Mar 22, 2018 | essay

Power Structures Are Meant to Be Broken

By

Edited by Julia Rios

Authors Note: There are so many spoilers in this essay. For Game of Thrones, the Vorkosigan-verse, Star Trek, Daredevil, Anything with Oracle in it, and Mad Max: Fury Road.

Daring to be disabled in fiction is complicated. Many disabled characters are cured of their disability in order to advance the plot, and the ones that aren’t are often relegated to a specific bad stereotype. When I say cured, what I mean is Daredevil with his “sight” and Geordi LaForge with his VISOR. They’re blind, but they can see. Which is its own super special essay, about why blindness shouldn’t be erased in your character development.

One of the kinds of disabled characters that doesn’t immediately experience a magical cure is the disabled information broker.

What’s a disabled information broker, Elsa? Let me tell you. They are a disabled character whose role is to distribute information, which gives them a job when they are presumably confined by their disability.

Here’s a few of the problems with the disabled information broker (now called the DIB for shorthand). First, it presumes that the disabled character is incapable of getting out into the fight, or traveling to another location to investigate their aims. Additionally, it renders the entirety of that character down to a World of Warcraft style quest marker—in WoW, there are characters who have a question mark floating above their heads. It is their sole purpose to distribute quests.

It’s not that disabled information brokers are all bad though. Look, there are characters who do have agency and disabilities all at the same time. They claw their way to the top with their brains, climbing power structures and manifesting information as a means to an end.

Check out these dudes:

Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones

No essay about disability and information brokerage would be complete without talking about Tyrion. He’s the Hand of the King, he is the Queen’s brother, son of the Lannister House (a house which claims money and power). And Tyrion is a Little Person.

Of course, he’s also accused of multiple murders, including a regicide, and well, to be fair, he’s a sneaky bastard. Tyrion has his hands in power, and in money, and in knowledge. Tyrion knows how to play the game. And he does, deftly.

Miles Vorkosigan from Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga

Oh, Miles. Miles runs on adrenaline and spite. His disability includes easily broken bones, chronic pain, and seizures. Yet somehow, Miles manages to be the most powerful information broker in Science Fiction history, as an Imperial Auditor. His job is to collect information, distribute it as he sees fit, and create justice wherever he goes for the Barrayaran Empire.

Professor X, of the X-Men and Xavier’s Academy

Yet another example of the disabled information broker is Professor X in the most recent X-Men movie, Logan. Professor X has always been a paragon of wheelchair-using power, but what makes Professor X’s appearance in the film interesting here is that he’s on the run. He’s no longer in control of his own destiny; in fact, compared to Tyrion and Miles, he’s helpless. But the information that he carries, the very thing that makes him a danger to society? Those are the things that make him valuable. So even though Professor X is incapacitated, and a danger to society, his power and his influence and his knowledge are what ultimately keeps him in the story.

What exactly makes all these men defy the regular constraints of disability in fiction?

Oh, hey. I know the answer to that question!

Power structures, what the fuck.

Knowledge is power, power is delicious, power is held by… Aw crap. Check this out. All the disabled information brokers who have agency and self-determination in their plots? They’re white men. With money.

Look, Tyrion manages to escape with his life, not because he’s smart, or because of any other personality characteristic, but because he has money (for a little bit) and, more importantly, because he has information and power. In The Mountains of Mourning, Miles goes so far as to defend the rights of a dead disabled infant in a society where that’s not popular, because of his status. Throughout the books he performs acts of extreme heroism, but all of this is possible not because of his boundless energy, but because he has money and power structures to support his reckless self-endangerment habits. Professor X is able to do many of the things that he does because he is a man with power behind him. Even when he is at his most helpless, the fact that he has Wolverine to protect him is an asset.

Why is it always goddamn white dudes with money? Because society is most comfortable with men with disabilities being active bodies. We’re okay with disabled men being paralympians because they’re men. You can be a horrible human being, you can use a wheelchair, but if you’re a man, and you have money? You can get away with just about anything.

While female characters with disabilities sit behind desks and molder behind protective bubbles, the men with disabilities and power behind them hop into the action.

I don’t get to have active DIB characters who are supposed to represent me as a disabled woman. Instead, I have Oracle, Dr. Poison, and Furiosa. Great characters, but with shitty origins, ableist constructions and more!

Oracle, formerly Batgirl, from the DC Comics Universe

So. Oracle.

Yes. Oracle is great. Barbara Gordon is a wheelchair-using hacker who has information and power and she distributes information to her team to–Oh. I see. She doesn’t actually get to go anywhere, do anything, or support her teammates. Because she uses a wheelchair. She does fight from her chair a few times, but it’s not what she’s known for. What she’s known for is hacking.

