Friday, May 01, 2015

BADD 2015: Where I talk about Fanfiction and Comics, a lot, and you probably roll your eyes.

Welcome to all the Blogging Against Disablism Day readers & writers! I can't believe this is our 10th year! Thanks again to Mrs. Fishy and Mr. Fishy for all their hard work today.  You can go here to see all the great posts (or follow @BADDtweets on Tumblr).  
So, I thought a lot about what I wanted to write for today, and wasn’t coming up with anything, so I decided to troll my Tumblr blog for ideas, because there's a ton of good disability related stuff there - If you’re not on Tumblr, you’re missing out on a pretty vibrant spoonie/chronically ill/disabled blogger community, IMO, and my tags there are ultra organized, which is nice.  

And, then, this week, I saw this post  where MasterSkyRocker asks if there are any superheroes who “are representative of those with chronic pain?” and I thought about official canon (as far as I know it), and then I thought of fandom.

And I’ve decided to talk a little bit about my only non-family, non-health-related obsession this year - Fandom (in particular, the Marvel fandom, and -in extreme particulars-, the Avengers fandom & the Captain America fandom) and its diverse representations of disability.  

Because fandom is where portrayals of disabilities are at, people.

Last year, I wandered headfirst into fanfiction, and since then, I’ve been reading So Much Avengers FanFiction you honestly wouldn’t believe it. As in, I have 276 bookmarks, but those are only my favorite favorites, and I've easily read 4 times that amount of actual stories.  As in, I cut my yearly book quota of over 300 in half last year because most of what I was reading was on the screen in front of me, and almost all of it revolved around superheroes and their alternate realities.  

And - because I care about issues of representation and disability, and because I live with a number of disabilities, and because I can’t shut the critical thinking portion of my brain off when I’m reading anymore than I can when I’m watching television or out shopping (just ask my niece, who ranted with me about the lack of Black Widow merchandise in the Disney Store the other day), I’ve thought a TON about how disabilities are portrayed, or ignored, or tweaked to fit certain tropes within the contexts of the fics that I’m reading.  

And I’ve participated in more than one Tumblr discussion on the subject, and more than one comment thread on a particularly good fic.  Fandom has opened up a whole new internet arena to me - where we exchange opinions about which supersoldier’s PTSD would present violently and who’d feel more overwhelmingly depressed; about how Hawkeye’s being able to lipread/knowledge of ASL would benefit him in the field vs. the ‘handicap’ of being deaf and dependent on his hearing aids during a battle; about what exactly the Arc Reactor means for Tony Stark’s chronic pain level and his sobriety (or lack thereof);  and now there’s a ton of new meta and headcanon about Daredevil, because of his new Netflix series, that I haven’t watched yet and therefore can’t participate in yet, but I'm coming for it as soon as I can, because Yes, please.  

I have a lot of opinions, is what I'm saying. 

And… so much of it is awesome, and a lot of it is not,  - just like any fiction.  There’s good and bad stories, good and bad writing, good and bad characters and good and bad portrayals of disabled people.  

And yet - the part that strikes me as most important?  The part that keeps me coming back after a particularly bad trope shows up out of nowhere and makes me want to raze an author and their fic? Is that at least they’re being SHOWN.  At the very least, at it’s very worst, in the most trope-y, magical cure, Deus ex Machina crap piece of fanfiction? At least disabled people are THERE.  It isn't enough; It isn't where we stop; but it's something.

Because even when they’re supposed to be there -> Hawkeye’s being Deaf, being the most obvious Marvel Cinematic Universe example - Disabled people are just plain overlooked in the actual canon. 

Sure, Tony Stark definitely has PTSD and panic attacks in Iron Man 3 (As well he should, and I cannot applaud the filmmakers enough for including them!), but Steve Rogers seems to wander along without anybody mentioning that he might be depressed, in addition to being a superhuman, since he, you know, lost all of his friends, his loved ones, his entire time period, and then was unfrozen to unknowingly work for the agency he nearly died trying to destroy. Even if you believe that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is showing his obvious signs of depression (which, eh: yes and no: I’m of both minds on that), they never come out and say it.  Certainly nobody addresses it in any meaningful way.  

At least in the movie.  

In fics, I’ve seen Steve go to therapy - group and individual. I've seen him struggle to share that he's not perfect, and struggle to keep up his perfectionist image.  I’ve seen him rant and rave about all that he’s lost, and have his own panic attacks.  I’ve seen him ignore everything till he can’t get out of bed in the morning. I’ve seen him sleep around, and be unable to watch anything but nature documentaries because the noises on other shows startle him. I’ve seen him be a right bastard until someone sticks out a helping hand, and I’ve seen him recognize on his own that he’s not in the right headspace and work to figure out how to get there.

In short, I’ve seen him as a real person.  With real issues.  That are addressed - within the context of that particular universe - realistically.  (Because, let’s be honest, not everyone has the resources of imaginary -fanon Captain America.)  

Even Bruce Banner - who admits, in the Avengers - to having suicidal tendencies, is basically just assumed to be able to shrug it off and get on with being the Hulk already, in canon.  In fandom, I’ve seen him cry and avoid making connections to other people; and make connections to other people but screw it up; and make meaningful connections to other people and figure out that he’s screwed up.  He’s not stuck being the guy who can’t die even if he wants to, which is all the movie had time for him to be - in fanfics, he winds up being so much more.

Same goes for Hawkeye and being Deaf.  Sometimes it’s a huge deal - where he’s being tortured and his captors use it to their advantage; and other times it’s played for a joke - because if a man survives solely on pizza and coffee, can you really expect him to remember to replace his hearing aid batteries all the time?; and other times it’s barely mentioned except for how all the rest of the Avengers learned ASL really quickly because they’re mostly geniuses or supersoldiers and non-assholes, and most of them want to be able to communicate with their new friend/teammate as much as possible.  

