Three events fuel this worldbuilding-related musing: firstly, the omnipresent Covid-19 situation, which has been ongoing worldwide since December, and in my backyard for the past month or so. Second, my recent dive in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories series, specifically the third book, Without a Summer. Third and final, Pesach, and the annual reading of the Pesach Haggadah, including a recitation of the Ten Plagues of Egypt.
Covid-19 has got everyone with disaster on the mind, but in some ways it’s an apex of a common sentiment I’ve seen online for years now, expressing that each year/month/time period is more terrible and disaster-ridden than the last. Memes about volcanic eruptions and wildfires spark both fear and laughter, depending on the reader. For myself, they remind me of the Plagues of Egypt. Because of the timing — a Seder in isolation is no ordinary feat — and because Pesach happens to be my favorite holiday, and I especially love the Haggadah.
Nonbinary gendered characters are almost not common enough to have tropes associated with them. Almost, but not quite. The idea of a third gender, bigender, or agender is not actually that recent, after all. It seems to emerge independently, time after time. In modern media, these representations arise just often enough to have a handful of common tropes associated with them. Most of these are tied closely to speculative fiction, where one has the great privilege of learning that one’s gender identity is inherently science fictional, alien, unrealistic. Some of them also appear in contemporary setting fictions, although those are less common and even more tied than usual to moral ambiguity.
Icon 2016, the yearly science fiction and fantasy convention, took place this year on 18-20/10. This year my participation was relatively modest, partly due to circumstances and largely due to my delusion that I could get some writing done during the holiday. Consequently I only attended about four events, one of them a panel on dark fantasy with guest of honor Charles Stross, alongside Rani Graff and Ehud Maimon, moderated by Didi Chanoch.
There’s something curious about attending a lecture or panel by an author whose works you’ve never read. On the one hand, I’ve been attending Israeli SFF conventions for years, and it’s important to me to look for the events that won’t be here next year. Anything involving a guest of honor certainly qualifies. I still find myself astonished now and then that our local conventions keep managing to lure international guests, year after year. On the other hand, I always feel a little self-conscious, listening and participating, when I lack the basic context of familiarity with the author’s work.
This is a story of how Person of Interest worked three long seasons to earn its surveillance dystopia, when other shows of the genre failed to show their work.
This week, Person of Interest returns to the screens for its fifth and final season. After a four season emotional roller-coaster, fans are eager but understandably apprehensive about the conclusion. No one promised us a happy end. In fact, as the show wore on, it became clear that its premise, which initially relied on crime drama with a thin dusting of ambiguous sci-fi, had become radically transformed. Viewers entering the fourth season now knew that the show’s world presents a freshly budding dystopia dominated by a conscious and independent artificial intelligence.
Diversity and representation have been climbing up the public agenda of late. When it comes to writing disabled characters, there are a few recurring pitfalls that I’d like to address.
You want to write a disabled character. First, you need to know what their disability is. “In a wheelchair” is not a disability. A wheelchair is a mobility aid, one of several different kinds available to the mobility-impaired. That’s your character, by the way. Did you mean, perhaps, that your character is paraplegic? Paralysis due to traumatic spinal injury is, again, one of many conditions that require or warrant the use of a wheelchair. Are you certain that you want your character to be paraplegic? True, this is the thing that most abled people think about (or avoid thinking about) when conjuring the mental image of a wheelchair. However, it is far from the only reason for someone to use a wheelchair.
Using a wheelchair does not necessarily mean the user has no use of their legs at all. Wheelchairs and mobility scooters (more on that later) are of use to people with a variety of conditions, such as neural or muscular illnesses, chronic pain conditions, or fatigue. Consider a character with a genetic condition like muscular dystrophy. How does their experience differ from that of someone who lost their mobility abruptly, such as through traumatic injury? Consider what their condition says about your character’s age or background, for example polio. Consider the many possible causes of limb amputation, from shrapnel to cancer to gangrene.
Pay some mind to how your character’s condition affects aspects of their lives other than mobility. A syndromic illness will usually affect multiple systems, something which also bears remembering when writing about impaired senses like Deafness (for discussion of whether Deafness is considered a disability, see elsewhere). It may also affect the character cognitively, mentally and emotionally. A traumatic injury can cause damage to internal organs, or visible scarring, both of which will affect your character in ways impossible to ignore.
If you intend to write about a character who’s paraplegic, stop and take a minute to be honest with yourself. Are you willing to address all parts of your character’s life? Or are you too squeamish to consider that what affects the legs’ mobility might also affect functions like bladder control and erections? Your story might never address details like a character getting their catheter changed, but as a writer you need to know at least twice as much about your story as what is written on the page. Characters have relationships, some of them romantic or sexual. Are you going to think about how your character’s sexual expression is affected by their body, or will you be content to leave sex to be the elephant in the room?
