IN WHICH WE ARE VILLAINS
I don't usually go to the movies. I like watching films—horror films in particular—far too much to ruin them that way. Call me sensitive, but sitting in a darkened room that's crusted in old popcorn"butter"and listening to other people yelping and slopping Pepsi on themselves any time something gory jumps out from behind something else really breaks the mood. I'd much rather watch movies from the comfort of my couch with my cat in my lap and a beer in my hand. Yet some cinematic events are too important to delay until home video release; a few weeks ago, I decided to brave the theatre for such an important moment in movie history: Annabelle: Creation.
Okay, it's no Citizen Kane, but I can't get enough of the entire Conjuring franchise, cheesy and over-wrought as each of the films may be. Annabelle: Creation looked like it would serve up a good American gothic scare, and who can deny the creep-out potential of a possessed doll?
Despite my excitement about the movie, about halfway into the film, I was definitely uncomfortable, and it wasn't because I and my lack of coordination had fallen largely out of the theatre seat during the previews, though it's true that I made a small spectacle of myself in that way. It was because the premise that I thought I could depend on in possession movies (person conjures up some otherworldly force she has no business messing with in the first place and then incurs lousy punishments only to be ultimately saved by a badass exorcist) wasn't part of the film at all. Instead, someone got possessed simply because she was disabled.
How We Become Evil
In Annabelle: Creation—and I'm about to drop a few spoilers here—a young girl who uses a crutch and a leg brace after having had polio is singled out, among a household of other girls, to tormented by a demonic entity. The devil-thing, among other fun feats, chucks our protagonist down a set of stairs. Once the demon's succeeded in injuring her and she begins to use a wheelchair to get around the godforsaken farm where she's living, the demon's free to scoot her straight into an abandoned barn in the creaking wicker chair. There, the demon invades her body, transforming her into a meat vehicle for evil and violence that she later enacts on everyone who comes across her path.
What did this little girl do to deserve being devoured by Satan himself? How did she become the worst kind of bloodthirsty villain that horror cinema has to offer? There were no blood pacts made out in the dry and waving grass. No selling of her soul to the devil. She was just easy prey, presumably, because she moved so slowly. She moved like I do.
That Same, Sad Trope
The idea that bodily difference is a vehicle for evil may be discouraging to encounter in popular media, but it's certainly not new. Especially not on the big screen. The essayist Ariel Henley writes brilliantly about another manifestation of this same old trope in an essay for Bustle titled "As a Woman With a Facial Disfigurement, This ‘Wonder Woman' Villain Pisses Me Off.”"
In her piece, Henley takes on the June 2017 film adaptation of the Wonder Woman comic series. The movie was hailed as a new paradigm of feminist film, but as Henley keenly points out, the film's characterization of its baddie, Dr. Poison, or Isabel Maru (who's played by Elena Anaya), relies on disfigurement as an analogue for her evil, her villainy. That's a cheap ploy that, far from being a smart metaphor or a useful back story device, is frankly offensive to people who have facial disfigurements:
Maru's portrayal, and lack of character development throughout the film, suggested the woman was evil from the outside in. As though she had reached a point of irreparable emotional damage because of the appearance of her disfigured face. While, Dr. Poison's role in Wonder Woman may serve as entertainment for many, for me, she serves as a reminder of the morality associated with disfigurement.
The failure of Wonder Woman to recognize this, and the historical and psychological impact of disfigurement throughout the film, catering instead to the typical disfigurement horror trope, demonstrates the fact that as a society, we still don't understand how to treat those dealing with disfigurement. As someone with a facial difference, I know many people with facial disfigurements and scarring, and not one of them is, or has become evil, because of the appearance of their face. The only evil most of us have experienced has been at the hands of a society that refuses to accept us.
Essayist Alaina Leary wrote about this same trope in a stellar essay in Teen Vogue, titled "Disfigured Villains Like ‘Wonder Woman's' Dr. Poison Perpetuate Stigma," taking us through a wide range of troubling treatments of bodily difference in cinematic history:
Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz has a green face and a noticeable wart. Darth Vader has a scarred body that he hides underneath a black cloak and mask. Bruce Banner literally turns into a green monster when he becomes The Hulk, and although he's not a villain, he struggles with the urge to destroy every time he undergoes the transformation. Tom Riddle is attractive when he begins learning about dark magic at Hogwarts, but his journey to becoming Voldemort also makes him facially disfigured; many online memes poke fun at the fact that he has snake-like nostrils…
When we pigeonhole disabled characters into basic roles that are easily defined, such as sympathetic and pitiable or villainous and evil, we're reinforcing the idea that disabled people don't live full, meaningful lives the same way non-disabled people do. We need more media that offers a diverse perspective on disability and facial disfigurement, and doesn't just boil our vast experiences down to a plot point.
"But Why Does it Matter?"This is roughly the point in any conversation about issues concerning disability when someone pipes up to point out that it's just a story, or to say that writers like Henley or Leary (or yours truly) are too sensitive. What does it matter if horror film makers or comic book creators can't be bothered with treating disabled bodies with a little nuance?
It matters because representation shapes the way that we understand ourselves. The essayist Keah Brown, writing in now-defunct Toast (The Toast is dead, long live The Toast) with a brilliant essay titled "Disability Representation and the Problem with ‘Inspiration Porn,'" explores the way that a lack of any representation of disabled black women (and remember that women of color are more likely than white women to be disabled) affected her:
Growing up I didn't have access or exposure to people like me. There was no one with a disability acting on television, no songs I could listen to or books I could read that might have reflected my life back to me. Couple that with being a Black girl with a disability, the representation simply wasn't there. The only disabled folks I ever saw on TV were the ones placed in front of a camera at telethons promising to raise money for disability research — the same telethons that were often criticized by people with disabilities for their negative attitudes about disability. We never watched a full telethon, but sometimes we caught them in between commercials. I'd sit impatiently on my living room floor, watching as the host stood beside a person in a wheelchair and told their story, sometimes crouching down beside them as they spoke in a belittling, babying tone. I remember thinking that these people with disabilities, the people the telethons choose to show and exploit, were not the only types of people with disabilities…
As Brown goes on to point out, representation doesn't just shape the way that we engage with our realities; it also shapes who other people believe us to be, and what they feel entitled to demand:
I am, after all, an"inspiration"— or so I am told. But I don’t want to be an inspiration, especially not the kind other people expect me to be. Their"acceptable"versions of people with disabilities are expected to be happy and grateful, and if we aren’t then we are"bitter cripples."We are then cast away, dismissed for being"mean"and"angry,"because we don’t conform to the smiling, excited, happy-to-be-alive personas that people without disabilities tend to feel most comfortable with. There is nothing wrong with being a happy and grateful person with a disability, but there is something wrong with the exploitation that unfair expectations breed.
So where does the disabled woman go from here? What do disabled women writers do with the short shrift we've got to work with? I don't think there's a single answer to this challenge of being disallowed from having some normal, positive representation in the media. But one of my favorite writers, the poet Jeannine Hall Gailey, has taken an approach that I find particularly satisfying. In her book Becoming the Villainess, Gailey doesn't just flip the archetype of the disabled character on its head—she also gives it a kick-ass outfit and a few special skills worthy of a spy movie. She takes the bad and makes it the badass:
Job Requirements: A Supervillain's Advice
I don't know about you, but there are a few things I'd like to watch crumble. Let's use our instruments, as Gailey puts it, wisely.