By Cindee Calton
“Seriously, Star Wars? Again?” was the exact phrase that ran through my mind the first time Dryden Vos appeared on screen during my first viewing of the movie Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018). By now, I am sick of the pattern that Vos so predictably followed: a character with a disability in a villainous role. The Star Wars franchise frequently uses physical disability as a signal of evil. The films, however, also use disability as a way to signal a character with a special connection to the Light Side of the Force.
The Star Wars franchise uses certain disabilities to signal evil: those disabilities that make strong appeals to our visual and auditory senses. Simultaneously, the films use other disabilities to signal a connection to the Light Side. This is no accident. The United States has a long history of adverse reactions to people with highly visible disabilities (Thomson, 1983).
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, many cities enacted so-called “ugly laws.” For example, Chicago passed an 1881 law that forbade people who were “diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object” (Schweik, 2010, 1) from being in public places. These laws singled out certain people with disabilities: those whose “alternative” physical appearance disturbed the senses. To look different, according to the norms of the time, triggered disgust or horror, as well as an assumption of moral corruption—cities therefore felt justified banning individuals with visible disabilities from public spaces.
The disabilities that the films single out as signs of evil in Star Wars are similar: they are “ugly” in contrast to the less visually obvious disabilities that characters associated with the Light Side might have. I argue that this is a part of a larger cultural pattern where the disabled body is “never simply itself, the exceptional body betokens something else” (Thomson 1996, 1). In short, the films’ creators rarely allow characters with disabilities to be characters with traits beyond their disabilities. Rather, the films exploit their disabilities for the sake of the narrative.
Like many public discourses about equity, people with disabilities are largely absent from public conversations about representation. The discrimination that people with disabilities face means that nondisabled people limit people with disabilities’ access to everything from housing to employment. Through the consolidation of power with the implicit bias of ableism, people with disabilities are summarily isolated—nondisabled people subsequently create a situation where there is no public place for people with disabilities to challenge stereotypes. That is why it is vital that we think critically about how people with disabilities are represented in films like Star Wars: for many nondisabled people, the media is often their only exposure to people with disabilities.
Disabled Body, Disabled Soul
As Jorain Ng argues, the phenomenon of the disabled body as a cue for a disabled soul is nothing new. Pop culture examples of villains like Wonder Woman’s Dr. Poison (2017), with her missing hand, and The Lion King’s (1994) Scar, employ visible “defects” to signal inner evil. While Ng points out that this trope of using disability as a cue for evil is becoming less popular in recent years, it remains alive and well in the Star Wars franchise, as evidenced by Vos. Vos is a one-dimensional crime lord whose only traits seem to be that he loves antiques, hates betrayal, and is a ruthless murderer. Vos’ face was deliberately and inexplicably disfigured to serve one role: to signal to the audience that he is evil. The film gives no explanation of his disfigurement.
If you’ve seen Solo, you might be questioning whether or not Vos is truly disabled. After all, while his face is significantly maimed, it does not seem to cause any functional problems. You might also wonder if the other characters I argue are a part of this pattern of “evil” characters with disabilities. Emperor Palpatine of the original trilogy and the prequels, and Supreme Leader Snoke of the new trilogy, for example, have no functional impairments. Thomson (1996), however, has argued that in many ways disability has more to do with appearance than function in the United States. The Americans with Disabilities Act acknowledges this question of function when it states that the ADA’s protections extend to those who are “regarded” to have a functional impairment. This is with good reason: a person with a disability’s main problem isn’t their body, it’s an ableist society. In an ableist society, everything, from institutions to actual physical structures, is structured with the presumption that everyone is “normal.” Although what is “normal” shifts from place to place and time to time (see for example Groce, 1985), by an ableist society’s standards people with disabilities are not “normal” despite their prevalence. An ableist society assumes that those who are not “normal” should overcome their differences, rather than society make itself more accessible. Although style guides generally consider using “their” for the third person singular grammatically “incorrect,” I choose to use it for singular people of unknown gender to acknowledge the broad range of gender diversity.
Characters like Vos remind me of progressive writer and anti-war activist Randolph Bourne (1886-1918). Bourne’s disability “involved little functional impairment” (Longmore 2002, 35). Despite his lack of functional impairment, Bourne found himself extremely socially impaired. Bourne was socially disabled by those around him because of his curved spine and a twisted facial structure that resulted from spinal tuberculosis as a child, traits which Longmore describes as “highly visible” (Longmore 2002, 35). Bourne experienced difficulties in accessing schooling, work, and social capital. It should be noted that Bourne’s disability was entirely socially constructed: his physical differences hindered him only because of how people reacted to him, not because he was physically unable to accomplish tasks. Bourne’s story highlights the fact that, like so many other social identities, disability is socially constructed: it is created and defined by society, not some objective physical reality. Like other social categories, “society establishes the means felt to be ordinary and natural” (Goffman 1963, 2).
There are also Star Wars villains with functional disabilities. There is, for example, the villain General Grievous, who has some striking similarities to Darth Vader. In Attack of the Clones (2002), we are introduced to Grievous, who is part biological and part machine. Like Darth Vader, he has problems with breathing. While Grievous is not himself connected to the Dark Side, he is working with the Sith, who are closely connected to the Dark Side. Grievous is “ugly” in appearance. What is perhaps “uglier” is his hacking cough.
Darth Vader is the ultimate example of a narrative using disability to signify a connection to the Dark Side. When Vader first makes his appearance in A New Hope (1977), his unusual breathing becomes a signal for his menacing presence. In the words of his old mentor, Obi Wan Kenobi, in The Empire Strikes Back, “he’s more machine than man now: twisted and evil” (Kurtz 1980). What makes the use of Vader’s disability as a sign of evil so telling is the timing of it. In Revenge of the Sith (2005), Vader’s disability starts at the exact same time as his final fall from grace as a promising Jedi and defender of the Light Side of the Force.