When Batgirl returned to comic-book land, and left the Oracle mantle behind, Jaime Noguchi drew a picture of Batgirl in full gear, striding confidently away from her wheelchair.

Implication: YAY I DON’T HAVE TO USE A WHEELCHAIR ANYMORE, I CAN FIGHT CRIME.

So when she strides confidently away from that wheelchair, I understand that what makes a superhero isn’t disability. What people perceive as superheroism requires a certain amount of ability, and frankly, beauty. The standard for superhero requires you to be more able, by definition. (See Daredevil for more on this trope, I mean, I’m still fighting with nerds about the fact that Daredevil is actually blind.)

But wait! There’s more!

Because superhero-land doesn’t have a lot of kind things to say about disability, period. Which brings us to:

Dr. Poison from Wonder Woman

In Wonder Woman, we have Dr. Poison, a disfigured scientist working to support the pseudo-Nazis (they were wearing iron eagles, they’re Nazis, shut up) is the secondary villain of our set piece in World War I.

While most women of my age group walked out of Wonder Woman with tears of joy streaming down their faces, I walked out of Wonder Woman crying because I am so tired of depictions of smart disabled women as either incapable or evil.

Towards the end of the film, Ares the God of War looks at Dr. Poison, who is crouched on the ground, covering her face with her hands. The camera pans over to her, as Ares calls humanity “Pitiful and weak.”

The camera panned to Dr. Poison (the only disabled woman in the film) when the lead villain spoke of humanity and why he wanted to destroy it.

Folks. I don’t know what that says to you, but to me it says that I am not wanted here, and that my body is not worth saving. I have a facial difference as well, and while mine isn’t as severe as Dr. Poison’s, it is still there.

At this point, some of you are shaking your heads. You’re thinking that I’m just picking only the worst examples. So, let’s take a look at one of the more positive examples of a disabled female character.

Imperator Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road

Imperator Furiosa is great. Imperator Furiosa is filled with the fury, and the righteousness, of the women warriors I desire to represent for myself and my community, but unfortunately, Imperator Furiosa is not a Disabled Information Broker. She is an action hero. While Imperator Furiosa is great, and important, her actions are not necessarily taken because of information that she has that is special or good. She is not enacting on her own agency. She is enacting other people’s agencies for them.

So why can’t we have women both with disabilities AND with agency and power like the white men with disabilities?

If there were good representations of women using these same power structures to enact the kind of actions that Miles, Tyrion, and even Professor X do, maybe I’d be less cranky. Maybe I’d be more tolerant. Maybe I’d let creators get away with it.

The problem is, male active information brokers are always pointed to as why we can’t have nice things. Why we should be fucking satisfied with the representation of disability through a monolith of white men with the House of Fucking Lannister behind them.

I am never going to be satisfied.

Not until I have women with white canes, wheelchairs, and prosthetics using power and money and information to enact change alongside the men who are being pointed at with the “see, you have that!” fervor that I receive about Miles and Tyrion.

Right now I don’t have that kind of representation, there are no women who inhabit disabled characteristics like mine.

I wish that Miles Vorkosigan had been a woman. I wish that he had been Cordelia Naismith’s daughter, having access to all the things that the Vor have to offer—money, power, titles, access to the government. What a world of difference Cordelia’s daughter could have made to disabled readers all across the world.

Disability isn’t a monolith, we do not all experience the same disabilities in the same ways, nor do our disabilities all look the same. Blindness, paralysis, deafness, they are all unique to the bearer, which is why fiction cannot look at agency with the same broad brush of information broker.

What I crave is women with disabilities, with smarts and intelligence, with the ability to punch someone in the face with their stump (a true glorious moment from Fury Road). I crave women who are the power brokers of their settings, women who lift a finger to save the world, and who do it because they can.

I am tired of women walking away from adaptive devices, I am tired of women being the villain because they look different, because their disabilities are shorthand visual aids to show how evil they are. We need to change this not just because it’s being asked for, but because if you look past what you’re used to seeing disability looking like, you’ll find a wide range of disabled women to take your cues from out there in the real world.

You’ll find women like Virginia Hall, like Helen Keller, like Harriet Tubman, like Eliza Suggs. Women who changed the world, who made a difference, who saved lives and fought power structures that wanted to keep them down.

But beyond the powerful, important women of history, you’ll find women like me. Waiting for a glimpse of ourselves in the narrative.

About the author

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry is a deafblind speculative fiction writer and editor. She’s had work published at tor.com, Uncanny Magazine, Fireside, and The Boston Globe. She’s the managing editor of Fireside and the Guest Co-Editor in Chief of Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction. In her spare time she destroys the patriarchy and snuggles her hound dog.