I just today read this post on disabled people (or, if you prefer, people who happen to be disabled)—particularly regarding creation of characters—over at the Rejectionist, so being a little late and interested in continuing the discussion focusing on a specific character, I am turning my potential comment into a blog post instead.
Rachel notes that the “Supercrip” character stereotype is “the most pervasive and most cherished in the Able-bodied Narrative.” What was that relatively recent book made into a movie in which a kid with spina bifida (or was it cerebral palsy?) joins up with his able-bodied friend/nemesis with a mental disability to imagine that they’re both superheroes, but ends up with at least one if not both dead because they get beat up? (Forgive me if I mangled that plot—I got so annoyed by the emotional manipulation that I stopped paying attention; I must have been watching it in a location where I couldn’t just turn it off, like at a relative’s house or something.) Then there’s A Beautiful Mind, which I can’t judge well because I refused to see it because it appeared to portray a schizophrenic curing himself—another trope Rachel discusses, looking for the cure. (My mother is schizophrenic. Sorry, it’s not curable.) It isn’t enough that the guy is a mathematician who happens to have schizophrenia. No, it makes him one of the best mathematicians in the world! It’s all so inspiring! (gag) Tell me if I’m wrong, because like I said, I avoided it it due to perceived possible emotional manipulation.
As Rachel says,
Supercrip is the “inspiring” and “amazing” disabled person who has “suffered” and “overcome” the “terrible limitations” of disability. Bitch magazine explains it thus:
Supercrip provides a way for non-disabled folks to be “inspired” by persons with disabilities without actually questioning—or making changes to—how persons with disabilities are treated in society…. Supercrip cannot just be human; she or he must be superhuman and surpass not only her/his disability, but the realms of “normal” human achievement. Supercrip allows some non-disabled folks to feel better about themselves; this is quite evident when it comes to statements like, “What an inspiration!”
In fiction, particularly fantasy, the Supercrip trope is interpreted in its literal sense—the disabled superhero, a la Daredevil, a blind man with super-sensitive hearing and touch that completely negated the effects his blindness and therefore of his experience as a blind man. It is a form of fixing and normalizes disability by rendering actual conflicts and difficulties of being disabled as irrelevant.
Which makes me wonder where Toph in Avatar: The Last Airbender fits in to this paradigm. I don’t see Toph in the same way that I see those emotionally manipulative stories. Toph may be “making up” for her blindness via Earthbending, yet it’s not really the same thing … is it? Sure, she can “see” with her feet, but it’s a much different kind of seeing. She still can’t do some things her companions can, like read. (Because, duh, she’s blind, as she so matter-of-factly reminds them.) Being blind is simply a part of who she is as a well-rounded character. She’s not *more* awesome than everyone else (though she’s still VERY awesome)—she’s just who she is, a smart, capable girl who happens to be one of the best Earthbenders in the world (hence, my wondering: stereotype?), who discovers metalbending, who grows emotionally as a character (as does everyone in the group), and who is one of several essential people who will help the Avatar save the world.
It makes me wonder how a fantasy hero with a disability might be portrayed without playing into the Supercrip stereotype; after all, one of the main tropes of fantasy protagonists is that the reason they’re the protagonist is that they stand out in a crowd, whatever their unique talent is. It makes me wonder if it’s simply that their disability doesn’t need to be replaced with a magical ability (i.e., their disability doesn’t compensate for the “loss” of whatever ability an able-bodied person might possess), or if there’s something I’m missing, as a mostly-able-bodied person who doesn’t always get it.
How about Professor X? His disability (being unable to walk) doesn’t affect whether or not he can use his mental powers to speak in others’ minds or read their minds. It’s not a direct compensation for abilities lost—Jean Grey has the same powers and is able-bodied. And for that matter, if you’ve seen (spoilers!) The Book of Eli, in which a disabled character is a major part of the plot, there’s a huge possibility of the stereotype interpretation.
I’d really like to parse this out, because it’s important to me that people of all kinds are portrayed in the fiction I edit, and I’d like to be sure to watch out for stereotypes, but in the case of fantasy and science fiction—as opposed to realism, in which I find many more of the “inspiring” Supercrip stories using Rachel’s definition—it seems important for many (not all) protagonists to have special powers, whether able-bodied or not.
What’s your opinion? Would Toph be considered a Supercrip? How might Toph be made better as a character, within the bounds of the Avatar world, but not as a Supercrip, if you might consider her one?