Toph: “Supercrip” stereotype or well-rounded disabled character?

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?

9 thoughts on “Toph: “Supercrip” stereotype or well-rounded disabled character?

  1. My thinking on Toph is along the same lines as yours. I wouldn’t think of Toph as a Supercrip only because her blindness isn’t completely negated and it does affect her throughout the show. For instance, she can see the movements people make through the way their bodies react with the earth, but someone (like Aang) or something in the air is still invisible to her (like when Sokka tosses her the Earthbending belt while he’s on Appa and it hits her in the head).

    She might straffle the line a bit, but I think the creators did a great job with Toph. Especially showing how her parents coddle and overprotect her because of her disability, her age, and her gender, and then comparing that with her actual abilities. In some way, I think her excelling at Earthbending (and discovery of Metalbending) is almost akin to how they say other senses are heightened when you lose one (I don’t know if this is true or if this is just another misconception bandied about by able-bodied folks). Whether it’s a cliche or not, her blindness does make her stronger (because she’s had to learn to live without it) and I like that we also see Aang learning while blindfolded, because it shows that, in a sense, she is so good because her blindness allows her to block out some of the distractions of the world and really focus on feeling the earth with her body.

    I don’t know what my answer is, but I sure do like talking about Avatar and Toph. 🙂

    Re: A Beautiful Mind, I don’t know how much embellishment the writers of the book or movie did, but I believe it’s based on the true story of a mathematician who struggled with schizophrenia. I think I remember hearing that in an interview with Jennifer Connelly when it was first released.

    1. Yeah, A Beautiful Mind might not be the best example of the stereotype because of the real-life connections (though he had a much less-happy life in real life than the movie portrayed, I’ve heard). And as I said in response to a comment on LJ, I’m not the best judge on that one, because I probably wouldn’t have seen it anyway due to the too-close-to-home nature of the subject matter. (I deal with schizophrenia (and manic depression) enough in real life family members.)

      And I love Toph no matter what, because of all the things you mention—her parents underestimate her because of her blindness and gender, and so her abilities aren’t so much surpassing all human expectation so much as just living up to her potential, which is much more than anyone in her life gave her credit for. What you say about air-bound items and air-bound Aang gets exactly to the heart of what I was trying to say about how different her “seeing” is. It makes her great at what she does, Earthbending, but it doesn’t replace sight in a way that makes her not-blind in the traditional sense.

  2. Love this post and discussion! I think the time has come to radically shift our perceptions of the disability experience. I am not familiar with The Last Airbender, but now I’m curious 🙂

    I am a writer with a disability and the host of the disability community podcast. We hope to change a lot of things about having a disability, including the compulsion to overcompensate and overcome our challenge. I choose to make disability a dance instead of a battle. Sounds like Trophe is dancing (making allowances for her challenges) instead of fighting her challenges.

    I love the storylines where finding the right person, or the right passion, or the right life-choice will make cure a disability (The Secret Garden, Heidi). Like people with disabilities are choosing their limitations because if only they tried harder, or believed enough, the limitations would go away. Hurrah!

    I would love to read the Supercrip article- I’ll search for it.

    Some of my favorite characters with disabilities include Darth Vader and Yoda, two characters that will ignite big controversy because somehow calling the cane/hover-chair/breathing support assisstive devices changes their power dynamic and ignites big emotions around disability.

    The challenge that I see, like you said, is how do we represent characters with disabilities as strong and capable, without giving them overcompensation strategies and powers that minimize their challenges? In a way, our collective society-stories try to create a back-to-normal path by balancing the limitations with gifts (Helen Keller story). For some reason, through time, disability culture has felt compelled to make everyone feel okay, to soften the story and make it less scary.

    And at the same time, life on the other side is not as dark and gloomy as many people fear. Wheelchairs, braces, even hidden disabilities are not the awful fate that my childhood stories portrayed. Life can be fun and rewarding with a disability.

    I’m excited to see the stories changing. Keep up the good work!

  3. For those interested in further discussion, I just ran into this post at, part of their Avatar re-watch, which actually talks about Toph’s intro into the series in “The Blind Bandit.” There is some back and forth in the comments section about her blindness that reflects the same back-and-forth we’ve been discussing on this post.

  4. I think, without a doubt, that Toph is a ‘supercrip’ as it has been defined. All of the heroes in the story are ‘super’. Even Sokka, to some degree is. They are children who overthrow a superpower for crying out loud. This, in some way, makes them all ‘supercrips’. Since a major disability for them is being smaller, less experienced and all the other things that are lacking from children (ask any bookie to tell you what kind of ‘handicap’ they would have to place on a twelve year old who is about to go into battle against a 21 year old.). In the fantasy world that is built in The Last Airbender, children are no different than in our world in terms of maturation and ability… Yet these four children are special… And three of them are uber special, because they have magic abilities.
    In some ways, this would mean they are all ‘supercrips’… Yet I doubt any would recognize them as such. Neverthless Toph is blind. She is the greatest earth bender on the planet. Why? Because of her blindness.
    I would argue without reservation that Toph is a ‘supercrip’.
    As Rachel described Daredevil (citing that she did leave out the fact that Daredevil DOESN’T actually negate ANY of the effects of his blindness within the confines of the comic OR the movie, rather his special ability allows him to ‘see’ in a way, like Toth. Given specific instances Daredevil would lake very similar things that Toth lacks.) I would describe Toth.

    Odd that this is much of a question at all.

    As for “A Beautiful Mind”, it is based on an actual person ‘John Forbes Nash Jr’, though there are some considerable differences. And though the actual person stopped taking medication forty years ago (in 1970), the film actually portrays that he does indeed take medication. The film has Nash saying around the time of his Nobel prize in 1994: “I take the newer medications”, when in fact Nash did not take any medication from 1970 onwards, something Nash’s biography highlights. Howard later stated that they added the line of dialogue because it was felt as though the film was encouraging the notion that all schizophrenics can overcome their illness without medication. (cited from the DVD commentary of A Beautiful Mind). Though it may not be ‘curable’, there are apparently some who can overcome such an illness.

    1. Thanks for that detail re: A Beautiful Mind. Maybe I’d heard that at some point but backward (you know how you catch snippets on NPR and can’t get them back).

    2. I should add that I posted this because I really do love Toph and Avatar and was examining my privilege: is she a character that hurts disabled people? My answer is no. She’s awesome, and in a way that doesn’t treat her blindness as if it’s something to be pitied. In fact, the way the show portrays the parents puts that idea to rest right away.

      Toph works in a way that some “supercrip” characters don’t because of the condescending nature of the way some disabled characters are portrayed, as discussed in the link above.

  5. So, I’m thinking Wait Until Dark would be a non-stereotypical example also, yes? Because Hepburn’s character doesn’t overcome her blindness–she just doesn’t let it make a victim out of her. Like you, I’m not sure if my seeing-person biases make me miss something, there.

    (That’s also not fantasy, I know. I was just thinking about it.)

    1. I think you’re right, though–her blindness is just a part of who she is, and she needs to “deal with it” because people are using it against her, but she also is quite capable and definitely not a victim.

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