A Call to Re-Evaluate Disability Tropes in Science Fiction

Written by Megan Shea and Charlotte Little

It’s no secret that disability representation is severely lacking within the film and television industry. Like any other community, disabled people need to see themselves on both the small and big screen. If you don’t see yourself, you feel invisible and unseen. Science fiction and dystopian backdrops have the ability to construct worlds that stretch beyond human expectations and structural limitations, and with it a novel vision of disability representation on screen. The genre of science fiction uses fictional concepts of science that are not traditionally accepted by the mainstream science community, like alien worlds, time travel, and futuristic elements such as cyborgs.

Dystopian films in particular centre a fictional society that oppresses its civilians. The genre is usually characterised by totalitarian governments, environmental disasters, civil war or dehumanisation. Post-apocalyptic media doesn’t typically showcase disabled characters, deeming it unrealistic for them to survive in such conditions. The Hunger Games franchise sanitised the literary characters who had visible disabilities, with Peeta’s prosthetic leg excluded from the movie adaptation, as well as Katniss’ partial deafness and hearing aid. The antagonist, President Snow, retains his chronic illness, which is appropriated as a symbolism of his sickening agenda. Other prominent characters within science fiction include Geordi La Forge (Star Trek: The Next Generation), Matt Murdock (Daredevil), Imperator Furiosa (Mad Max: Fury Road) and Professor X (X-Men). 

Disability representation in science fiction typically signifies both the limits of human boundaries as well as the innovations beyond those boundaries. However, when the majority of such representation is established through the use of harmful and often outdated stereotypes, a re-evaluation of those tropes is needed.

Inspiration Porn – by Charlotte Little

For many within the community, disability is more than a diagnosis. Disability is a complicated, multifaceted identity that many individuals value and hold dear. Not every disabled person wants to be “fixed”. 

“The only disability in life is a bad attitude.”

This approach is a flawed attempt at portraying disabled folk as nuanced, ultimately failing to grasp an essential detail. Many disabled individuals ARE defined by their disabilities, and this is okay. Such individuals meticulously plan their lives with their disabilities in mind, with every aspect of daily life being altered to suit their needs. Media platforms need to remember that proudly identifying as disabled doesn’t invalidate someone’s achievements. Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) stretched across seven series and led to four feature films; the franchise featured Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton), a spaceship engineer born completely blind. He wears futuristic devices allowing him to see, later replaced by ocular prosthetic implants in the last three movies. His blindness is rarely referred to and his characterisation is considered quite outdated by many blind people in today’s era. La Forge’s landmark presence is fondly remembered by many, but the erasure of his blindness perpetuates the notion that blindness ought to be fixed. La Forge’s futuristic implants aren’t possible for all blind or visually impaired individuals, and they aren’t necessarily desired by them either. The reaction to La Forge is usually one of admiration, as he ‘overcomes his disability’ and becomes Chief Engineering Officer. The narrative of a character superseding their disability feeds the ideology that disability isn’t something to boast about, but a reality that many people would prefer to forget about. 

Close up image of La Forge wearing his VISOR, a futuristic band that wraps from one side of his face, over his eyes and to the other side of his face.
Image Courtesy of Paramount Television

Disabled characters often endure the all-too-common trope of an “inspiring death”. This arc involves a disabled character fighting courageously to the end, thus spurring on the main protagonist to avenge their friend. Coined by Stella Young, an Australian comedian and journalist, inspiration porn is the “representation of disability as a desirable but undesired characteristic, usually by showing impairment as a visually or symbolically distinct biophysical deficit in one person, a deficit that can and must be overcome through the display of physical prowess.”

The ‘Autistic’ Alien, Robot, & Genius – by Megan Shea

The representation of autistic characters on screen throughout the film and television industry is few and far between, and that is no different in science fiction. Instead of literal on-screen representation, many autistic viewers often rely on the coding of characters with traits and experiences recognizable in their own lives. For better or worse, the experiences of autistic individuals are often only represented, even in fragments, by neurotypical filmmakers through characters that are either aliens, robots, or geniuses. 