The films even use disability to show that non-villains are morally ambiguous. Saw Gerrera of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) is the perfect example of a morally ambiguous character. Gerrera uses prosthetic feet and a cane to walk. Perhaps more telling, though, is his similarity to Vader. Like Darth Vader, Gerrera has a breathing problem complete with a mechanical device for breathing. Though not a villain, Gerrera is considered to be an extremist. He is also not above torture to get information out of someone. He represents a key example of how the Star Wars franchise has conditioned the viewer to distrust characters, even non-villains, based on their “ugliness,” be it visual or auditory.
I would be remiss in discussing disability in Star Wars if I only explored the use of disability to signify evilness. There are other characters with disabilities in Star Wars that fall into another trope: a disabled person whose disability seems to give them some sort of supernatural powers. Disability studies scholars sometimes described a similar phenomenon as a “supercrip.” Supercrip seems to have a broader meaning in disability studies, describing both real life people and cinematic characters (Schalk 2016). In both cases, nondisabled people benefit from what Stella Young refers to as “inspiration porn”: when the stories of people with disabilities, be they real-life or not, are used to make nondisabled people feel better about their lives.
It is easy to see why the link between disability and evil characters is problematic. It is less apparent why we should care about the supercrip trope. Just having disabled characters with skills and talents might seem like a good thing. However, Ng argues that this “implies that a person with disability only deserves respect if he or she can overcome the disability and perform extraordinary acts” (2014). So, in essence, be superhuman.
The most prominent example of this phenomenon in Star Wars is Master Yoda, who appears in Episodes I-III, V, VI and VIII. Unlike the characters with disabilities discussed so far, Yoda’s disability is not “ugly” like Palpatine’s facial deformities or Vader’s breathing. In fact, people might even describe his appearance as “cute.” Yoda’s disabilities are truly functional: he walks with a cane and he is small in stature. One might argue that Yoda’s size is probably “normal” for his species, and that may very well be the case. However, as I lay out, Star Wars films treat his combination of size and skill as a highly unlikely combination. Our introduction to Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) serves to intensify our surprise that a person with a disabled body could have such extraordinary skills. The movie first portrays him as comical. Luke dismisses his offer for help by saying he is looking for a great warrior and Jedi Master, who we soon discover is Yoda. Despite his perceived physical weakness, Yoda is unrivaled in his connection with the Force. For example, he famously proclaims to Luke that “size matters not” (1980) and proceeds to lift Luke’s starfighter out of the water without touching it.
Yoda proves he is very wise throughout the episodes he appears in. Sayings like “size matters not” and “do or do not, there is no try” (1980) are oft-repeated tokens of Yoda’s wisdom. He predicts the future on more than one occasion, including seeing the darkness in Anakin Skywalker’s future in The Phantom Menace (1999). Similarly, he says he has “watched” Luke a long time in The Empire Strikes Back, despite living nowhere near him.
It is questionable whether the Star Wars universe considers a connection with the force a skill. In The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker dismisses Rey’s assertion that the Force is “a power that Jedi have” as “vanity,” instead describing it as an “the energy between all things” and the “balance that binds the universe together” (2017). Thus, Yoda being strong with the Force is not a talent, but a connection with the universe.
More recently, we’ve met Chirrut Îmwe in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Îmwe (who is predictably played by an actor who is not himself blind) has blindness and is represented as having a powerful connection with the Force, despite not being a Jedi. He constantly proclaims, “I’m one with the Force, the Force is with me.” He does several seemingly miraculous things in the movie, including taking on a squadron of stormtroopers armed only with a stick. During the climactic fight scene at the end of Rogue One, Îmwe walks across a battlefield completely out in the open with shots firing all around him and arrives at his destination completely unscathed. His chanting of his catchphrase, “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me,” while walking across the battlefield implies that it is his connection with the Force that allows him to “see” what others cannot.
Îmwe’s connection with the force does not just help with combat—the films also portray him as having special wisdom. When Cassian Andor tells him that he is in a prison for the first time, Îmwe tells him “there is more than one sort of prison, captain. I sense that you carry yours wherever you go.” Later in the film, he also seemingly “senses” that Andor is about to kill someone because “the Force moves darkly near a creature that’s about to kill.” Like Yoda, Îmwe has the ability to intuit using the Force. However, also like Yoda, this is portrayed not so much as a skill, but as a oneness with the universe. In either case, it plays on the assumptions of people without disabilities that people with disabilities are incapable of everyday tasks. We are therefore supposed to be surprised when they can do extraordinary things.
Conclusion: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
This article argues that the Star Wars franchise uses disabilities as markers of a connection to both the Dark Side and the Light Side. Ironically, the writers who created Îmwe probably thought they were doing a good thing by including a person with a disability in their story. They may have also considered the character empowering for people with disabilities. However, simply adding characters with disabilities to a story does not fix problems of representation. Not only does Îmwe’s character fall back on the supercrip trope, it does not make up for Star Wars’ continued use of “ugly” disabilities as sign of evil. It reinforces the notion that people with disabilities’ primary trait is their disability and not their personalities, their experiences or other characteristics that complete a picture of person’s whole self. Reducing a person to just their disability erases their rich existence.
Cindee Calton is an anthropologist, disability studies scholar, social justice advocate, science fiction aficionado and frequent ruiner of films living Minnesota. Her Ph.D. dissertation focused on the connection between ideologies about disability and ideologies about American Sign Language. Her other scholarship has included examining the role of ideology in the history of sign language linguistics and the intersection of disability and social class.
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