Recently I was talking to a guy online when I mentioned being legally blind. He replied in what he thought was kind – something along the lines of, “I’m just trying to wrap my head around the idea that someone with such beautiful eyes can’t see out of them. Seems like such a waste.”
To be fair to this gentleman, I think he thought he was being flirtatious or sweet or something. But, in reality, the “beautiful tragedy” is a complex and frustrating trope in disability culture. The guy’s comment is not the first I’ve heard, and I’m not the first person it’s been directed to.
So what’s so wrong with this trope? Why is it wrong to emphasize the supposed irony of a person with beautiful eyes who can’t see or a good-looking person “confined to a wheelchair” (another horrible, tragedy evoking phrase) or the like? First off, because it seriously implies that disabilities affecting those without beauty are a lesser issue.
The person I was corresponding with implied that it was a “waste” that I couldn’t see when I, according to him, have pretty eyes. So would blindness then be better suited to someone with less appealing eyes? Are unattractive people somehow more deserving of disabilities than attractive people?
I’ve also seen this applied to mental illness in fiction and film – someone who is incredibly smart or a brilliant artist struggles with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, manic depression – you name it – and we’re lead to believe this is somehow even more of a tragedy because the person is otherwise brilliant. As if it would be better if less intelligent or talented people had to deal with mental illness.
Obviously, this is a horrible thing to imply on many levels. A beautiful person’s disability is in no way better or worse than any other person’s disability.
However, that brings me to the second half of the trope – the tragedy.
In many ways, I am less bothered by the implications about beauty that this trope demonstrates and more frustrated with the implied tragedy of disability. By proposing that it is a “waste” for me to have pretty eyes and also be blind, it is suggesting that I am some tragic figure. That the beauty I have is diminished by this awful disability. That I am somehow broken. I don’t like the idea that any part of me is a “waste.”
By suggesting that it is a tragedy for a genius (either intellectual or creative) to have a mental illness, it lessens the work of that person. It turns them into this sad, ironic figure for society to marvel at. When, in reality, their mental illness is no different from that of the Average Joe who has a mental illness. Is Average Joe considered a tragedy on this scale?
I am no one’s tragedy. I can be smart or beautiful or talented and still deal with my disability, and it doesn’t compromise any of those things.
As writers, it’s important that we avoid the beautiful tragedy trope when creating disabled characters. While it might serve to heighten tension or add layers to a character, it ultimately sends really damaging messages about beauty or talent and disability. It implies that average people are more deserving of disabilities while attractive or talented people are forced to be seen as tragic figures. Neither of these things are true.
I never wrote back to that guy, but if I had, I would have told him thank you for saying my eyes are pretty, but I’m perfectly fine with how much (or little, really) I can see out of them. I am not broken. I am not tragic. And nothing about my situation is “a waste.”
So much yes here.
I feel like the comment the guy made about your eyes was wrong on so many levels. I agree with everything you said about its wrongness, and have one to add: even as a sighted person, I can’t see my own eyes except in a mirror and therefore never experience their beauty (or lack thereof, although I think all eyes are beautiful), either. So… what does being able to see out of them have to do with their own inherent beauty?
And you make such excellent points about what it says about less beautiful or less talented people with disability–is it only “a waste” on beautiful and talented people? And how is it a waste at all? They remain beautiful and talented, yeah?
Fantastic post, Kody.
Thanks so much for the post! Got me thinking and I like that it got me thinking! 🙂
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I’m most interested in the phrase “disability culture.” I was born with a cleft lip and palate. For the first 17 years of my life, that was the way I defined myself. Speech therapy, orthodontia and finally the plastic surgery at 17 made it possible for me to “pass” as not disabled. But I am. And I often feel very isolated. I don’t know anyone else with a cleft lip and palate. I didn’t know there was a disability culture. I’m not sure I feel comfortable enough with my disability to become part of that culture. I wish so much that I’d been able to read a book about someone like me when I was a kid. I poured over a book called “Karen” about a girl with cerebral palsy in my middle school years (1970-72). Starting to ramble… Thanks for your blog!
You do have pretty eyes, in my opinion. But the fact that you can’t see out of them doesn’t strike me as a tragedy. And I don’t think having unattractive eyes would really make it ‘better’ that you’re blind. That just seems silly. You’re blind and you have pretty eyes – those are completely separate things.