From The Guardian:
Some years ago, I decided to read all of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. It may have been a fit of nostalgia for the Roger Moore films I grew up watching, or perhaps I was bored with writing short stories for a minuscule readership and wanted to know what mass-market success read like.
It was quite an experience – and one I found myself recalling recently, when I read that Fleming’s books were being revised, chiefly in order to remove some, though not all, of the casual racism. Also some of the misogyny, though likely not all of that either.
My first question, on reading the news, was what kind of reader exactly was the publisher, Ian Fleming Publications Ltd, envisioning. Presumably someone who would, were it not for the most explicit slurs, really enjoy the ethnic stereotypes. Or someone who would, were it not for the full-on rapes, really enjoy the pervasive sexism. (Come to think of it, there are probably quite a few of these readers.)
The other question that struck me was this: what on earth are they going to do about disability?
As a wheelchair user, I could not help noticing that the original Bond books had, shall we say, an interesting relationship to embodied difference. It was a feature of Fleming’s writing that would be all but impossible to alter through the interventions of a sensitivity reader, hired by the publisher to make the books more palatable to contemporary readers. Fleming’s attitude to disability was encoded not only in words and phrases, but in characterisation and plot – that is, in the stories’ most fundamental qualities.
It is not a novel observation that Bond villains tend to be, to use a less sensitive register, disfigured and deformed. Dr No with his steel pincers instead of hands, Blofeld with his scars, Hugo Drax, the villain from Moonraker, with his facial disfigurement and his pathetic attempt to conceal it with a “bushy reddish beard” (reddish hair may itself count as a deformity in these stories). Were they not successfully self-employed, most of Bond’s enemies would likely qualify for disability benefits.
. . . .
In Skyfall, Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva is a striking example of the narrative logic at work. He at first appears handsome and polished (if effete, which in Bond territory is always a warning sign), but something about his face seems a little … off. He then reveals himself as a villain by removing a set of hidden facial prosthetics. As his visage literally collapses, his inner monstrosity comes into view. Now Bond, and the audience, can see who he really is. And that is the main function of disability in these stories – an outwardly visible sign of an inner quality.
This particular trope, wherein a character’s moral and physiological natures mirror each other, is as universal as it is ancient. It is reflected in the philosophy of Plato, in commonplaces like “a healthy mind in a healthy body”, and in the foundational texts of the cultural canon. In Buddhist tradition, too, disability has been construed as an impediment to understanding and enlightenment – and even, for some, as a punishment for actions in a past life.
As disability scholars David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder have pointed out in their books Narrative Prosthesis and Cultural Locations of Disability, using disability as a means of characterisation is an intrinsic feature in the storytelling tradition. It provides not only a shorthand for separating good characters and bad, but explains their motivation and narrative function.
Sometimes, this connection between embodiment and motivation is made fully explicit. In the opening monologue of Richard III, Shakespeare’s version of the king – made significantly more disabled than his historical counterpart – takes pains to establish that he will be the villain and not the hero of the play. This, he argues, is a logical consequence of his embodiment:
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
What is a sensitivity reader to do with this? Does it make a difference if the Yorkist king is referred to as “differently abled” and not a “cripple”?
Undoubtedly – but I don’t think the change would be for the better, and for reasons beyond the clanging sound of euphemism. In many ways it would be worse. The fundamental problem lies not with the words used to describe the character, but with the attributes ascribed to him. And if those attributes are demanded by the logic of the narrative, we are facing a challenge that can be unexpectedly subtle.
Link to the rest at The Guardian