The Problem of the Supercrip: Representation and Misrepresentation of
Scholars of disability have paid considerable attention to cultural representations and
strategies of representation, perhaps particularly in the United States (Garland-
Thomson 1996a, Garland-Thomson 2009, Siebers 2010, Snyder and Mitchell 2000,
Snyder and Mitchell 2006).
This is partly because representations of disability and disabled people are
“potentially allegorical in the sense that the act of characterization encourages readers
or viewers to search for a larger concept, experience, or population” (Snyder and
Mitchell 2000: 40).
That potential is a central premise for this chapter, which examines three recent
variations of a familiar allegorical figure of disability, as represented in mass media
and popular culture. I’ll primarily refer to this figure as the supercrip, The central
feature of the supercrip is success at overcoming, at demonstrating ability beyond that
which is commonly expected of disabled people. Such ability may be exhibited in
many areas, but the most striking qualification for supercriphood, as well as the most
problematic, is physical prowess.
The supercrip shares some features with what Tanya Titchkosky has called the abled-
disabled (Titchkosky 2003), as well as with the cyborg (Haraway 1991, Reeve 2012)
and the techno-marvel (Norden 1994). Supercrips and cyborgs have a mutual
association with social fields such as sports and rehabilitation (Howe 2011), while
cyborgs and techno-marvels share an affiliation with genres of fiction, particularly
science fiction. The abled-disabled demonstrate the worth and value of disabled
people in general, by serving as exemplary representatives of their group and/or
community. I prefer supercrip, however, both because it is in common usage in
disability studies (Hardin and Hardin 2004, Hartnett 2000, Kama 2004, Norden 1994)
and because it preserves the sense that something exceptional is required of disabled
people who wish to achieve recognition.
I will argue that a defining feature of supercrip narratives is their rationalization and
legitimization of impairments as positive attributes. This happens when they are
represented as causes of achievement and transformative experience. I’ll refer to this
mechanism of rationalization and legitimization as a topos (pl topoi), after the Greek
word for “place”. The topos is a tool of traditional rhetoric (Aristotle, Tredennick and
Forster 1960, Reinhardt 2003), argumentation theory (Braet 2004, Braet 2005,
Toulmin 1958) and discourse analysis (Wodak and Meyer 2001, Wodak and Martin
2003). It is useful for my analytical purposes because it focuses attention on the
double function of so-called commonplaces – to make sense of the unfamiliar and to
reinforce the already-known.
The argumentative topos grounds claims and propositions in common or accepted
knowledge, and may be phrased as a conditional. It performs the allegorical work
suggested by Snyder and Mitchell by providing a link between the specific and the
general. The cultural construction of supercrips depends, for example, on the
Aristotelian common topos of cause to effect, which is usually instanced as the
simultaneous mention of impairment and achievement. As Eleanor Roosevelt claimed
in her autobiography: “Franklin’s illness proved a blessing in disguise, for it gave him
strength and courage he had not had before.” (Roosevelt 1992 : 142)
The causal link may be understated, implicit, or even paradoxical, as in this example:
“Oscar Pistorius has already inspired a generation with his 400m performance, despite
being a double amputee.” (Hendricks 2012). The causal direction of flow is
essentially the same as in the Roosevelt example: Pistorius’ inspirational status (the
quote predates his indictment for murder; at the time of writing his trial is pending)
was a consequence, even if an indirect one, of the existence of his impairment.
We can extrapolate a formula:
(S)upercriphood = (A)chievement * (I)mpairment
The greater the achievement and the greater the impairment, the more impressive the
supercrip! I do not intend to implement this formula rigorously. Even in the age of
New Public Management there is no intersubjectively valid, universal numeric
indicator of human achievement. However, I will note that impairments are in fact
often assigned numeric values – e.g. on a scale from 1.0 to 4.5, for Paralympic
ranking purposes (Peers 2012).
A slight trickier cod-mathematical question is that of value polarity. Achievement is a
positive. Supercriphood appears to be positive to most people who are not actually
disability scholars, disability activists, or … disabled themselves. Presumably, then,
impairments are positive, because you can’t produce a positive quality from a positive
and a negative. And in fact this appears to be the reasoning behind at least one attempt
to represent disability in a positive light, i.e. the “affirmation model” of John Swain
and Sally French, which they’ve summarized as follows:
An affirmative model is being generated by disabled people through a rejection of the
tragedy model, within which their experiences are denied, distorted or re-interpreted,
and through building on the social model, within which disability has been redefined.
