“My whole life, I’ve dreamed about being dead. I leave my body and I see myself from above, a normal girl. Just normal. I stare at her perfect normality until I wake up and realize I am still the freak I’ve been my whole life.”
With these provocative words, Netflix’s Warrior Nun begins. They are spoken by Ava Silver, the heroine of the new prestige YA series. What is it that Ava wanted to escape from? The reason she dreamed of being dead and, more importantly, normal? It’s her own disability.
As we learn in the first episode of the show, Ava was quadriplegic, a wheelchair user raised by sadistic nuns in a strange and secretive sect. Granted, at first, the tropey setup does appear to offer up the chance to explore the abuse of disabled people at the hands of those who care for them. But instead, we get a story about a hero who couldn’t save the world until she became able-bodied, steeped in the ever-present Hollywood message that a life as a disabled person isn’t one worth living. It was a dangerous trope that the disability community on Twitter–including academic and activist Kim Sauder and author Lillie Lainoff–noticed immediately, inspiring me to check out the show myself.
I was diagnosed with epilepsy in my teens and have since developed mobility issues and a whole lot of chronic pain. Seeing as my disability is for the most part hidden, I’ve been lucky to have largely avoided this very brutal ableism on a personal level. One thing I’ve had to deal with on more than a few encounters: the kind souls who’ve seen me have a seizure and have gushed about how brave I am for trying to live a normal life.
For those who use wheelchairs or have a disability that’s more obvious, these kinds of comments are far more frequent, and often more extreme. I’ve witnessed friends get stopped in the street to be “prayed for” as well as being told, “You’re so amazing, if I was you I’d have killed myself.” These interactions have happened when we’re out at a club, drinking at a bar, or just in a corner store buying eggs and bread.
“She was already broken.”
From the outset of Warrior Nun, the show establishes disability as some kind of curse that can be broken and, most dangerously, that being disabled somehow makes you a lesser person and less worthy of a life than being non-disabled.
“She was in Hell already.”
All of the language around Ava as a disabled person is centered around how her life was both disposable and pitiful.
“Maybe I’m dead and this is Hell… at least here my legs work.”
It’s long been common in fiction for disability to serve as some kind horror story for able-bodied people to fear. Within that framework, the concept of the “Magical Disability Cure” that suddenly “fixes” a disabled person and makes them “normal” is a particularly insidious trope, and it has become ever more prevalent in contemporary entertainment.
Barbara Gordon’s paralysis at the hands of the Joker in The Killing Joke was a controversial moment steeped in misogyny; even its writer Alan Moore wishes he could take back. But from that shocking moment came something nigh unseen in the pages of Big Two comics: a superhero who was also a wheelchair user.
The reinvention of Barbara Gordon as the “woman behind the screen,” Oracle, is still one of DC Comics’ most radical choices. She was a hero who wasn’t defined by a disability; she was often given the chance at romance and soon became one of DC’s most influential heroes. Though there is no such thing as a perfect portrayal of disability by an entirely able-bodied creative team, it was a huge step forward for mainstream comics.
When the character was rebranded during the New 52, she was turned back into a non-disabled character, erasing one of Big Two comics’ most iconic disabled heroes as well as leaning into the outdated trope that heroes have to be able-bodied—specifically, to be able to walk—to save the day. She was then rebranded as a cool and hip hero for younger audiences, which seemed to be the reason that the character had been “fixed” in the first place.
The term “Magical Disability Cure” is not hyperbolic. These “fixes” are often completely ridiculous, regularly involving literal magic. In Batgirl, it’s revealed that Babs was “cured” of the need to use a wheelchair by undergoing some high-tech and experimental surgery. In Warrior Nun, Ava is randomly chosen to have a magical metal plate inserted into her back; this brought her back to life and for some reason gave her the ability to walk and run.
The strangest thing about Warrior Nun is that they only introduce Ava’s disability as a “tragic” footnote so it can seem like she’s overcome something. (Her mother died in a car crash and she was raised by abusive nuns; isn’t that a “tragic” enough back story?) In fact, her disability is really only centered briefly so that when she’s “cured” the creators can show her running joyously over the beach, the camera lingering on her now “working” legs and dancing wildly in a small bar… as if people in wheelchairs can experience neither the joy of dancing nor beautiful scenery.
It’s not just new stories that employ these narratives. Many of our formative interactions with disabled characters fit into this trope. The Secret Garden is a beloved children’s novel read by kids around the world. As much as the story is about the titular paradise, it’s also about a young boy, Colin, who uses a wheelchair and is apparently a prisoner in his own home. The book’s triumphant ending sees him basically shrug off his disability and reveal that in fact he can walk and live outside of the “confines” of his chair.
On the one hand, this can be read as him just being “sickly” and not really ever “needing” his chair, which plays into harmful ideas about ambulatory wheelchair users faking it. On the other, it’s yet another example of the only happy ending being one where disabled characters are suddenly no longer disabled, rather than the world becoming accessible for them. This sort of ending is proof of these stories being for able-bodied audiences, with the ultimate happiness presented is their status quo.
