In the wake of that sketch of Barbara Gordon in her Batgirl costume walking away from her wheelchair, I felt compelled to write. I ignored that compulsion until I calmed down, because most of it was frustration and anger.
I can absolutely understand why people are excited about the possibility of Barbara Gordon walking again - it’s not that they’re prejudiced or that they have any animosity for the disabled, it would be joy and happiness for the character. Oddly enough, I’ve had this exact same conversation - only about us - with a friend of mine who has a degenerative condition that will eventually kill him.
You see, I’m disabled. I have been for several years. On the good days, I function well enough to run a few errands or do a load of dishes or laundry. On most days, I have to take medication that renders me incapable of performing a lot of fine motor skill functions and usually knocks me out. On the bad days - and there are more of them than there are good days - I struggle to get to the bathroom which is barely 10 feet from my bed.
My friend has a laundry list of problems - it’s best summarized by noting that he’s about 90-95% quadriplegic and that his conditions will eventually kill him. It could happen sooner rather than later or vice versa, but he knows his death is coming much sooner than mine, and he knows what will kill him or what will allow something else to kill him.
We had a chat a while back. I told him that if I had a wish, I’d wish they’d find a cure for him since my stuff won’t kill me and he responded with one of the most brutally realistic assessments I’ve ever heard from someone - he wished that the docs could fix me because it would take him years of physical therapy to do almost anything, given how much his body has deteriorated. Me? I’d be facing a lot of rehabilitation, but I could probably be back to something resembling normal in a couple of years of intensive physical therapy if the docs can ever patch me up enough to allow for that.
It’s not that we, as disabled people, wouldn’t be happy for Babs if she could walk again. I’d be thrilled if the docs could cure my friend so he doesn’t die. I’d be ecstatic if I heard from a girl I knew back in 8th grade who had spina bifida and she told me that the docs had been able to restore her ability to walk. I have no way to describe how I would feel if the docs could patch me up enough that I could pick up my little girl again or wrestle with her or run around in a park with her. She turns 10 this year, and I don’t know if she remembers when I could do that and did. If you don’t understand how that thought feels - how it feels to be unsure if your little girl remembers when she woke up from a nightmare and you were there to pick her up and comfort her because most of what that child has known of your life is disability - then it’s going to be difficult for you to understand why disabled people look at Babs the way we do.
It’s that every single healing mechanism in the DCU has been tried on Babs and found wanting. None of it has restored her ability to walk. It’s 23-odd years of canon. More importantly, Babs has accepted her disability and made the best of it, transforming herself into a world-class computer expert who does more as Oracle, who helps more heroes, who saves more lives, who stops more villains, than she ever did as Batgirl.
As Batgirl, her ability to effect change was limited to what she could punch. As Oracle, she can reach any network, any data store, contact any hero, anywhere … she can reach farther and deeper than she ever could before. Think of it as the difference between Cyclops and Professor X - Scott Summers can affect only what he can see. Professor X can affect almost anything.
In allowing Alan Moore to disable Barbara Gordon, and then keeping that in continuity since 1988, DC allowed Babs to become a vastly more powerful hero than she had ever been before. It no longer matters whether DC planned it that way (and I doubt they did) or whether it was accidental / inadvertent (and it probably was - scope creep affects every project, and DC probably didn’t notice how integral Oracle had become until Oracle was already so powerful that she couldn’t really be stopped, because what could they do? Paralyze her again?), Oracle had become one of the epic bad-asses of the DCU, and far more bad-ass than Batgirl had ever been. From her wheelchair.
Why does this matter?
Because we, as disabled people, face struggles that the able-bodied can’t understand. As an example, I was trying to cross a two-lane street the other day - I can walk, but I walk slowly and with a cane to stabilize my gait. I wait for cars to pass so I’m not inconveniencing anyone. I entered the crosswalk and a car pulled up on the cross-street, then started to turn directly into me and honked at me to speed up. Until the driver saw the cane. Then they looked away and something that looked like shame spread across their face.
That’s all too typical. Most disabled people are used to pity - people meaning well, but being inadvertently condescending. Most disabled people are used to avoidance - people seeing us and then quickly looking away, whether to avoid staring or because they’re uncomfortable with the disabled. It’s just part of the territory, like sharks in water or bears in woods or Godzillas in Tokyo.
But then I recently read an article about the difference between monsters and heroes in comics. And frankly, I politely and academically lost my proverbial shit when the author began talking about The Other, and the ability to pass as normal and so on. In essence, the author’s clumsy and ineffective scholarship, along with his jargon-laden writing, equated the disabled - people with canes, in wheelchairs, etc. - with monsters because we can’t pass as able-bodied people. In the author’s argument, he distinctly noted that it isn’t power that makes people monsters, it’s their appearance and ability to pass as normal. The author went so far as to say that people perceive the mere existence of The Other as a crime against nature.
