Jason Tseng

Women in Wheelchairs: A Case Study in Inequality

Filed By Jason Tseng | September 02, 2010 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: Barbara Gordon, Electric Superman, Erica Henderson, Scarlet Betch

Comic books are largely a static medium. Captain America will always be the straight-laced, optimistic, idealistic soldier. Superman will always be the incredibly powerful yet distant hero. The X-men will always be the oppressed minority. No matter how many new twists comic book writers throw in there (I'm looking at you, Electric Superman), the characters by and large come back to home base.

So what has baffled me for a long time is that in a fantastical world with insane technological advances, magicians who can rewrite reality, and people who can reform matter by thinking too hard at it... Barbara Gordon can't get her spine fixed. While I'm of the opinion that Babs is more interesting as Oracle, the info-hacker extraordinaire, on top of the fact that she can absolutely hold her own despite being wheelchair bound... it doesn't really follow internal DC logic that someone wouldn't have figured out a way to make our favorite red-headed crusader of the night (sorry Kate) all walkable.

Comic artist and illustrator Erica Henderson has wondered the exact same thing and produced a light-hearted and fab comic piece addressing this exact issue [source]. Check it out after the jump!


Click to embiggen.

Crossposted from Scarlet Betch

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.

I think Oracle's kind of a tricky character to make an example of for comic book gender inequality. If you take her out of the wheelchair, you're cutting out the only female paraplegic that I can think of in DC Comics. Her handicap is simultaneously a weird, kinda skeezy artifact from the 80s and something that primed her character to be in interesting stories in the 2000s.

On the other hand, the character who I would consider her Marvel counterpart, Professor X (a guy,) is always getting in and out of the wheelchair due to the plot device of the week. Babs pretty much stays planted, except for one arc of Birds of Prey (I think.) Is this disparity a sign of different treatment, or just a sign of the soap-opera churn the X-Men are subject to?

In the current Birds of Prey run, I really felt like Oracle's wheelchair was being used as a metaphor for some notional frailty of womanhood, and it really irked me. But it was written by Gail Simone, one of the most progressive and interesting female writers in the business. Should that temper my judgment? I don't know.

Jason, this is a good issue to bring up, but I find it really hard to come down on either side of this issue. At the very least, we now have both a Batgirl and a Batwoman, because having a ~30 year old senator be called Batgirl was pretty damn demeaning.

PanoramaIsland | September 3, 2010 1:58 AM

"Comic books are largely a static medium. [snipped stuff about various superhero franchises]"

You mean, of course, that traditional American superhero and superhero-like comic book franchises are largely static, in the way that franchises in general tend to be.

"Comic books" per se constitute a medium of communication and creative expression which spreads far, far beyond the bounds of the relatively modest-sized world of American mainstream superhero and action/adventure franchises. Your generalization holds true only insofar as popular, pulpy comics tend to lend themselves to long-running series (thus, it applies to Golgo 13, the famous assassin manga that has been running for 41 years straight, as well as to X-Men). It ignores completely, however, markets which embrace "graphic novel," short-story, radically-evolving-series and nonfiction formats. In so doing, it ignores large sections ofthe comics world.

I pick this nit because it annoys me tremendously as a comics artist whose work bears no resemblance to Superman or Batman (or Hellboy, or WILDCATS, or...) that the word "comics" is so often taken within American contexts to mean "American superhero and action/adventure comics." It completely erases the majority of the comics world - which is mostly superheroless, only partially made of pulp franchises and series, and of those pulp franchises, only partially concerned with action or adventure of any kind.

That being said, you make a good point about Oracle.

TV Tropes even has a page dedicated to this concept. It's called "Reed Richards is Useless." The premise is that if Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic of The Fantastic Four) is so amazingly smart, can't he take 20 minutes to find a cure for cancer?

Should you be able to find a copy, read THE PRO, a one-shot that takes the concept of a prostitute being given superpowers and then inducted into a very strange version of the Justice League. She makes the point -- "All you guys do is battle the same supervillians time and again. How about doing something for world peace?"... which, of course, they never do, because if they did, they'd be out of a job.

Wow, this post contains a lot of problematic terms and ideas about people with disabilities. Fist of all, the term 'wheel chair bound' is an offensive one. Wheel chairs don't bind people, they are a tool that some people use to get around. The appropriate term is 'wheelchair user'.

"on top of the fact that she can absolutely hold her own despite being wheelchair bound" Because people who use wheelchairs are all pathetic objects of instead of active human beings?

You are working based on a notion that people with disabilities are inferior and should be 'cured' if at all possible and should never, ever, be represented realistically in fantasy/sci fi art. How would you feel about a storyline where a 'scientific' cure for dark skin, queer sexuality, etc. was treated as a norm. Of course you should want to fix your black or queer self if there was technology available? And we should never depict realistic queer or black characters, because that doesn't fit with our storyline's tech (because we made it not fit) so let's 'fix' them. Maybe instead of assuming that people with disabilities are in need to fixing, you should look at the social systems that bar our access as in need of fixing.

"A case study of inequality", yep in that people with disabilities are presumed inferior within this post and within many comic books.

cat, your comment is amazing, you said everything I was feeling as I read this blog post. Thanks!

FWD (Feminists With Disabilities) did a blog post that elaborates on why using 'wheelchair bound" is problematic. I suggest you take a gander: http://disabledfeminists.com/2009/11/18/abliest-word-profile-wheelchair-bound/

You are wrong to compare disability with skin-sexuality.

We are not trying to find a cure for people being white, black, yellow or blue.

We are not trying to find a cure for people beinf straight, gay, bi, pan or whatever...
(There is nothing wrong with them)

We are indeed trying to find a cure to help people who are paraplegic.
It is a disability.

Not that paraplegic people are less than anyone.
Thing is, as a disability, we want to find a healing... like stem cells and such.

It's not that people in wheelchairs [or who use other assisting technologies] are pathetic -- there's just been a long-term trope in which women with power are regularly shown to become deranged or otherwise unreliable. How many episodes of children's cartoons in the 80s featured situations where a female character's powers went out of control, or became so powerful that she was a danger to others, or she found an artifact that might make her more capable, but she decides to give it up because that might corrupt her?

Sometimes Barbara Gordon's wheelchair showed that how someone got around didn't have any bearing on their intellect, social power, or moral strength. But in a fantasy universe where so many other tech marvels are possible, it's difficult to see why her injuries were 'unfixable'.

[Side note: Someone should find a link to Umberto Eco's essay on Superman from....mid 80s, I think? He argues that what Superman really defends is private property.]

It's funny, and of course people are pointing out why it's important to have a character like her, but it is weird that none of these other characters were created with the idea that they could show what it's like to be disabled.

It is pathetic that Babs is still in a wheelchair.

It makes absolutely no sense, considering the healing possibilities right beside of her. Bruce - Shondra; Kate - Lazarus; Damian - MetalSpine.

More important... it is not only illogical but it also offensive.
Since she became paraplegic the character was always used as support. In 20 years the only books that really have her as protagonists were Oracle: The Cure.
While walking she was the protagonist of many many books. Including the best story about her... Batgirl Year One.

So... what is the point to keep her there to be always outshined and used as support? Doesn´t this means that DC have a support-only place for the handicapped?

Also. 99% of her stories now are about victimization and TKJ references.

Look at this:


Is this a model????
No it is not a model for handicapped people. It is a model of victimization and re-victimization of women.