Tuesday, April 07, 2009

How to be a Disabled Villain

In the wake of a global economic downturn and mass unemployment, disabled people find themselves among the most vulnerable people in the jobs market, just at a time when welfare reforms place increasing pressure on us all to find work. Some of us have to consider branching out in ways that others may not thoroughly approve of. I know I've written before about my ample qualifications as a Bond Villain, but this subject has been bugging me lately, plus Yanub's Disability Blog Carnival is on the related subject Action Heroes - if I can get this posted in time.

The latest offense was in an otherwise benign youngsters' movie called The City of Ember where we meet a sinister character played by Mackenzie Crook (the one from The Office who was then in Pirates of the Carribbean). Now Crook does a decent sinister, he was made up with a very pale face and lank hair and in any case we knew from his actions that this character was not to be trusted long before - as in half an hour before - attention was drawn to his limping gait and built-up shoe.

There are so many disabled villains in movies that you almost don't notice – just as you almost don't notice the number of English accents among the fictional villain community. But the Englishness thing is okay; it's always an upper middle-class English accent which suggests sophistication as well as cunning and a cold heart. The disability thing is all about wrongness. This character is wrong whilst the uniformly perfect and pretty heroes and heroines are right, and if you couldn't work that out from what is being said and done (which you really ought to have), here's a big visual clue.

And of course the biggest objection, the massive great problem with disabled villains is that these are almost the only disabled characters in mainstream movies. It's okay to have black villains - well, Samuel L. Jackson, who seems to play all of them - because there are a handful of black heroes and side-kicks. But disabled folk are still either completely absent or rotten to the core.

So anyway, some say that we're going through a period of history when people are hungry for heroes, beacons of virtue and courage in a world that has been so damaged by greed and hate. However, there can't be any meaningful heroism if as disabled people, we don't hobble up to the plate and embrace the role the fates assigned to us. Plus the pay is good. So here are

Some Dos and Don'ts of Disabled Villainy

Do be eccentric. The great advantage of being disabled is that one has to think outside the box in so many aspects of one's life that one is already ideally suited to a novel career like supervillainy. One must fully embrace one's deviation. Consider Darth Vadar; the fetish had always been there, but only after he became disabled did he acquire the confidence to wear that gear in public. They say if you can't beat them, join them. I say if you can't join them, fire lasers as them.

Don't be bitter. There's a fine line between the misanthropy necessary for taking over the world by violent means and bitterness. Bitterness is ugly, it suggests a longing for the love and acceptance of a world that denies us access to public transport. Like Mrs Clennam in Little Dorrit - uh, maybe that's a little too classical a reference, but she was a rare example of a female disabled villain. Not a very good one though, as she used a wheelchair and in her bitterness chose to live upstairs in a structurally unsound to say nothing of DDA non-compliant building.

Do be charming. Whatever harm you wish to exact on the world, it still pays to be friendly. Think of Leigh Teabing in The Da Vinci Code (another English villain, as you could tell by the tea in his surname – it's all about the symbolism). He was such a pleasant and sophisticated gent, his English accent and post-polio syndrome were the only clues to his being a crook. Whereas the morbid Silas, with his magical albinism, well he was just a kinky fanatic with no charm to him whatsoever. Except in the movie he was played by Paul Bettany who is dreamy.

Don't be socially inept
. People with impairments which can effect social skills are by no means barred from a career in villainy - in fact, as people with autism and mental illness are overrepresented in the ranks of geniuses, we must presume that a number are evil geniuses. Yet in order to make good in badness, one has to at least maintain a basic level of personal hygiene and social propriety. Living on a diet of raw fish (like the Penguin) and having a totally inappropriate sense of humour (like the Joker) may be a step too far.

Do have the funky tech. Villains and especially supervillains tend to have money and technology on their side, so one must have the most state-of-the-art prosthetics, wheelchairs, canes and so on. I'm sure the guy who made a USB-compatible prosthetic finger has since moved into his own underground lair. Dr. Loveless in Wild Wild West also had the right idea; the movie was set during the American Civil War and yet the guy had a steam-powered wheelchair. Which was the best thing about that movie, apart from the eye candy (Will Smith and Salma Hayek - I know both can act, but in that one they just looked pretty).

Don't fake it.
Villains pretending to be disabled just gives the rest of us a bad name. Simon Grueber, the Jeremy Irons character in Die Hard with Avengence has a profound stammer which, considering the amount of talking the character does under considerable pressure isn't at all convincing. And Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) in The Usual Suspects had Cerebral Palsy except... well, you know if you saw the movie, which you really should have by now. Clearly, both characters were putting it on for the parking spaces.

Do nurture the young
. Was Long John Silver the best disabled fictional character of all time? Probably. On which subject,
Don't attempt to murder children or you might get eaten by a crocodile.

