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Satirizing the Supercrip: Disability in The Antagonists

The International Symbol of Access (ISA), also known as the (International) Wheelchair Symbol on pavement - creative commons

Winner: Walden Prize for Outstanding Undergraduate Paper1

The Antagonists is a young adult series written and published by Burgandi Rakoska, herself a disabled woman not unlike Minnie, the protagonist of her series. Her series originated with her frustration at the way society views people with disabilities. The predominant way popular media represents people with disabilities is through the mentality of the supercrip theory: that disabled people succeeding at any task is an inspiration, because they are successful in spite of their disabled status. This ideology hinges on the belief that to be disabled is to lack ability entirely, and these “rare” success stories are exceptions used to motivate the abled populous, rather than existing as reports of disabled people living their lives. In her frustration with this public discourse, Rakoska incepted the idea that became The Antagonists:

I just really want to write a book … where the protagonist is in a wheelchair … And since they were a young child, this protagonist has wanted nothing more than to join the group of superheroes … And one day, when wheeling through the city, they see the group of heroes fighting the villain. And they quickly wheel over and cry, “Let me help!” But the ‘heroes’ laugh and instead make a whole bunch of ableist remarks. And so the protagonist has to prove themselves. And the villain is trying to warn them to stop. But the protagonist ends up taking their footrest off of their wheelchair and they swing it. And it hits the villain in the side of the face and the villain collapses and groans in pain. And so the protagonist proudly smiles and turns to the group of heroes. Because they just proved that they are strong and worthy enough. But the group of ‘heroes’ still keeps making ableist remarks. And the protagonist is shocked. And meanwhile, the ‘villain’ staggers to their feet and is standing next to the protagonist’ wheelchair … And the ‘villain’ is just like, “You know … I can zap them for you … if you want.” And the protagonist hesitates and says, “Yeah, alright!” One fried group of heroes later, the ‘villain’ says, “Why do you think that I’m always fighting them? They’re all a bunch of assholes.” And the protagonist sadly nods and starts to wheel away. Then: “Hey, do you want a job?”2

While the narrative of the story has changed significantly since Rakoska first considered writing it, at its core, The Antagonists exists as a satire against the “supercrip” mentality and as a response to the predominant ableist gaze of society. However, even writing as a disabled woman attempting to empower those with disabilities, Rakoska does not always successfully evade the traps of predominant tropes of disability. Still, her narrative overall represents a work of social realist fiction that advances a narrative at odds with what Tobin Siebers calls “the ideology of ability.”3 Siebers defines this ideology in his book Disability Theory, stating: “the ideology of ability is at its simplest the preference for able-bodiedness. At its most radical, it defines the baseline by which humanness is determined, setting the measure of body and mind that gives or denies human status to individual persons.”4 According to Siebers, this framework determines how the dominant culture views all people, through the lens of their ability or lack of ability. He further notes it “is vital to show to what extent the ideology of ability collapses once we ‘claim disability’ as a positive identity,” which is what Rakoska strives (and often succeeds) to do with her Antagonists series.5 In Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder further speculate, “If disabled people take responsibility for the production of their own images, the social realists reason, images will evolve into more acceptable forms.”6The Antagonists is a work of fiction in which a disabled individual is doing just that—taking responsibility for the production of disabled images—and through this series it is possible to evaluate the ways in which this reclamation of disability as a positive identity both succeeds and fails.

As previously mentioned, The Antagonists is a work of social realist fiction. Of social realism, Mitchell and Snyder claim that its “primary criterion centers upon whether literary depictions serve as correctives to social misapprehensions about the specifics of experiences of disability.”7 From the moment the series starts, it is apparent that this book will take into account the difficulties people with disabilities have navigating through a world structured around able-bodied individuals. On the third page of the first book, Minnie goes to answer the door and hesitates, because, “After all, anyone could be on the other side of that door. Several weeks ago, Minnie had asked her landlord if it was possible to install a lower peephole. Minnie had even offered to pay for the installation.”8 However, this offer was in vain because the landlord was unwilling to restructure the apartment to suit a disabled inhabitant’s needs. Another small but prominent example of the realism in this series is that Minnie often takes a bathroom break before a battle—something even her enemies come to respect as a necessity of her life, instead of ascribing strictly to the way they personally experience the world. This narrative choice not only realistically depicts the needs of a disabled superhero, but also highlights the ways in which an abled community’s expectations create a social environment hostile to a disabled individual.

