This month on Trope Anatomy 101, Carlie St. George examines the harmful trope of waving away disability and chronic illnesses in fiction.
Trope Anatomy 101 is a monthly column in which familiar tropes, particularly in speculative fiction and pop culture, are broken down and discussed by new regular contributor and author Carlie St. George.
Waving Away Disability and Chronic Conditions in Fiction
Let me tell you a story. There’s a good chance you’ve already heard this one before, but please, bear with me anyway:
A child is sad. His family can no longer afford to live in their home because some greedy putz wants to turn the whole neighborhood into a golf course. Unrelated but also worth noting: the child has a chronic respiratory condition. Symptoms of this particular condition include shortness of breath, chest tightness, coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing. Depending on the severity of these symptoms, people can die if their respiratory distress is left untreated.
Fortunately, the child has access to the proper medication. He also has an old map that leads him and his friends to discover enough pirate treasure to save all of their homes. At the end of this adventure, after our child hero has kissed a girl and given an inspiring speech and talked to a skeleton and escaped the jaws of death, the boy stands on a beach, looks at his brother making out with a pretty girl, and dismissively tosses his meds behind him, saying, “Oh, who needs it?”
Bullshit, right? That’s unequivocal bullshit.
But, as most of you have probably figured out by now, that is also the ending of The Goonies, a movie I love with all my nostalgic geek heart but remains an example of one of my least favorite tropes ever: Throwing Off The Disability. If you’re unfamiliar with that phrase, it refers to a story that features a character with an irreversible disability, mental illness, neurological disorder, or other chronic physical condition that is suddenly cured, often at the end of the story, or just in time for the character to do something plot-relevant that she physically couldn’t do before. There are a number of ways these conditions or disabilities are erased from the story (strength of character, divine intervention, deus ex technology, disavowing that the condition ever existed in the first place, etc.) but no matter how they’re resolved, a greater majority of these stories remain problematic because they often seem to a) suggest than an ending can’t be happy if the hero or heroine is disabled, and b) prioritize both this limited perception of a happy ending (not to mention just generally lazy writing) over solid character arcs and visible representation.
All kinds of disabilities have been cured in books, comic books, TV shows, and movies, but possibly none quite so frequently as paralysis, specifically paraplegia. It’s so common in SF that back in 2009, Charlie Jane Anders comprised a list on io9 called 20 Science Fiction Characters Who Got Their Legs Back. One of the most well-known and controversial examples, though, is Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) from the Batman comics.
In 1988, Frank Miller wrote The Killing Joke, where the Joker shot and emotionally terrorized Barbara, ultimately leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. It’s often considered one of the greatest Batman stories ever, although having recently read it, I must tell you that I rather despised it for a number of reasons, only one of which is how the unnecessarily brutal attack on Barbara isn’t even about her; it’s about the Joker trying to drive her father crazy. When I’d first heard about The Killing Joke years ago, though, I was actually excited about the storyline because I knew Barbara’s paralysis led to her becoming Oracle, a superhero/hacker/badass analyst in a wheelchair who worked behind the scenes on several superhero teams.
Oracle was obviously a great step towards representation, but I was also just excited by the idea of a hero not escaping something by the skin of her teeth, as heroes are prone to do. I often find myself looking for stories where characters are irreversibly changed from what are clearly life-changing events, and then figuring out a way to move forward. So, of course I loved the idea that Barbara Gordon, who lived a heroic and dangerous life, physically couldn’t continue being Batgirl after suffering permanent physical injury and thus found a new way to help people. That just made her even more awesome.
Clearly, I’d assumed that The Killing Joke was an intentional beginning to that arc. It absolutely wasn’t, and The Mary Sue has a great article detailing how Oracle actually came to be and why curing her paralysis was bullshit. Despite the comic’s horrifying treatment of female characters, though, Oracle, at least, remained a positive feminist outcome . . . until DC rebooted their entire universe with the New 52 and essentially wrote Oracle out of continuity.
In fairness, Batgirl, Vol. 1: The Darkest Reflection was much better than I thought it would be, almost certainly because Gail Simone was the one who wrote it.
Still, Barbara’s “miracle cure” (an incredibly vague procedure that takes place somewhere in South Africa before the comic even begins) is a hasty and thoroughly unnecessary retcon, erasing several years’ worth of empowering character growth and transformation for . . . what? To fix an old mistake? No, DC decided to keep the mistake and, instead, “fixed” the solution.
And, unfortunately, DC has recently made similarly poor decisions with one of their TV shows: Arrow.
As the team’s super hacker, Felicity Smoak is often associated with (or considered a rip-off of) Oracle, and she’s pretty great, when the writers remember to make her an actual character instead of merely an irrational and petulant love interest. Earlier this season, Felicity was paralyzed from the waist down, and as near as I–a fully able-bodied person–can tell, the show did a pretty good job handling this arc, at least, for a time. Mari Ness wrote an enlightening and thorough analysis of this storyline on Tor.com, and for the most part, it’s fairly positive.