Do dress your wounds properly
. Everyone knows that one of the most dangerous aspects of a severe burn is infection, but for some reason Hollywood villains leave these things completely exposed to the elements. Recent examples include the Afghani warlord in Iron Man and the character of Arthur Dent who I guess had become "Two-Face" by the end of The Dark Knight. It doesn't matter that they're out of comic books, it's just not hygienic.

And finally, perhaps most crucially

Do get away with it. Most supervillains, despite usually being much much smarter than their goody-goody adversaries, are ultimately defeated. One has responsibility to avoid this at all costs, not only to oneself, but to all disabled people who aspire to be bad. Think Mr Potts in It's a Wonderful Life. Nobody liked him, his actions drove a good man to attempt suicide, but hey, that guy didn't claim a penny in disability benefits his whole life. Now that's a role model.

( Yes, I am terribly ashamed of having watched, let alone remembered watching, some of the above movies. And once I've posted this, I shall think of a great number of far better and more respectable examples. Or perhaps you can. )


Stephen said...

I have a wonderful book called The Eye of the Beholder which goes to show just how long the disabled have held their place in the centre of any evilness. 300 is a good example - not only are the physically weird evil, they're also sexually perverse. The two often go hand in hand.

Female villains...you thought your film references are bad? Well how about Dr Blight from the animation from the early 90's 'Captain Planet'. Her burnt face and dodgy colour sense set her out as evil from the start.

Interestingly, though, as most female characters have to be sexually appealing to the majority of viewers, their problems tend to be either hidden or not severe enough to render them undesirable. Dr Blight may have had half her face damaged, but her hairstyle hid it.

Even my beloved Twin Peaks has a tendencey to paint disabled women in the same light. And in that series, even going grey is enough to pick you out as a homicidal maniac. Which is another reason why I suit villainy.

I wouldn't be surprised if the traditional narrative pattern is the very reason that certain parts of the world remain access unfriendly. It's the same with darleks. They figure that if they put in enough poorly designed spaces complete with staircases, we won't be able to take over the world.

What they don't realise is that it's only a matter of time before someone puts a seat on top of one of these things - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1czBcnX1Ww

ha ha




Mary said...

Happily the balance is slowly being redressed in books. Some books, anyway.

Top example is the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde. The title character, Thursday, has a boyfriend, Landen, very definitely "one of the good guys", who has a prosthetic leg. It's not a big thing or a plot device. His leg is not used for drug smuggling or to hit people over the head with in a comedy fashion. It's just... there. Him putting his leg on is mentioned in the same way as it might mention her fixing her ponytail.

irasocol said...

Watching "Main Stream Media" in the US I find it interesting - only Family Guy and South Park integrate disabled characters routinely in a "normal way." ("normal" being defined by those shows' own universes) But from among the other choices, I guess I'll always choose 'villain' over 'pathetic' and 'helpless.'

Besides, whatever it takes to take over the world.

- Ira Socol

JackP said...

Love the 'Arthur' Dent reference. Took me a minute to remember what the character's name actually was.

PS disabled characters don't have to be villains - what about Xavier from X-men? Or the superhero 'Daredevil' for that matter....

(Of course, it's easier for disabled people to be superheroes, as they are already 'special' and 'brave')

The Goldfish said...

Stephen - movie-makers are very reluctant to have any women who don't look exactly like every other woman in the movies. And despite what I said about black heroes and villains, black or Asian women remain a rare sight, let alone disabled women or women of a non-standard physical appearance (or a standard non-Hollywood one for that).

I don't think it's actually about sexual attractiveness, more that we don't count as characters in our own right. Most female roles in movies - especially action movies - are still almost entirely relative to the male characters. So an attractive woman (to woo, rescue, whatever) is a badge of male status, and badges tend to be very much alike.

Love the mobility device - a bumpy ride, but hey.

Mary - I had forgot about Landen in the Thursday Next books, which rock by the way. Books are better at this, although actually the only example I can think of was a pretty badly executed one I wrote about here

Narrator - there was at least that doctor in ER. Lesbian lady who used a cane? Probably some years ago now, can't remember the name of the character. And there is a wheelchair-using councilman in The Wire whose impairment is entirely incidental, which is nicely done - although the Wire breaks with an awful lot of convention . But yeah, you have to look pretty hard for them.

I'm not sure UK television is that much better with disability, although in general it seems that a lot of American shows are cast entirely from the beautiful people, and it can be hard to tell one actor from another.

Jack - Xavier is the only proper one I can think of - the Daredevil, at least in that awful movie with Ben Affleck, could see, just in a weird kind of way. And that bugged me, to be honest.

Mind you, most superheros have some weakness or vulnerability. Arguably, Superman was allergic to Kryptonite... Oh and I guess the Rock out of the Fantastic Four is disfigured and he has a blind girlfriend.

Gary Miller said...

For what it's worth I researched this very topic in university. Historically, the physically and mentally disabled have been presented in books, newspapers, comics, films and television in an almost totally negative manner.