Do Your Research
Disability also has social aspects. If your character’s disability is physical and visible, it affects the way they are treated by literally everyone they meet. This is where, once more, research is a writer’s best friend. Don’t expect to be able to write an authentic personal experience based on a series of dry medical or technological details. Once you’ve done your research into the physical symptomatology and the technical functions of whatever devices you character relies on, it’s time to get personal. If you need to know what it’s like to live as a veteran who lost both legs to an IED, you should probably be asking an actual veteran about it.
People read and people write and people can speak for themselves. The internet, aside from being full of porn, also has literally thousands of articles by disabled writers, blog festivals on disability, online magazines and organizational newsletters dedicated to specific conditions or constellations of conditions. You might gain important technical information from medical sites written by doctors and other practitioners (including, for example, psychotherapists, counselors and social workers), but there’s no substitute for reading the personal experience of a disabled writer, in their own words. Learn to differentiate between what’s written from an internal perspective versus the external point-of-view, for example that of a parent or caretaker.
An important note: if you are yourself abled, and not closely connected to a disabled friend or relative, you may still maintain an impression that society on the whole tends to people with disabilities because of their weakness. Depending on how far your research ranges, you may be surprised to learn of the micro-aggressions that PWD experience on a daily basis, or horrified to discover how common an occurrence caretaker abuse is, and how high the attendant murder statistics are. I’d say prepare yourself in advance, but you really can’t. Deal with it as best you can and remember to take your coping needs outwards, in accordance with the circle of support (comfort in, dump out).
A word on mobility scooters: they are just as useful and just as necessary as wheelchairs are. Generally they get a bad rap. For some reason they are considered less legitimate as a means of ambulation for people with mobility impairments. Some people seem to consider them as indulgences for people too fat and lazy to walk on their own. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Necessary disclaimers: I am far from an expert on all things disability (if there is such a thing). I’m not a doctor or a health-care professional, and I am not truly a disability rights activists. Though I’m not abled, I’m also not myself a wheelchair-user. I am, however, a writer, and I rely on what I observe around me in terms of writing trends. This is just a small taste of what I’ve noticed. I could have written thousands of words more, and I might yet write some of those.
The reason I focused so much on paralysis and mobility impairment is because wheelchairs are the visible face of disability, so to speak. They are within our line of sight, and that makes them sticky to misconceptions and shallow ideas stemming from lazy writing and lack of research. This is not meant to discourage people from writing disabled characters into their stories, quite the opposite. Considering the ideas I presented here is meant to encourage you to create whole, organic characters who incorporate disability as part of, but not their entire, identity.
This essay is not an encyclopedia; it’s barely an introduction. I hope, however, that it has given its readers some food for thought, for engaging with their own writing as well as the media they consume.
Crossposted to Dreamwidth.
This is the story of how DC comics depowered Barbara Gordon.
For twenty five years, Barbara Gordon played the role of Oracle, a master-hacker and world-class information broken, leader of the Birds of Prey and a revolving roster of superheroines, and one of the smartest people in the DC universe. This Oracle persona was developed by John Ostrander and Kim Yale after her spine injury in the famous (or notorious) storyline The Killing Joke. This storyline was rightly criticized for treating Batgirl as a prop in a story that focused on the relationship between Batman and the Joker. The Killing Joke is commonly included in lists of “fridgings”, brutal plots visited on female characters, for the purpose of providing motivation for male characters.
The double standard is driven home when compared to the Knightfall storyline of 1993, where Batman has his spine broken by the supervillain Bane. Bruce Wayne is briefly replaced as Batman but, to no one’s surprise, he quickly becomes magically healed and resumes activity as the one and only Dark Knight in perpetuity. Barbara Gordon remained paraplegic. She also remained a master hacker and information broker, and developed a dedicated following of fans in her incarnation as leader of the Birds of Prey.
It’s not easy to find positive representation of disabled characters, let alone specifically paraplegic characters. Paralysis seems to strike most people as being beyond tragic. Paraplegic characters are often described as “wheelchair-bound” and relegated to pity porn. Or else cured, magically or otherwise. Oracle was an unusual example in that she manifested a journey of recovery. Not always explicitly, but Barbara Gordon’s inner world was one in which a spinal cord injury didn’t end her life or strip it from meaning, didn’t make her unwhole, or less-than.
I wouldn’t say that her spinal injury was the best thing that ever happened to Barbara Gordon, as I’ve heard some fans say. But maybe that’s because I think the coupling between her paralysis and her career as Oracle is entirely optional. A long string of writers put their minds into making the ex-Batgirl into something new and marvelous, and Oracle is flat-out one of the best characters in the DC universe. For twenty-five years Babs was a global-level player and for the last four years she’s been a street-level fighter.
