Comparison in Disabled Representation: Daredevil and Toph

Netflix has reminded me that Daredevil is a thing they make, and as of the writing of this post will have a second season next week. It reminded me of a problem I had with the first season that I didn’t touch on in my review; Daredevil isn’t good representation of the blind. Now given how few disabled characters there are, let alone, blind characters on TV this is a problem. In order to illustrate this I thought it would make sense to compare him to a case of good representation: Toph Beifong from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Let’s not waste any time and jump in.

Before continuing, I myself am legally blind and this is just my personal opinion. Also I’m only talking about the Daredevil show.

So what’s the problem with Daredevil? The premise of his powers, that losing his vision has enhanced his other senses, is nonsense. There’s a difference between having to utilize your remaining senses in order to come up with tricks to function in a world that isn’t designed for people like you. But this a common misconception as conveying that idea to the abled, or the less aware disabled even. That his blindness came from a chemical spill isn’t a meaningful counter though. First, because of the aforementioned ideas in the real world, secondly Skip, his mentor is similarly blind with no explanation and finally because chemical spills are mundane. Becoming bind from a chemical spill is mundane. It’s not the same as being bitten by a spider that’s been experimented on or being exposed to radiation or being infused with the powers of an ancient god via holy relic. The show wants everything to be relatively mundane so that’s how one reads it.

The other problem is how rarely Daredevil being blind comes up. It comes up for Matt Murdock all the time, but for Daredevil? There’s maybe one scene where he does something with the lights to his advantage. Also the fact that he has quasi sonar vision with everything on fire is tacky. All in all Daredevil’s blindness seems like a negative character flaw you take in a tabletop game to get extra points and then set it up so that flaw never actually comes up.

Toph is a blind character whose blindness actually matters. Her parents don’t let her do anything. She “sees” through her feet, a workaround that causes problems multiple times throughout the series. At the same time, she’s able to manage her disability. It’s how she was able to learn earthbending and figure out metalbending. Toph is a fully realized character whose disability is a part of her and it impacts her.

And there’s the core of writing disabled characters: having them be fully realized characters. The other trick is write about their disabilities truthfully. As I’ve written before, it’s not hard, except for all the things that make it hard. Till next time.

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Diversity of Disability

Structures of power, marginalization and oppression value certain permutations of human existence over others. This plays out in the real world in countless ways. It becomes cultural norms that are displayed, reinforced and changed in media. While there are any number of issues with disability representation, today will be about the diversity of disability. Let’s not waste any time and jump into it.

On some level, being disabled means that the world isn’t made for you; that some part of you isn’t compatible with the physical structure of the world. There are numerous ways in which someone can be disabled, and even more ways in which different causes can have the same end result. When it comes to media, the most meaningful distinction with causes is being born with a disability versus developing it later in life.

These are radically different experiences, and have radically impact on people. Yet by and large stories will have characters who became disabled, not those who were born disabled.* It’s easy to frame these characters as tragic, how they were stricken down and how they’re trying to overcome this problem. It hits all the emotional beats and has a hint of inspiration porn mixed in. Not only that, but it’s easy to think about how these characters did or didn’t deserve this, how they were just like you and now they’re different. People who were born with disabilities though? They were shuttered away from society and written off, killed off, for most of human history. Those stories deserve to be told, need to be told.

But this isn’t to take away from people who did become disabled after they were born. Their stories matter too; but their stories must be more than clichés for the abled to feel good about themselves. We need to embrace the diversity of disability in all its forms in ways that matter to the disabled.

While it makes sense to treat disability as one broad tent, those who are inside the tent should understand and celebrate the degree of diversity within the tent. Next week, I’ll start looking back on 2015. Till next time.

 

*I am hard pressed to think of disabled characters but one that always stand out is Toph Beifong from Avatar; the Last Airbender, who is wonderful.