Hi everyone! Last month I wrote a discussion post on Ableism in the Bookish Community, and a couple of you expressed interest in me breaking down some common ableist tropes. So, I’m here today to chat a bit more about The Disabled Villain. This trope has been around for a long time and is still incredibly prevalent today; from books to movies, disabled villains are everywhere. So what is this trope? Why does it exist? Can you ever write about a villainous disabled character? That’s what I’ll be discussing today!
What is the disabled villain trope?
The disabled villain trope is exactly what it sounds like; the villain is disabled! Wheelchair-users are a frequent disabled villain stereotype, but pretty much every disability is ripe picking for an ableist villain storyline. Disabled villains can range from being disabled and a villain, to being a villain because they’re disabled. Some of the worst storylines with this trope include the disabled villain committing atrocious acts to become non-disabled. This trope combines with fatphobia, racism, disfigurement (which is different but linked to disability), mental health, and queer-coded characters to make a horrible little oppressive cocktail of a bad trope. From Captain Hook to the Detective Pikachu movie, the disabled villain trope is everywhere. I remember going to an author event in school and an author talked about how he was called out for having a disabled villain, he spoke about how stupid that was because everyone has disabled villains. Maybe it’s time to stop associating villainy with marginalised and oppressed people? Just a thought.
Why does this trope exist?
I don’t think it’s enough for me to just say ableism and leave it at that, but in short, it’s ableism.
The disabled villain exists for several reasons. One being that people love making villains that they find abnormal, and making a character disabled is an easy way to do that. Writers will make their characters disabled because they find it a universally negative trait. They make them disfigured because they want a character that strongly goes against beauty standards. They want a character they think is barely even human at all. People genuinely believe that disabled people are broken in some way, and what better way to symbolise a broken, evil person, by making their body that way too? Looking at you Darth Vader. Disabled and disfigured people are thought of as creepy and gross by more people than you’d think. I’d wager even you, lovely reader, have some unlearning to do on that front. The new adaption of Witches by Roald Dahl had a lot of pushback due to its framing of limb disfigurement as linked to evil, to add ‘creepiness’ to the characters. No one ever thinks about what those depictions do to the lives of the actual disabled & disfigured people they represent. It teaches people to be afraid; it teaches people that we’re evil, that we don’t deserve empathy and kindness, that we’re not even human.
One of the other main reasons disabled villains are so favoured is because they juxtapose the big, strong hero. Especially in a superhero context, the hero nearly always needs to be a ‘perfect’ representation of human fitness. Writers are like, ‘oh, brain vs brawn! What kind of character could be the opposite of our perfect, big, muscular hero? Oh! A disabled person’. Disabled villains are often shown as having superior mental capacities to offset their lack of physical intimidation. If they can fight or physically intimidate, it’s nearly always because of the technological advancements that they have created. This is where it goes into the ‘disabled person wishes they were able-bodied trope’, where they’ll do anything possible to make it so they can functionally remove their disability. It’s based on the idea that being disabled is bad, and people will become evil trying to ‘fix’ themselves.
In a larger context, all marginalised groups are turned into villains. Queer coded villains, the femme fatale villain, the savage, the disfigured or disabled villain, the mentally ill villain – writers love to look at oppressed groups and go, oh hey, what great villain material. I’m focusing on ableism in this article, but it’s important to remember this isn’t the only occurrence of marginalised people being vilified, especially so when you combine marginalised identities. People who write the content we consume have internalised the dominant perception of the world, that perception being that marginalised people are inferior. What kind of people would make a better villain than those that society already recognises as different, and in some cases, wrong or inhuman? Even well-meaning creators might be using these tropes, purely because they don’t realise what oppressive strands they’re pulling them from. We need to do better at unlearning the harmful and oppressive information that society has given us.
How is this trope adapted to sci-fi and fantasy?
Before I talk about SFF I want to point out that writing a horror book or movie does not give you an excuse to make your evil villain disfigured. Please think about what you’re saying is creepy when your character is disfigured. Think about the real world people who have this disfigurement and the impact of that on them. There are so many other exciting things you can do with villains.
I want to talk about fantasy and sci-fi because I think the trope can change and be more difficult to identify. There are real-world, existing disabilities, and I always love seeing them getting representation in sci-fi and fantasy (not in an ableist way though, please). I would suggest there are also disabled-coded characters in sci-fi and fantasy. They don’t have a real-world disability, but in consideration of what disability is, they could be thought of as disabled. For example, in a world where everyone is magical, one person is non-magical, and they face discrimination because of their lack of magic. I would say this character is somewhat disabled-coded, they’re being oppressed because of their perceived lack of ability in comparison to the norms of the society.
So, when fantasy books have an evil person without magic, trying desperately to get magic, at the cost of everything, it seems like a rehash of the ‘disabled person will do anything to be able-bodied’ trope. I see this fantasy form of the trope in a lot of books, and I always side-eye it. The context might make this trope more or less linked to disability, and disabled-coded characters are a lot more difficult to identify, but I’d say that’s a remix of the trope it’s good to be aware of.
Can disabled people ever be villains?
Maybe? It depends on who is writing it, and who the rest of the characters in the book are. If you’re a disabled author writing a book with multiple disabled characters and you have a disabled villain whose villainy is not linked to ableist narratives, I’d give that a go. If you’re not a disabled author, don’t use this trope. If you don’t have other disabled characters, don’t use this trope. Stop only representing disabled people as villains. Like, please stop writing this trope.
The big thing here is that in real life, disabled people are not the villains. We’re a community that faces an intense amount of abuse and violence, and that increases even further if you have other marginalisations. People who have mental health issues, are disfigured, or disabled are rarely represented as anything other than villains in mainstream media. It’s made the general public even more afraid of us and has spread a large amount of harmful false information. These tropes directly correlate to people being able to abuse us and get away with it. We are not the villains; we are the victims.