The Transcontinental Disability Choir: I Promise You Haven't Heard This One Before

Come, sit, let me tell you a story. It’s 100% original and has never ever been used before and doesn’t have any societal baggage attached to it. Also, I’m lying. But let me tell it to you anyway.

Once, not all that long ago, there was a dramatic story to be told! And that dramatic story needed a villain. And not just any villain, but a truly evil, twisted villain, somehow marked as the villain. And since, as we all know, all listeners and viewers of all stories are normal - just like you and me! (I know you must be normal, because these stories always assume the listener is non-disabled, and we all know that disabled people aren’t normal, right?) - the best way to mark our villain is to make him one of those scary cripple-types. In fact, if we can give him, say, a hunched back, or some nasty facial scars, or a withered arm, or even - oh, here’s a great idea, let’s make him all wheelchair bound! - then everyone will know, just by looking at him, that our villain is evil in some way. And bitter about being crippled, because we all know people are bitter abut being crippled. In fact, let’s make our awesome crippled villain bent on the destruction of normal people (just like you and me!) because of how bitter he about being all crippled and stuff. Awesome. This story is totally original, and I will now make millions of dollars!

Or, I could just be copying Shakespeare (Richard III), Disney (Scar, from the Lion King), George Lucas (Darth Vader), Kipling (Shere Khan, from The Jungle Book), Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman (Nessarose, from the musical version of Wicked), and half the writers of Doctor Who (Daleks, John Lumic & Cybermen, Max Capricorn, The Collector, and probably more that I can’t think of because wow does Doctor Who have some issues with Disability Fail). Heck, for fun times, check out Evil Cripple Tropes and Evil Albino Tropes. But be sure to pack a lunch - both tropes are pretty darn common, and neither list includes the bitter cripple who just needs to be put in his place but isn’t really a villain.

That male pronoun use is on purpose. Other than NessaRose (in the musical, she’s “that tragically beautiful girl / the one in the chair” who ultimately gets crushed by a house), the vast majority of bitter crippled villains are white men, and their motivations really do tend to be seeking revenge on the unaccepting world, their bitterness often compounded by not being able to find love. As the fictional Richard III put it:

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

These ideas come from some great stereotypes the general public tends to have about people with disabilities.

First, of course, is that we all must be bitter and angry about our existence. This has a wee germ of truth in it, I must admit. Right now, for example, I’m pretty pissed off that my husband and I were invited to an event on campus that isn’t wheelchair-accessible, even though my university prides itself on “prioritizing accessibility issues”. Since I bring this issue up quite often, I’m sure people see the two of us as a pair of bitter angry people. Kinda like how the fact that feminists do get angry about a lot of things, like rape culture, women in refrigerators, and Being A Girl = Bad!, which has lead to that wonderful media stereotype of the Evil Raging Man-Hating Harpy Feminist Villain. Perfectly rational things to be irritated or even angry at, and suddenly you’re a Doctor Who villain.

The second is that people with disabilities, especially men, can’t possibly be having consensual romantic relationships (should that be what they want - asexual people with disabilities exist), and their rage at this will naturally turn to trying to destroy the able-bodied men who are stealing all the womenfolk away. I don’t quite know how to take on that stereotype, because I know people with disabilities who are unpartnered and unhappy about it, but I have yet to meet any who are in a rage-state over it. Most of them are like just like the able-bodied folks I know who are single - happy, sad, mixed feelings, maybe a bit angry. Like everyone in that situation, really.

Just like whenever people criticize pop cultural portrayals of certain minority-groups as villains, some are going to read this as a long way of saying “You can never have people with disabilities as villains - they must all be Good Cripples who Do No Wrong! Gosh, soon you’ll be insisting that the only people allowed to be villains are white (able-bodied) men!” To calm those fears, let me tell you straight up:

The problem isn’t that there are villains with disabilities. The problem is that villains with disabilities outnumber heroes with disabilities - and those villains tend to have very stereotypical motivations. Why not have Max Capricorn’s motivation to destroy his company’s flagship be wanting the insurance money, rather than wanting revenge for being kicked off the board of directors when they found out he was disabled? Why not have Nessarose’s motivation for revenge on Boq being about his disdain for Elphaba, rather than his rejection of herself? Why not have a Bond-like super villain with a disability who wants whatever because his lover enjoys the finer things in life, and those finer things are pricey? A villain who’s robbing from the rich to pay for her expensive pain management regime and thyroid meds?