If you ask an autistic person to name a character that they view as autistic, chances are very good that someone will suggest Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) from Star Trek. In a fascinating twist of events though, neurotypical people also commonly associate Mr. Spock with Autism Spectrum Disorder, though likely for different reasons and with an excess of bias towards what living with ASD is like. For example, In 2004 the advice columnist Barbara Jacobs published a biography on her experience as a neurotypical person dating an autistic person entitled ‘Loving Mr. Spock’. 

Close up shot of Spock in his blue uniform and using his iconic hand gesture where his fingers split to make a V shape.
Image Courtesy of Paramount Television

But in examining the characteristics of Vulcans in general within Star Trek, it becomes clear why so many autistic people feel such an affinity towards them. The appeal to logic at all times to keep your strong emotions and self locked deep inside can be understood to be a form of masking; the aversion to touch as a result of strong telepathic inclinations as an element of sensory processing disorder, something that many autistic people experience to some extent; and the bigotry and lack of understanding from even the most well-intentioned of humans and friends is something autistic people are keenly familiar with. Characters that can also be understood to be coded as autistic or explicitly stated to be autistic include Data (Brent Spiner), an android from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Gary Bell (Ryan Cartwright), a ‘high-functioning’ genius from the television show Alphas

The issue with these tropes arise when films and television series seem to only have autistic or autistic-coded characters that are aliens, robots, or geniuses. This hurts not only the general population’s understanding of what an autistic person might act like but it can also harm the people within the autistic community themselves. If the only experiences being portrayed or coded as autistic in science fiction are those fitting within the relatively arbitrary label of being ‘high-functioning’ and those characters are by their very nature already deemed as some sort of ‘other’ in their existence as an alien, robot, or genius, then you can start to imagine how stigmatizing this sort of representation can become. 

None of this is to say that feeling represented by these characters or enjoying their presence on screen is in any way, shape, or form something wrong or to be avoided. However, just because an autistic person might identify with an autistic or autistic-coded character that is an alien, robot, or genius doesn’t mean they wish for that to be the way society will perceive them until the end of time or even that every autistic person will feel the same way about those characters. Neurotypical people get to watch all possible versions of themselves on screen at any given moment – as a human, as an alien, as a robot, in a position of power or at the bottom of the career food chain, as a genius or decidedly not, funny, serious, kind, or any other number of characteristics – and autistic people deserve that same level of representation too. They deserve to be able to see themselves on screen in characters that aren’t only coded as autistic and that aren’t aliens, robots, or geniuses. They deserve to be able to see themselves on screen in characters that encompass any and all possible facects of what it is like to be autistic, written by autistic people, directed by autistic people, and portrayed by autistic people.

Helplessness – by Charlotte Little

Another familiar trope is where a disabled character is perceived as isolated and lonely until a non-disabled character sees them. This representation is demoralising and heavily implies that non-disabled people have to “save” disabled characters in order for them to be happy. This narrative is prevalent in viral Facebook videos, where, for example, the popular kid takes someone with Down Syndrome to prom. This trope erases a disabled character’s complexity and diminishes to them an object which brings joy to those around them. In See, an Apple TV+ science fiction drama series starring Jason Mamoa,  the human race has lost all sense of sight and is forced to adapt in order to survive. Developed with the consultation of blind people, with many crew and cast members being blind themselves, this gritty series is a modern example of disabled people being perceived as everything BUT helpless. 

A close up shot of Jason Mamoa's face, staring into the camera
Image Courtesy of Apple TV+

While science fiction is in many ways a genre quite notable for pushing the boundaries of our understanding of the human experience- and subsequently disability and the representation of disabled characters- there is still so much work left to do. A conversation led by disabled people on common stereotypes and the representation (or misrepresentation) of disabled characters in science fiction is desperately needed, as are disabled writers, directors, editors, animators, and filmmakers in general. All of our voices deserve to be heard both within the industry at large and within science fiction as a genre in particular.

Featured Image Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures