I was not born a superhero. I was born a mutant, and gifted a body unruly and strange. A twisted foot, a limp. A young girl who took her time to walk, a child who couldn’t dance as others did. A series of surgeries and a stint in a wheelchair marked my childhood the way that spider bites and accidents have marked our comic-book and big-screen heroes, except without any of the attendant power. I did not develop superhuman coordination in response to lopsided hips. Didn’t find my eyesight sharpened or my hearing increased to compensate for less-than-stellar muscular performance.
Cerebral palsy: an umbrella term for a variety of muscle disorders that impair or restrict movement. Mild spastic right hemiparesis: partial weakness on the right side of the body. Marvel: as a noun, a miracle or event that causes astonishment and surprise. Also, a wonderful story or legend. As a verb, marvel comes from the Old French merveillen, which means to be filled with wonder. The connecting verb is the Old French merveillier—to wonder at, be astonished.
Always the wonder, always the surprise. With superheroes, and then, also, with disabled people. Surprise when disabled people wheel down the street, when they struggle onto public transportation with a cane and walker, when they go to the movies, when they get groceries. All by themselves.
I don’t know how you do it, passers-by have said to disabled friends of mine, wheelchair users, those with canes. If I were you, I would have killed myself a long time ago.
Surprise. People were surprised by the bearded lady at the circus, by the dwarf who danced atop the bear. They came in droves in the late 19th century to see the deformities of Joseph Merrick, forever known to history as the Elephant Man. In the 16th century, they came to the French court to see Petrus Gonsalvus, originally from Tenerife, Spain, who had a hypertrichosis universalis mutation which made him excessively hairy. Petrus lived at the court as a pet of Henry II. He was taught to speak Latin and dressed in fine clothes. Catherine de Medici, the French queen, found him a wife, also named Catherine. (Portraits of them, thought to influence the image of the Beast in Villeneuve’s Beauty and the Beast, are still stared at in museums.) They had seven children, five of whom also bore the mutation.
His daughters were called monsters, marvels, beasts.
As a young girl growing up in southwestern Ontario, royalty felt easier to believe in than mutation, mutant though I was. I dreamt often about being a princess. Those were the stories I saw in books and on TV and so I did not think about what it might mean to be a superhero, to tell that kind of story. Princesses were always perfect, and perfect was what I longed to be.
Superheroes required an entirely different kind of magic. It was easier to believe in the magic of fairy godmothers than to believe in the possibility of superhuman strength. Easier to believe that a girl might grow up and fall in love with a prince than to believe that that same girl might grow up into a body that might be considered beautiful, that did what she wanted it to do all of the time.I took it for granted that the bullying would come because I walked differently and occupied a different space.
You walk like you have a pickle stuck up your ass, the children said to me at school. Pickle! Pickle! Pickle! What are you going to do—pull it out AND EAT IT?
Marvel: a comic book universe. The franchise began in 1931 under the mantel of Timely Comics, and rebranded as Marvel in 1961. The franchise oversees some of the most beloved superheroes and superhero teams in the world today: the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron Man, the Hulk. Captain America. The X-Men. Spiderman. Deadpool. Dr. Strange. Thor.
Captain Marvel. She is a blonde woman, young and pretty. Thin and stylish—someone who can wear a skin-tight armored suit as easily as a baseball cap and leather jacket. She takes no prisoners, and after a brief beginning of unknowns, makes no prisoner of herself. Once a fighter pilot, she now commands the space between the galaxies. Her name, when we first meet her, is Vers. She is not a princess, not exactly. She’s something else—something bigger, larger, more.
Captain Marvel, née Carol Danvers, née Mar-Vell. As I write this, in early April 2019, she is—according to an interview with Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios—currently slated to become the most powerful superhero in the Marvel Universe. (We are several weeks out from Avengers: Endgame. Tickets for the first screening of Endgame sold out within minutes.) I saw Captain Marvel right when it came out, earlier this March. I loved everything about it—the sarcasm, the power, the joy. How refreshing to see a woman delight in her powers that way—how gleeful, how astonishing to see someone rejoicing in the death meted out by her hands. How unbelievably powerful to see Brie Larson, as Carol Danvers, look Jude Law’s Yon Rogg straight in the face and say I have nothing to prove to you.
What might it have felt like, back when I was ten, to say those words to my classmates and know that they were true? But then, I’m getting ahead of myself. A superhero narrative—or a fairy tale—means nothing if there’s no adversity to overcome.
