(Belated) BADD: Fictional Heroes with Disabilities

(My apologies for the lateness of this post — still, I’m sure it’s still May 1 in one or two timezones. :))

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2010While it’s true that people with disabilities are under-represented and misrepresented in popular culture, I wanted to spend some time today — Blogging Against Disablism Day — (or near enough to it ;)) looking at some of the heroes I’ve encountered in popular culture. Heroes, that is, who happen to have a disability. These disabilities aren’t the shiny sparkly sort; you know, the ones that are portrayed as elevating PWD to a ~*~*~*higher plane of existence*~*~*~ — they simply happen to be part of the person’s character (although, being fiction, sometimes these disabilities do take a supernatural form). Sometimes, the character’s perspective as a person with a disability gives them insight into particular issues, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes they do things that aren’t so heroic, not because disabilities lead them down the path to irredeemable evil, but because they are fully rounded characters. The disabilities of these characters aren’t shrugged off as irrelevant, merely a plot point to be overcome (and indeed, they are often central to the characters’ lives), but at the same time, they are not the sum and total of these characters’ existence.

I also want to make it clear that I don’t necessarily think the characters I’m including here portray people with disabilities in unproblematic ways; while I think that all of them do, in some ways, contribute to positive and well-rounded representations of disability, that does not necessarily mean their portrayals are free from fail, and that is, of course, something that can be raised in the comments. Also, my own experience with popular culture is limited to Stuff That I Have Seen and Read — there are undoubtedly many examples that I’ve neglected to include here, and please feel free to bring those up in comments too.

Anyway, without further ado, here are some of my favourite fictional heroes who happen to have disabilities:

1. Sookie Stackhouse from True Blood/Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries

Sookie Stackhouse is a telepathic waitress; she identifies as disabled because her telepathy prevents her from interacting with people in a “normal” way, prevents her from forming romantic/sexual relationships, and impeded her progress at school. She faces stigma from her fellow citizens of Bon Temps, Louisiana, many of whom see her as a “freak”, and describe her using terms that are often also used to slur people with cognitive disabilities. I think that Sookie is a great example of how the social model of disability works — amongst humans, Sookie’s disability is heightened, but amongst supernatural beings — especially vampires — it affects her far less.

2. Sherlock Holmes and John Watson from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (and numerous adaptations thereof)

While it is difficult to diagnose fictional characters with conditions that were not well known at the time of writing, Sherlock Holmes, the greatest consulting detective that ever there was, is given to long bouts of depression, followed by periods of intensely focused activity — symptoms that are consistent with bipolar disorder. Holmes’ intense interest in certain very specific areas (types of tobacco, clay, beekeeping), and his discomfort with many types of social interaction also mean that people with Asperger Syndrome or other forms of High Functioning Autism may well relate to Holmes and look up to him as someone who shares their condition (which is not to say that I think one must necessarily read Holmes in this way — only that he provides a positive example to relate to, if readers so wish it). Holmes also experiences drug-dependency, in the form of cocaine (which was legal at the time), which is represented as an attempt on his part to self-medicate during his periods of depression.

Meanwhile, Holmes’ biographer, Dr. Watson, is also disabled as a result of his participation in the Battle of Maiwand, as a military doctor. He sustained permanent injury to his leg and shoulders, and subsequently suffered a long illness from which he is convalescing during many of the adventures he shares with Holmes. One thing I love is that there will often be a casual mention of the fact that Watson couldn’t join Holmes in a particular investigation because the previous day had worn him out too much — his disability is there, it affects him, and it isn’t presented in terms of a narrative about Overcoming The Dreadful Disability — but it also doesn’t stop him from being a well-rounded character who often plays an essential role in helping Holmes with his cases.

3. Laura Roslin from Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica

Laura Roslin, President of the Twelve Colonies in Battlestar Galactica, experiences different degrees of disability over the course of four seasons (plus one mini-series prequel), as the result of her breast cancer. She’s an astute and often ruthless politician, and many women view her as a role model. Beyond that, in the final season of the show, we also see her enjoying a sex life, even as the disease continues to ravage her body. On an OMG SQUEE note, I had the pleasure of seeing Mary McDonnell, the actor who portrayed Roslin, at Melbourne Supanova, two weeks ago, and she said during one Q&A section that she felt a deep responsibility towards women who had experienced cancer; she felt it important to portray the illness accurately for that reason.

4. Remus Lupin from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter

Remus Lupin, Marauder in his school days (along with James Potter, Sirius Black, and Peter Pettigrew), Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher as an adult, was bitten by a werewolf as a child, and subsequently became a werewolf himself. His transformations affect him physically (he needs time to recover from each one, and if he doesn’t take Wolfsbane potion, he is a danger to himself as a wolf), and he also faces a great deal of unfounded prejudice and discrimination as a result of his condition. He’s also a brilliant teacher, and a loyal friend to Harry and co.