The affirmative model directly challenges presumptions of personal tragedy and the
determination of identity through the value-laden presumptions of non-disabled
people. […] Embracing an affirmative model, disabled individuals assert a positive
identity, not only in being disabled, but also in being impaired. In affirming a positive
identity of being impaired, disabled people are actively repudiating the dominant
value of normality. (Swain and French 2000: 578)
The affirmation model of disability supposedly “encompasses” impairment, but it is
unclear to me what this means. Swain and French are quite clear in presenting their
reasons why being a part of a disability movement may be a basis for positive identity
– these reasons include solidarity and shared experience as a way to reject identity
When it comes to impairments, however, valorization appears to depend on achieved
outcomes that are not intrinsic to or follow directly from the concept of impairment,
certainly not in the way that solidarity and shared experience follow from progressive
concepts of disability. And the fact of the matter is that impairment generally makes
For example: One Malaysian woman receives better health care and education
because of her visual impairment (p. 574). Shakespeare et.al. (1996) are invoked in
order to claim that a rich, non-traditional sex life is made possible because of the need
to circumvent the limitations of impairments (p. 575). Certainly, impairments
represent many facets of human experience, and it would be unwise to categorically
deny that the experience of impairment may entail positive qualities. My quarrel,
rather, is with the supposition that the experience of impairment is valorized because
good things sometimes happen to or are achieved by people with impairments. A
better sex life, better education, or better health care can all be achieved by non-
impaired people, and I’ve yet to see an argument that impairment necessarily has such
consequences. Moreover, many forms of impairment make many forms of
achievement very unlikely indeed, if not downright impossible. The Paralympic
Games will never be open to any but the most physically fit disabled people, a
criterion which excludes most chronic illnesses in favor of relatively stable
impairments. This is the biggest flaw in the supercrip formula: It does not account for
the fact that many impairments, were they to be assigned numbers, would have very
different values over time.
Still, the affirmation model seems to need a positive conception of impairment, which
at times threatens the basic integrity of the concept. One critique of Swain and French,
which aims to develop their model, proposes a definition of impairment as “physical,
sensory and intellectual difference to be expected and respected on its own terms in a
diverse society” (Cameron 2008: 23). Such a definition dovetails with mystifying
euphemisms like "differently abled" (whose usage frequency, according to the Google
Ngram Viewer, appears to have peaked in 1996).
Taken to its logical extreme, this attitude may be referred to as a positive essentialist
view of impairments, or: Impairment Vitalism. I borrow this felicitous phrasing from
a recent work (Overboe 2012), for its connotations. Vitalism usually connotes
strength, physicality, and transcendence, and such vitalist connotations suffuse all
three examples of impairment representations discussed in this article. Vitalist
principles also seem to characterize the spirit of many affirmational slogans (e.g.
“Lame is Sexy!”) rather more aptly than more neutral phraseology might.
Effectively, there is a recurring dilemma when it comes to disability and
representation: Positive framings of the concept of impairment entail either a) logical
inconsistency or b) a compensatory moral calculus. If impairments cannot be negative
at all, if they merely entail “difference”, then the concept is superfluous. If
impairments do have negative aspects, however, then in order to maintain an overall
positive impression, there must be compensations – as in Swain and French’s
The figure of the supercrip, as well of the cyborg, therefore, thus embodies a
compensatory argument that is deeply embedded in disability studies’ attempts to
dismantle negative representations of disability and disabled people. The
(reconstructed) topos in question might be phrased as follows: “If a person with an
impairment Z displays positive quality X or achieves positive accomplishment Y, then
impairment Z is itself validated.” This, of course, preserves the general premise that
impairment Z must be validated, and is therefore intrinsically problematic.
Impairment as a problem – the rhetorical perspective
Disability has been analyzed as appearing always-already as a problem. It
“typically generates the requirement for explanation and amelioration, but little
else,” according to the analysis of Titchkosky & Michalko (2012: 127). Unlike
“natural” or “normal” bodies, which may be described neutrally, in terms of
their capacities or features, bodies with impairments require explanation and
action: An explanation of what went wrong, of how deviance from the norm
came about, and action aimed at restoring normalcy in one way or another.
