Ableist Language in Superhero Comics

How do we define the “superhero genre”? Aside from sci-fi and visual tropes, at its core, superhero fiction comprises moralistic tales that pit good versus evil, right against wrong. Superheroes are meant to represent the best of humanity, those fighting for those that cannot fight for themselves, champions battling for truth and justice. The antagonists, therefore, are super-villains—embodiments of the worst that society has to offer, representing fear, hate, and terror. Of course, the superhero story can be deconstructed or complicated in myriad ways, but the essence of the theme is always made up of the above. Without this Manichean binary (hero pitted against villain) as a foundation, the genre really isn’t the genre at all.

Whenever conflict is at the heart of a genre, violence will inevitably get portrayed. And superhero comics are indeed violent. I’ve long struggled with how to engage with superhero comics’ glorification of vigilantism. Because of the good versus bad dynamic, most superhero stories are police procedurals (with capes) or action cop stories (with capes), and that is a hard sell for a lot of folks, especially these days where the mainstream has had a much-needed awakening to systemic racism in policing. Sometimes, under a certain writer or editor, superhero stories can also be straight-up fascist power narratives.

To steal/paraphrase from WaPo‘s Alyssa Rosenberg, like Hollywood, comic books “valorize the action hero, rarely showing the less dramatic work of building relationships within communities. Purely from a dramatic perspective, crime makes a story seem consequential, investigating crime generates action, and solving crime provides for a morally and emotionally satisfying conclusion. The result are stories that portray vigilantes as more effective than they actually are; crime as more prevalent than it actually is; and use of violent force as consistently justified.”

Batman, for instance, is an extremely wealthy White cis-male, essentially a cop (in a cape), who beats up people on a daily basis. A perspective that has long been bandied-about online is that Batman brutalizes “crazy people” or “mental patients” like Joker. And sadly, there is merit to that viewpoint. After all, this is what Batman does, right? Yes… but only when we view these tales through an ableist lens.

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Ableist language, according to the definition at pwd.org.au, is “language that is offensive to people with disability. It can also refer to language that is derogatory, abusive or negative about disability. … People may not intend to be hurtful when they unknowingly use an ableist term, but it will hurt people anyway.”

Check out these links for more details.

https://www.autistichoya.com/p/ableist-words-and-terms-to-avoid.html
https://whatsortsofpeople.wordpress.com/2008/08/11/ableist-language-alternatives/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_disability-related_terms_with_negative_connotations

With the above in mind, I’ve spent the last month quietly getting rid of all the ableist language from my website. You’d be surprised (or maybe not) at how much ableist language we I use on a daily basis without even realizing. Phrases like “turn a blind eye” or “fall on deaf ears” were littered throughout my site. As were the use of words like “wheelchair-bound,” “abnormal,” “deformed,” “insane,” “mad,” “crazy,” “psycho,” or “nuts.”

This leads me to addressing both ableist language in superhero comics (by creators) and ableist language when writing about superhero comics (by people like myself). By looking inward at ableism, we can also face the troubling question posed above about rich 1%er Bruce Wayne’s constant beatings of “mental patients.”

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In regard to ableist language in superhero comics, current creators still use it fairly often. Brian Michael Bendis recently had a villain call someone “autistic” as a pejorative while Si Spurrier used the term “lynch mob” to describe a “slave” revolution. (The latter is both a racist issue just as much as it is an ableist one—as “lynch mob” derives from the history of hanging Black men and women in America while the use of the word “slave” instead of “enslaved person” only serves to other or relegate one as an object.) I’d love to see creators do better.

In regard to ableist language when writing about superhero comics, as I was reviewing my own language and making changes on my website, a couple revelations dawned upon me. In scrubbing ableist words like “crazy” or “insane,” I found that the sentences sans those words had not changed meaning, nor had they become confusing or vague without them. The action being described in the sentence still told the same story. Ableist words, while potentially harmful and toxic, don’t even have legitimate descriptive meaning. There’s literally no reason to use them. They accomplish nothing.

For example, take the sentence, “The insane Joker laughs joyously while fire-bombing a bus full of children.” Now axe the ableist language. “Joker laughs joyously while fire-bombing a bus full of children.” Same story. Nothing lost.

The second and more important revelation I had while exorcising my ableist demons was about reader-response. Cutting the “crazy mental patient” label from all of Batman’s rogues doesn’t only remove the offensiveness—it also returns the stories to their intended narrative purpose by restoring the superhero genre to its roots. Inherently, as a superhero, we should trust Batman’s values and know that he is fighting for truth and justice wherever he goes. Remember, at the center of the binate genre is conflict between good and evil. Joker, Penguin, Two-Face… they aren’t supposed to be read as “insane” / “crazy” / “mental” / “[insert ableist word here].” They are supposed to be super-villains. They serve as the worst that society and humanity have to offer. Joker isn’t a “crazy mental patient”—he is a super-villain, a personification of evil. And Arkham Asylum isn’t a “psychiatric hospital”—it’s really a shitty place where evil people go. At its transparent nucleus, it’s meant to exemplify Hell.