As I said above, there are many more examples, and I’ll be happy to add pictures in comments, if you so wish it. And again, I reiterate, I’m not claiming that all of these representations of disability are unproblematic — please feel free to discuss the ways in which they are problematic too.

Categories: arts & entertainment, Culture, fun & hobbies, Life, social justice, Sociology

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13 replies

  1. These are all good examples.
    I personally love Toph, one of the main characters of “Avatar the Last Airbender”. She’s blind but has the ability to manipulate rock and “see” through vibrations in the earth. So her vision isn’t anywhere near as impaired as a non-fictional blind person, but she still experiences ableism from her parents, who see her as a helpless little girl, and is unable to read, see while in the air, etc, and these limitations impact on her life. And she’s AWESOME.
    Here’s a vid showcasing her awesomeness: http://thedeadparrot.livejournal.com/468858.html
    http://c2.static.ning.com/socialnetworkmain/widgets/video/flvplayer/flvplayer.swf?v=201004131104 Find more videos like this on BAM Vid Vault
    Admin Magicked — B

  2. I was going to suggest Toph as well, because I like the way her disability is portrayed realistically aside from the SuperCrip-ness of her earthbending capabilities – she gets snarky when people expect her to be able to read, she never turns to look at people directly, and her frustration when she’s not in a place where she can feel the ground. It’s very subtle stuff, but I thought that consideration was neat.

  3. Ironside – played by Ramond Burr from 1967 to 1975. Top notch investigator.
    .-= Grendel´s last blog ..Crux =-.

  4. Caroline Overington’s novel ‘Ghost Child’ has a couple of characters with disabilities. Probably the most fulfilled, most positive character in the book is a woman who has a disability and is also very fat, and as a result is not allowed to adopt a child. The novel makes a good attempt at dealing with some of the institutional prejudice that PWD have to negotiate through to get, well, anything. Another character in the novel (apologies, I can’t remember any of the character names!) lost a hand and lower part of his arm in an accident. This isn’t portrayed as a tragic loss for him to overcome with stoicism: actually, he seems rather happy about it on balance… it does change his life somewhat, but not in extreme or necessarily negative ways.

  5. w/r/t to your comments about Sherlock Holmes, I recently read a book called ‘So Odd a Mixture: Along the Autistic Spectrum in Pride and Prejudice’. As you say there are difficulties associated with attributing fictional characters with conditions like autism but it’s quite an interesting book. I was very sceptical initially but the author doesn’t insist too literally on ‘diagnosing’ characters – the idea seems to be to use Austen’s skill at drawing convincing psychological portraits to teach readers about the autism spectrum.

  6. Thanks for the contributions, everyone. 🙂 As always, if you link me to a picture, I’ll try to put it up for you.
    Laura– that book sounds fascinating, and your comment is well-timed, since I just recently re-watched the BBC Pride and Prejudice mini-series. Can I ask which characters the author focused on?

  7. Dr Who maybe? The Tennant Dr seemed to me to be prone to fits of depression at times. Maybe?

  8. Beppie, she only offers a firm diagnosis of Mr Collins who she says has Asperger’s Syndrome, but she also places Mr Bennet, Lydia, Lady Catherine and Anne de Bourgh, and Darcy on the spectrum.

  9. DC comics character Barbara Gordon: formerly Batgirl, now Oracle. Even after being shot in the spine by the Joker, leaving her paraplegic, she continues to fight crime online as a super-hacker and information-broker to the DC superhero community. She now also leads the team of female superheroes, Birds of Prey. One of my all-time faves.

  10. If we have Lupin on the list, I have to add Alastor Moody: he’s lost an eye, a leg, and is arguably suffering from PTSD, and he is the incarnate of awesomeness.

  11. @Laura: I see the Doctor as having pretty serious PTSD from the Time War. This was really obvious with 9, more rarely in 10 but when it was there it was overwhelming. 11 seems to have quite a lot of uncontrolled rage. Depression is often co-morbid with PTSD, so that fits too.

  12. @ The Black Cat – I actually wrote my BADD post about Oracle (and the ableism I encountered when researching her)… but she’s one of my favorites too!

  13. Miles Vorkosigan in Lois McMaster Bujold’s books. He has a bone disorder resulting from a chemical attack when he was in his mother’s womb. His bones are like chalk, and eventually are replaced with synthetics over the course of the books, but the doctors are unable to give him a height of more than about 4 and a half feet, upon which he has a head the size of that of the six foot man he should have been. It’s interesting how the writer shows how this actually affects his personality and the decisions he makes, and how Miles never lets his disability stop him from achieving, even though he suffers pain every day and eventually also has a debilitating neurological disorder.

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