Thursday, August 5, 2010
Rita Farr, the Doom Patrol, and the Social Construction of Disability
I'm interested in writing about disability representation and superhero comics, but I've never written a post about the Doom Patrol. That book has a more obvious connection between the two than any other superhero series; since its debut, it's been a book of all deformed, traumatized metahumans. Even from the original line-up, we had the paraplegic genius Niles " The Chief " caulder, brain-in-a-robot-body Cliff " Robotman " Steel, bandaged burn victim and host to the negative spirit Larry " Negative Man " Trainor, and size-shifter Rita " Elasti-Girl " Farr. And if you think one of those is not like the other, yes, it's Rita. She can shrink and grow and stretch her limbs, but she looks completely normal by default, and can turn her shape-shifting on and off at will. Her appearance is just as conventionally pretty as any super-heroine; hell, she was an actress before she got her powers. Hardly compares to a man with phantom entire-body pains or a guy who is just the scarred summer home for an energy being-- she could easily join any other super-team.
Thus, when the original Doom Patrol was killed off, it took Rita the longest time to be resurrected. Years passed before she received the inevitable superhero return; the landmark Grant Morrison run on the book had her place taken by Crazy Jane, a more visibly disturbed woman with 50 super-powered personalities. And when she was brought back, it was in John Byrne's less-than-well-received run, which was a clear jump back to the way the team used to be. Superhero comics are all about regressing back to the way they used to be, regardless of wether or not the way things were was good. So is Rita really one of these characters who only exist to serve nostalgia, a vestigial character the concept outgrew?
Keith Giffen, current writer of a particularly good Doom Patrol revamp, says no. And the latest issue is evidence, because it's revealed that Rita isn't nearly as normal as we thought. The issue's revelation is that ever since she was brought back, she's been FAKING her old appearance. Her resurrected body is really just a sentient lump of silly putty that Rita gives form. Giffen goes into particularly unsettling detail about Rita's condition, showing that Rita becomes a gelatinous blob in her sleep and has to sleep in a special chamber to keep from flooding the room, and telling us that she reassembles her appearance based on photos of her old body. ( And in characteristic Doom Patrol fashion, she handles this with gallows humor, admitting that she pressed a newspaper against herself to see if it would leave an imprint. It did. )
This calls back to the original reason Rita joined the Doom Patrol; even though she can look like an ordinary woman, everybody knows she isn't. Her career was ruined by her powers manifesting on a movie set, making her appear as a freak to the entire world. Even though she did gain control, she still had that label attached to her, and was blacklisted from Hollywood. Hence joining the Doom Patrol, a team of people with similar body traumas-- even if she could reset her appearance, she was still the same woman shaped by her powers, and shunned by the ordinary world.
Rita was the only member of the Doom Patrol who could pass; even the Chief had a physical ( though realistic ) disability and an intellect that removed him from the rest of the world. Even then, her normal appearance is just an imitation of normal, and most people see straight past the appearance and onto the stigmatizing labels. But this is exacerbated by the fact that she isn't even normal on the inside-- rather than a person with an ability others don't have, Rita is a blob that can will itself into a woman's form. And the people who know that they're talking to sentient goo will have a harder time accepting her-- even the other " monsters " on the Doom Patrol ( though they do learn to accept things quickly ).
It makes Rita's fate more tragic, and you wonder why she's going through all the trouble to appear the way she used to-- which makes her more at home with the team than ever.