Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Paralympics? Truth is Stranger than Fiction...

Just before the Paralympics started, I was watching Avatar on TV. The main character in Avatar is paraplegic (in the 'live action' sequences of the film, though not the animated action sequences). In the ad breaks, they were trailing the Paralympics. This lead me, idly, to start wondering how many characters in fiction I could think of were disabled.

Initially, I came up with quite a short list. Avatar, which I don't like. I find it ridiculous that in 22nd century America, they still haven't sorted out their healthcare system. At the rate they're going, that's plausible, but as a plot driver I find it poor. The next thing I could think of was Star Wars. As befitting a more optimistic universe imagined in the 1970s, when Luke Skywalker gets his hand cut off, it's replaced with a hand that looks and moves just like his real one, though occasionally he has issues with the wiring, just to remind us it's fake. Luke Skywalker, disability hero. Probably good he's not in the Paralympics: nobody wants to see Tattoine waltzing off with all the fencing medals, again.

The next examples that came to mind were all classic children's books. Long John Silver in Treasure Island, Colin in the Secret Garden, and a whole load of books I devoured as a child, by Rosemary Sutcliff. Sutcliff was herself disabled, and often created disabled heroes and heroines, so I didn't think it even slightly odd to find disabled people in my reading matter. Long John Silver needs no introduction: he's the classic. Colin in the Secret Garden isn't disabled, he's just expected to be. But Frances Hodgson Burnett, who wrote the Secret Garden, also wrote another novel 'The Lost Prince', featuring a disabled child hero. 

Then I couldn't think of more. So I asked Twitter. I got lots of replies. After a few, I realised you could start putting the disabled characters in fiction into categories. None of the categories was 'spatting primadonna athletes' but more on that later.

First of all, disabled characters are common in science fiction, like the blind engineer in Star Trek. Science fiction is where you get to do away with existing or historical social restrictions, so women and disabled people can be warriors and or in charge or whatever. In science fiction, you just invent the technology to get round your characters restrictions. In some way, the disability is, in any narrative sense, removed.

Amongst the science fiction, several people mentioned Professor Xavier, (X-Men). To my mind, Professor Xavier falls into another category, which I shall call 'the brain in a wheelchair'. The Bone Collector is another example of this. These characters are super-intelligent but have little physical agency: they rely on directing the movement of those around them. Whether a mentor, a 'good' character, or an evil, twisted one, their 'trappedness' is their defining feature. These characters are probably useless in the Paralympics unless you want to find a way of illegally lengthening your running blades.

Another category of disabled characters can loosely be called 'the Pirate/Seafarer'. Captain Hook, Long John Silver, Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. Long John Silver is a brilliant character: he's kind of evil, but you like him. Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote Treasure Island, experienced continual ill-health throughout his life: nonetheless he spent much of it travelling in rough and dangerous places. Perhaps that's why he made a character a bit like him in some ways. Unlike the previous category, the Sea-farers roam far and wide. If you have to be a disabled character in fiction, this is probably your best option. You'd certainly have a chance for a medal in the Sailing.

You wouldn't want to be the next, gloomy, category: The burdensome husband. We've all seen a version of this, right? Woman marries fit bloke, he comes home in shreds, she stands by him. We all admire her sacrifice since we know she'd prefer to shag the gardener, like in Lady Chatterley's Lover. In case you think this plot is old hat, I offer as Exhibit A Series 2 of Downton Abbey, (Spoiler Alert, US readers) in which two ladies compete to out-sacrifice themselves over the injured heir to the estate. Since the one who deserves him gets him, he's obviously not really disabled, and gets up and walks again. The only thing lame is the plotting.

I find this odd. In real wars, many people must have been intensely relieved/delighted to have their loved ones back, whatever condition they were in. I had a vague idea I'd seen a story where a woman goes off with a disabled war veteran and is deliriously happy. Eventually I remembered it's in Ballet Shoes, by Noel Streatfield: at least, the TV version. The lady is a former singer/performer he idolised from afar: now she's rather sad and down on her luck. I found the whole thing moving.

Weirdly, that's a children's book. As I said, I read lots of kid's books with disabled characters. Is that because children are less judgemental than adults? Or is it put there to teach children about disability?

I've almost left out a couple of categories: one, disability as a social disaster/punishment. Like The Day of the Triffids, where everyone goes blind. Everyone knows that's a metaphor. Then there's romantic fiction, in which there's often a wounded guy. It's not really part of his character, it's a cypher for vulnerability, so that women go all gooey. The category I like least is the disabled-person as object of pity/inspiration. I hate these, and I'm not even disabled. Forrest Gump makes me puke.

I haven't forgotten Mr Rochester. He doesn't exactly fall into any category. This is because Charlotte Bronte is an utter bloody genius and would strangle, with her bare hands, anything like a stereotype. Also, Mr Rochester is hot and feisty and clearly a medal contender, and... I'm picturing him in swimming trunks, need to stop, immediately.

Anyway, there isn't much connection between the disabled people you see in fiction and those you can see in the Paralympics, is there? A complete and utter disconnect. Partly because they are real people, and not narrative cyphers. But they occupy so many roles not on these lists: athletes, teammates, husbands, wives, colleagues, bloke you met down the pub, journalist, TV presenter, object of lust, national representative, advertising space.

I do wonder why this is. Writers can imagine pretty much anything, so I'm not going to blame them. Is it to do with people's expectations? I suspect not. I mean, people can cope with the Paralympians. They like them. So is it in fact, the expectation of the expectation? What we see and read passes through the narrow cultural gateways that are producers and publishers. They are often nervous of what people can cope with, and consequently sometimes end up behind the curve on social changes. They come from a narrow social grouping, and have a weak opinion of what the lower classes can deal with.

I mean, for example, lets imagine Oscar Pistorius didn't exist, and you'd made him up. Can you imagine trying to pitch that as a movie or a novel? 'Yeah it's about this guy who has no feet, he wants to be an Olympic Athlete.' Producer: 'This is a gross-out comedy, right? About a retard?' 'No.' 'OK, it's like Forrest Gump? Kinda heart-warming?' 'Nah. It's about a flawed, ambitious hero. He's controversial and sexy.' Producer: 'Sounds kinda icky. Ugh, stumps! *shudders* And I can't cast Tom Cruise. Next!'

The fact is, reality got ahead of art. World done gone change again; time for culture to catch up.


This is an immensely long blogpost, thanks for reading. Thanks to resident Star Trek consultant , , , , , , , , , , , , & for brainstorming via Twitter. They're all brilliant. And a massive mention to , a US blogger who lists films with disabled characters, as well as book reviews, on her blogsite. One thing she covers is whether disabled characters are played by disabled actors, which is interesting as well, though I didn't have space to go into it here. Please look at her blogsite.


  1. Excellent post!

    You know, Long John Silver has always been one of my favorite characters. He's so difficult to pin down. You're never quite sure if he's good or bad. He's just himself.

    I'm always on the hunt for books with good and realistic portrayals of disability and I'm busy trying to create my own too!

  2. Thanks. There is a pub in Bristol, where I live, which is apparently the model for the one that features in the beginning of Treasure Island.

  3. Interesting post! I've just realised that three main characters from some of my favourite novels (Ahab, Silver and Rochester) are disabled! Thanks for the mention too.

  4. Hi Ursula. I have to admit I have never given much thought about disabled (God I hate this term) characters in fiction. It soon hit me that the reason for this is that, certainly as a film & TV buff, there have been as many disabled characters featured prominently as there have been able bodied ones (not counting instances where they are ridiculed i.e. anything by the Farrelly Brothers). Of course many of these are based on real life (RL) but there are many other examples of in fiction. Here are just a few;

    Marlee Maitlin (who is in fact deaf) plays a deaf girl who falls in love with teacher William Hurt in Children of a Lesser God. Maitlin goes on to play one of my favourite characters in The West Wing, political strategist Joey Lucas. The latter is well crafted because it does not make her disability a focal point compared to Lesser. Other characters/dramatisations incl.

    Peter Dinklage afflicted with dwarfism (another term I hate - currently wooing women in Game of Thrones) plays Dr Arthur Ramsey, a brilliant scientist who also has a penchant for gambling & womanising, in sci-fi show Threshold.

    Rutger Hauer played a blind swordsman in the film Blind Fury. In one brilliant scene he gets to drive a car which is comical without being patronising.

    Real life comes to play in the TV series Sue Thomas FBeye, based on a the real life deaf FBI intelligence analyst whose remarkable lip reading skills prove to be invaluable in fighting crime

    Famously, Raymond Burr played the wheelchair bound detective Ironside.

    James Franciscus is the blind PI who gets Martial Arts lessons from Bruce Lee in 60's TV show Longstreet.

    Real life depictions again this time in the movie Soul Surfer about Bethany Hamilton who, despite having lost an arm in a shark attack goes on to become a surfing champion.

    Lastly one of my all time favourites has to be blind sound engineer Whistler in the film Sneakers,a brilliant performance from David Strathairn.

  5. I also hate the word. And i hadn't thought about it much either but then I found myself thinking about all sorts of things i wasn't used to during the paralympics.

    I think what interested me, when I started getting suggestions from people, was not that there weren't any characters but the way in which they did seem to fall into certain categories. Whereas the real people seemed so much more varied than that.