I’ve been away a long while, having to dedicate my time to school. I’ve entered into my MA program now, tacking on graduate courses while I finish up the last few credits of my undergraduate degree. Because of this accelerated degree option, I have sat down with a professor who helped me decide on what I’d like to write my Master’s thesis on.
While I don’t know what texts I want to use, I want to write on disability representation in two or three time periods, mostly British Literature.
That being said, as a reader and scholar, in my everyday readings and studies I look for disability in writing everywhere. And not just in writing, but movies and TV as well.
The primary concern is this: how are people with disabilities and the fact of disability being represented and treated in various art forms, most notably, for my purposes, literature?
When the question is raised, often I have been met with surprising answers.
I have found that either there is no representation at all or what representation that is available, is negative. And it is a multi-faceted investigation. It is not only one kind of disability–just mental/intellectual, or just physical. It’s everything. I want to see how it’s all dealt with.
Further, it’s not just disability, but how that affects other aspects of identity–or, reversely, how other aspects of identity affect disability. When you study just the affect of disability on a character that is an impressive analysis in itself. But what does it mean to be a male and have a disability? What does it mean to be a female?
What does it mean to be a person of colour?
The inter-sectionality that exists within the study of characters is crucial to advocating for proper representation and it cannot be ignored when dealing with disability.
For this post I am going to focus on the idea of disability as it relates to evil or deviance. To study this idea, I want to use the basic concept of villains, specifically a handful of villains in a few comic book worlds.
I do not read a ton of comics. I do not know every detail of every story. That’s my disclaimer.
But–all of Batman’s enemies are living in the Arkham Asylum. They are, then, all mentally unstable, one could argue.
But they are the most feared and hated characters, within those worlds, and Arkham has become a ‘go-to’ when getting rid of villains.
It doesn’t seem strange, as these characters commit horrid crimes. Of course we lock them up!
If they are mentally ill, then what exactly is being done to truly help or stop them?
If we think of the history of insane asylums, cruel and cold places where people were “stored” to be gotten out of the way, what does that say about these characters, then?
And some of these characters were driven to their instability by an action of Batman himself.
How much of a hero is he, then, and how much of these characters are villains?
I am not going to make a definite statement that all of the Gotham criminals need to be pitied. That’s not the point of this. The point is the implication beneath the writing of these characters as people who have mental disabilities of whatever kind.
1. If we are still writing villains that have mental disabilities, could it imply that we as a society still think that mental illness is always related to evil or deviant actions?
2. If we portray these people as being dangerous and deserving of being “locked up,” is it possible that this shows that society still wants to “be rid” of people with mental illnesses?
3. People like Two-Face, who are disfigured, or even Joker, with his grotesque image: Is this perhaps a reflection of what a person with a mental illness is viewed as? A grotesque figure?
I ask these things because characters are still written this way, even new characters, and even in the news the shooter, the killer, the criminal of major, horrendous crimes is automatically labelled as mentally unstable OR the question is asked or investigated, IMMEDIATELY: “did he or she have a history of mental illness?”
Whether we like it or not, it seems that our minds hear or see mental illness and we are trained to think of the worst. To think of something to be feared.
But what about the homeless men and women that are on the streets because their mental illnesses are not being treated and they can’t function because of it, and that’s why the cycle continues and they remain homeless?
What about the solider who suffers from PTSD and he hangs himself or puts his own gun to his head?
Are we able to help them, when we almost always seem to criminalise mental illness of any and all variations?
“But, V, it’s just comics! They don’t mean anything.”
We are influenced by what we read and watch every single day. Even if it is “fiction,” we find truths deep within it. Young boys look up to the comic book heroes and they can’t wait to kill their Joker action figure.
But who is Joker? Who is the man behind that mask?
Is he no longer a man because his features and mind have changed?
Think of this: What if the Joker had a living son?
(He did, in some origin stories, have a wife and unborn child who were killed sometime during or before his change)
But what if he had a young son before he became the Joker? The Joker was going to buy him a toy, had the toy on him when he got mixed up with Batman and his fall into the radioactive chemicals changed his life, his mind, his features–everything.
When that boy asks who hurt his daddy, when that boy wants to know why you are taking his father away, what do you say?
That boy doesn’t see Batman as his hero. That boy sees a clown and aches for his father.
And many other villains–they either have no family, no friends, or their only loved ones were killed or taken away. They are almost never mentioned–villains are loners, friendless and loveless.
Where are the humans behind “villains,” and what did we do with them?