I’m thrilled to be heading over to Ohio this weekend to be a Guest of Honor at Millennicon. Here’s the schedule, just in case you want to come say hello or make sure you know how to avoid me all weekend.
Tom Smith will be there as Filk Guest of Honor, which should make my wife happy. She tolerates me, but she’d much rather hang out at one of Tom’s concerts
There are a lot of great people at this one, some of whom I haven’t seen in a while, so I’m expecting this to be a lot of fun.
My therapist shared something interesting earlier this week. With the caveat that this is all a bit simplified, and human brains don’t fit into neat lines and graphs, it still helped me to think a little differently about depression and anxiety and stress, and to understand both myself and certain other people in my life a little better.
She started by drawing the following graph:
This fits pretty well with my experience. There’s a relatively straightforward relationship here. The more depressed you are, the less productive you are. (Giving lie to the myth of the tortured artist who’s most productive when they’re depressed.)
Next, she drew a graph of anxiety.
This one also made sense, once we talked about it a bit. If you have absolutely no anxiety, you end up with a lot less motivation to produce anything. Take away all of my deadlines, and I’m definitely less productive and more likely to spend an evening bumming around on the couch watching Doctor Who. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
On the other hand, too much anxiety can be crippling, with the far extreme being someone who can’t even leave their room or home.
So basically, we want to minimize depression and find a healthy and moderate level of productive anxiety. Got it. So far, so good.
What gets interesting, at least for me, is looking at the implications of the two models. If depression is more of a linear thing, it means you have that straightforward goal of getting as far to the left as possible. This also means small steps to fight the depression are more likely to have small steps in improving your productivity. It tends to be a long, slow battle.
I’ve been in therapy and on medication for depression for about two years now. This has had a pretty large impact on the depression, and when you look at my productivity these days … well, I’m doing two books in 12 months instead of my usual one. Smaller improvements have led to smaller changes in productivity, like being able to keep up with washing the dishes. Again, it’s not a perfect graph, but it makes sense to me.
I sketched in two sample changes in mood. If the depression improves by X, productivity also improves by X. That tends to hold true whether you’re really depressed or in a generally good space. (Yes, I’m simplifying the math and assuming a 1:1 slope.)
Anxiety, on the other hand, resembles a bell curve. That means any given change in your anxiety can have drastically different results, depending on where you happen to be on that curve.
Look at this next graph. Both of the horizontal lines, indicating a change in anxiety, are the same. The vertical lines, showing change in productivity, are not.
For someone near that ideal middle-ground, a small increase in anxiety of amount X could have a relatively small impact on productivity, perhaps X or even X/2. On the other hand, if you’re more anxious, the same increase of X in your anxiety could have a much larger impact, hurting productivity by a factor of 2X, 3X, or more.
Likewise, for someone who’s struggling with anxiety, removing just a small stressor could have a very large impact, and help exponentially.
And the exact same increase in anxiety can actually boost productivity for someone to the left of the curve as much as it hurts someone to the right.
This was an AHA moment for me. I spend a fair amount of time working with people and trying to motivate them, whether it’s my employees at the day job or my children at home, and looking at that Anxiety graph helped to crystallize why the same tactic can have very different results for different people … or even for the same people at different times.
Someone on the left side, who seems to be slacking because they don’t really care? Maybe their anxiety needs to be turned up a bit, by talking about potential consequences. On the other hand, for someone on the right side of the graph who’s already close to a panic attack, potential consequences are likely to push them even further, making things that much harder for them. In that case, trying to take a little of that anxiety off their shoulders can help tremendously.
I see some of the same effects with the way stress and anxiety intertwine in my life. There’s a certain middle ground where I can add or remove things I need to get done, and it doesn’t have much of an impact. But once I hit that tipping point, just a small increase in stress can drag me down hard.
Like I said at the beginning, this is a bit of an oversimplification. Human beings tend to be pretty complicated and messy. But seeing depression and anxiety drawn out like this was really helpful for me, so I figured I’d share it in the hope that it might help a few of you as well.
