Friday, April 7, 2017

Physical Disability on The Walking Dead: Comics, Games & Show

It’s not often that we see the portrayal of disability in a post apocalyptic world.  It’s easy to imagine that having any sort of disability would present and extra set of problems because they already do in our present world. Disability like all other marginalisations would provide a depth to a character and allow for far more diverse stories to be told. However, more often than not, when writers deign to include a disabled character, the super-crip raises its head and leaps over tall building in a single bound, or as in the case The Walking Dead, takes out a horde of walkers while barely breaking a sweat.

In general, physical disability is not addressed in any great detail in any medium of The Walking Dead. There have been disabled characters previously in the series - both in the television and the comics - but it’s noteworthy that they don’t last long. A one-legged Dale doesn’t last very long before being killed off, for example. It’s also noteworthy that the character singled out for this is already not regarded for his physical capabilities. In fact, he’s already largely regarded as not being very physically capable due to his age. Lee in Telltale Games series also loses an arm, but, again, he doesn’t last long - this is suitable for a temporary plot, not long term character development

We’re not saying running from zombies would exactly be an easy - or long - life for someone in a wheelchair or on crutches, but physical disability in general would be far more common in this world. Poor diet, lack of medical care, a much more physical existence (especially for people unused to physical labour), long periods of travel in unfamiliar territory - and that’s aside from the constant fighting against other survivor groups, walkers and occasional tigers. No this doesn’t mean everyone is going to start losing limbs - or people who lose limbs in such poor medical conditions are going to survive - but joint pain? Limited movement? Poorly healed breaks? Fatigue? It’s probably no surprise given that our society in general is very resistant to recognising any invisible disability (physical or otherwise) that we see it similarly not depicted in fiction.

However, The Walking Dead unlike most examples in this genre, has touched on some more prominent disabled characters - but it has been definitely flawed

The Walking Dead Comics and the AMC show are treated as two separate entities; however, some obvious overlaps do exist both in characters and how said characters are treated.  Carl of the comics only has one eye and similarly, Carl of the television show also only has one eye.
It’s said that everyone will have their fifteen minutes of fame and Carl has certainly had that in this post apocalyptic world; he’s Rick Grimes’s son. Carl can never escape the shadow of his father and consequently people treat him differently because of it. It’s Carl’s fame amongst the survivors that dims the amount of ableism he experiences because of the loss of his eye but that doesn’t mean that the scarring on his face makes people feel comfortable. It’s why when Lydia encourages him to reveal himself and even licks his empty eye socket during sex that Carl feels free for the first time. Carl suddenly doesn’t have to hide what he once viewed as his ugliness behind bandages; Carl is free. It’s important to note that prior to the eye licking incident with Lydia the only other time Carl removed his bandage was on orders of Negan for the express purposes of being shamed. This scene was played out in both the comics and the television show.

For all of Carl’s appearance issues with his eyes, he never seems to really have any trouble in battle. The writers never consider that Carl’s blind side could and would be a great disadvantage in any physical altercation whether it be with a human or a zombie. Carl can even shoot a gun accurately without a problem or any compromised depth perception. Sure, he might have learned to adjust over time for his vision but it’s never actively portrayed in either the comics or the television show. The loss of vision in his eye doesn’t really affect Carl in any meaningful way. Carl has more issues with living under his father’s shadow than he does with his disability which is never actively named as such, following a pattern of creating a disability while making it invisible in the meta: creating an oxymoron of visible invisible disability. Basically, Carl’s missing eye could just as easily be replaced by an unsightly scar.

So far so good but the same cannot be said of his father Rick. On the show Rick is still completely able bodied and fully embodying the role of leader. Despite the challenges that he has faced, the illness, the poor nutrition and the constant running for his life, Rick is more changed in personality than he is in body.

In the comics The Governor cut off Rick’s hand - and fighting against Negan injured his leg to an extent that he walks with a stick. Yet Rick of the TV show has escaped both injuries - and I know someone is eagerly going to comment about the logistics of portraying the character with one hand when Andrew Lincoln has both. Don’t. This is a show where we regularly see walkers depicted with limbs missing, torsos torn open and bloated well zombies squishily falling apart. Don’t tell me the makeup and prosthetics department can’t manage a realistic depiction of a one handed man.

Unshockingly, Colin O’Donaghue actually has 2 hands.
It speaks volumes that a show that loves it’s angst and Manpain as much as the Walking Dead completely skipped over this opportunity for Rick to mope. The only reason not to include is that the writers think that a disabled man cannot achieve what Rick has achieved, could not be a leader to be respected and feared, cannot be a man who could carve a path through zombies and stand (almost) shoulder to shoulder with Michonne and cannot be the man to pull off the Epic Legendary Beard. To contrast with Carl whose disability is confined entirely to aesthetics, a one-handed Rick is considered so utterly incapable that he simply couldn’t work as a useful, respected protagonist.