This is a matter of ontology, the exploration of which is becoming more central
to disability studies (Hughes 2007), and which is intimately tied in with the
matter of representation. It is one thing to say that disability is ontologically
problematic, and to represent it as such. It is another and potentially quite
scary thing to represent disabled people as intrinsically problematic, and
scarier still to represent people with impairments as problematic. Even when
the problem of impairment is represented as having a potential solution, it
remains a problem – notwithstanding Swain and French’s argument that the
“non-tragic view of disability [...] is not about ‘the problem’” (p. 571).
In rhetorical terms, impairment remains an exigence – something that must be
addressed and solved. In the work of Lloyd Bitzer (1968), a “rhetorical
situation” was originally defined as a scene or situation originating with an
exigence, something that cannot be passed over in silence. Rhetorical action,
therefore, is the response to a problem that requires a solution. Notably, the
most influential critique of Bitzer’s position was made from a constructionist
point of view (Vatz 1973). Causation does not run from exigence to rhetorical
action; rather, it is rhetorical discourse that manufactures and sustains the
social reality of the exigence. To pose a question is to act in a way that
demands an answer (Austin 1962), but equally, answers presuppose the
existence of questions (Grice 1975).
This a potentially valuable contribution of rhetoric and discourse analysis to
the study of disability and representation. In order to elicit the way that
problems are framed – in order to reconstruct the presumed or presupposed
exigencies, and see how the rhetorical situation is framed – we can look for
topoi. Which conditionals and causal links are asserted or implied? How are
specific representational examples linked to general knowledge?
One advantage of this discourse-centered approach is that it doesn’t
automatically begin with a familiar problem set. It forces a re-examination of
assumptions about models and theories of disability, and their normative as
well as epistemological status. The medical model of disability, for instance,
can be linked to the set of topoi that treat disability as a medically solvable
problem. Such topoi aren’t just found in the discourse of the medical
professions. An organization of disabled people may in some contexts appear
to be a forum for political activism, but it may also be a patients’ rights
organization – and use medical topoi – in other contexts (Grue 2011). There
are times when impairments may productively be construed as problems, and
other times when the problem frame is utterly inappropriate. The study of
disability and representation should, among other things, address the
difference between such times.
This in fact is one of the things disability studies does best: Look at the
answers/representations in order to tease out the questions/problems that are
already present in the culture. Disability has been described as a hidden
history (Longmore 1987), though of course it has been hiding in plain sight.
Just like normate bodies, extraordinary bodies are already prominent in the
culture (Garland-Thomson 1996b, Garland-Thomson 2009). Whether they are
recognized as disabled bodies is another matter. Disability studies claims
extraordinary bodies for disability; it also tries to show that these bodies are
represented in ways that influence perceptions of disability and disabled
people. The problem frame is only one option among many.
Disability studies can, a little facetiously, be conceived as an imperialist
project: It tries to claim vast amounts of territory. If this (somewhat
questionable) metaphor holds, the closest model is the British Empire: With
humble origins and limited resources, it can only succeed in its ambition by
exploiting the contradictions and conflicting interests of local populations.
Explorers originating in disability studies may also range quite far from home.
This suggests the trajectory of the remainder of this chapter. I wish to look at
some prominent and widely disseminated representations of people with
impairments in popular culture today, in order to provide a reduction ad
absurdum of the problem frame and the compensatory achievement stance. I
also wish to stress the emphasis, in my examples as in the culture at large, on
the kind of physical achievement that is essentially incompatible with the
majority of chronic illnesses. People with impairments can, it seems become
supercrips and icons of achievement by distancing themselves from people
with unstable chronic illnesses. This, in turn, undermines the whole notion of
disability and disablement as a complex interaction between bodies,
environments and social structures.
My examples are representations of a) ordinary people with impairments,
whose compensatory achievement lies within the realm of everyday
experience, b) exceptional people with impairments, the representation of
whom focusses on remarkable achievements, and ultimately c) fictional
people, whose impairments serve only to provide motivation and legitimacy
for their fantastical compensatory achievements. They are, in order:
a) Participants on Beyond Boundaries, a tv series originally developed for
the BBC, since exported to multiple countries.
b) Paralympic athletes, notably the sprinter Aimee Mullins.
c) Hollywood superheroes, in some of their recent iterations.