Over the weekend, I had another clueless dude try to give me crap for “working so hard to manufacture outrage,” and for always “choosing to be offended.” It’s a tired and unoriginal refrain, but I’m going to try to do something a little different this time. I’m going to agree with clueless dude, at least to an extent. Because he’s right. For me, a great deal of the things I write about, and the fact that I’m upset by some of what I see in the SF/F community, these are choices.
A few of the things I’ve chosen to be offended about lately…
Generally, when folks recycle the accusation that people are looking for things to be offended by, the word “offended” is used as a minimizing tactic. It suggests overly fragile and sensitive individuals with bruised feelings. A more accurate choice would be “pissed off,” “hurt,” or “sick of this crap.” Kameron Hurley uses the term “rage” when explaining that the anger doesn’t come from a minor, isolated incident.
The thing is, most of these incidents don’t hurt me directly. Representation in SF/F? As a straight, white, American male, I’m incredibly overrepresented in my genre. Conventions that don’t take steps to reduce sexual harassment? I’ve been harassed a total of once in more than a decade of congoing, and it’s not something I’m particularly worried about happening to me again. The threats, hatred, and vitriol aimed at women online and in the real world? Hey, it’s not coming toward me, so who cares?
When you’re not the one being hurt, you might not even notice the problem. You might decide it’s all blown out of proportion. Or maybe you admit that yeah, there might be a problem here, but you blow it off because the solution would inconvenience you in some way, or make you uncomfortable.
When you see someone saying they’re hurt or afraid, you can choose to mock that person. You can choose to ignore their concerns. You can choose to blow them off by saying they’re manufacturing outrage and looking for reasons to be offended, as if pain and anger and fear are just another hobby, like collecting spores, molds, and fungus. You can choose to ignore the evidence, to disbelieve the repeated stories of ongoing harassment and the countless people speaking out about specific incidents that make them feel unwelcome and unwanted in your community. You can choose to interpret anger as “bullying,” and calls for inclusion as “political correctness run wild.”
You could also choose to listen. You can choose to believe that when someone says, “Hey, this is hurting me,” they’re telling the truth. You can look around at how racially homogenous most conventions are and believe the people telling you why they feel unwelcome, instead of dismissing it as a coincidence or making up falsehoods about how “those people” just don’t read or don’t care about SF/F. You can recognize that just because a problem might not directly affect you, that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant.
You’re right. I choose to be
When I choose to be angry, and to speak out about things, it’s because I see people hurting.
No, that’s not quite right. It’s because I see the that the things we’re doing are hurting people. That pain isn’t imaginary. It’s not a cover to try to take over the genre and control everyone else, as one commenter suggested. It’s real. And I’ve got to believe that if more people could get over their discomfort and defensiveness and just listen, they might see it too. They might even be able to help solve some of the problems.
Basically, when people talk about something that’s hurting them, you can choose to care. Or you can choose not to.
The Lives of Tao [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], is Wesley Chu’s first novel, and I kind of hate him a little bit for that. I picked up and started reading the book because I had met Wesley a while back, and he seemed like a pretty cool person. I finished reading it because it’s such a fun read.
Tao is basically a symbiotic life form, one who requires a human or animal host to survive on Earth. His people crash landed on our planet ages ago, and are now at war. Tao and the Prophus want to peacefully encourage humanity’s evolution until our technology is advanced enough to help them get home. The Genjix are believed to have similar goals … minus the “peacefully” part.
After a mission gone wrong results in the death of Tao’s human host, he’s forced into the body of an unambitious, insecure IT technician named Roen. This is the time, when he’s stuck in an untrained host, that Tao is most vulnerable. He has to keep Roen alive long enough to get him trained, and eventually to try to figure out what the Genjix are really up to this time.