Both heroes and villains with physical and mental difficulties have been intimately linked with aggression, murder, violence and other socially unacceptable traits.

One study asked the question: 'What do dangerous people have in common?' Answers ranged from: scarred, maimed, ugly, deformed and physically and mentally handicapped to monstrous.

I could go on...but I think you get where I'm coming from?

Time for change!

Gone Fishing said...

Seems I fit the bill as the ultimate Mmmyahahoho ho ultimate apparent Supervillan.

Almost the architypical Anti Christ

Short Leg, Built up BOOTS, well above average intelligence and occupationally induced chemical sensitivities and wildly expert exagerated Brain Injuries.
How dare I "believe" myself injured and infirmed

Plus I am old toohless and bald
I am good! But should, in the Accident Compensations view be put down at any cost!

This comes at a time when I put my full "position" on the line (As I find cuts delays and Oh are you disabled I never noticed crap gets cut out) in a request to attend a Television Presenters Course, an outfit that despite raving enthusiasm about how good its courses are, and not just for such work but in daily life has not bothered to respond to my plea.

Nothing unusual in that I find putting my position on the line brings one of two responses, none at all or enthusiastic delight that I have applied and what an interesting character I must be.

In a moment of despondency at being once again ignored you inspire me to write a post about such.

Maybe later!

watch the guy looking back at the punks, tis me
great fun

MY ultimate revenge for systematic identity

yahahahohoho how dare I

I find People either love me or hate me and those who hate me I simply consider not to exist in my world.

Katja said...

I've been reading Charles Todd's Inspector Rutledge books (set just post WWI) and have been struck by how many non-stereotyped disabled characters there are: Disability in Fiction: Charles Todd.

Stephen said...

If I may also add, especially after reading about built up boots in Gone Fishing's Post and the Goldfish's very own reply - Belleville Rendez-vous. AKA The Triplets of Belleville. The lead character is female, of a certain age, has one leg shorter than the other and yet, to my mind, is also the ultimate action hero.

The evil characters of the film are short French men. I feel the pull of nationalistic prejudice, but I refuse to make any comments about that.

seahorse said...

Mrs D'Urberville is an interesting one. Is she a villain? She possesses many of the 'creepy' attributes that could make her a candidate. Shrouded in the 'darkness' of invalidity... Blind, yet 'all-seeing'. Impotent, yet omnipotent...cliche after cliche but she's certainly complex. Which in itself is a cliche.
Arch and bitter, yet sympathetic towards Tess. That sense of otherness, wrongness, the alien...she's got it all.

Gone Fishing said...

The World is not always an entirely dark place and sometimes email replies get over looked.

Good to hear from you. I too have one leg shorter than the other from a car accident. Very brave doing courses. Creative courses are not only about learning acting and presenting techniques but also about overcoming fears, increasing self awareness and understanding people.
The Presenters Course gives people permission to tell their story and be honest so that people learn from each other. Be great to have you in a group. They are only small.

Below is a testimonial from someone who went through huge challenges and is now a key note speaker. She has used her adversity as her strength.
Get back to me as soon as you can.
I did and now

seems I am
doing a presenters course how weird is that

Cheryl said...

Hosting BADD again this year? Just started trying to come up w/an entry

The Goldfish said...

Gary - Thank you. Yes, time for change indeed. :-)

Gone Fishing - congratulations on another Oscar-worthy performance. Here's the Youtube link for everyone else if the frames cut it of. Good luck with that course!

Stephen - yes indeed. Oh I didn't get Belleville Rendezvous, I tried but I found it all slightly horrifying.

Seahorse - I had forgotten about Lady D'Urberville. And two villainous ladies from Great Expectations I guess; Miss Haversham, who might be a wheelchair-user (I can't actually remember) but was certainly an invalid through her mental health. And of course Mrs Joe, who is a complete tyrant, has a stroke.

Cheryl - Yes, I'll post up about that over the weekend, but it will be May 1st as usual. :-)

Miss Waxie aka A Comic Life, Indeed said...

Ha, I love this! It definetly made me laugh. A lot.

But don't forget about the other side of disabled media archtypes, the angle. The whole "that 10 year old is in a wheelchair/dying of cancer/is blind due to rhumatic fever" and they've illuminated my life SO MUCH. ...Because disability and illness only exist to aid in self realization in the protagonist, after all.

Now, if only there was a way to combine the to - a cancer ridden 10 year old who ALSO is bent on world domination. I'd go to that movie. :)

TheDeviantE said...

The list was very thought provoking (and more than a little amusing, obviously!). I thought I'd throw in one more character in tv who is disabled (and a good guy). The coroner on CSI (the original)!

And he's played by an actor who actually is disabled. Who (from what I remember) basically told them to write in disability if they wanted him on the cast, and that he wasn't going to pretend to be cane free just for the script. Oh and also apparently (again this is a memory of some type of interview he gave) often reminds them about the actual mobility issues he would face if confronted with situations in the script that totally forget about mobility.