All three examples draw on the topos of cause and effect – there is a strong
link between impairment and achievement. They also share the problem
frame, and represent “having an impairment” as a highly solvable problem.
Through the twin forces of willpower and technological intervention,
impairments are framed as obstacles that can be, and should be, overcome.
Thus, they also reproduce the supercrip/cyborg figure.
My examples are of course not chosen at random. Rather, they constitute
exemplars, in Thomas Kuhn’s sense of the word – “concrete problem-
solutions” (Kuhn 2012 : 186). Their relevance to disability studies must
be inferred. Disabled people have impairments, and inferences made about
people with impairments may be transferred disabled people. Sometimes the
people in the examples are explicitly identified as disabled, sometimes they
are not, but they all belong to the set of people who have extraordinary bodies
– bodies with impairments.
If representations of bodies with impairments are to be interesting to disability
researchers, interest should be generated on multiple levels – on the level of
critical appraisal of social and cultural phenomena, but also on the level of
pragmatic usefulness. My last goal, stated before I proceed to actual analysis,
is to develop a critique that provides insight into the kind of disability construal
that might conceivably have socio-political purpose.
First example: Ingen grenser (Norwegian edition of Beyond Boundaries)
Beyond Boundaries is a reality TV series in which a group of people with
physical impairments go on an expedition through challenging terrain,
supervised and led by an experienced outdoorsman (a man, at least, both in
the British original and the Norwegian edition). The BBC has so far broadcast
three series, taking place in Nicaragua, Africa, and the Andes mountains.
Beyond Boundaries was a popular format in Sweden and in Mexico, as well
as on Flemish television, but it became a national phenomenon in Norway
with the title Ingen grenser (literally: No Boundaries – for clarity I will keep the
Norwegian title from here on). The second series, the most successful so far,
reached a market share of 67% at its highest, with 1,4 million viewers – in a
country of approximately 5 million people.
The success of the program probably has something to do with its appeal to
national character. While the UK original program was tinged with colonialist
imagery, the Norwegian program appeals to popular sentiment through
images of familiar, national landscapes. The expeditions in the first and
second series were conducted across Northern and Central Norway
respectively, and the expedition leader in both cases was Lars Monsen, a
“wilderness expert” with national standing (somewhat comparable to the UK’s
Bear Grylls). The use and enjoyment of unsullied nature is a Norwegian
national pastime and source of pride, and the goal of the second expedition,
Snøhetta mountain, is a national icon.
The second series in particular spawned much media coverage, with many
participants becoming minor celebrities. The breakout star was Birgit
Skarstein, in her early twenties and a recent paraplegic after botched surgery.
She spoke with the prime minister by phone, participated on the country’s
largest chat show, and is at the time of writing a rising Paralympic athlete. All
participants, however, have also been the subjects of multiple media stories
that track their progress after being on the program.
Ingen grenser emphasized group solidarity, cooperation, and notably
willpower. The following voiceover was played at the start of every episode:
Lars Monsen on a trip through the wilderness with eleven participants with very
different resources for carrying out an expedition. The participants have different
physical impairments. They have to want more, give more, and cooperate more than
everyone thinks possible. […] Together they will show that nothing can prevent them
from carrying out a grueling expedition. Together they will show that abilities and
optimism have … no limits.
The qualities of wanting more and giving more play themselves out in various
physical challenges. The distance is traversed partly on horseback, partly by
canoe, but mostly by foot and over fairly rough terrain. The participants have
been supplied with two cross-country wheelchairs, which are solidly constructed
but have to be operated manually. Three of the participants need to use them at
various stages, and the duties of pushing and pulling have to be taken up by the
stronger and more mobile participants. There is therefore a need both for
cooperative efforts, and for each participant not to tax him- or herself beyond the
point of exhaustion. The quality and capacities of the equipment is not a matter of
discussion or arbitration, but are part of the given framework of the expedition.
Some leeway is given on occasion – how far to go, when to pitch camp – but the
participants are constrained in terms of the overall trajectory and goals.
Ingen grenser was, at the time of broadcast, accused by disability rights
advocates and others of playing to voyeurism and reproducing freakshow
dynamics with its audience, the central argument being that the display of people
with extraordinary bodies performing physical feats is inherently tied to the history
of freakshows and freakery.