Like I said, the book is a lot of fun. Tao is a great character, one who has existed in some of the greatest hosts in human history. (Genghis Khan, for example.) Tao tells Roen dream-stories about some of his past lives at the start of each chapter, which gives him (and us) the background of both Tao and his people.
Tao has tons of experience and knowledge, but upgrading Roen to superspy status isn’t as easy as simply plugging him in. There’s plenty of banter, entertaining training scenes, lots of action, and characters you want to keep reading about.
The only real complaint I have isn’t about the writing so much as it is one of the tropes Chu uses in the book. He’s created a world in which many of the wars and tragedies of human history were actually engineered by the Genjix. While it makes sense in the context of the book, I’ve never liked that particular trope, since it would seem to excuse us for our own atrocities. I know it’s fiction, but it still bugs me. Humans are capable of amazing things. We’re also capable of horrible, evil things. Pretending otherwise feels like lying about human nature.
Like I said, it’s a personal peeve.
There’s a twist in the ending that I saw coming pretty early on, but overall, it’s a good ending, one that wraps up the events of this book while making it clear there’s more to come in the series.
You can read an excerpt of the book at Tor.com. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, The Deaths of Tao.
Friday says, “Beware. I live!”
The UK mass market edition of Libriomancer is out today!
The folks at Del Rey UK have been absolutely lovely to work with, and I continue to be thrilled that one of my series finally has a UK edition.
Now on to the more aggravating part. I received a very polite email earlier this week from an anthology editor, asking if I was still planning to contribute a story … seeing as how the deadline was March 1.
And there was much swearing on my part. I had committed to this a year ago, and I knew this anthology was on my list of things to write, but I had somehow gotten it in my head that the deadline was later this summer. (I think I managed to mix it up with another deadline for an anthology that has now been cancelled.)
Regardless, the editor was kind enough to give me until the end of this month to get something written and turned in.
Looking back a few days later, it was interesting to see how this screw-up on my part crashed head-on into the Depression. Being a writer is a pretty core part of my identity, and one of the things I pride myself on is making my deadlines. There’s a line in Friends where Joey snaps, “Joey doesn’t share food!”
Well, “Jim doesn’t blow deadlines!”
Between feeling a bit stressed already with the novel-writing schedule and the realization that I’d messed up, my mood for the day went down like a level 2 thief who lost initiative against a Beholder. The fact that I had also gotten stuck on the novel just made it worse. Look — two different sources of writing stress at once! Oh, joy!
The up side is that I recognized what was happening, and I knew — intellectually — that I was overreacting. Not that I’m okay with blowing deadlines, but it wasn’t the end of the world, and the editor was very cool about it. It wasn’t enough to drag myself out of that slump, but I think it kept me from getting as deeply bogged down by it as I would have a few years back.
I’m not asking for comfort here. I know I’m far from the only writer to ever miss a deadline. I know it’s unreasonable and unfair and egotistical to expect perfection from myself when I wouldn’t dream of holding anyone else to that kind of standard. And I know the best thing to do at this point is let it go and start working on the story.
Which, for the most part, I think I’ve been able to do. It took several days, but I sorted out the novel chapter I was stuck on, and I started brainstorming story ideas for the anthology. I added the new deadline to my To Do List in HabitRPG. And I woke up this morning without the ghost of that Beholder following me around, zapping me with its eyestalk-beams of, “OMG I suck!!!”
It’s still hitting me with various minor eyestalk-beams of life stress, but I’ve got the hit points and saving throws to deal with those. And I’m back in a space where I can enjoy the fact that the new edition of my book is coming out, and people are talking about it and saying mostly good things.
A month or so back, I heard about Habit RPG, which is basically a habit-tracking and To Do List app in the form of a role-playing game. You set up your Habits, Dailies, and To Do List, and begin as a level one character. You get treasure and XP for completing items on your list, but you lose treasure and XP if you fail to complete your Dailies.