In Angela Carter’s short story, “The Bloody Chamber,” her gothic retelling of the Bluebeard fable, our young unnamed narrator begins the tale newly married to a much older French Marquis. She doesn’t love him but is drawn to him nonetheless; she shrugs off the misgivings about his previous history—three wives, all dead, the latest gone only three months when our narrator meets him—and flocks to his magnetism, his wealth, his power.
When I said that I would marry him, not one muscle in his face stirred, but he let out a long, extinguished sigh. I thought: Oh! How he must want me!
On her wedding night, the narrator, wearing her wedding ring (a maternal heirloom first given to her husband’s ancestor by Catherine de Medici), is brought by train to the castle where her husband lives. It is gigantic and hollow and huge, filled with servants who disdain the narrator but put up with her as they have with so many of their master’s whims. The wedding night is one of thrills and quaked anticipation; in the morning, the husband informs his wife that he must go away on business, and leaves her a ring filled with keys. The key to his office, the kitchens, the study. On and on and on until there is only one left.
One single key remained unaccounted for on the ring and he hesitated over it; for a moment, I thought he was going to unfasten it from its brothers, slip it back into his pocket and take it away with him.
But the Marquis doesn’t do this. Instead, he asks his bride not to enter this one last room.
“Every man must have one secret, even if only one, from his wife,” he said … “All is yours, everywhere is open to you—except the lock that this single key fits.”
The husband leaves on his journey and our narrator tries, at first, to distract herself with the rest of the castle. She is an accomplished pianist, a prodigy, and her husband has paid for the beautiful blind piano tuner from a nearby village to come and take up residence at the castle solely to keep the narrator’s instrument in tune. They strike up a friendship. The boy is sweet and kind.
But our narrator, alas, cannot forget the room. She ventures down into the bowels of the castle and finds that last locked door. Inside it, she discovered the bodies of her husband’s last three wives. In her terror she drops a key into the pool of blood on the floor and then, after escaping from the room, discovers that the blood has stained the key.How unbelievably powerful to see Brie Larson, as Carol Danvers, look Jude Law’s Yon Rogg straight in the face and say I have nothing to prove to you.
Her husband, having completed his business early, is on his way back to the castle. Terrified at the wave of anger that she knows will come, the narrator finds herself abandoned in the castle, as the servants have left her alone—abandoned by all, that is, except for the lovely blind piano tuner, who stays with her to the end, a friend to be there with her as she meets her end at the hands of her husband.
But then, just in time, there is redemption. As the narrator’s enraged husband accosts her at the front of the castle, the gleam in his eyes and fanatical voice hinting at her final end among the bodies in his basement chamber, the narrator is saved—not by the sweet young blind man, who remains innocent and useless, but by her mother, who left her own home due to a creeping sense of fear for her daughter and comes charging up the causeway to the castle on a horse, her pistol held high and aimed perfectly at the evil husband’s heart.
The Marquis dies; the narrator inherits the castle and gives it away to a school for the blind. At the end of the tale, she lives with her mother and the blind piano tuner in a little music school on the outskirts of Paris.
One doesn’t often think of mother when one thinks of a superhero, but Angela Carter was good at subverting expectations—in certain ways, at least. Her blind piano tuner is portrayed the way that most disabled bodies are, on the screen and on the page. If not monstrous and evil, then pitiful and useless, sweet though their souls might be.
It does not do, it would seem, to be subversive in more than a few ways at once.
Steve Rogers, in the context of his life before World War II, could perhaps be said to have a disability. At the least, his physicality at the start of his narrative as Captain America in the Marvel films is an impediment to progress; he wants to be a soldier, but his big heart is no match for the smallness of his form. His is not a body in demand—he isn’t useful by the standards of war and so he is overlooked, ignored, laughed at, forgotten. His desire to fight in the war is seen at best as cute, at worst as laughable. I can do this all day, he says at the beginning of his journey, as he faces off with a group of bullies in an alleyway. The bullies laugh because they know how society sees him—pitiful and useless, despite the vastness of his soul.
Look at you, they might as well be saying. Still wanting to be a soldier! (Still going out into the world, still doing things, still watching movies.) I don’t know how you do it. If I were you, I would have killed myself a long time ago.