Mitchell and Snyder note that “fictional portraits often ignore the way in which disability is a relationship between people with impairment and a disabling society.”9 In our world, bathroom breaks before battle would be seen as an inconvenience that disqualified Minnie from being a hero (or villain, as her story would have it). In the world Rakoska has created, this need is seen simply for what it is: a necessity accommodated by those around Minnie. In creating a world where abled individuals, good or bad, are respectful of the different needs of disabled individuals, Rakoska attempts to create within the real world this same understanding and respect. However, as in real life, the actual antagonists of the series, the hero Felix and his crew, are too often unwilling to make necessary accommodations for Minnie’s disability; more often, they take advantage of her disability to gain an upper hand, such as when Felix pushes Minnie down the stairs. This reintroduces realism to the series, with the understanding that the social construction of our physical world is always privileged toward those with ability over those with any disability, despite the large number of disabled individuals in the population and the fact that, with age, every person is likely to become disabled.10

In Narrative Prosthesis, Mitchell and Snyder discuss the ways in which “in order to dissociate one’s disability from stigmatizing associations, disabled people are encouraged to ‘pass’ by disguising their disabilities. Prosthetic devices, mainstreaming, and overcompensation techniques, all provide means for people with disabilities to ‘fit in’ or to ‘de-emphasize’ their differences.”11 In a contrast to this idea, within The Antagonists Minnie is only ever pressured to adopt these techniques by her enemies, thus villainizing the idea that she should attempt to “fit in” or be “normal.” Her friends and associates, on the other hand, accept her exactly as she is. Even with Victor’s magic and experiments, he does not attempt to create a prosthesis for Minnie that would allow her to fight outside of her wheelchair, but instead creates for her a concealed sword that only she can magically reveal, as well as a magical mask to hide her identity. Here they both display their true values—Minnie’s right to privacy and anonymity to further her future and career, which would not be held back by her disability, but rather by her alliance with a super-villainous force.

Mitchell and Snyder further comment that “as is always the case with prosthesis, the minimal goal is to return one to an acceptable degree of difference.”12 In Rakoska’s original inception of the series, Victor was to create for Minnie a flying wheelchair in which she could do battle with enemies who also had the ability to fly. Minnie’s flying wheelchair would have been an excellent way to satirize the purpose of a prosthetic by moving her further away from the norm rather than closer toward it. However, this idea never made it into the final publication of the series, which instead sees the more realistic consequences of Minnie being bound to her wheelchair during battles despite the superhuman abilities of her opponents.

In Disability Theory, Siebers claims that “modern culture feels the urgent need to perfect the body. Whether medical scientists are working for the common cold or the elimination of all disease, a cure for cancer or the banishment of death … their preposterous and yet rarely questioned goal is to give everyone a perfect body.”13 This can be seen in literature by the pursuit of a “cure” for all forms of disability. In The Antagonists, this idea is critiqued by having the series’ villain, Felix, attempt to formulate a potion to cure any disability. In the first book, Felix offers to use magic to cure Minnie, stating that then she would be “normal,” and “society would finally accept [her].”14 Minnie, in response, claims that she “doesn’t have a problem with anyone who has a disability and wants to find a cure. But [she’s] good.”15 However, as Felix warns Minnie, actions speak louder than words, and her actions in the third book undermine this statement of goodwill. There, Minnie destroys Felix’s realized cure for disabilities because she does not believe disabled people need to be cured. Through this action, she disallows others to make their own choice about whether or not to be cured of their disabilities, something that the others in the series find abhorrent.16 Felix’s cure ended up being unviable regardless, but that does not change the actions Minnie took when she believed it to be successful. In the end, the series does not definitively take a stance on whether or not the medical outlook of disabilities needing to be cured is negative or positive, but rather examines the issue from all angles, with characters who support different sides of the argument for different reasons, a more realistic approach to a complex issue.