It’s not for everyone, but for an old gaming geek like me, it’s worked surprisingly well. I only set up two Dailies: writing at least 1000 words, and working on the dishes (a chore I sometimes neglected). I’ve now got a 36-day streak on dishes and 22 days of at least 1000 words. For Habits, which you don’t necessarily have to complete every day, I set up things like Writing At Least 1500+ words, Exercise, and Reading. I’ve added things to the To Do List as they come up, and it works well as a reminder.
Once you advance a few levels, you unlock the drop feature, and can get eggs, potions, and food when you complete a task. The potions are used to hatch the eggs, and the food helps your new pets grow. I’ve got four pets so far, including the lion below. (Yes, I’m wearing a party hat. But only because they didn’t have a fez.) There are quests you can set up, but I haven’t gotten there yet.
I wish you could do a little more customizing. You can set specific days of the week for your Dailies, but you can’t configure it for something like, “Exercise at least three times/week.” Some of the features require you to pay real-world money for gems, which can be redeemed for other goodies, but you can get along fine without those. And the mobile app is rather bare-bones. But none of these are deal-breakers, especially for a free application.
The best part has been getting my son into the game. I set him up with his own character, and we created his lists. Now instead of hounding him to do his various chores, all I have to do is ask if he’s earned his XP for the day. He pulls up his character and starts running around to feed the dogs, take care of recycling, hang up his jacket, and everything else. It’s not perfect, and if we don’t remind him to check, he forgets. He’s gotten down to about 10% of his hit points before, but he hasn’t died yet. (When you die, you lose a level.) But it’s still a lot more fun than it used to be, and he does his chores with a lot less trouble.
My daughter, being a little older and not a geek, wasn’t interested. But it’s definitely helped my son and I get a little more done, and have a little more fun doing it.
I want to once again thank everyone for the guest blog posts last month. They were amazing and powerful and thought-provoking. I know that you got me thinking about things I hadn’t considered before, and judging from the comments, I wasn’t the only one. Here’s the full list of posts:
There were several other posts I wanted to mention in this roundup.
The frustrating thing about blogging is that, for the most part, any given blog post has a very short lifespan. They get their moment in the spotlight, and then wander backstage to the archives. I wanted to find a way to keep these essays alive for anyone who wanted to read and share them. Which is why I spent the weekend sending contracts out to my guest bloggers and a couple of additional individuals for Invisible, an electronic anthology that will collect these essays in a more permanent form. I’m still working out the details, but each contributor will receive a token payment for their essay, with the rest of the profits going to Con or Bust. The essays will remain online for free, but the anthology will be $2.99, which seemed reasonable for a collection of this length. Here’s the cover I’ve been working on. Feedback is very much welcome. The contributor names are pixellated out because I haven’t received all of the contracts back yet. I’m excited about this. If all goes well, I’d love to make it an annual thing, both the guest blog posts and the electronic anthology.
In part of her introductory essay on non-binary gender in SF/F, Alex Dally MacFarlane wrote about Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, noting that it has become the, “go-to book for mind-blowing gender in SF, despite being written in 1968. Nothing written in the decades since has got the same traction.” Le Guin herself has written about her choices in that novel, and acknowledged that there are ways in which she fell short of her goal and failed to create a truly agender society.
Bookseller Morgan Dambergs talks about the very few books that acknowledge non-binary gender at all, and reiterates that what they are asking for isn’t to be included in Every Single Story, but simply to be acknowledged, and for the genre “to treat us in stories and in life as regular human beings rather than oddities or jokes or something purely alien.”
I am genderqueer—agender, specifically—and at thirty-one, I have yet to read a novel that features an agender character. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising to me: in the last decade or so, I’ve read more than two hundred science fiction and fantasy books, and only three have included non-binary characters at all. I think that lack of representation has a lot to do with why it took me twenty-one years to find out that non-binary identities exist, and why it’s only been in the last six months that I’ve finally accepted my own genderqueer identity as real and something I’m allowed to express.