One of the biggest issues is that these are rarely stories created by disabled people—more specifically, by wheelchair users. That is not to say disabled people never tell stories that use these tropes. Take the 2017 Venom story “Blessing in Disguise,” in which a disabled young girl ended up with the ability to walk after connecting with a symbiote—this being the titular so-called blessing. Rather than the threat and fear in the story deriving from the grotesque alien creature, here it was all directed at a young disabled girl’s body.
A thoughtful piece by Jaz Joyner at Women Write About Comics encouraged “Blessing in Disguise” author Nnedi Okorafor to speak openly about her own experiences as a wheelchair user, which inspired the Venom story. Just like the central character Ngozi, Okorafor had been an athlete who lost the use of her legs. Framing around an acquired disability is common to stories about disabled people; rarely are they from the viewpoint of people who have been disabled their entire lives, and are often about the able-bodied dealing with their new status quo.
Though the story still plays into the trope of the magical cure, it is inherently valid as it was closely tied to Okorafor’s own experience of disability and recovering the use of her legs. Just as non-disabled people get to tell warts-and-all stories about themselves, there should be a space for disabled people to do that too. I know there are many disabled people who have thought about the idea of a cure or a quick fix—which comes from the nature of an ableist society that only truly caters to one kind of body—it would be incredible to see more disabled creators get to explore those complex feelings through the lens of exploitation storytelling. But instead, the stories that we do get are often nothing more than able-bodied creators projecting onto the characters their own fears of what they think it’s like to be disabled. And when creators like Okorafor are allowed to tell these stories they are relegated to the back of single comic issues.
When we talk about representation, it is never just about who appears onscreen, but about who gets to tell their own stories. I would love to see angry, complex, flawed art made by disabled creators. The reality is that space is rarely made for disabled stories, and when it is, it is given to able-bodied storytellers (and usually able-bodied actors).
Something else to be noted is that if this trope in particular had been established or more widely explored by disabled creatives, you can be assured that the series that feature them would center the disabled part of these characters lives far more. Whereas what we always see in these narratives is an able-bodied actor who becomes an able-bodied character often mere minutes into the story, leaving no exploration of being disabled outside of assumptions that their new life is better, at all.
There’s an ignorance to stories that center the idea of curing disabilities, one that speaks to a lack of communication with disabled communities, organizers, and activists. See, the problem is not with disabled people or our lives, it’s with a society that’s loath to make even the smallest of adjustments to accommodate disabled people and make spaces more accessible for us.
Stories shape the world around us and Warrior Nun, Batgirl, Venom, and The Witcher (which features a magical disability cure which also makes a lady sexy, as if disabled people aren’t and don’t have fulfilling sex lives) play into harmful narratives. All of these tales enforce dangerous tropes: that disabled people don’t have any quality of life, that we don’t have sex, that all we want is to become able-bodied, and, most horrifyingly of all, that we’d rather be dead than to live as our authentic disabled selves. As the world is forever changed by a global pandemic, these tropes are brought to life. Disabled people have long been oppressed, tortured, and traumatized by the medical industry. Often we’re ignored and infantilized. This treatment is, of course, far more prevalent and dangerous for disabled people of color and specifically Black disabled people.
In the wider world, the idea of disabled people having little to no quality of life is normalized. The danger of these ideas can be seen in the reporting on of murders of disabled children at the hands of their parents as mercy killings, as well as a heartbreaking case in 2020. Michael Hickson was diagnosed with COVID-19 at a hospital in Texas. After suffering pneumonia in both lungs and multiple complications, it came time to put him on a ventilator. But, against the wishes of his wife Melissa, the doctors decided that they would no longer treat him as he would never recover what they defined as “quality of life.” Melissa recorded herself questioning the doctor, “What do you mean?” she asked. “Because he’s paralyzed with a brain injury, he doesn’t have quality of life?” The doctor’s response was simply, “Correct.” Michael Hickson died on June 11.
How able-bodied people view the quality of life of disabled people can quite literally shape our lives and, in some cases, deaths. No one is blaming Warrior Nun or any of the examples I’ve given for the death of Hickson or the inherently ableist and racist society that we live in. In fact, one of the saddest things about this plot point is how progressive the rest of the show is. It’s an action-packed adventure with a female lead that has a relatively inclusive cast and is generally quite fun. But they still felt the need to include this harmful trope that at best immediately isolates disabled viewers and at worst pushes a dangerous idea on an unsuspecting audience.
Maybe if we had more stories about the broad, messy, brilliant, full, flawed, fantastic lives that disabled people lead, maybe less people would question whether or not we’d rather be dead. Maybe if there were more shows about disabled heroes or folks who have no interest in “fixing” their disability, there would be less fear around our existence or even the idea of being disabled.
As the world reckons with how to make systemic changes both off and on the screen, disability needs to be at the forefront of the conversation. We need more disabled creators of color given space to tell their stories. We need more documentaries like Crip Camp that offer a real view on being disabled. James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham created something truly special with their no-holds-barred celebration of Camp Jened, and the lives of disabled kids who attended the “loose free spirited” summer camp. Shining a light on the exploits of the campers, their lives, loves, adventures, and ultimately the fight for disabled rights in America, Crip Camp is a rare example of showcasing disabled people as whole, happy, and human.
And in the case of contemporary fictional stories like Warrior Nun, The Witcher, and Dr. Strange, we need fantasy creators to see us as heroes, and romantic leads rather than victims and monsters.
Featured Image: Netflix