Redefining Heroism

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A few months after I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, I was struck with a sudden thought one night as I lay in bed: there would never be a superhero like me.

The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced of it. Superheroes and I have exactly nothing in common. Superheroes live normal lives on top of their super ones, and I can barely handle a full load of classes. Superheroes are strong, resilient to pain, active; they are more than the average human whereas I thought, at the time, that my fibromyalgia and the limits it put on my life made me less.

How could there possibly be a superhero like me? How could there be a superhero who sleeps twelve hours a day, who can sometimes barely move because of pain, who can barely handle climbing one set of stairs let alone leaping tall buildings in a single bound?

I realized that this didn’t constrict itself to the superhero genre. I didn’t fit into any genre besides realistic contemporary fiction, because in any other genre, I thought, there was no way for me to live up to the expectations of a protagonist. I wouldn’t survive in a zombie-ridden apocalypse, and if I were in a historical fiction I’d at best be the sickly, bedridden sibling character. I especially couldn’t imagine fitting into any fantasy or science fiction story.

It took me a long time to realize that I was trapped in a web of internalized ableism based on what our culture tells us a hero is. A hero is strong. A hero is energetic. A hero is able-bodied and always busy and never, ever lazy.

There are very few chronically ill fantasy and science fiction heroes because it seems impossible for “chronically ill” and “hero” to describe the same person. There are, obviously, other reasons too, such as the misconception that chronic illnesses and disabilities will all be “cured” in a fantasy or science fiction environment (here’s looking at you, J.K. Rowling), but these all lead back to the fact that we can’t imagine our heroes being chronically ill. The closest one I can think of is the antihero Deadpool, but that’s one example in a large sea of science fiction and fantasy stories.

Why does a hero need to be what we are told a hero needs to be? Recently in my literature classes and online I’ve been seeing a lot more criticism of what constitutes literature and what constitutes a story. Just a few days ago I came across a post about how the concept that a plot needs conflict is a western idea, not a global one. In the same way, our idea of a “hero” is rooted in cultural norms, and like any norm, it does not need to always be followed. We can create stories without conflict if we want, and similarly, we can create chronically ill heroes.

Creating a chronically ill hero in a fantasy or science fiction environment seems hard, but it just requires extra creativity. It requires redefining what we believe a hero to be. For a while I kept telling myself that I wasn’t creative enough to even imagine it—I could imagine any other kind of hero, but not one in chronic pain like myself—and it’s still a thought I constantly fight against.

If it’s that hard for a chronically ill person like myself to imagine this kind of hero, I’m not surprised that the thought never even occurs to able-bodied writers. I’m not surprised I’m constantly finding people like me missing from science fiction and fantasy.

I keep hoping that will change, though. I keep hoping that someday, someone will come along and redefine what a hero is. Maybe I’ll do it someday, when I figure out how. All it takes is some creativity, and isn’t that what writing’s all about anyway?

Science fiction and fantasy tell us that anything can happen, and yet disabled people are often told that their narratives don’t fit into the genres. If anything can happen, why can’t we be heroes too?



About Author

Jennifer Bohlman

Jennifer Bohlman is an undergraduate student in Washington, DC studying Literature, Public Communications, and German. They eventually aim to get their Master’s degree in Disability Studies and be a disability right’s activist. Jenn has been diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and POTS, along with several mental illnesses. When not working on their senior thesis, Jenn enjoys being a huge nerd and binge-watching anime.

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12 Comments

  1. I have fibromyalgia too, and I can’t even describe how deeply I feel this. I think about it a LOT, especially since I’m a big speculative fiction fan. I wrote a blog post recently about how Scarlet Witch in The Avengers movie has given me this little spark of hope, but it’s definitely a major issue. Thanks for writing about this, so much.

  2. It’s not SFF but crime writer Jeffrey Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme is a quadraplegic forensic consultant.

    I also have FMS (among other things) & have had to come to terms (badly & not entirely completely) with the idea that many of the things I want to do (and most of the things I love to do) are no longer possible – at least not without a great deal of pain & a lot of help.

  3. This was a fantastic post. Wow! I really hadn’t thought about disability in the way you mentioned. Thank you for posting.

  4. Two SFF series to check out: The protagonist of Tad Williams’ Otherland books is a kid with progeria. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series features a hero (teen and then adult) with congenital birth defects and a bunch of chronic health issues.

  5. First, sorry to hear about the fibromyalgia. My doctor thought I had it a couple years ago, but fortunately he was an idiot, and physical therapy pulled me through. But for a good part of a year I lived with the inability to do the smallest things, so I got a glimpse of the physical and emotional burdens of it and have nothing but sympathy and respect for those who deal with it.

    As far as seeing yourself in the heroes in books, I’d say you might find greater inspiration in looking to those who write the books. Robert Louis Stevenson was always frail and spent a great part of his life in bed, as did Anna Sewell, the author of Black Beauty. She was in such ill health she had to dictate her novel to her mother from bed. In reading of their lives and accomplishments, it made me feel that I, too, could move beyond the pains of my limitations.

    All the best with your writing – I’m sure you’ll find a way to get across your own unique viewpoint in the stories you want to tell.

  6. I really liked your article. I read so much in the fantasy genre and didn’t think about this before. There really should be a way for chronically ill or disabled characters to be heroes, especially in these genres where we have so much opportunity to think outside the supposed “normal” conventions. I have all these ideas for stories in my head, and you’ve given me something else to consider, so I want to thank-you for that. As for superheroes, I don’t know of any who are chronically ill, but in DC comics, Batgirl did become paralyzed after an encounter with the Joker, and she, as a paraplegic woman, goes on to become the hero Oracle, using computers and technology to help fight crime. Perhaps we can start to see other heroes who work that way, or maybe they could work some magic. Hopefully there are some more creative minds out there who will bring about new, more diverse heroes for us to love!

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  8. joslyne decker on

    We can! I also have fibromyalgia and was *so* over reading all the books that made me feel worse about myself because of all the things I can’t do. I decided to be my own hero and wrote my own book: Fight Like a Mother: How to be a Mom with a Chronic Illness. Now I’m working on a fiction book with a chronically awesome hero! xx

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  11. So true, and something I’ve realized as another fan of speculative fiction (with RA). My top recommendation for a post-apocalyptic novel is Stephen King’s The Stand, which has several characters with disabilities. One of its heroes is deaf and mute, one is developmentally disabled, two have arthritis and another is over 100 years old. Plus it’s a cracking good read.

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