But that all ended in “Taken” when Felicity had a
totally magical chip implanted in her spine that cured her paralysis once and for all.
Here’s the thing: Felicity’s cure? Not exactly a surprise. Mari Ness ended that article correctly assuming that Felicity’s paralysis was temporary. Conversations I’ve engaged in over the past few months have centered on how, not if, Felicity would walk again. And though a part of me remained an unrealistically hopeful bastard that her diagnosis would stick, even I couldn’t muster up much shock when Curtis offered up a potential cure . . . though I’ll admit to holding onto a naïve prayer that it would at least come with some unexpected side effects, and that the storyline in general would last longer than six measly episodes.
But such was not to be. Not only was I annoyed with both the unlikely ease of Felicity’s first steps and how she used them to walk away from Oliver (in what some writer undoubtedly thought was oh-so-clever symbolism), I’m now left to wonder what narrative good came from curing Felicity’s paralysis at all.
The obvious answer, of course, is that there isn’t any, at least, not any that’s paid off as of this writing. Other than being able to literally walk out of her romantic relationship, I can’t see how a cure has enriched Felicity’s character or advanced the main storyline in any meaningful way. Felicity does eventually get fired as CEO because she plans to make her miracle cure available to the general public (and not just the incredibly rich), but even that feels less like a genuine character development and more like a minimal, trumped up obstacle to Team Arrow’s plan to save the world, an obstacle that could have arisen in half a dozen better ways than erasing Felicity’s disability. And the thing is, discovering a cure to permanent spinal cord injuries would be unspeakably huge, affecting billions and billions of lives, but Arrow only seems to remember the miracle they’ve created when they need some minor, episodic drama. I would be very surprised to see this life-changing cure actually impact the people and world of Arrow in any significant way in the future.
If there is no solid narrative purpose to curing Felicity, then I’m left to surmise that it only happened because either the showrunners were too lazy to continue writing for a disabled team member, or they simply couldn’t perceive a happy ending with a main character stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Either way, it’s crap.
But the thing is, that kind of thinking? It is everywhere, especially (but not limited to) speculative fiction. Characters on the autism spectrum, for instance, are often subjected to magical cures. Ada Hoffman discusses the problem with cure stories on her blog, detailing the differences between “curebie” and “cure decision” stories, and why both can be damaging to real autistic people. Hoffman’s Autistic Book Party is also where I came across A Wizard Alone by Diane Duane, the sixth book in a YA fantasy series where not only is autism regularly conflated with depression, but one character, Darryl, chooses to magically cure his autism at the end of the story, lending to the idea that one cannot possibly be happy or have a happy ending unless one is neurotypical. The good news is that since its initial publication in 2002, Duane has updated her entire Young Wizards series, and as Alyssa Hillary notes in her review on Disability in Kidlit, the new edition of A Wizard Alone comes with several substantive and positive changes, including Darryl choosing to remain autistic.
Unfortunately, changes aren’t always positive. In the show Eureka, one of the main characters, Allison, has an autistic son . . . until the fourth season, anyway, when a number of people, including Allison, end up in an alternate timeline where Kevin is not only neurotypical; he has always been neurotypical. Which is problematic enough, but becomes even more troubling when you consider that Allison seems to entirely accept this new version of her son as the child she always wanted. Having conflicted feelings seems reasonable, but as writer Marissa Lingen notes in an angry blog post, neither Allison nor the show seems to understand that this Kevin is a completely new person with different memories, attitudes, experiences, etc.
At its worst, Throwing Off the Disability erases identity in favor of embracing what we’ve come to accept as the “normal” protagonist. But even stories that aren’t so obviously awful have the potential to be lazy at best and damaging at worst.
Take the Incredible Hulk comics, for instance: at one point, Bruce Banner is diagnosed with ALS, a real, progressive neurological disease that, according to the ALS Association, affects around 20,000 Americans per year. ALS cannot be cured and is inevitably fatal, and yet Bruce Banner is magically saved in Issue #32, thanks to Reed Richards, Ant Man, and some quickly dug up genetic material from Bruce’s dead and terrible father. On the last page, Bruce, walking away from his dad’s grave, completely breaks the fourth wall to tell readers, “This is fiction. In fact, there is no cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Anything you hear to the contrary is just a dream. At least for the moment.” The comic then ends, asking readers to donate to two different ALS foundations.
Of course, if fans decided to donate money after reading this comic, that’s great. Awareness is important. But there have to be better ways to raise awareness (the Ice Bucket Challenge, for instance) than to give your lead character an incurable and fatal disease that affects real people every day, only to conveniently wave it away when it no longer suits your manufactured dramatic purposes.
