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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Goldfish's 10 Things Fiction Writers Need To Remember About Disability: The Spider-Man Movie People Should've Read This

One of the greatest essays I've read in the past few weeks online the Goldfish's 10 Things Fiction Writers Need to Remember About Disability. It's been broken up into Part One and Part Two, and both are well worth considering for any writer.

It's especially relevant to me because I read the first part the same week I saw the new Spider-Man movie, and while I liked that movie a lot, many of these things were ignored in regards to the film's antagonist. Of all the characters they could've picked, they chose Dr. Curt Connors, a.k.a. the Lizard. This character, who thought his amputated arm was such a disgrace that he would risk his own life to cure it (and, in doing so, turn himself into a giant reptile monster), represents several things on the Goldfish's list;

3. People with long-term impairments or chronic illness are not fascinated by their own condition or their own symptoms. While Connors doesn't natter on about statistics regarding amputated or malformed limbs, he is obsessed with curing his ailment, right down to his "World Without Weakness" rhetoric. Whatever sympathy he would've gotten for his handicap and his daily accessibility issues is lost when he starts using Eugenic language, and "weakness" is a term with further reaching connotations. Note that Connors is not dying, nor is his life completely ruined due to the lack of his arm. It's understandable that he would be frustrate with his limitation and admirable that he'd go into medical science, but using himself as a test subject shows a deeply internalized self-hating ableism. (And I get that he was feeling awful at the time, looking at being fired or even disappeared by Norman Osborn, but he'd been spouting the World Without Weakness rhetoric since his first scene.)

4. Disabled people are not all young, white, straight, affluent men. Connors is an older gentleman, so he at least beats the ageist part of that majority formula, but he's male, white, (presumably) straight, and lives comfortably. Then again, the Amazing Spider-Man movie only has a few female characters (albeit in important roles; Gwen Stacy is used superbly here as Peter's confidante as well as his girlfriend, and Emma Stone does a great job with the character. Aunt May is also used effectively, albeit with less screen time). It also has only one remotely significant character of color, that being Norman's henchman. And there are no gay, bi, or transgendered/intersexed characters. Not a surprise, and I can't hold it against this movie specifically, but it does illustrate the problem; young, white, straight, affluent, and abled men still control all the most visible narratives. 

Again, I liked Amazing Spider-Man a lot as a movie, and it's definitely in my top 5 of superhero films. But it's still a reminder that big budgets and blockbuster sales are rarely given to stories outside that very limited Hollywood narrative.

5. Disabled people go bad for a reason. There is a reason, but it's not a good one; surely Connors would've known that jamming himself full of reptile DNA wouldn't go well, either killing himself (a true act of weakness, regardless of physical or intellectual challenge) or turning himself into a monster. Since it's the latter, Connors is responsible for everyone the Lizard killed, in the same way that a drunk driver is accountable for the people they run over. Worse yet, even after Connors reverts back after his initial transformation, he's clearly gone evil by this point, addicted to the power of being the Lizard and chewing every inch of scenery.

6. There aren't many reasons for disabled people not to have sex. In the comics, Connors is (or was) married with a kid, so this was averted. Here, he seems to live alone and doesn't show any evidence of a romantic life. He's portrayed as completely sexless, though at least without a family, Connors doesn't betray those responsibilities. (And that might make the comic version worse, because in one of his most recent transformations, Connors ATE his son. Surely he'd rather have had a living son than a regrown arm, had he known what the Lizard serum would do?)

9. Disabled people know other disabled people. Connors is the only disabled character in the movie. Then again, if he'd talked to disabled people about his "World Without Weakness" nonsense, they might've been offended. I wish someone had asked him which is worse; not having an arm, or living in a world that makes you feel like a pariah without two arms? (this was done very well in X-Men First Class, when Mystique told off Xavier for trying to fit in with a bigoted world. By coincidence, that movie also had a major character try to cure his disability with science and fail miserably, with Hank McCoy's faulty mutant cure. That was even more foolish on Hank's part, because he wasn't physically limited beyond being forced to hide his simian feet, which was society's fault and not his own. Though he got off easier, because while the cure made him blue-furred, he did keep his mind, unlike Connors).

10. Disability is not a conflict that has to be resolved. Perhaps this is subverted because Connors is punished for trying to resolve that conflict, being sent to prison and not even keeping his regrown arm once he reverts to his human form. But the audience is supposed to sympathize with Connors for being an apparent "cripple", and for trying to cure his condition. And ideally, that sympathy would vanish once he acted on the feeling that he'd rather be dead or a monster than alive with one less arm than most. 

Again, thanks to The Goldfish for these great discussions!


  1. This is super! Very honoured that you've used my post in this way. :-)

    I haven't read many comics, but I'm under the impression that although disabled super villains are very common in the books, these things are simplified and so the stereotype made worse when they're turned into films. Would you say that's true?

  2. I don't think the audience is supposed to ignore the obvious flaws in Connors' thinking; similar to Eddie Brock in the last Spider-Man film, there was already a darkness in the character before he became a super villain. Obviously, Connors is a bit more sympathetic, but he still adheres to a pseudo-eugenic worldview and is implied to be complicit in the elder Parkers' deaths.

    It's interesting that every step he took on the road to becoming the Lizard was a noble goal with twisted and selfish motivation. The actual act of regrowing missing limbs would clearly be wonderful for amputees around the world, but Connors is doing it more to alleviate his obvious self-loathing. Stopping Osborn's agent from using unsuspecting people as lab rats was a good idea, but, again, Connors seemed more interested in doing it in a way that wouldn't cost him his chance to regrow his arm or lose his prestigous spot at Oscorp. (Otherwise, he could have just alerted the authorities.)

    And like any good eugenist, the Lizard's definition of "healthy" eventually becomes so naracisstic and twisted that everyone must be exactly like himself. He says at one point that he can "Save them", "Them" presumably being others suffering from other "weaknesses" that eight-foot reptile people are presumably immune from. In doing so, he inflicts horrific bodily mutation on the SWAT team trying to stop him, violating and warping their bodies. It's the perfectly symbolic scheme of a eugenist: "You're going to be what I deem 'perfect', no matter what."

    Really, Connors isn't just a "good guy"; he's a deeply flawed and troubled man, and while he's certainly sympathetic, that sympathy only goes so far. (Particularly when so much of his internal strife is self-induced.)

    And minor note, but wasn't he wearing a wedding ring in a couple scenes? Or am I mis-remembering?

  3. Oh, and re: post #1, Connors is a lot more sympathetic in the books; in the Lee/Romita days, he had a long history of helping Spider-Man out, completely independent of the Lizard. More recent interpretations of the character, prior to his death in "Shed", were written with a darker edge, but that was in reference to his fear of the Lizard and the guilt he felt for creating him, rather than a particular focus on his disability. Because the character's origin has pretty much stayed the same since the 1960's, there really hasn't been much of a re-examination of his state of mind prior to the accident. He just shouted "SCIENCE!", and drank his lizard juice, and the rest was history.

  4. The pleasure is all mine, Goldfish. I've loved your blog for as long as I've known of its existence.

    And good points from you too, E. I do realize that the original version was less about disability and more about being FOR SCIENCE!