In my view, this isn’t necessarily the case. Historically, freakshows were displays
that contested and played with boundaries between humanity and alterity (Orning
2012). They were unsettling and disturbing, and intentionally so. When they
disappeared, in a historical development that coincided with the expansion of
modern medicine, they did not take the display of extraordinary bodies with them.
What disappeared was a particular way of looking at such bodies, as well as a
social and commercial framework for doing so. There is ample freakery in modern
reality television, but Ingen grenser does not fit the format. It is a profoundly
normalizing program, which emphasizes the latent ability of people with
extraordinary bodies to do ordinary things – if they have sufficient willpower.
By way of contrast, emphasis on willpower, physical mastery, and normalization,
connects Ingen grenser to the historical and contemporary discourse of
rehabilitation, in which the central problem to be solved is the problem of
disciplining one’s body to the point where one can be admitted (or readmitted) to
everyday life. That discourse arose as freakery waned – particularly in the wake
of the First and Second World War. In rehabilitation discourse, abnormality is
neither entertainment nor commercial opportunity. Rather, the process of
normalizing abnormality – the problem of disciplining the body – constitutes
grounds for moral instruction and moral approval.
Ingen grenser, with its month-long trek across rough terrain, is both a television
program and a strenuous exercise program. Its goals and constraints, which were
developed ahead of time by professionals, not participants, are enforced by the
same agents. Participants that do not display a sufficient degree of enthusiasm or
effort are, at various times, encouraged and admonished. Their lack of willpower
is a problem that is both equal to and entwined with their impairments.
This framework of benevolent paternalism allows for two subject positions for the
participants: Enthusiastic or recalcitrant. To exceed one’s previously assumed
limitations (the “boundaries” of the title) is to be morally laudable; to fail to do so
is a moral failure. Early press on the program’s third Norwegian series introduced
a new host / expedition leader, who “cried when participants refused help”.
There is no more call for a reality series featuring disabled people to represent
that group in a statistically accurate way than there is for Big Brother to
accurately represent the British population in general. Nevertheless, some
observations can be made about the participants on Ingen grenser. There were
eleven participants on the second series, all of whom had physical impairments.
Some had sensory impairments, most had mobility impairments. Some of these
had mobility impairments resulting from cancer, but were in remission at the time
of filming. Although the distinction between impairments and chronic illnesses is
not easily made, all participants had impairments that were fairly stable or very
stable in terms of predictability and secondary effects.
Such a selection of people with impairments is a clear precondition for a program
such as Ingen grenser. Too many wheelchair users or people with unpredictable
chronic illnesses, and there is no month-long trek through the wilderness. Too
many such people, in fact, and there would be no way to move beyond bodily
boundaries. Instead, a balance is struck in which impairments are manageable,
and disability is a solvable problem. As in the discourse of rehabilitation, disability
can be overcome, though it cannot be transcended. For that, we go to the second
Second example: The Paralympic athlete as inspirational figure
Significant global media coverage of the Paralympics began with the Sydney
Games in 2000 (Cashman and Darcy 2008); the 2012 Games in London were
probably the most widely disseminated Games in history. As host nation, the
UK broadcast 150 hours of live coverage.
The iconography used to portray the event is that of physical achievement
despite (clearly visible) physical limitation. The Paralympics, as a “complex of
elite disability sport” (Purdue and Howe 2012: 22) represents something of a
paradox. The performance must be at a level that will interest a generic,
presumably able-bodied audience, while there is an expectation that the
Paralympic athletes will serve as credible role models for other people with
impairments (Joukowsky, Rothstein and Paralympics 2002). This paradox
points to another flaw in the supercrip equation: There are, in fact, strict limits
to how much a supercrip can and should achieve. The disabled athlete cannot
be too impressive, or must risk accusations of transcending the category of
disability entirely, and thus of cheating.
The paradox has been explicated by the double amputee, former Paralympic
sprinter Aimee Mullins, who has questioned, through argument and
performance, the assumptions that support the Paralympic as a separate
arena for competition. Her argument focusses on the dividing line between
“natural” and “cyborg” bodies, i.e. the point at which a compensatory
prosthesis becomes interpreted as a performance aid, and at which the
rationale for requiring an athlete to compete in the Paralympics rather than the
Olympics is not the presumption of disadvantage, but of advantage.
Mullins, who has explored the topics of prosthetics and technological
development via the TED conference format, has also pointed out the
limitations placed on technological optimism by economic realities. Her “14
pairs of legs” are her possessions not only because they have been built, but
because they have been bought. To her, the problem is systemic.
Such points do not survive the transition to meme-hood. Originally coined by
Richard Dawkings as the cognitive equivalent of a gene, i.e. a maximally
effective mechanism for transmitting of information, in current usage “memes”
refer to images with captions, usually encapsulating a claim or an attitude,
and heavy in pop-cultural references. One such meme is “What’s your
excuse?”, variations on which feature that phrase superimposed on images of
double amputees running – including images of Mullins. Much like the
promotional imagery for the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, which feature
wheelchair users and amputees hovering in mid-air, “What’s your excuse?”
shows Mullins in mid-stride, on a beach in a black bikini, blocking out the sun
so that her body is surrounded with a halo effect. Her status as a star athlete,
including any mention of support systems, is transmuted into iconic
“What is your excuse?” is also, of course, a potentially hostile question.
Variations of the text include the phrase “What the fuck is stopping you?”
Variations in the imagery, which extensively feature well-muscled people with
impairments, are also directed at obesity, here interpreted as the direct result
of a deficit in willpower.
The Paralympic athlete is a questionable figure in more than one sense: He or
she may literally be questioned by examining boards that certify degrees of
disability in order that competition be fair, but may also be positioned as being
of questionable morality if his or hers achievement is too great, if the
achievement appears insufficiently effortful. There must be a problem of the
right order. The world of iconic imagery demands transcendence, while real-
world institutions demand the very bodily features that make transcendence
impossible. The only place where these contradictions can be resolved is in
fiction, which provides the third example.
Third example: Hollywood superheroes
Superhero fiction constitutes one of the most important, if not the most
important genre in popular cinema during the last few decades. Drawing on
the sources of audience familiarity (through comic books), spectacle (through
sophisticated special effects) and ample potential for long-term brand and
franchise building (through sequels based on the comic books’ open-ended
narratives), Hollywood studios and their conglomerate owners have
increasingly turned to super-heroes, along with fantasy-themed movies, to
maintain profits in a beleaguered entertainment market.
A mainstay in superhero fiction is notion of heroism paired with extraordinary
ability as a compensation for trauma, injury or even impairment. To give some
examples, Bruce Wayne embarks on a training program to become the
masked crime-fighting Batman because of his parents’ murder, and Matt
Murdock develops superhuman echo-location abilities after being blinded by
The superhero Iron Man emerges from injury done to his alter ego, Tony
Stark. In the 2008 film, the energy source that powers Iron Man’s cybernetic
exoskeleton also powers a magnet that prevents shards of metal from
reaching Stark’s heart and killing him. Stark’s egoism and vanity are tempered
by his heroic calling; his impairment makes him vulnerable and dependent on
a technological device, but also turns him into a force for moral good.
Superhero cinema takes impairment vitalism to its logical conclusion: There is
no injury without benefit, and no impairment without corresponding ability. The
mutants of the X-Men universe, the 2000 film of which arguably inaugurated
the current onslaught of films, are probably the clearest expression of this
logic. Professor X, the mentor and guide of the “good” mutants, is a
paraplegic with telepathic powers. His second-in-command, Cyclops, shoots
energy bolts from his eyes, thus requiring special goggles in order to interact
normally with the people around him. (Without his goggles, he must always
keep his eyes closed, and so is blind.) The fan favorite Wolverine has a metal
skeleton, grafted onto his bones through painful surgery. The list, not
surprisingly, goes on.
The mutant superheroes are not disabled by economic arrangements and
lack of labor power. They are stigmatized, ostracized, and legally
discriminated against; particularly in the 2000, 2003, and 2006 films,
“mutation” is developed as a metaphor for difference in sexuality and sexual
orientation. The alternative metaphorical reading of mutation as ethnic
difference has also been proposed; readings of mutation as impairment have
been fewer and less developed.
