The following post contains spoilers for the CW show The Flash
Television shows based on DC Comics generally do pretty well in representing women and people of colour. In fact cast members and the creative team of The Flash recently patted themselves on the back for this. But the Flash has a problem with disability and it’s not because they’re ignoring it. In the show there are two kinds of disabled people. Those who have mental illnesses and those who are faking it. Both cases leaves much to be desired in terms of accurate portrayal.
In the case of mental illness, the problem is that all those characters are villains and their madness contributes to their crimes. In the episode Tricksters, the two criminals are a father son team, who blow things up and poison masses of people. They do the first simply to sow fear and the second to extort money. Greed however is not their driving motive. The motive really boils down to “they’re crazy”. This plot device requires that people accept mental illness as a source of danger to others. It also requires mental illness to exist in a vacuum where actions are driven only by illness and no other social forces. In reality people with mental illnesses are far more likely to be the victims of crime than the perpetrators of it. When they do commit crimes, it is rarely for so simple a reason as their illness. The Flash is far from the only show on television that does this.
The CW’s other DC comics inspired Arrow has done it too. Carrie Cutter AKA Cupid, has an unhealthy obsession with the Arrow and begins killing people to get his attention. Even after she is caught, no one seems to think treatment is necessary. She is instead placed in a covert group of villains turned weapons of the state, her obsession continues unchecked. It is not just super hero franchises that exploit these fallacies. Lazy police procedurals often throw in a mentally ill perpetrator when they need a convenient motive.
I know that film and television based on comic books are supposed to be fantastical and are not meant to mimic reality. I know that madness creates a convenient excuse for elaborate logic defying situations which add tension and are visually interesting. That does not excuse how problematic it is to equate mental illness with danger. The other issue of the Flash is the complete lack of disabled characters with the exception of Eobard Thawne who is impersonating the deceased Harrison Wells and faking his need to use a wheelchair. First off gotta give the creators ability to think outside the box by using a white dude in a wheelchair. That’s very unique.
The idea that disability is diverse both in physical presentation, race and gender is often lost on creators of television. All those actors are also able-bodied. Disabled people tend to have their stories told. They don’t get to tell their own stories.
Yes, yes, I know Eobard Thawne isn’t really paralyzed and could not actually be played by a wheelchair user. The fakeness of the disability is its own problem. Disability in film and television is rarely complicated. The characters usually embody very specific stereotypes that fit into the following general descriptions; victim, saint or villain. Disability is often the driving factor in these characterizations. In media, fictitious portrayals of disability rarely get more complicated. Put another way, if you removed the disability, the character would cease to have a point in the story. These stereotypes are rarely indicators of real life experiences of disability and usually are used as metaphors. For the purpose of critiquing the Flash, it is important to understand the idea of disability as villainous. Disability and evil are closely connected in film. Villains in the James Bond franchise are so frequently disabled or disfigured that the producers unapologeticly refer to it as a plot device. If a disabled person shows up, you know they’re bad.
This trend predates Bond. It was used extensively in the Frankenstein film franchise. In the first film in 1931, the character Fritz is introduced. He is an obviously disabled man (described as a dwarf in Bride of Frankenstein). Though in reality is played by an able-bodied man walking around bent at the waist. He is the monster’s first victim. He is killed in retaliation for his unnecessary and gleeful abuse of the creature. In the next two films he is replaced by Igor who has a visibly broken neck, having survived a hanging attempt after being sentenced for grave robbery. He is as inexplicably evil as Fritz was. In more recent films, consider Elijah Price/ Mr. Glass in Unbreakable. His disability is literally the inspiration for his crimes. The fact that there is such a clear and continued history of disability=evil in film is problematic at best. It tells people that it is ok or even rational to be scared of physical and mental difference.
By having Eobard Thawne’s paralysis be fake, the Flash is taking it one step further. Disability isn’t real it’s a metaphor for hidden evil. Thawne also capitalizes on the stereotype of disability as victimhood to achieve his nefarious goals. He counts on people underestimating him or accepting that his paralysis is a just punishment for the explosion at Star Labs that killed many people. For a show that so publicly prides itself on nuanced portrayals of people of colour, sexuality and gender, they are more than willing to throw disabled people under the bus.
The thing is, they don’t even need to change the existing framework of the show to improve. They just have to add nuance. They could add characters with real disabilities (preferably played by actual disabled people) who just exist. Iris could have a coworker or coworkers at the paper with disability. There could be disabled extras in the background at Jitters just to show that disabled people exist outside the dichotomy of victim or villain. By just adding non fake or non stereotyped characters with disabilities they would not only challenge the stereotypes so common to the media, they could also use it to highlight just how awful Eobard Thawne really is.