Heck, let’s go all out: What about a disabled villain and a disabled hero in the same place? Our heroine, Ravena Awesomepants, a full-time wheelchair user who has a sarcastic sense of humour and a love for musicals, is also captain of the space cruiser the S. S. Susan Burch on an important mission delivering Expensive Important Stuff to a colony, when her ship is captured by none other than the evil villainous Lady Amanda, who was born blind. Lady Amanda wants the Expensive Important Stuff because her current lover, Captain Ashley, is terribly fond of Expensive Important Stuff, and she’s determined to get her hands on it. Little do they both know that their pseudonyms hide their former love affair! Will they end up together, or will their respective moral codes one again drag them apart? And what is the Expensive Important Stuff anyway?

Okay, I can tell that Hollywood is not going to be banging my door down for that particular plot, but you see what I mean. There are so many more stories to tell than these ones. Let’s bin the bitter evil crips, and move on, shall we?

by Anna Pearce
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24 Comments Have Been Posted

This is a fantastic post, as

This is a fantastic post, as has been the rest of this series. When studying medieval and renaissance literature, I was shocked at the fascination with disability, especially its link to gender. Not only was any kind of disability seen as a mark of evil of some sort, it was almost always blamed on the person's mother; her child's "deformity" was always understood as a punishment for her own evil-doing. I was pleased to see your reference to this trend in Richard III, but I hate that this trope is still so alive and well. You'd think, after hundreds of years, we'd have progressed to a more nuanced, realistic portrayal of people with disabilities.

I come with a book rec!

It's a little later than you studied, but have you read <em>Woeful Afflictions</em> by Mary Klages? She looks at the Victorian images of blind and deaf (mostly women) and discusses the Victorian idea of poster-children.

A female example?

I was just thinking yesterday that Summer Glau's character Bennet on Dollhouse sort of fits this trope, and is a rare female example. Her motivations are not entirely clear (as of the episodes I've seen, anyway), but they're certainly <em>related</em> to her arm becoming paralyzed.

But yes. Grrrrrr.

I don't think I've seen any villains with chronic fatigue syndrome. I guess we're not a very scary group :)


Oh, that's why 'withered arm' was stuck in my head as an example, but I wasn't sure why. I must have read it in someone's response post. I'm going to need to watch the whole series so I can talk about Joss & Disability, aren't I? *sigh* (I have part of a post, but it only takes it up to Epitaph One.)

This was a really great

This was a really great post. I think your takedown of why the disabled villain is an issue is pretty much spot-on. But I just wanted to mention another moment with Nessarose in <em>Wicked</em> that rather bothers me, which is the whole "Boy Who Feels Pity Teaches Tragic Cripple to DANCE" bit in the "Dancing Through Life" sequence. The way his suggestion that they dance is (a) seen as a Big Deal, when everyone else is already dancing, and (b) met by her responding with, essentially "But I, a Tragic Cripple, cannot possib--OH YES I CAN YOU HAVE SHOWN ME THE WAY" really, <em>really</em> bugs me.

Anyway, you rock.

Nessarose in Wicked

I only read the book once (I didn't like it), but I have it that Nessa was treated a lot worse in the musical than in the book. It's like the musical is a High School AU fanfic of the book.

That said, the way she's treated in the musical is a post all on its own. It's like every stereotype about disability in one cheery little romance. Of <em>course</em> she's "tragically beautiful". Of <em>course</em> the only person who would dance with her was 'forced' to do it. Of <em>course</em> she then fell in love with him because of it, and nothing else. Of <em>course</em> she then 'forces' him to become her attendant. Of <em>course</em> she then tries to destroy him when confronted with the reality of him not loving her, and only being interested in her out of pity.

And then a house falls on her. Because she's bad.

Oh, and shoes that will make her walk, because that's all she could possibly want.

Meanwhile, you're supposed to contrast her with Elphaba, who fights the good fight and has all the magic and ends up with someone who really loves her and has real true friendship and people can look <em>beyond</em> her appearance.

I love Wicked with a mad burning passion, but some days I just can't think about it.

Maguire's book

I'd love to hear more about your take on the book, especially since Nessarose's disability was so different and Elphaba suffered from mental illness at several points. I have my own issues with the musical -- their cutting out of all the queer characters is a big one -- but I thank you for the comment on Nessa's situation, as it was an angle I hadn't thought about at length. You're right that it's awfully trite and even insulting.

Disabled Heroin & Villain in Martial Arts Film!

I am a movement artist with systemic arthritis who specializes (sometimes) in stage combat. I don't know if anyone saw the movie "Chocolate" but the heroine is a young girl with autism and amazing innate fighting ability and towards the end of the movie she battles almost to the death with a boy of her age from the "opposing" family who has some sort of physical disorder. It appears he has issues with muscle control but the fight choreography uses his "twitches" and whatnot as part of his fighting style. Very cool.

This definitely falls into the "supercrip" catagory and the movie has its own issues (especially if you're not a fan of martial arts films) but I still ADORED it. Certainly not a realistic portrayal of ANYTHING but it's a martial arts film. It's all super-human awesome combat magic and I love it.