In a superhero universe, impairments are, perhaps unsurprisingly, entirely
subservient to narrative requirements. The 2012 film The Dark Knight Rises
has Batman placed in an underground prison with a broken back and worn-
out knees. He recovers partly through intensive training, but mostly through
sheer force of will, ultimately to defeat his enemies. Crucially, the body does
not bear limitations of its own. In an early scene, we are informed that
Batman’s knee has practically no healthy cartilage remaining, but by the end
he moves gracefully and seemingly without pain. The damaged body is only
the visual expression of a mind plagued with doubt – the lack of self-
confidence and absolute willpower that defines Batman’s true, archetypal
This narrative schema, in which injury is inevitably followed by overcoming,
has little to do with medicine and much to do with martial discipline. The
superhero’s injured or impaired body exemplifies the narrative prosthesis of
Snyder and Mitchell. It provides a reason for the audience to care. Even
Superman, the most god-like of all superheroes, must have at least the
potential for bodily weakness, provided ex machine by the substance
kryptonite. Once the reason to care has been established, however, it can be
dispensed with. What really matters are the subsequent feats of heroism.
Retracing our steps: Who gets left behind by the cyborgs, techno-
marvels and supercrips?
Through the three examples, I’ve traced an exponential and quite speculative
curve. Superheroes are not, in fact, disabled. But representations of
superheroes provide a funhouse mirror for the assumptions made about
bodies with impairments that are made in coverage of the Paralympics and in
reality television were disability is an explicit and central feature. Such
representations are worth examining because disability, though often
perceived as a special category, one that doesn’t touch on other forms of
bodily experience, could be and should be a prism for such experience in the
most general, most fundamentally human sense. We should be worried when
representations of what is effectively bodily impairment lose touch with reality.
To reiterate, the assumptions I am most critical of are: a) that impairment and
injury is the source of extraordinary willpower and achievement, and b) that
impairment and injury ought to be the source of extraordinary willpower and
achievement. They both constitute variations on the topic of cause and effect,
which spuriously assumes that impairments cannot be and should not be
considered or represented on their own, as instances of human variation.
It is perhaps not surprising that those assumptions are made in the context of
superheroism or the Paralympic Games. It is not terribly surprising that they
are made in the context of a reality TV program. All three examples represent
narrative genres, which depend on implicit and explicit relations of cause and
effect. What is slightly more surprising is the extent to which those
assumptions underlie affirmation models of disability, and influence notions of
positive disability identity.
Although far from being dominant modes of thought about disability,
affirmation and identity paradigms are important. They are particularly
important because they have to do with the self-perception of disabled people
– most of whom, in a statistical and demographic sense, probably do not
identify themselves as disabled. It is a recurring topic in academic and activist
circles that “coming out” as disabled is a difficult process. Most people would
probably prefer just to be a little ill, or having a bit of trouble, and not actively
identifying as a disabled person. Disability connotes stigma. That is probably
inevitable. Ableism can be fought, but the defeat of ableism is as much of a
utopian project as the elimination of racism or sexism.
In the meantime, the representation of disability and disabled people as a
basis for identification is a topic that is potentially even more troublesome than
in the context of race and gender, even as it engages with both those topics.
The emphasis placed on inherent, essentialist strength by activists in any
identity category usually risks embracing ableism. Moreover, that risk applies
equally to disability advocates.
There is an aporia here. Talking about impairments and injuries in positive
ways tend to result in a displacement of qualities: It is never the injury or
impairment itself that is positive, but its potential for achievement that is
presumably unlocked by the traumatic experience. Sociologists of health and
illness have long employed this perspective (Frank 2007, Frank 2010). Once
this attitude is vulgarized, it becomes a moral imperative to treat illness as an
instructive and transformative experience (Ehrenreich 2010).
Is there an antidote? Possibly, expectations could be reversed. Franklin
Delano Roosevelt (in)famously concealed his impairment in public life, and so
was not represented as disabled until fairly recently (Gallagher 1985).
Although an extreme example, the reframing of the FDR story shows the
potential of disability studies as a critical discipline. Paul Longmore’ hidden
history of disability holds relevance for our understanding of contemporary
phenomena: To point out, repeatedly, that “this is disability” isn’t always
effective, but the claim nevertheless has to be made. This, too, is to do with
disability, because it is connected to bodies, bodily experience and bodily
Superhero stories exist in a fantastical space – not only bodies, but everything
down to and including the laws of physics may be altered. The laws of
narrative still apply, however, and are in many cases susceptible to lobbyist
groups. The study of representations of disability may not be – shouldn’t be –
an act of lobbyism in itself, though it may produce an occasional white paper.
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