Babs was rebooted in the New 52 and returned unceremoniously to being a character defined by not being Batman. The rebooted Black Canary in the rebooted Birds of Prey offered her a spot on the team that she built and she used to run. Kicked back to a cutesy adolescent story of social media and artisanal microbreweries, Batgirl’s Babs taps on a smartphone and uses Instagram to track low-rent villains where her adult counterpart used to run an entire farm of military-grade servers. Drawn in an art style that makes her look barely fifteen, obsessing over fashion and dating, she blends in with a dozen other post-Buffy superheroines.
Oracle was one of a kind.
Throughout the process of supposedly correcting the injustice represented by the Killing Joke storyline, the reversion to a Batgirl persona was treated as automatic. After all, if Babs can walk, why wouldn’t she want to return to a world of high kicks and spandex unitards? None of the writers seemed to consider that it was possible for Babs to be a top-tier mastermind without losing the use of her legs. Oracle is unquestionably a more powerful character than Batgirl could ever be. If DC is determined to give us a superhero world where injuries have zero consequences, at least they could do us the courtesy of not undoing the character development that these injuries provided.
Well and good for Batman to be stuck in eternal stasis as a thirty-five year old emotionally stunted manchild. He’s too iconic to ever experience any lasting character development. But Babs Gordon is not Bruce Wayne, and it’s grossly unfair for her to be relegated to glorified teen sidekick to preserve a non-existent continuity. Selling red-haired Batgirl action figures is not a good enough reason to depower one of the most compelling intellectual superheroes in the modern age. Leave the Batgirl mantle to some teenage girl on her first hero gig. Babs Gordon has bigger fish to fry.
Crossposted to Dreamwidth.
Poor Supergirl. She never can seem to settle on a proper supporting cast of her very own. Sure, all comics superheroes go through endless permutations — power changes, costume changes, forgettable one-off villains — but always there is some sort of baseline to come back to. Always there is at least a mentor, or best friend, or love interest that recurs in every incarnation. And always, always a nemesis. A hero that doesn’t manage to establish a proper rogues gallery is bound to falter.
Supergirl, in her capacity as a spin-off hero, has a tendency to inherit Superman’s cast-offs. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing, characters can grow and change and develop new roles in the mythology, when discharged from their role as third-tier Superman hangers-on. A few years ago, pre-New 52 when I was still following the ongoing Supergirl title, this was done to moderately good effect with Lana Lang. As an ex-love interest, the Superman comics didn’t really have room for her. Unfortunately, I was never really sold on the connection between them, and why Lana would specifically seek Kara out.
Other characters from that run stuck better, it seems. The Supergirl TV show has a couple of original supporting cast, but is replete with third-tier Superman characters, as well as ambiguous Checkmate-aligned Maxwell Lord. Side note: having Maxwell Lord in Supergirl and then notcrossing over with Legends of Tomorrow would be a crying shame. Still, it seems like the creators of the show are intent on keeping Kara firmly connected to the Superman mythos, while situating her in her own hometown with her own concerns.
I’m glad to see Kara getting a robust TV presence, even if the themes are lightweight and the dialogue is clunky. Granted, my enjoyment of the show — or any contemporary Supergirl comics — will always be capped by my own unnecessarily specific ideas for exactly what Supergirl should be. Of course, that point is largely moot, since the most recent iteration of Kara Zor-El had her ongoing title cancelled some time last spring. Not that I’m terribly worried, DC has the good sense to make sure that they have something on the shelves ready for fans of the show to pick up. Probably.
But the depth-problem is that each new volume (the most recent being the sixth) will have its own set of writers and artists sweeping in to “redefine” the character, without anyone having any idea of what exists at her core. Except me, obviously. All that means is that different iterations will have wildly different approaches. Of course, most comics superheroes go through this, but when Superman starts wearing T-shirts and punching people, everybody and their cryo-frozen cousin has an opinion on whether or not this is the “real” Superman.
The core of the problem, I think, is that very few Supergirl writers seem to have started out as readers. The TV show, curiously, might finally be an exception to this. If I had to guess, I’d say there’s at least one person in that writers’ room that read and enjoyed the Sterling Gates run — my own favorite, incidentally. Despite many flaws. Ultimately, comics continuity and the snarls that come with it are part and parcel of forming a superhero mythos, and they need to be formed out of an amalgam of more than one writer’s ideas about who Kara Zor-El really is.
The core idea behind the TV show, aside from Supergirl’s ongoing efforts to achieve an independent reputation, seems to be that Kara, unlike Clark, actually remembers Krypton. This, I think, is a good start. How it progresses remains to be seen.
Crossposted to Dreamwidth.