Just this week, I’ve heard of two instances where people called out media companies for portrayals that marginalize the disabled. The game Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has received backlash for using the term “disfigured” to describe a burn victim’s face. The film Witches has been criticized because the main antagonist, a witch, has hands that resemble those of a person with Ectrodactylyl or “split hands.” Many people might ask, Seriously?! We’re going after FANTASY now? What a joke. Well, I’d like to share my two cents…and, hopefully, you won’t think I’m a milk sop by the end. 😉
BTW, I got this idea from a great post by Caz at Invisibly Me, who writes about invisible chronic illnesses. Her article mostly raises questions, and as I perused the opinions of other commenters and left my own, I decided this would make a good post!
Before we start: Google search them if you don’t believe me, but most articles on this game and film are unrelated to disability. As you read, remember that these criticisms don’t override the generally positive fan reception to these properties. [In other words, we don’t need to feel sorry for them–they are doing just fine, haha.]
Why people are reacting negatively to this media…or to those making the complaints
People point out these issues because they perpetuate stigma against those who are handicapped or somehow “different” (ex: missing limbs, a humped back, extreme scars or birthmarks–you get the picture). Up to the last half-century or so, many disabled people were hidden away and disregarded. Thanks to general societal progression and also the internet (#1 way to spread awareness), we better understand access and inclusion and are learning to view the disabled as autonomous human beings worthy of respect and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, media which excludes or marginalizes the disabled (along with other groups) is getting called out more and more.
But, on the flip side, many feel this is getting out of hand. Cancel culture and political correctness are often unforgiving and even unnuanced. As some say, we’re “offended by everything” now.
“Othering” villains and the origin/meaning of art
In the comment section of Caz’s post, one blogger said, “Stories have always ‘othered’ villains, and it likely won’t stop anytime soon.” This is accurate and problematic.
Many argue that the fantasy realm should be off limits to PC meddling. For God’s sake, it’s a fictional story with totally made-up characters! Consider this: whatever the art form or setting, it’s exclusively made by human beings. It’s worth reflecting on why we create the art we do–the conclusions could be telling.
The observation that villians have always been “othered” puts this subject in better perspective. Though we now see it critiqued here and there, the issue actually spans throughout history and across cultures. Art, from an overarching standpoint, reflects the human experience. Despite our infinitely varied circumstances, we all recognize love, fear, stress, joy, awe, etc. Hero vs. villain stories are practically foundational to storytelling. There are a few hero archetypes, but they are generally brave (or become brave); this reflects what most people strive/wish to be–someone with courage to stand for justice, help others, and do the right thing. So, what does the “othered” villian archetype represent? Perhaps that we subconciously fear and mistrust people who aren’t like us?
Being a wheelchair user greatly influences my opinions here. It’s literally a common phenomenon in the FA community for patients to resist assistice devices through countless falls, public humiliation, crippling self-conciousness, etc. Displaying a physical marker of disability is that stigmatized. I know someone who barely survived a house fire as a child, and she struggled with immeasurable insecurity for her entire youth–all because she looked “different.”
A couple concessions: Putting parameters around art, even well-intentioned ones, can stifle creativity. It’s also worth mentioning that, for many “othered” villains, the “othering” heavily contributes to their character’s nefarious motives.
That said, I don’t think it’s petty to raise these criticisms; in fact, I assert it’s important. It’s not morally wrong to enjoy Assassin’s Creed Valhalla or Witches or other problematic depictions of the disabled or “different.” But let’s at least discuss it. Going further, let’s analyze our own subconcious biases and reflect on why we make or enjoy the art we do. Going even further, let’s contemplate what art in general says about its creators.
Thanks for reading! What’s your two cents? Let me know in the comments. BTW, I may or may not take a break for Thanksgiving week (depends how it goes), so if I don’t post next week–Happy Thanksgiving! 🙂 God bless you all.