It speaks volumes for what we consider a leader has to be - and what we consider a capable/dangerous person to be that losing a hand would have completely disqualified Rick from this rank. This is especially true of dystopians and post-apocalyptic worlds where we constantly see cis, straight, white able bodied men given dictatorial authority and being praised for it. That kind of brutal leadership simply cannot be held by a disabled man in our consciousness

Comic Rick has had to take a little bit more of a beating that his television counterpart.  Unlike television Rick, he only has one hand due to his interaction with the Governor. The injury barely slows Rick down. Sure he worries a little that one handed that he won’t be as effective as he’s used to but he manages to meet every single challenge which comes his way and his hand barely has any impact upon his survival. Even one handed Rick is able to fight and aid in fighting off a horde of zombies when they get into Alexandria. In fact, it’s Rick’s bravery that inspires his fellow Alexandrians to do battle against the herd.

It’s Rick disability which makes Negan think twice about killing him and instead kill our beloved Glenn in issue 100. Negan who has a weird sense of morality to begin with doesn’t feel right about killing a disabled man and he recognises that doing so would make Rick a martyr. We have to repeat here that Rick’s disability is hardly ever mentioned in the comics and it is only expressly mentioned here when Rick is defeated. His disability is almost flagged as an indication of his defeat and his weakness: Negan mentioning it and refusing to kill because of it is used to emasculate Rick. In Negan’s eyes, Rick is less of a man (and, again, let’s not forget the whole cis straight white alpha male dominant leader is such a trope in this genre).

Negan however does get some measure of revenge in All Out War Part 2 when he breaks Rick’s leg, leaving Rick unable to walk without a cane.  It’s this injury that finally slows Rick down. But the disability, this time, isn’t an issue because his community is no longer under threat; he can play elder statesman rather than general.

Rick is still very much the de facto leader of Alexandria but in the quiet moments, Rick lets his guard down with Andrea and he talks about how useless he feels now. Rick briefly mentions his resentment for Negan for his inability to move freely but most of his complaints are about his age. Rick is only in his early forties and yet he speaks like he’s sixty. Rick’s complaints are largely framed around his belief that his body is falling apart because he’s over forty when in actuality, Ricks’ problems all stem from his disability. Rick cannot run away from zombies anymore, he cannot lead his people into battle and he must sit on the sidelines not because he’s an old man, but because his leg won’t allow him to move as freely as he once did. Framing it around his age, allows Rick to deny his disabled identity. Even when Andrea points out that he’s too young to be blaming his age and reminds him of all his past accomplishments, Rick still cannot admit that what’s changed about him physically are his two visible disabilities and not a result of father time creeping up on him.

It’s also worth noting that Rick’s infirmities are pretty much directly linked to basic physical lack - he can’t use a hand he doesn’t have, he can’t walk well on his weakened leg. But general chronic pain or phantom limb syndrome or greater fatigue, any more in-depth consequences of disability - the invisible aspects of disability - are largely avoided. Only the direct, obvious, VISIBLE, consequences of his injuries are depicted

I understand why the writers have created this disconnect with Rick. Rick is the protagonist of The Walking Dead and has been framed as a hypermasculine almost god like figure. He keeps his group together by the strength of his will and overcomes whatever challenges that come his way. Any chinks in his armour that do appear are always short lived or easily dismissed because to admit his disability would be to admit his vulnerability and this is the problem with this sort of protagonist, anything other than able bodied, straight, cis, white male = less than and cannot possibly be convincingly viewed as an inspiring leader

It has be noted that throughout this piece we are talking about Physical disabilities. At no point is this meant to imply that mental disabilities - or the mental illnesses depicted in The Walking Dead are in any way not disabilities. They most certainly are. However the way they are treated in The Walking Dead is sufficiently different to merit an entirely different post which will definitely be forthcoming (since it raises questions over who is allowed to be ill, whose illness is allowed to consume the time, plot and other characters and touches on elements of Manpain and paternalism and the centring of cis, straight, white male pain ESPECIALLY over fridged women).

In some ways The Walking Dead is notable in its fraught description of disability compared to many other shows, books and comics in that it has a depiction for us to criticise. It has to be said that, yes, what is here is actually more than the vast majority of media in this genre does. The fact The Walking Dead is not continuing the same erasure we see all too often is worthy of comment and praise. However, a general low standard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t comment and criticise when there are problems in the depiction: a low bar can never be a good excuse.