The representation of disability within popular media often follows set stereotypes, as discussed by Mitchell and Snyder’s recap of Paul Longmore’s analysis of this issue in “Screening Stereotypes: Images of Disabled People in Television and Motion Pictures.” They suggest that “Longmore found three stereotypes commonly perpetuated by electronic media: ‘disability is a punishment for evil; disabled people are embittered by their “fate”; disabled people resent the nondisabled and would, if they could, destroy them.’”17The Antagonists, while incepted as an empowering story about a disabled main character, appears to fall victim to Longmore’s first stereotype, as Felix, the main villain of the first book and a recurring villain later in the series, becomes disabled as a consequence of his actions. Mitchell and Snyder note that “disability portrayals could be understood as a cathartic revenge by the stigmatizers, who punish the stigmatized to alleviate their own worries about bodily vulnerability and inhumane social conditions.”18 Following this logic, disabling Felix, who represented those who stigmatize disabled people, is the cathartic revenge of the stigmatized against stigmatizers by forcing them to witness the character with whom they best align fall prey to those bodily vulnerabilities we all share. However, for Rakoska, disability humanizes rather than dehumanizes the individual. After Felix becomes disabled, he is forced to view disabled people as just people because he now numbers among them. Through this experience, he comes to develop a friendship with Minnie and regret his former treatment of her throughout the earlier books in the series. Felix’s disability allows him to undergo positive character growth, rather than the negative character reversions often caused by the onset of disability in popular media.

There are other ways in which The Antagonists falls into the traps of common stereotypes of disability and the disabled individual. In Disability Theory, Siebers draws upon Freud and psychoanalytic theory when discussing the widespread belief, popularized by Freud, that physical disabilities cause narcissistic personalities to develop. Siebers summarizes this analysis, saying “a tender organ makes for a touchy ego—an equation that represents people with physical disabilities as the model for the narcissistic, selfish, and self-centered personality.”19 This pervasive belief even reaches Rakoska’s main character, as Minnie’s main personality defect is her own self-centeredness. However, many of Rakoska’s other characters are disabled individuals who do not display extreme degrees of narcissism. The danger of believing that disabled individuals are narcissists comes when those in power begin to presuppose that people with disabilities are “beyond the reach of therapy.”20 Rakoska’s series shows us that disabled people, like all people, can grow and improve upon their personality defects; we see the self-absorbed Minnie begin to acknowledge that she has this failing and strive to consider others, working to give up the belief that as a minority individual, she is in a uniquely special position of suffering that must be worse than anyone else’s.

The Antagonists fails to positively represent disability in other ways, as well. Mitchell and Snyder note that “the fate of people with physical disabilities has often depended on their ability to distance themselves from their cognitively disabled peers.”21 This concept comes into play immediately in the first book, when Felix, the leader of The Quartet (the group of superheroes), tells Minnie that “people aren’t going to take us seriously if we add a retard to the group.”22 Minnie’s reaction is to feel “as though she had been slapped. No. Minnie decided that being slapped would hurt less.”23 Throughout the series, ableist individuals struggle with separating out cognitive disabilities from physical disabilities. The narrative seems to lend itself toward approving of the distance between the two types of disabilities by representing it as necessary for people with physical disabilities to thrive in an ableist world. Rakoska has not yet introduced any characters with cognitive disabilities, so there is no comprehensive way to judge how such characters would be treated in the narrative. However, overall, this is one of the ways in which The Antagonists falls into ableist traps, by continuing to put down those with cognitive disabilities for the sake of prioritizing those with physical disabilities in an ableist society. Rakoska is not wrong in her stance that calling a physically disabled person (or any person) a “retard” is unacceptable, but does not ever take a firm stance on the positive representation of cognitive disabilities.

Rakoska’s series does deal with psychological disabilities through Perry’s depression, despite its failure to deal with cognitive disabilities in any traditional form. However, even in response to psychological disabilities, Minnie treats Perry’s depression as an unreal form of disability. This is immediately corrected as unacceptable behavior, showing that even disabled individuals can struggle with internalized ableism. By dealing with psychological disabilities in a comprehensive and respectful manner, Rakoska provides hope that in the future cognitive disabilities will be represented just as positively in further installments of the series.

Paul Longmore expresses the belief that “Prejudice and discrimination rarely enter into either fictional or nonfictional stories, and then only as a secondary issue.”24 This idea was at the core of the inception of The Antagonists, written as a response to the popular attitude of people toward disabled individuals as well as the frequency with which disability representation is erased in mainstream superhero media. Minnie thinks to herself during her quest to join The Quartet that if she does, it will be “groundbreaking,” as “She would be one of, if not the first black woman in a wheelchair to become a superhero!”25 Minnie’s existence is a push back against the lack of representation in traditional superhero stories.