When I was nineteen, I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. I remember being very interested in the Gethenians, a species of humanoids that spend most of their lives sexless and genderless. But a mild fascination was as far as it ever went for me; there was never any sense of identification. There are two reasons why The Left Hand of Darkness failed to resonate with me. First, when I read the book, I had never yet heard the words “genderqueer” or “non-binary” or even “genderfuck,” or heard of anyone who identified as anything other than binary male or female. I had no lexicon to help me drawn a connection between the genderless Gethenians and my lifelong discomfort at with treated as either purely female or purely male. As far as I knew, there was no human experience comparable to how the Gethenians lived. For example, except during their monthly breeding period called kemmer, Gethenians don’t have any genitalia, so they’re not assigned a gender at birth. Our world, on the other hand, had made it clear that because I was assigned female at birth, I had two options: “stay” female (I didn’t have the word “cisgender” yet either) or “become” a transgender man. Since my biology and society were not and could never be like the Gethenians, the genderlessness of Gethen life never amounted to more than a pleasant thought experiment for me.
My second issue with the book was the human protagonist, Genly Ai. Genly is a cisgender male who finds the genderless Gethenians completely baffling, and spends much of the novel arbitrarily labelling them masculine or feminine to make himself more comfortable. I realize that Le Guin was trying to use Genly’s prejudices to point out the arbitrariness of that kind of labelling. But like the human protagonists in many SF and F stories, Genly is also intended to be the readers’ entry point into Le Guin’s speculative world. His point of view is the one meant to ease us into and explain the stranger aspects of the Gethenians—not least their lack of gender. When you’re a human being who is deeply uncomfortable with the idea of having to choose between being exclusively male or exclusively female, and your first introduction to the idea of a genderless society is from the point of view of a human who can’t wrap his head around how anyone could ever be truly genderless, it’s pretty, well, alienating.
And then there are the other two books I mentioned. The first is Valentine by S. P. Somtow, the second book in one of my favourite horror trilogies. The book’s non-binary character is named PJ Gallagher. He identifies as cisgender male in the first and third books of the trilogy, but becomes temporarily (and mystically) non-binary as part of the plot of Valentine. PJ accepts his transformation gracefully, as do his fellow protagonists, and he’s not treated like a freak. But he does ultimately identify as a cisgender man, not as a non-binary and/or genderqueer person, so there’s little about his experience of non-binariness that matches up with mine. PJ’s non-binariness is fleeting, not a journey and a struggle he’s been going through all his life. Also, PJ is from a half-Shoshone background, and Somtow misappropriates a real non-binary Shoshone identity, called “berdache,” to describe PJ. My understanding is that being berdache is a lifelong identity, not a temporary one. I can only imagine that PJ’s portrayal must be infuriating and hurtful to anyone who identifies as berdache in real life.
The second book is Craig Thompson’s graphic novel Habibi, which is no less problematic. The non-binary characters are based on the Hijra, a real third sex—neither male nor female—that has long existed in parts of the Indian subcontinent and Pakistan. My understanding is that, like Somtow’s misuse of “berdache,” Thompson’s idea of what it means to be Hijra has little to do with the lives of real Hijra people, especially in the modern day.
The Hijra in Habibi take in Zam, an adolescent boy who is one of the book’s two protagonists. Under their care, Zam becomes a eunuch (a practice that is not especially common amongst real-life Hijra) and is taught how to live and work within their communal home. When Zam eventually rejects them and runs away, he talks about feeling disgusted and regretful that he “ruined” his body in trying to become one of them.
It’s hard to put into words just how much that bothered me—and again, the portrayal must be so much more hurtful to anyone who self-identifies as Hijra. I can’t speak as a Hijra; but I can say as an agender person that, although I don’t deny being genderqueer has made my life more difficult, I also don’t regret growing up to be the person I am. I definitely don’t pine for the cisgender woman I could maybe, potentially, have been. And I’ve read nothing that implies the average Hijra feels any less comfortable with their non-binariness than I do with mine. That makes Zam’s arc little more than a twist on the old “gay recruitment” scare story: an innocent young boy becomes trapped in the clutches of the twisted Hijra, who coerce him into becoming one of them—and it ruins his life forever!!! (Yeah, ’cause that’s not horrible or marginalizing or written from a place of extreme cis privilege.)
