For whatever reason, I was juiced about Halloween this past year: maybe it was the idea that we might, in our new house, have more than three trick-or-treaters, or maybe it was that I'd been feeling like crap and was looking for a reason to be excited - who knows?
Whatever the reason, I decided at the last minute to see if I could throw something together. And so, that Saturday morning, I was searching online with a (pretty great if I do say so myself) idea in mind: Oracle. DC Super heroine, former Batgirl, and wheelchair user extraordinaire. The best part is that since she's a behind the scenes kind of girl - at her most basic level, she's a computer genius who supplies Batman (and numerous other heroes/heroines) with the intelligence necessary to fight crime - she can wear whatever the hell she wants. Jeans, mostly. Sweatpants, sometimes. Excellent: I can handle sweatpants! Accessories? Laptop computer: Check. Bluetooth device: Check. Superintelligence: Easily faked. (Ok, yes she has red hair, but it was dark. And trick-or-treaters are little, so I decide to just pretend there.) So, although I did wish I had a shirt with a bat insignia on it, I figured I was set. What I didn't expect, while searching to make sure my mental picture of Oracle matched up with the reality, was how much abilism I would have to wade through in relation to the character of Oracle herself.
Now, before I get any further, let me just state, for the record, that I am absolutely a newcomer to the comic book world, and I have absolutely no experience with the fandom, the world building, the story arcs: I don't know if Oracle ever had to fight the Riddler, or if she battled Catwoman, or if, as a comment I wandered across suggested, she and Professor Xavier are getting it on in private - because people with disabilities only date other people with disabilities, don't ya know - : For the purposes of this discussion, I will gladly cede the point that I am NOT a comic book genius, and that there's a lot about the DC Universe that I don't know or understand. I am not even going to consider myself worthy of writing a critique of the character, or comic books in general, in regards to different forms of discrimination - the majority of this post is going to instead focus on the ablism inherent in the online discussions of Oracle - that is, the arguments over her fitness as a superheroine, her perceived uselessness when being "confined to a wheelchair", and the unapologetic ablist terminology & attitudes that were displayed in these various discussions.
To start with, there's a lot of argument about whether or not Barbara Gordon is a better character now (as Oracle) than she was as Batgirl, and I'm sure that's a valid discussion to have - which incarnation of a character is the best, why is it the best, etc. What I think are distinctly less valid are observations like -
...Tate comments, “It's ridiculous to think somebody wakes up thinking how lucky they are to be confined to a wheelchair, and yet the attitude around DC and among the fans is that Oracle is the better character over Batgirl because of her handicap. Rubbish. Batgirl has fought more crime and done more to aid Batman as Batgirl than she has as Oracle. Batgirl has saved Batman's life on numerous occasions. Oracle has not. Barbara in this incarnation is not a bad character, but she is not better because she no longer hunts the night in cape and cowl.wikipedia
No: People with disabilities are not better because they're disabled. They're also not worse, either, and that certainly seems to be the implication here - Oracle is not as good as Batgirl, not as worthwhile, not as valuable. Her intellectual skills - genius hacker and supplier of crucial information - are not on par with the kicking and swooping and physicality that she exhibited as Batgirl. She "saved" Batman when she was Batgirl, but that information she provides is apparently not life saving enough. (Although I seem to remember at least one occassion that this was exactly the case.) The alliance building she did with the Justice League of America, the founding of the Birds of Prey (an all female superhero team), her photographic memory, and the fact that she remains a master of numerous martial arts (even though she is "confined" to her wheelchair) is just not 'life saving' enough?
Somebody probably should have told her she was just wasting everybody's time and getting in the way.
Then you can compare that attitude with this one -
James B. South's chapter "Barbara Gordon and Moral Perfectionism" in the 2004 book Superheroes and Philosophy analyzes how the changes in Barbara's life "from librarian to Batgirl to Oracle" drive her to pursue a higher self, illustrating the philosophical theory of moral perfectionism.
And here we get the ideal SuperCrip - able to "get past her bitterness" over being viciously attacked and to overcome the challenges that being "wheelchair bound" must present. But ablisim goes both ways: When you are attributing characteristics to a group of people because of their disabilities - whether those characteristics are negative or positive - you are using stereotypes and ignoring their real value as people. African Americans are not all good at basketball, women are not all bad drivers, and people with disabilities are not pure or without moral imperfections. See this excellent post for all the reasons why being a Supercrip is not only unrealistic, but damaging as well. (And yes, I don't need you all to point out to me that I am, in fact, discussing comic books, where the characters are supposed to be superheroes: What I'm talking about here is the denial of a person - or in this case a character -'s humanity based on a faulty system of beliefs. All I'm saying is that expecting her to just "get over" her attack, and that she will instead buck up & be an inspiration to all is not, in fact, a reasonable path for her character arch to take.)
There's also a large dose of disabilism to be found in the parts of Oracle's storyline which negate her disability completely - In the short lived television show based on Birds of Prey, (which was, incidentally, my first introduction to Oracle), the character is played by Dina Meyer, an able bodied actress. I'm sure the creators of the show would explain that by saying that they had to show Batgirl's story in flashbacks, or the inclusion of the inevitable storyline where she can once again 'miraculously' wiggle her toes, but instead of that being a reason for not using an actress with an actual physical disability, this is rather further proof that the ways individuals with disabilities are portrayed in the media are inadequate. In addition, in the comic books, there are times when Barbara Gordon's body is possessed, and those beings are able to "bypass her paralysis and make her run and fight like a normal person but when they leave her body her paralysis will return completely."