Although I suppose I should be happy that the writers at least bothered to come up with an actual cure for Bruce’s ALS, no matter how lousy it was. Stories that cure characters of mental illness often don’t make even that small effort. Take Doctor Selvig in Thor: The Dark World for instance. After the events of The Avengers (where he is mind-controlled into helping an alien invasion), Selvig has an emotional breakdown. I don’t believe he’s ever given a specific diagnosis, and of course the whole thing is played for laughs (which is a whole other problematic trope), but Selvig ends up being committed to a mental health facility until our good guys sneak him out. As he’s leaving, a bunch of birds disappear into the sky and emerge, flying up, from beneath his feet. Selvig says, “There’s nothing more reassuring than realizing that the world is crazier than you,” and tosses his bag of prescription medications in the trash. After that, he’s essentially fine; eccentric, sure (he’s not big on pants, for example), but is there any indication that a man who’s been mentally unwell might get worse if he stops taking his medication? Well, of course not.
Presumably, the idea is that Eric never needed the pills at all, but that’s actually just another version of erasing disability: presenting a condition, then later saying, “Fooled you! They were never really sick in the first place!” Is this as cheap from a narrative standpoint? Not always. But on the representation front, it still sucks pretty heartily. Marieke Nijkamp discusses this on Disability in Kidlit, where she recounts her feelings as a child reading The Secret Garden.
In The Secret Garden, Colin is a young, sickly child who is only presumed ill, mostly thanks to Lord Craven’s pretty lousy parenting. It turns out, conveniently, that all he really needs to walk again is some fresh air and a bit of encouragement. This is actually quite similar to how Klara manages to throw off her disability in Heidi. In that film, her nurse, the subtly named Fraulein Rottenmeier, hopes to keep Klara in a wheelchair forever. Unfortunately for Rottenmeier, Shirley Temple arrives and teaches Klara to walk anyway, purely with a can-do attitude and some spunky ringlets.
Asthma is yet another condition that tends to fall under make-believe illnesses; in the interest of full disclosure, though, I should admit that this one annoys me on a more personal level, as I actually have asthma. I’m fortunate that mine is pretty mild (occasionally frightening, but mostly just annoying), but I’ve sometimes wondered if my general reluctance to take my inhaler when the situation calls for it comes, at least in part, from stories where asthma is so easily dismissed as psychosomatic, and fearing others might see mine the same way. This is true of Eddie Kaspbrak in Stephen King’s IT, for example, whose asthma turns out to be a figment of his overprotective mother’s imagination. (His inhaler, apparently, merely holds medicinal flavored tap water.) On one hand, IT is all about fighting monsters with what’s essentially “clap your hands if you believe” magic, and I do like that Eddie successfully uses his placebo inhaler to fight against the monster because he believes in it. On the other hand, it’s just frustrating when something you actually deal with in your everyday life is treated like it’s easily solved by mind over matter instead of, you know, albuterol.
And of course, that brings us back full circle to The Goonies, because it’s actually hard to know if Mikey’s asthma is supposed to be a physical condition that he somehow conquers through life experience, or if said life experience teaches him that he never really needed his inhaler in the first place. There’s definitely an argument for that interpretation; after all, early in the film, Mikey uses his inhaler five separate times in under ten minutes, despite the fact that he never once seems to be short of breath or otherwise having difficulty breathing. But either way, it frustrates me. Physical conditions, physical disabilities, and mental illnesses are all real things that real people deal with, and it’s a little insulting to suggest otherwise.
There are great subversions of this trope, of course. I recently read Borderline by Mishell Baker, where the protagonist is a double amputee with Borderline Personality Disorder, and despite the fact that she lives in a world with magic, Millie (spoilers) is never cured of her mental illness, nor do her legs magically grow back.
I’ve personally enjoyed how Phil Coulson’s robotic hand in Agents of Shield has not only been plot relevant, but how he occasionally struggles with the fact that it just doesn’t “feel right” and how he keeps changing it in the hopes that it someday will. (Compare this to Captain Cold on Legends of Tomorrow, who intentionally froze off his own hand, but conveniently got to regrow it, or even Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars trilogy, whose amputated arm is replaced with a robotic one that, for all intents and purposes, is treated exactly like the flesh arm he was born with–although perhaps this will be different in the new trilogy, now that Luke’s been shown in The Force Awakens with a visibly metal hand.)
No doubt you can come up with subversions that you yourself found exciting, as well as examples of magically cured disabilities that I didn’t cover here today. But overall, this is one of those tropes that doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere, and as, hopefully, this column–and the bevy of links I’ve included to the people who’ve been writing about the same topic for years has suggested–it really does need to go. Because this trope is hurtful, and it’s lazy, and it only allows for limited types of heroes and limited types of happy endings. We’re a more imaginative species than that, and it’s long past time we started imagining stories about disability that have something other to say than, “Go away, go away, please, please go away.”