At the time, I wrote:
“As a visibly disabled person, I’m already feeling a bit like the author’s saying I’m a violation of the natural order because I can’t readily ‘pass’ as normal. More bluntly, the way this argument is being framed so far feels somewhat prejudiced, regardless of whether it’s intentional or not. If the distinction between a monster and human is whether one can ‘pass’ as normal - and I can’t - then the author is effectively arguing that those who can’t are monsters.”
Now, for the sake of people who managed to get through life without dealing with The Other or abjection in critical theory (and also don’t want to wade through those Wikipedia links, and honestly, I can’t blame you), here’s a brief summation of the ideas:
The Other, simply put, is different from The Same. The Same is you and people like you, or something else which is like something else. The Other is anything outside that grouping, especially if it makes you feel uncomfortable. That’s where the idea of abjection comes in.
Abjection is the part of The Other that makes people feel uncomfortable. Since The Other exists outside The Same, being faced with it can be traumatic for people, such as seeing a friend in hospice care, dying from cancer. Abjection, in this sense, refers to anything that falls outside someone’s definition of sameness - it can include race, gender, sexual preference or gender orientation, etc. And it often includes the disabled.
Now cue up your Don LaFontaine voice:
“In a world filled with people who see monsters everywhere, one brave woman has the courage and strength to prove them all wrong just by being herself.”
So let’s be really blunt. And be honest with yourself, even if you never admit this to anyone. Disabled people make people feel uncomfortable. I spend a lot of time in doctors’ offices with people who have to be transported by ambulance due to their disability, and I still look at them and think how comparatively lucky I am.
Disability reminds us how fragile we really are as a species and how easily it can be taken away by disease, by aging, by freak accident. Or by some jackass in clown make-up wearing a Hawaiian shirt, although that is a statistically less likely way of becoming disabled.
Disability, in very profound ways, scares us. In fact, it terrifies us because it reminds us of our mortality. It reminds us that we will all die someday, and that we don’t all get to jump on grenades to save our friends or heroically push a child out of the way of a speeding truck. Most of us will die of old age, swallowing more pills than we did the year before to control our heart problems, our cholesterol count, to improve our kidney functions and so on.
Seeing disability and fearing it is seeing our future and not being emotionally ready or prepared to even acknowledge it, much less face it.
So this Otherness and abjection stuff isn’t just crap-ass academic Ivory Tower bullshit. It isn’t just some blowhard who never worked a real job talking out their ass. It’s real, practical, applicable stuff which is usually pretty rare for critical theory.
But here’s the thing - The Other is only The Other as long as people are able to remain ignorant of it. Out of sight, out of mind and all that. When people begin being exposed to something different, it can be traumatic - you may not remember the first time someone besides your parents held you as a baby, but the adults in the room probably talked about how cute you were as you cried because you recognized The Other - it wasn’t you and it wasn’t your source of milk, therefore it was The Other, it was abject and it scared you. But as you grew, adults - giants that they were - became less scary.
And the same is true for disability, even in something that seems as simple as a comic book.
Seeing a disabled person in a comic is sufficiently removed from direct personal experience to ease the discomfort someone might feel when seeing someone in a wheelchair. Seeing that character over and over further reduces those negative emotions. Think of it, in a way, as exposure therapy for The Other.
So. Why are we upset about the idea of Barbara Gordon coming out of her wheelchair?
Because you’ve said she couldn’t for more than 23 years.
Because she’s visibly disabled and extremely capable, arguably more so than many able-bodied heroes.
Because we have people writing ham-handed critical theory about comics which equates disabled people with monsters.
Because goddammit, she’s one of the very few disabled role models in comics, one of the very people in comics that disabled people can look at and see their own struggles for respect, for equality, for simple dignity reflected back at them.
Because when you create a character like this, when you maintain that character and her origins for so long and let people cheer for her and - by proxy - for ourselves, you have something like a responsibility to maintain that character, to not tarnish her with scandal or sordid behavior that is not in keeping with her ethics and morals, to uphold that character as an example of the goodness she has represented for the past quarter-century despite, or (in Oracle’s case) because of being in a wheelchair.
When you toy with that, when you play with it, you aren’t just updating a character or making something more relevant - you’re tinkering with one of the very few characters in comics that we can look at and recognize as one of our own.
And is it really wrong or harmful to want to see yourself reflected in a comic, to imagine yourself being able to be that heroic and noble, before returning to the grind of daily life, when simple tasks are struggles and may require assistance, before you go back to needing a nurse’s assistance to simply go to the bathroom?
When you tinker with this stuff, you’re messing around with things that can make difficult lives easier, that can bring joy into those lives and happiness that one of us is reflected in this fictional universe, and she’s even more capable and heroic than people who don’t think twice about whether they’re physically able to fly around the world - much less stroll down the block.
When you tinker with this stuff, you’re effectively tinkering with reality, and when you erase a character like Oracle from the universe, the effect might as well be removing the disabled from our reality as well.
It’s already June and the reboot / relaunch is coming in September. We’ll see then what happens with Batgirl, Barbara Gordon and Oracle. In the meantime, I’m crossing my fingers that disabled people still have a place of heroism in the DCU.