So let’s recap real quick. Of the three books I’ve read in the last eleven years that include non-binary characters, one features non-binary aliens who are painted as too alien for me to find identifiable; one has a character who self-identifies as cisgender male but becomes non-binary very briefly for a specific, mystical purpose; and the third treats its non-binary characters as manipulative, pathetic and/or self-hating.
Not much to work with, really, is it?
I followed the comments on Alex Dally MacFarlane’s introductory post for her Tor.com series on non-binary characters closely. One of the most frustrating arguments I encountered is that because some SF and F stories featuring non-binary characters have already been written, there’s no need to spend time talking about them. The people making that argument seem to feel that all the books need to do is exist and the people who need them most will find them somehow. But I’ve been in need of those stories for as long as I can remember and have been actively searching for them for close to a decade. So far, with no resources at all to point me in the right direction, The Left Hand of Darkness, Valentine and Habibi are all I’ve managed to turn up.
When I was younger, reading about shy and introverted characters helped me feel like I wasn’t the only shy, introverted person alive in the world, and like those traits were just personality differences, not flaws I had to fix. I have every reason to believe that, if I’d had the chance to read more books about non-binary characters as a teen or young adult, I could have understood and accepted my agender identity many years ago. That’s why the discussion of non-binary genders in the science fiction and fantasy community is so important to me. Drawing attention to—maybe even inspiring authors to write more—SF and F novels that include non-binary characters can potentially change the lives of real non-binary people for the better. We’re not demanding to be included in every single science fiction and fantasy story ever written from now on. But asking the science fiction and fantasy community to acknowledge our existence, to no longer assume the gender binary is the default, to treat us in stories and in life as regular human beings rather than oddities or jokes or something purely alien—I don’t think that’s really so much to ask.
Morgan Dambergs runs a very small used bookstore in their hometown of Halifax, Canada. They spend much (though never enough) of their free time reading and writing speculative fiction. They hope to someday publish some fantasy and horror novels, which will, naturally, include both non-binary and binary characters.
I really appreciate Derek Handley talking about the difference between lack of representation and poor or lazy representation. As writers, research is important. It’s not enough to just decide a character is in a wheelchair without considering why, or how that affects their day-to-day life. As with so many of these essays, this post has given me a lot to think about as a writer.
Tomorrow, Morgan Dambergs will bring this whole series full circle, talking about non-binary gender and referencing the Alex Dally MacFarlane post that helped bring about this collection of guest posts.
At a very basic level, wheelchair users are not an under-represented group in fiction. We’re just very misunderstood.
Take a moment and I’m sure you’ll easily come up with a dozen characters with wheelchairs: heroes and villains, lead protagonists and supporting characters. They might be from science-fiction or period drama or comedy. You might not be able to think of a character in fantasy—although they do exist—but I’m certain you can come up with a dozen.
I’m going to make a few predictions about your list. Most of the characters are white men. Over half are extremely intelligent. Most of them have vaguely defined injuries. Most of those with clearly defined injuries lost their legs rather than injuring their spine.
My final prediction is that the creative team will only have done some real research if the story is about the disability itself. Otherwise, the wheelchair is at best, descriptive color and at worst, so misunderstood that it might as well not be part of the story.
I’ve been using a wheelchair for almost 16 years, and while friends claim not to see that as one of my defining characteristics, it is. Wheelchair user goes on the list with Irish, gay, ex-pat, hearing impaired, and writer. We are the sum of our experiences and being a wheelchair user is a very different experience to not being one. I am not defined by my disability, but it is part of my daily life and it affects almost everything I do.
