent or child—who only exists to further the main character. The disabled character rarely has an actual personality or plot line of their own, and does not get to have a normal, complex familial relationship with the abled character; instead, they exist to provide angst or obstacles, or to make the abled character look sympathetic and heroic for taking care of them. Sometimes both! Remember: disabled people are fully-rounded people, with lives and passions of our own, not merely bit parts in abled people’s lives.
My second pet peeve is the ~magical~ disabled person, who often holds—or is—the clue to saving the day. They’ll be the only person with a magic ability, or, in a world where these are commonplace, their ability will be the most special or powerful. Examples include Dinah Bellman from Stephen King’s The Langoliers or Little Pete from the Gone series. This trope can also be used without any supernatural aspects, in which case the disabled person will have savant-like abilities such as Kazan in the film The Cube or Kevin Blake from the TV series Eureka. This trope bugs me because it’s so Othering; the disabled character is something to be ooh-ed and aah-ed over, feared or worshipped, set apart, instead of just being a regular person dealing with their own crap alongside the rest of the cast.
My least favorite disability trope? Yeah, that’d have to be “character has a deep dark secret—turns out they’re bipolar, or else someone close to them is.” Sure, usually this one is trotted out with the best of intentions, as our heroes learn or express by the end of the story that its nothing to be ashamed of or they love and accept them in spite of it, etc. etc. But a book is more than just its climax or last three chapters. If a story makes an impression on a reader, its the whole book that’s going to stick with them, not just the shiny red bow that wrapped everything up all nice and neat at the end. And so while the author may have hoped their story would impart the idea that a bipolar disorder is nothing to be ashamed of, to any reader who can actually relate to that, they might actually just be confirming that, “yup, people are ignorant about this sort of thing and there is a reason to keep it a deep, dark secret … at least unless and until you meet that special enlightened person who loves and accepts you anyway.”
So how about we see more bipolar characters who are living with it with grace and dignity, neither hiding it nor flaunting it. Who don’t shy away from discussing it with the romantic interest if and when it ever becomes relevant, and is comfortable enough with it to refuse to be belittled or patronized by people who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about? That’s a trope I could get behind.
I’m forever frustrated by the “damaged disabled person” trope—wherein the disabled character is a brooding, broken character, scarred both physically and mentally, etc. etc. I see this way too often, and it makes me so angry. Where are all the happy disabled people, yo?
What about you, dearest readers? Any thoughts on the above tropes, or do you particularly loathe a trope that hasn’t been mentioned?