The saddest thing about this film (which is pretty tragic, by the end) is that the two "friends" I brought along to see it with me in the theatre said, OUT LOUD, "oh, it's like retard on retard violence" when the big fight started between the heroine and her disabled nemesis. It was ignorance vs. malice (inexcusable ignorance) but I'm afraid the fact that people (invited to the movie by a person with a disability) thought that was an okay thing to say out loud says a lot about the mainstream attitude we're up against.

Thanks for the excellent post! It is really right on!


Oh, and to another point in your post, no one is fighting BECAUSE they are angry "cripples." The heroine primarily fights to get money back from people who have cheated her mother so she can pay for her ailing mother's medical expenses. And her disabled nemesis is just fighting because he's part of a crime family and his role is to protect them... or what have you.

--Mr. Kitka

Okay, that movie sounds

Okay, that movie sounds tempting.... :)

One thing you missed

I adore this post, but one thing you missed is the intersection of physical and mental illnesses (if you'll forgive my use of the erroneous mind-body duality) in the trope. In addition to becoming bitter, many villains "go crazy" because of their "crippledness". One example that comes immediately to mind is from old Doctor Who: a (rich white cis) man who had his tongue cut out and face and arm burned (by "savages" from the jungle, because Doctor Who excels at the race-fail, too), and was <em>driven insane by the experience</em>... which of course caused him to go on a "Hunchback of Notre Dame"-style killing- and woman-abducting spree. Because those of us with mental illnesses are all murderers in waiting, don'tcha know. And because mental illness is something that is <em>caused</em> by such a "horrible, unbearable" experience such as being physically scarred or disabled.

And of course, there are all the non-physically-disabled villains who, when their dastardly plots are revealed, are subject to a shocked exclamation of "You're INSANE!" from the heroes (or his scantily-clad, inevitably thin conventionally-attractive women, side-kicks). Because, once again, a villain simply wouldn't be a villain if there weren't something "wrong" with him to explain it -- such as having a mental illness.

This is true

There are <em>so many</em> examples "You're mad! MAD I TELL YOU!!" as villains. I went with physical disability for now, because it's got that "physical marker" that points them out.

I hate that trope of "he's gone mad from his disability/disfigurement!!!!" And I am totally not surprised that <em>Doctor Who</em> went there.


I agree with this post mostly, except for the bit about Scar. Maybe it's just because I'm a die-hard Lion King fan, but I don't think his character represents prejudice against disabled people. It just represents prejudice against <i>different-looking people in general</i>. Having a scar through your eye doesn't disable you, it just makes you look different than "most people." It also may represent having been through hardship or battle. In the case of Scar, it is merely a trait to distinguish him as the "hardened, old, battle-scarred, bitter lion." In fact, in some cases, people see scars as badges of honor (though there isn't really anything honorable about Scar).

Now, we can talk about societal prejudice against <i>different-looking</i> people, or "ugly" people, or the tendency of villains to be darker-colored than the heroes (all the "good" lions are blonde), or the tendency for Disney to make all its villains look vaguely Middle-Eastern/Jewish (black hair, darkish skin and big, hooked noses)--all of these factors tie in to Scar. But I just don't see how it is specifically <i>ablist</i>. If someone could enlighten me on this, please do.

(Same thing goes for Shere Khan, but I'm not as familiar with that story as I am with The Lion King)

I agree, I have a wicked

I agree, I have a wicked scar across my neck (Think Aldo Raine in Ingourious Basterds but not as exaggerated) and I don't consider it to be disfiguring or a sort of a disability.

I consider my scar to be a point of pride, it's my "battle wound."

The only other thing I'd disagree with is Darth Vader, he was evil and bitter and had gone to the dark side before Obi-Wan cut off his limbs, I'd argue that he became that way because he was evil, which is kinda a whole other discussion in and of itself.

I am Anna MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, and I can never die!

My husband has a similar scar from thyroid surgery. It also damaged his vocal cords. He ends up looking/sounding like one of the villains in <em>Highlander: the series</em>. When people get curious about it, he tells them there can be only one. ;)

As for Darth, I'd argue that his decent into darkness was tied into his hand being cut off, and part of what marks him as evil in the original trilogy is that he needs that suit/helmet thing to survive.

Yeah, mine's from from a

Yeah, mine's from from a thyroidectomy. I like to joke that I got into a wicked bar fight. I don't like it and I used to cover it with make-up because I don't want people to ask about it, and even though people say they don't notice it or didn't notice it when I talk about it, I know they can see it because it's very obvious and I don't want to get the pity party or them to think I am bitter over it. There's this stereotype for people who've had cancer, I'm sure you know what I mean, and I don't fit it, so it makes it awkward for me to talk about it.