Furthermore, Siebers discusses the two potential narratives available in mainstream society through which to speak of disability: the “feel-good human interest stories … that recount how their disabled protagonists overcome their disabilities to lead ‘normal’ lives” and “testimony about the oppression of disabled people, sometimes framed in their own language, sometimes framed in the language of their oppressors.”26 By taking control of the narrative of disability, Rakoska attempts to tell a new type of story that breaks free from these two potential narratives—and she succeeds, creating a word of social realist fiction in which disability is, for the most part, positively portrayed. Finally, Deborah Kent notes in her essay “Disabled Women: Portraits in Fiction and Drama” that “An assessment of the disabled woman’s place in literature may serve as a barometer to measure how she is perceived by society. Conversely, the literary image of the disabled woman may influence the way disabled women are seen and judged in real life.”27 By introducing a main character representative of Rakoska’s own position in society viewed through a positive attitude toward disability, Rakoska influences the way her readers judge and view disabled women in the real world.

Bibliography

Kent, Deborah. “Disabled Women: Portraits in Fiction and Drama,” in Images of the Disabled, Disabling Images, ed. Alan Garner and Tom Joe. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 1987.

Longmore, Paul. “Screening Stereotypes: Images of Disabled People in Television and Motion Pictures” in Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003

Mitchell, David T. and Snyder, Sharon L. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Rakoska, Burgandi. The Antagonists: Book One (Kindle Edition). Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2015.

–. The Antagonists: Book Three (Kindle Edition). Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2016.

–. “I just really want to write a book…” Marauders4evr (blog), marauders4evr.tumblr.com/post/125400044782/i-just-really-want-to-write-a-book-in-fact-i

Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008.

Notes


  1. Jennifer Brown received the 2017 Daniel Walden Prize for Outstanding Undergraduate for her presentation of this paper at the MAPACA conference. ↩︎

  2. Burgandi Rakoska, “I just really want to write a book…” Marauders4evr (blog), marauders4evr.tumblr.com/post/125400044782/i-just-really-want-to-write-a-book-in-fact-i. ↩︎

  3. Tobin Siebers, Disability Theory, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008), 7. ↩︎

  4. Siebers, Disability Theory, 8. ↩︎

  5. Siebers, Disability Theory, 11. ↩︎

  6. David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000), 24. ↩︎

  7. Mitchell and Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis, 21. ↩︎

  8. Burgandi Rakoska, The Antagonists: Book One, (self-pub, Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2015), Kindle. ↩︎

  9. Mitchell and Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis, 23. ↩︎

  10. Siebers, Disability Theory, 59-60. ↩︎

  11. Mitchell and Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis, 3. ↩︎

  12. Mitchell and Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis, 3. ↩︎

  13. Siebers, Disability Theory, 7. ↩︎

  14. Rakoska, The Antagonists: Book One, 54. ↩︎

  15. Rakoska, The Antagonists: Book One, 54. ↩︎

  16. Burgandi Rakoska, The Antagonists: Book Three, (self-pub, Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2016). Kindle. ↩︎

  17. Mitchell and Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis, 18. ↩︎

  18. Mitchell and Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis, 18. ↩︎

  19. Siebers, Disability Theory, 38. ↩︎

  20. Siebers, Disability Theory, 40. ↩︎

  21. Mitchell and Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis, 3. ↩︎

  22. Rakoska, The Antagonists: Book One. ↩︎

  23. Rakoska, The Antagonists: Book One. ↩︎

  24. Paul Longmore, “Screening Stereotypes: Images of Disabled People in Television and Motion Pictures.” Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003), 139. ↩︎

  25. Rakoska, The Antagonists: Book One, 38. ↩︎

  26. Siebers, Disability Theory, 14-15. ↩︎

  27. Kent, “Disabled Women: Portraits in Fiction and Drama”, 48. ↩︎

About the Author: 

Jennifer Brown is currently a first year Master’s student at Boston College studying Irish Literature and Culture through their English department. While her graduate work has taken her in exciting new directions, her first love will always be analyzing cultural issues and identity formations in speculative fiction. Her paper on queer identity in The Wayfarer series, which she presented at the Worlding SF conference in Austria, was recently published in the SFRA Review. When she wrote and presented this paper on The Antagonists, she was finishing up her final semester as an undergraduate at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania, from which she graduated with a dual Bachelor’s in English and History.

Volume 4, Issue 1

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