"Like a normal person," huh? That's awesome - There was some discussion revolving around the fact that she's probably "disappointed" when the person WHO POSSESSES HER leaves, because then she's back to being "crippled".
Seeing disability labeled as abnormal is not the only term I had an issue with: Articles, posts and comments were littered with the words handicap, crippled, immobile (although she's clearly mobile), forever confined to/stuck in a wheelchair, and a lot of talk about the fact that she's hindered (rather than empowered) by her chair. Terms that are not only not 'politically correct,' but harmful to the accurate portrayal of individuals with disabilities. There's also the idea that she's both useless and an invalid, and, of course, there's a lot of talk about Oracle being "cured".
The question of the cure is actually one of those areas where the intersectionality of ablism and sexism inherent in (but certainly not restricted to) comic books is made only too obvious:
Just to drive home the point that Barbara Gordon's crippling was sexist, a few years later Batman was also crippled. How long did he spend in a wheelchair? Oh, about a year, and then as a SUPERHERO and PROTAGONIST he was able to make a miraculous recovery. Because Batman is a MAN and a HERO. And Batgirl was disposable.Comment onMyriad Issues by Rusty
So there's one double standard, in that ok: Yes, I will grant that Batman probably could figure out a lot of ways to 'cure' her disability, or that Barbara herself would probably, in the way of all superknowledgable superheroines, be able to come up with a pretty good idea of how to accomplish such a feat. But that doesn't mean she should be cured, or that she's any less vital of a character because she hasn't been cured. The discussions revolving around the idea of a cure are some of the most impassioned - people talk about how useless and ridiculous it is that Batgirl hasn't been cured yet, invalidating Oracle completely: If Barbara can only fight crime/be worthwhile/be important when she is Batgirl, then Oracle is a wasted character, nothing more than a "girl in a chair".
I am also largely setting aside the idea that her "crippling" by the Joker is considered by many to be one of the most anti-woman plot devices in the DC Universe (which is full of anti-women storylines, unfortunately), because I just don't know enough about it, having not yet read the issue myself, although I will point you in the direction of a very interesting discussion about Women in Refrigerators vs Dead Men Defrosting, (See Here .
I am going to mention this piece of information, however, because I think it says so much about how 'well-thought out' the creation of a well-rounded character with a disability really was:
Brian Bolland tells this little story in his recent book The Art Of Brian Bolland:
"Back in Northampton, Alan had to check with editor Len Wein how DC would feel about him crippling one of its key character, Batgirl. Len phoned back. His precise words are not printable here, but the gist of it was that it was okay. The Joker had, after all, to be shown to be a seriously nasty piece of work."
The words that Bolland is too much of a gentleman to reproduce, but which have been retold in various circles, were: "Cripple the bitch!"
And that pretty much sums up the attitude that allows female characters to continue to be mistreated in comics (at DC in particular, it seems).
Kate, Digital Eraser
Still, from such an offensive beginning, Oracle has become a favorite heroine for many. Even amidst all of the disturbing comments and discussions I was able to find online, there were a lot of positive things being said as well. Most readers described Oracle as invaluable, powerful, and just all around awesome. Some of them talked about how inspirational she is a character living with a disability without being too corny or 'movie of the week', and the writer who 'rescued' Barbara after her attack and gave her her own storyline seems to have a pretty impressive attitude about the whole thing, IMO:
We wanted her to cope with what had happened to her and becoming, in many ways, more effective as Oracle than she ever was as Batgirl. And we knew that others with disabilities might look at her and feel good reading about her...I don't think people 'dance around' her disabilities as they don't want to focus on them, but on her character. These shouldn't be stories about a disabled person; they are stories about a compelling fascinating character who HAPPENS to be in a wheelchair and I think that's correct. Barbara isn't her handicap; there's more to her than that. ”wikipedia
I was shocked by some of the dis/ablism I was confronted with as I wandered around looking for an Oracle action figure (you can see one here, if you're interested), but I probably shouldn't have been. It's not news to me that there are people who say they'd "rather be dead" than have to live "shackled to a chair"... I've met more than one of them in person, unfortunately. But there's a lot of good stuff out there too, a lot of positive feedback on a pretty unique character. I'm going to wrap this up with one last quote (originally intended to discuss sexism, but I think it works pretty well here too):
"Comics have always attracted intelligent people as fans, especially among women, and the idea of a superhero who uses her brains instead of her fists to defeat criminals is one that has deep attraction, especially with the rise of the Internet. Batgirl evolved from being a dilettante librarian to a tech-savvy geek girl, just in time for the Information Age. Her storytelling engine seems to constantly reflect the evolving role of women in society, and her popularity reflects the fact that comics are no longer just a boy's club.
I hope that as society continues to change, and comic books evolve as well, that the role of disabled characters is one that will continue moving in a more positive direction. Besides: A librarian turned techno-geek turned super-heroine? Tell me that's not the most awesome Halloween costume ever. (Actually, it was not: since nobody in my family reads comics, I spent the entire day trying to explain who Oracle was. Oh well, I still rocked that bluetooth.)
Thanks for reading, and for participating in BADD. Don't forget to head over to the Goldfish's place for more fabulous posts!