The Superhero and the Supercrip: Yes, I'm Allowed to Say That
The main assignment for the class is a 30-35 page research paper on some topic relating to disability studies. Most people are doing policy analyses, as everyone in my college (subdivision of the university) is very politically oriented, and most are going to law school. I, on the other hand, loathe policy analysis. It quite literally makes me want to stab myself through the hand with a pen. However, I do love cultural studies, and fortunately we get to do a lot of more of that than policy stuff. You know what counts as cultural studies? Comic book analysis. You know who has the largest catalogued collection of comic books in any library, anywhere? Michigan State. Is there any other topic that I would rather write thirty-five pages about? Probably not.
Which brings me to the title of this entry. I am currently writing the rough draft of my research proposal for a paper studying the various and changing portrayals of people with physical disabilities in mainstream American superhero comic books, from 1960 to the present. I AM SO EXCITED. This is such a cool project. And it's even more exciting that I can't find anything else written about it. That's a good thing, because there's a possibility that I might be able to get an American Studies/pop culture studies journal to publish the thing when it's done.
I doubt any disability rights activists or historians of disability read this blog either, so it might come as a surprise to you that "supercrip" is a fairly commonly used term to describe a particular portrayal of people with disabilities. It has two threads: the idea that people with disabilities should be admired because they are "superheroes" just by participating in everyday activities (living independently, dating, going to school, holding a job), and also the image of people "overcoming" their disabilities to achieve superhuman feats that most able-bodied people do not attempt, such as a blind man hiking the Appalachian trail or performing a ballet in a wheelchair.
Part of my paper will interrogate this cultural myth and to what extent it is present in portrayals of disabled characters in comics. Is Barbara Gordon a supercrip? What about Daredevil? Professor X? What about disabled villains? In my opinion, it is really comic book writers who have had to overcome their characters' disabilities in order to write them as complex human (or mutant) characters, instead of relying on stereotypes.
Then there are models/themes/myths about disability that do not occur in the real world, but only in the realm speculative fiction. There are characters who have a disabled alter-ego but turn into a superhero; I can only think of two off the top of my head, Thor and Captain Marvel Jr., but I want to see if there are more. There are characters whose superpower is also disabling, such as Rogue. Similarly, there is the common image of characters who have a brilliant mind or great psychic power "trapped" in a disabled body: Charles Xavier, Oracle, Hector Hammond. (This myth reminds me a lot of portrayals of Stephen Hawking IRL.) Then there are people whose bitterness about becoming disabled leads them to become supervillains, like Zoom. There is also the difference in portrayal between characters who are disabled from the time they are created, or very nearly their first appearance, and the use of disability as a plot device, ie. Knightfall, Killing Joke, and Wonder Woman's blindness.
A useful tool of analysis I am using is the list of the "Six Pitfalls of Disability Fiction". They have been articulated in the works of other authors but the following succinct list comes from "An Examination into the Portrayal of Deaf Characters and Deaf Issues in Picture Books for Children" by Isabel Brittain, published in the journal Disability Studies Quarterly:
1. Portraying the character with an impairment as "other" than human: otherworldly in a negative or positive senseÂextremely "evil" or "good", likening the character to vegetable matter, forging links between the character and animals
2. Portraying the character with an impairment as "extra-ordinary": the character's ordinary humanity is not described but is represented either as a negative or positive stereotype
3. The "second fiddle" phenomenon: the character with an impairment is neither the central character within the narrative nor fully developed, merely serving to bring the central character/s to a better understanding of themselves or disability
4. Lack of realism and accuracy in the portrayal of the impairment: the author neglects to properly research a particular impairment resulting in inaccuracy of portrayal
5. The outsider: the character with an impairment is portrayed as a figure of alienation and social isolation
6. Happy endings: the author fails to see a happy and fulfilled life being a possibility for a character with an impairment
My hypothesis is that early portrayals of disabled characters were more likely to fall into these stereotypes than contemporary ones, and that permanently disabled characters are portrayed more progressively than what happens when an able-bodied character becomes disabled through a "grim and gritty" plot device. But I don't know for sure--I have a lot more research to do. And on that note, I invite comments and suggestions from anybody who has any ideas whatsoever. I will be posting extensively about the project on here, now that I have something I'm passionate to write about, and hopefully it should be a nice distraction from all the Infinite Crisis and House of M bother that's pissing me off right now.
I missed you, Intarweb! I'm back!