If we describe Joker as a “crazy mental patient,” the purity of what makes the superhero genre the superhero genre is lost. (Interestingly, despite appearing as additional descriptors, the ableist words are actually reductive, as we have shown above, actually adding nothing but harm.) But not only is it offensive/inimical to label anyone with ableist descriptors, but when we do it for Joker, we also oddly make him a sympathetic or at least othered character (when he certainly isn’t meant to be such). The story breaks down and we lose sight of who is good and who is bad. The crux of the superhero mythos is lost because of the ableist language itself.

If we ditch the regressive language, then Joker is Joker the true villain once again. The purest elements of the superhero/super-villain dynamic are returned. The villain once again becomes the undeniable epitome of evil, which in turn re-establishes Batman’s place as archetypal hero, doing right by the world. His cause is righteous and his foes are evil, worthy of the justice they receive. In doing away with our ableist mindset, the accurate mythos returns.

This isn’t to say, however, that heroes and villains shouldn’t be layered and complex. Characters can and should have shades of gray. Superhero comics should be great, deep, heady, interesting, contradictory, unpredictable, mind-bending, etc. But the foundational aspects of the superhero genre should always be present, even if veiled or deconstructed. As I’ve demonstrated, the easy removal of ableist language when referring to bad guys and (prisons/hospitals) helps rehabilitate the heart of the genre to its pure superhero/super-villain dichotomy. Simplicity—not reductiveness—can be a beautiful thing (and something severely needed for anyone having trouble stomaching modern day fascistic vigilante stories).

Comics reflect the real world—even the most surreal over-the-top superhero titles reflect the world in which we live. This cannot be denied, and I truly think comics are of higher quality when they more closely reflect things in actual society. It’s precisely because comics mirror reality that words matter. Representation matters too. There’s a serious responsibility when writing these stories (and when writing about them) to keep the real world (and the beautiful varied spectrum of human beings within in it) firmly in mind. The elimination of ableist language doesn’t just curb abusive ideation toward disabled people, it also improves superhero comics by helping us remember what true heroism looks like and why we love superheroes in the first place.

But having said all the above, you might still be a bit unsure about everything. (Hell, I’m still working things out too!) And it’s precisely because of this uncertainty that I’ll end this article by playing devil’s advocate—even if only to address what a lot of side-eyed-glancing folks are probably be thinking, something along the lines of: “But c’mon. Joker sliced his own face off and has killed hundreds. He’s FUCKING CRAZY!” While watching Hannibal (the TV show) recently, which features an alternate reality where the greater Baltimore area has a handful of serial killers running around, I noticed that the terms “psychopath,” “insane,” “crazy,” and many other words like that get used in a very clinical sense over and over again. After all, Dr. Hannibal Lecter and his brethren—much like Joker, Pyg, or Zsasz in the comics—are pathological in their criminality, are they not? CSI workers and sanitarium therapists in Hannibal refer to their over-the-top murderers using such language, and when they do, it feels appropriate. I would imagine that CSI analysts and criminal psychologists in real life probably do the same. Someone that is dismembering, torturing, cannibalizing, or building totem poles out of severed limbs seems… crazy, right? Does this mean that, when referring to fictional super-villains (or real life villains) of this extreme degree, using terms like “psychopath,” “insane,” and “crazy” to describe them is not ableist simply because it literally applies to their clinical state of being or objectively horrific actions? While there might be worthiness to this rationale, it is in our best collective interest (in writing or critique) to dismantle the ableist lexicon that scaffolds so much of the way we speak these days. And I think professionals (cops, doctors, orderlies, guards, lawyers, social workers, etc) that deal with unrepentant criminally-institutionalized killers would probably do a better service toward the greater good (and toward rehabilitation) if they didn’t approach their jobs from an outdated ableist perspective.

If Dr. Lecter-types are running around giving people Columbian neckties or making angel wings out of human skin, the actions speak for themselves. Same goes for Joker gassing hundreds at a parade and then torturing Jim Gordon at the circus. Same goes for Ed Gein wearing someone else’s skin or Charles Manson emboldening others to commit heinous acts of barbarism. There’s no need to be reductive about any of this—whether in fiction or reality. These actions speak louder than ableist words. As demonstrated above, we needn’t (and shouldn’t) hide behind regressive verbiage.

About Collin Colsher

Collin Colsher, the creator of The Real Batman Chronology Project and disCONTINUITY, is a writer, filmmaker, teacher, and comic book historian that currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. He has lectured at various universities, libraries, and book fairs. Collin has also served on the jury for the Lynd Ward Graphic Novel Prize, which is sponsored by the US Library of Congress.
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