Becoming a wheelchair user later in life—or indeed acquiring any condition or disability that drastically changes our interactions with the world—provides a unique perspective on representation. There is a before and after. There is an acquired desire to connect to something that previously was just a plot point or some descriptive color.
In my case, I went from not really thinking about wheelchairs to seeing them everywhere—not to mention seeing the obstacles to their passage. I lost that inattentional blindness that we have about things that don’t affect us. I found myself wanting to know more about my new state, and even needing to find evidence that I hadn’t completely lost my old life, that I still had possibilities.
I gradually realized that very few of the characters I found meant something to me.
There have been some characters that work or at least come close to being good representations. Jason Street (Friday Night Lights) is one. As far as the writing went, Gail Simone’s Barbara Gordon (Birds of Prey) was another, although the art in those comics was rarely as well researched. The Open Hands Initiative’s Bashir Bari (Silver Scorpion) is a character I hope to see again as he was really well done. Finally, as absurd as his physical prowess is, Joe Swanson (Family Guy) is a breath of comedic fresh air.
Despite those few names, some fundamental issues remain. Unless the character’s sole purpose is to tell a story of emotional struggle and physiotherapy (Jason Street) or the disability makes a climactic scene more dramatic (Jake Sully in Avatar), there is a real disconnect between the reality of a wheelchair user and the fictional world.
Many of these issues are subtle but irritating. The wheelchair might not fit the character’s injury and lifestyle. Barbara Gordon has gone through a dozen heavy, thoroughly unsuitable wheelchairs thanks to poor research by artists. The chair might be an absurd contraption. Professor X’s floating metal box in the early 90s and his seated Segway in New X-Men spring to mind. Undefined spinal injuries often lead to inconsistent portrayals of what the character can physically do. Yes, quadriplegics can play sports like wheelchair rugby and go bobsledding, but that doesn’t mean they have full upper body control.
It could be argued that I’m nit-picking but if these characters were supposed to represent people like me, then they failed on some level. The research wasn’t done—or wasn’t complete—and the effect alienated me rather than making me feel understood or included. Some characters fail completely. Professor X, probably the most famous wheelchair-using character, has no traits that show him to have a disability except the wheelchair itself. Even his injury is vague. He’s a better representative for premature alopecia than for spinal cord injury.
The worst insult for me is the sudden cure. The cure negates the character as a representation. Most male comic book characters get cured: they’re cloned into a new body (Professor X); they have costumes that grow new legs for them (Flash Thompson in Venom; Soldier Zero); they get prosthetics that are indistinguishable in function from the real thing (Flash Thompson in Superior Spider-man); or they turn out to have been faking (I won’t spoil that one). Female characters get retconned out of existence (Wendy Harris from Batgirl) or retconned back to health (Barbara Gordon).
That last one particularly stung. While the art had often let the character down, it merely downgraded her from a great representative character to a good one. Gail Simone did some great work, showing in subtle ways that while Barbara Gordon had built a fulfilling life, she faced and overcame daily challenges. Those ranged from keeping her father from worrying about her to being immobilized—but far from helpless—when she was captured and had her wheelchair taken away. She was great. And then she was gone and we were back to pseudo-representatives like Flash Thompson.
Representation is important. When you’re a kid, it’s about having a positive role model with your defining characteristics. When you’re an adult, it’s about being reminded that you fit in somewhere and escaping into that character. And when you’re going through a major life change, it’s about finding solace in stories that show you that someone understands and that maybe you can overcome the challenges you face.
And that’s why representation without understanding hurts as much as not being represented at all.
Derek Handley is an Irish-born writer living in Germany. He divides his time between writing fiction, providing language training, and doing scientific writing and editing for corporate and academic clients. Having traveled extensively since becoming a wheelchair user, he plans to start a resource center for other “rolling travelers” and also develop materials to support able-bodied creators in understanding characters with disabilities.