And the list of disabled characters in my particular fandom is still not as large as it should be, and also surely not representative of fandom as a whole, but it’s still amazing.  I’ve read recovering from brain trauma Fitz (actual canon, the brain trauma; less so, the how he managed recovery part); Daniel Sousa on Agent Carter is a WWII vet and amputee, who canonically makes jokes about his disability, and in fandom I’ve seen him hold his own both against and with the Howling Commandoes; I’ve read more PTSD in fanfiction than I did in three years of psychology courses, and - since a lot of it comes from survivors themselves - I’m tempted to say, it’s probably more accurate.  

And it’s not JUST that they’re there and varied and (mostly awesome, because that’s why I’m reading about them in the first place), it’s that they’re REAL PEOPLE in fics.  They have sex.  They have bad days and great days and setbacks and breakthroughs.  They use adaptive technology to their benefit (and, all the better if they can rope Stark into making it for them). They feel sorry for themselves without abled people sitting around telling them to buck up. (Sorry: gratutious Bucky Barnes pun!) Or if the abled people in their lives do tell them to suck it up and get on with their lives, THEY GET TOLD TO STUFF IT.  They have families and worries and they're superheroes (or not, AU-of your choice), but they're people. Authentic representation for the win!

The fact that disabled people show up in fanfiction is amazing to me for a few reasons.  First, because I read so much anyways, and while I knew that large portions of people - not just disabled people, but also LGBTAQ people & people of color, for example - were not being represented in the mainstream stuff I was reading, at least not to any significant degree, I didn't know that I had other options.  But here? In fandom?  Can’t go a page of fics without finding an asexual Steve, or a Falcon who’s got his own storyline, or a Fury who never discusses losing his eye, but makes sure you know he’s seeing right through you just the same.  And now I want that in all of my fiction - I'm reading with a breadth and width that I never thought I'd be able to find, since it wasn't in my local bookstore.

And I'm not talking "specialty fiction" or anything like that: I want romances with disabled characters, I want adventures with them. I want sad stories and happy stories and erotic stories and parenting stories - I want to not have to go searching in a different corner of the store, is what I'm saying.  I want it all in one, all together, and now I know where to find it. 

And I think I’m particularly drawn to these stories since a lot of it also comes from writers with disabilities (or from other marginalized groups), who long to see themselves in the heroes they love, and figure out a way to make it happen.  I mean, is there anything better than being able to write someone out of a panic attack because you’ve had to fight your way through them yourself? Or to be able to -finally - explain to someone who doesn’t live with the overwhelming, all-encompassing aspects of chronic pain just how bad it truly can get via the hole where Tony Stark’s heart used to be? Or what touch aversion actually feels like, emotionally and physically? Or the idea that it's fine for me (and sometimes my friends) to make a joke about my disability, but if you're using it as the butt of your joke, well: Son, just don't. 

Are there downsides to fanfiction’s portrayal of people with disabilities?  Sure.  Definitely.  In the Marvel fandom alone, I can think of at least 6 different active arguments you can go discuss on A03 or Tumblr.  There’s a ton of talk about removing Bucky’s arm (and agency); about how calling people ‘trash’ (which, for some reason is sometimes seen as a positive in this fandom?) when they’re disabled is also pretty freaking ableist (or not, YMMV); about how having Deaf Hawkeye in the comics but not in the movies is sort of a sideways move towards representation, if anything.  That's not even starting on pre-serum Steve, and how he can be portrayed using every single bad disability trope you've ever read, or how de-seruming Captain America can so quickly wander into "oh no: please tell me you are not going there" territory. 

And there so many more examples, because authentic representation doesn't come easy, no matter who's writing it, or what audience they're writing it for.  Because sometimes abled people don't know the pitfalls to avoid when they're writing disabled characters, whether it's in mainstream fiction or fanfiction. And those misrepresentations can be harmful, absolutely.  

But there’s going to be disagreements and downsides to ANY portrayal of disabled people, and, as always, I think the answer lies in listening to the people themselves.  Like how blind people are asking that Netflix provide description services so that they can actually watch the show with the superhero who is most like them, and Netflix is listening to them.  Or when Deaf people applauded Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye comic for having pages and panels only in ASL. Or when a fic writer gets commentary from people with a specific disability that calls them out on somewhere they've screwed up and they don't get all huffy in return: These types of interactions can - and regularly do - happen in the fanfiction community. I know many authors who give constant credit to their beta readers - some of them have the disabilities that are being portrayed, and do their best to make it seem as accurate as possible.  And when they miss the mark, there are so many discussions about how, and how to fix it, and... I almost never see that in 'mainstream' fiction. It's heartening and hopeful. 

There’s nothing better, to my mind, than a fic that gets recommended by someone who knows. Who has lived it.  No higher rec than someone saying (as they often do) “Seriously: This author gets it right → that’s what dysphoria feels like to me!” and suddenly you’re understanding someone else’s life & experiences in a way you couldn’t have before.  

That’s the best of what reading good writing can do, and I find myself constantly wanting to say to people, “I know it’s Avenger’s Fan Fiction, and that’s not your style/fandom/regular cup of tea, but listen: change the names and read for the people.  Read and get it in a way you didn’t before.”  

Because maybe the Avengers aren’t your favorites (You’re wrong, but that’s ok, you can stay anyways), but if understanding people is, and you’re just being a snob because: ew, fanfiction? Then you’re missing out on some amazing writing, and some amazing portrayals of disabled people.  And, until they start showing up everywhere else like they should, I’m going to keep finding them where I can.  

(PS: If anybody’s interested, I can put together a list of recommendations, because: some of these should definitely be shared.)