The disabled villain: why sensitivity reading can’t kill off this ugly trope

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

9 thoughts on “The disabled villain: why sensitivity reading can’t kill off this ugly trope”

  1. Sigh. The OP has no idea of why Bond villains, and a large majority of those in other fictional works are disfigured in some way.

    It is a truism – with a very few exceptions for genetic sociopathy – that “villains are made, not born.” The disabled and disfigured were in those days, and still are, subjected to bullying in their formative years. Providing the motivation for their intense desire to strike back at society in grandiose manner.

    Now, there are plenty of villains in real life that are physically beautiful, had the people around them constantly telling them how wonderful they are – but that personality is very hard to make an interesting fictional villain out of. Because their villainy is, for the most part, casual, not purposeful. A good fictional villain must elicit hate, or terror, or both at the same time, in the reader or viewer.

    • By the way, PG, I unfortunately did not save the link – but I saw a very enlightening video the other day about why captcha is not only useless, but is simply a money maker for Google. Primarily because they get to see what sites people are interacting with, even when they disable cookies and other tracking.

      Modern AI is perfectly able to prove that it’s “not a robot” – even if not so, there are apparently a number of very cheap “services” that farm out captcha solutions to third world countries (apparently at the same price as Google for a million captcha verifications).

      The only thing that (semi)reliably works against the spam bots is content filtering. For now, anyway – undoubtedly spammers are already working to (or already have) rolled out software using ChatGPT and its cousins. Which will require anti-AI AI to counter. Until the AI people refine their products even more…

      • Interesting, WO.

        Since I’ve awakened Captcha, however, I’ve not had any Russian, Romanian, etc., spam at all and only one comment that I regarded as spam has slipped through.

    • The way to make those characters interesting is to make them antagonists instead of villains. The very best writing makes their goals as reasonable as the protagonist’s or both positions equally dubious.
      Put both under stress, let’em “fight it out” and see how it plays out.

      If anything, the good guy/bad guy dichotomy is too tired simplistic…
      …except for children and sensitives.

    • Is she a natural blonde? That has a “meaning” to my cohort (for lack of a better description, “nerds of the 60s-80s”): Suspicion that she’s Not Too Bright and a Mean Girl by nature. So maybe there’s some foreshadowing in there.

      At least through Victorian times, a “deformity” or “disability” in fictional uses was frequently a symbol — often inept, often revealing at least as much of the “deformity” or “disability” of the writer — of a “deficiency” in the soul (which is part of what made The Picture of Dorian Gray toward the end of that era such a disturbing piece in Society). The relationship to “overt racism” is complex, but for another time. So is the relationship to the laziness of wanting to identify our allies, and even our friends, at first glance.† It’s very “us against them”ist. One could almost say “tribalist,” but it’s not nearly that coherent. All of which can make for some really interesting uses in fiction — and some really boring, and stereotypical ones. The ones that lead to calls for “sensitivity readers.” (And I still say that the primary need for outside sensitivity readers is due to the lack of diversity in the leadership of commercial publishing and the commercial entertainment industry writ large.)

      † This has some disturbing reinforcements in military culture, such as the 1980s-1990s use of the leather bomber jacket — even when not dressed for flight — as a visual discriminator. A photograph of a weeknight at a state-side Officers’ Club bar showed the lunchroom cliques rather well… and not just the leather jackets, but all the non-line-officers with their specialty badges over in the corner… which is more disturbing because as officers, we were all supposed to be allies and The Good Guys. I stopped going to the O-Club except for Mandatory Fun when I slowly understood this (group dynamics are not the first thing I look for — much to the disadvantage of “careerism”).

      • My guess would’ve been that blonde jokes would date back to the blonde bombshell era of Hollywood (Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe, etc) but no.
        It turns out the stereotype goes way back to 18th century France:,long%20before%20speaking%20%28which%20made%20her%20appear%20dumb%29.

        “These jokes have been in existence since the 1700s. It all started when blonde French courtesan Rosalie Duthe was satirized for her habit of pausing for too long before speaking (which made her appear dumb). This stereotype transitioned over the years to depict women who were beautiful or desirable but unintelligent.

        “Considering the above, it didn’t come as a shock when people started coming up with jokes exaggerating the blonde stereotype. Over the years, these jokes have evolved to a “brunette Vs blonde” battle. It is also dubbed “looks Vs brains,” owing to the common misconception that all brunettes are more intelligent but less attractive than blondes.”

        Misconception indeed.
        I know one blonde lady, of the southern belle/force of nature variety, who *collects* blonde jokes. Preferably originals, not retread “dumb immigrant” jokes. Considering she is a world class rotorcraft expert, nobody would dare subestimate her. Friendly and witty…as long as you stay on her good side.

        • And let’s not forget that blondes are a small minority of the earth’s population. Perhaps they qualify as a grievance group?

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