Module 3: Screen Media Cultures
In the TikTok video assigned for this module above, Imani Barbarin (2021) artfully describes the process by which disabled people are barred from participating in creating mainstream media (such as film, TV, games). Largely a consequence of access barriers, this exclusion contributes to an underrepresentation of disability in popular culture. When disability does appear, it is often filtered through harmful and ableist stereotypes (see for example Haller, 2010; Wong, 2020). We are going to explore some of these tropes in pop culture — in particular, representations of the relationship between technology and disability in one of the most tech-heavy genres, science fiction.
Disability, Technology, and Science Fiction
From spaceships to teleporters, science fiction is deeply concerned with technological development and progress and how technology both impacts individuals and societies. As such, it can be a useful genre through which to explore a culture’s imaginings about technological development and the future (for more see Allan, 2013). This, in turn, tells us about a culture’s values and ideologies.
Science fiction can allow us to re-imagine our worlds and see all that they can be, “the good, the bad and the downright terrifying” (Schalk, 2018, p. 12). Within disability, mad and Deaf studies, science fiction can allow us to re-examine the constructed categories of disability difference and the contexts from which these categories are produced and upheld. They can work against dominant tropes or representations of disability, presenting disability as incidental, as in the character of Geordi in Star Trek: Next Generation. Geordi is blind and uses a piece of future technology, his visor, to transmit visual information to his brain. In most episodes of the series, his disability is not remarked on or seen as exceptional.
In other instances, such as Professor X in X-Men, or the dis/abled characters in the speculative stories of Octavia Butler, the social positioning of disability can be interrogated and re-constituted. Professor X, a central character in the X-Men series, uses a wheelchair following an injury ‘in the field’. Through Professor X’s founding of the School for Mutants, his role as a mentor and leader who actively creates a community space is highlighted but he often remains outside the action-adventure of X-Men narratives. From this vantage point outside the action, he is powerfully situated to offer his psychic powers and keen insight to any situation. In a sense, Professor X deploys the marginality of disability into sharpened powers of observation and turns stereotypical understandings of disability as ‘isolated’ on their head.
Like Professor X, Batgirl, otherwise known as Barbara Gordon, experiences a spinal cord injury at the hands of a villain and uses a wheelchair in the remainder of the series. She assumes a new identity, Oracle, as a software specialist and hacker. As her new identity suggests, her skills allow her to analyze new situations and predict their outcomes, contributing to the success of her team. James South (2006) describes how Barbara Gordon becomes a fully actualized person after taking on the role of Oracle, letting her step outside of the shadow of Batman.
In a literary example, Octavia Butler stories often feature characters that we would understand as disabled. In the short story Speech Sounds (1983), Butler describes a post-pandemic California where the narrative revolves around the protagonist’s attempted journey to find the surviving members of her extended family. Butler plays with impaired communication in the story – the pandemic has removed people’s ability to speak, read, and/or write text. People instead use gestures and symbols to communicate which creates repeated conflicts throughout the narrative, heightening the stakes for survival. Even when people have retained their ability to speak or read, these abilities do little to increase safety and survival. Speech Sounds at once demonstrates the capacity for adaptation in the face of impairment but from a disability studies perspective, reveals the illusion of stable ability, i.e. there are always constraints on our ability to communicate.
More affirmative, alternate models of disability can also underpin science fiction. Writers Allan and Cheyne (2020) point to the burgeoning crop of contemporary and equity-based science fiction, such as the edited collection Octavia’s Brood (2015), which offers a platform for disabled science fiction writers such as Mia Mingus. Working from disability justice or social models of disability, these science fiction narratives present possible worlds of interdependence, access, and critical relationships with technology. At a minimum, these narratives “resist the ableist urge to reduce disability to deficit” (Allan & Cheyne, 2020, p. 390).
Disability, Technology, and Science Fiction: Cinema
Of the mainstream theatre releases or re-releases over the past 50 years, many of the most successful Blockbusters to hit the big screens have been sci-fis featuring disabled characters in prominent roles.
One of the more significant recent portrayals of disability is within James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar. The film’s protagonist, Jake Sully is a futuristic disabled veteran, who is assigned to a special mission on the planet Pandora. Jake is able to take on this assignment because his genetic make-up allows him to assume the avatar of his deceased, non-disabled brother. There are many ways to think about the significance of Jake Sully’s character in relation to disability, especially as it intersects with militarism, environmental crisis and colonialism. Some might argue that in the film, Sully is only able to take on the hero role through technology, which puts him into an abled body. In his wheelchair, he is framed as weak and incapable, and only in his ‘restored’ avatar form is he able to take on the role of the action-adventure hero and saviour.
Below is a short YouTube clip from the film where Jake Sully first experiences this transformation into his avatar.
Sami Schalk (2020) builds a more complex argument, suggesting that the film Avatar intervenes into contemporary concerns about veterans who through protective and medical technology are able to survive in greater numbers, albeit with brain and traumatic injury. Far from critically exploring the consequences of military and biomedical technologies, Avatar could be understood as offering new avenues for American audiences to escape the discomfort of the 21st century social and material concerns of veterans. More significantly, for Schalk, Avatar reproduces and intensifies disability hierarchies in which some disabled people, such as Sully, are deemed good, heroic, and deserving of praise and commendation.
Stuart Murray and Graham Pullin (n.d.) offer another, fleeting, disability example from Star Wars. Luke Skywalker’s hand is severed during a battle with Darth Vader, shortly before Vader reveals himself to be Luke’s father. Murray and Pullin note that the event of limb loss very quickly becomes ordinary, as Luke is equipped with a biotechnological prosthetic that appears and functions as a human hand. The limb loss fades into the background of the narrative and is never referenced again, even in terms of repair and maintenance. While both Avatar and Star Wars erase disability, it is seen more profoundly in Star Wars as Luke’s injury does not engage with disability at all and quickly uses technology to render the body normative.
Although not discussed here, we could think about how technology works to amplify the threat of science fiction villains. Technology can be used to make viable villains — it gives them mobility and strength that makes them terrifying. Like heroic or affirmative characters, technology also makes disabled villains able-bodied, ‘fixing’ impaired bodies and restoring abilities to what is considered ‘normal.’ Rarely do any of these portrayals deal with discrimination, access, accommodation, or care work in any meaningful way.
As you progress through this Pressbook, consider disability representations that are “crip” and aim to bring ethics and politics of “crip technoscience” to your analysis and creation of digital media storytelling.