I still don't know about Darth Vador, I think he's one of the most complex movie villains of all time. (When did he get his hand cut off? I can't remember). He's definitely not one-dimensional like some of the other villains you listed like Richard III or Scar, so I dunno. I do see what you're saying. I personally think he was pretty much evil from the beginning because of what happened to his mother. Gah I need to stop being such a nerd.... :-/

Dooku cut off Anakin's hand

Dooku cut off Anakin's hand in a duel at the end of Ep. II. But I will agree, Anakin is more complex than the general run-of-the-mill villain IN THE PREQUELS. In the original trilogy, he's still pretty one-dimensional. I'm not sure he's really portrayed so much as disabled as "tall dude who hides in scary black mask and clothes"... at least, that was my initial reaction when I first saw them.

Still, it's kind of problematic that he became fully evil and THEN was hacked into bits and stuffed inside a lifesuit.

Yeah, I'm a geek. :)

My Thoughts On Scars in pop culture

I haven't seen the lion king in a long time, but I don't recall any of the other characters having "battle scars", like as Simba and his father. His father, especially, one would imagine would have a scar if what they were going for was "battle-scarred veteran", I would imagine.

I flagged up Scar because one of the ways that shows do disability without really <em>wanting</eM> to do disability is through facial disfigurement. You'll see a lot of villains with facial disfigurements that are there to "mark" them as the Villainous Other, and often there will be some comment on their appearance as being something that's made them bitter or unwelcome in society. (This of Eric from <em>Phantom of the Opera</em>, for example. "Ack, he's monstrous, with his facial scarring! We must hide his face with a mask and have him pine away for his Angel of Music!")

Whether or not something like facial scarring is a disability-trope tends to depend on context. When scars are supposed to be "battle-scarred veteran, show some respect!", they're more likely to be smaller facial scars that wouldn't affect someone's ability to see, or that could be "hidden" with a band aid - in the Joss-verse, I'd think of Spike's scar, and the scar on Wishverse-Buffy's face. In contrast, a scar that's highly visible and in some way "disturbing" to the viewer (and especially to the person with it) falls into the disability trope because it's in some way disabling to the person who has it. So, in Joss-verse, Doctor Saunders' facial scars would be a disability-related trope, because she's ashamed of them and wants to hide them (I've seen to the end of Season 1 and I know that that ends).

Because Scar is seen as unfit to be King, the scar is part of disability-related tropes. Look, he's <em>marked</em> as unfit. With his scar and all. (Wikipedia tells me he got it as a young lion, being stupid and selfish.)

I compare it to the way that the facial scarring of Hudson on <em>Gargoyles</em> is treated. He's an older, battle-scarred veteran. He's treated with respect by everyone around him, and his knowledge is viewed as important. His scar really is a badge of honour. If I recall correctly, he's got a patch on one eye, so he's got an actual disability as well as an implied one. (One that doesn't seem to affect him at all - you'd think gliding would be more difficult with no depth-perception.)

The difference is mostly in the way that the text treats the scar.

Ok, that definitely makes a

Ok, that definitely makes a lot more sense now. Thanks for clarifying.


The other thing about Scar is that he's smaller and scrawnier than Mufasa, and, according to the Disney narrative, small = weak and weak = unable to lead. So he had to become manipulative to "make up" for his smaller size. Which seems pretty clearly ablist too.

I'm sorry, but that's just

I'm sorry, but that's just completely untrue and definitely not ablist on Disney's part, not in the least bit. Animals are not people. If the characters in the Lion King were humans, you'd definitely have an argument, but because of the nature of the animal kingdom, where Darwin's observations of the survival of the fittest apply more aptly, what Disney did with Scar is very realistic. Animals typically kill the runt of the litter, or leave them behind. Watch Meercat Manor and you'll see this.

It's NOT according to Disney narrative that small = weak and weak = unable to lead, that's according to biology in the animal kingdom. That's just nature, that's NOT able-ism.

Hey, what do you think?

I was reading the post and comments, and I started to think about the movie "Freaks" - the one from the 1930s (I think). The movie seems to treat the differently abled circus performers as the sympathetic heroes, while the "regular" folks are the villians. Although, at the end, the villanous feamle does end up mutilated and becomes "one of them". Ummm .... so what do you think?

Opera Ghost!

You forgot Phantom of the Opera! He's a classic i-hate-the-normal-people villain, with a he-stole-my-woman-he-must-die twist. But -even though i agree absolutely- sue me, I love it.

And besides, everyone knows the villain is the one who kills the dog.

I would read the Continuing

I would read the Continuing Adventures of Ravenna Awesomepants. Sounds operatic, and full of explosions.

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