“From a narratalogical standpoint, it is not surprising that a genre so often associated with magical or extraordinary abilities portrays disability with such great frequency.” The scholar who wrote this, Ann Schmiesing, is speaking of fairy tales. But she could just as easily have been speaking about the superhero narrative—which is, after all, nothing more than the fairy tale updated for the 21st century. Instead of a ballgown, a superhero’s cape. Instead of a pumpkin, a jet. Good triumphs here, too, and order is restored. A happily ever after with technology and modified bodies—a spider’s bite, then a genetic mutation—taking the place of a magic wand or spell.
I don’t know what it means to have your body represented on screen in a way that isn’t somehow tied to magic. If the disabled body isn’t evil or mistaken (the hairy Beast, the green skin of the Wicked Witch, the disfigured face of Red Skull), it is always redeemed in the end—either through actual magic, like when the Maiden Without Hands has her hands grow back in the tale from the Brothers Grimm, or through the magic of the compensation theory of disability, which is what happens a lot with our superheroes. Daredevil loses his sight but develops supersonic hearing as a response to this bereavement; Charles Xavier loses the ability to walk but grows ever more powerful in the realm of the psychic mind. Jean Grey is ostracized and shunned because of how people’s marvelling turns into fear—but her powers are extraordinary, so in the end it balances out.
Steve Rogers doesn’t really have a disability in the strict sense of the term. His disability is only a metaphor—a slight against the unfair nature of the world in which he lived, a commentary on the preposterous idea of sending bodies off to fight wars in the first place. Even so, the serum that transforms him into a superhuman is a double act of erasure—erasure of the body that once was his and is no longer important, and erasure of the lived reality of those whose own bodies are seen to be an impediment to thriving. It is useful, for purposes of the superhero narrative, to see how the sheer force of Rogers’ soul is matched in the end by his physique.The superhero narrative is nothing more than the fairy tale updated for the 21st century. Instead of a ballgown, a superhero’s cape. Instead of a pumpkin, a jet.
But what does it mean to know that Steve Rogers’ capacity for goodness is only reached once he is given a body that speaks to his soul’s power? What does it mean, as a disabled person, to watch Steve’s struggle and realize that your own potential will never be fulfilled in the eyes of the world—to realize that the world expects so much less from you as a result of your body that even the simplest of actions is treated like a galactic event? A broken body with a bright, pure soul. A superhero who is a superhero simply for getting up and getting coffee down the street. The disabled body is less; the disabled body must therefore be content with less, no matter how bright one’s soul might be shining.
Look at you, getting coffee, getting groceries, going on trips in an airplane. Pretending that you’re as able-bodied as the rest of us! It’s all just so inspiring.
At the beginning of Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers is disabled in several ways. She has amnesia and can’t recall her life beyond the six years immediately preceding her present. As the film progresses, we come to understand that she is also intentionally being disabled by her captors, the Kree, who are dampening her powers by keeping them artificially restrained.
But Carol, as most superheroes are wont to do, wrestles her way through to a happy ending. She does this both physically—through wreaking joyous, unrestrained havoc on her enemies—and emotionally, by distancing herself from the wild, perseverant machinations of Yon-Rogg and asserting her right to occupy her body and power in whatever way she sees fit.
I don’t have anything to prove to you.
I don’t have anything to prove to you.
I don’t have anything to prove to you.
I whisper the same thing to myself at night. The “you” wears many faces.
Once, while sitting at my desk during lunch period in fifth grade, a student sitting beside me asked if I could reach under my seat to grab her pencil, which had rolled under my chair.
“She can’t,” a girl said behind me. “She’ll have to bend over and take the pickle out of her ass first.”
The rage that came over me was immediate and hot, overwhelming. I slammed my chair back into her desk so hard that it tipped her own desk over, pushing her so that the chair she sat on teetered back on its hind legs. Wobbly and ready to collapse, exactly the way I felt. Her laughter was immediate, tinged with surprise and a sliver of terror. I heard the rest of the class laugh, too. Twenty-seven years later, I can close my eyes and hear that laughter exactly as it sounded on that day so many days ago.
I have never wanted to be a superhero, or a demon, something other than I was, as much as I did in that moment. To push the chair away from my desk and turn around and send that girl sweeping up through the air and back against the wall so hard that her skull cracked; to see her face split open upon impact and watch the blood and the brain matter trickle out down her cheeks. I wanted to stand over her as she screamed and grind her face into the floor. I wanted to turn an arm back toward the rest of the class who had laughed with her—who had always laughed with her—and do it to them, too. I wanted to see them cower, to see them lose themselves in awe. I wanted them to cry and scream and beg for mercy.
But I also wanted to be right to withhold that mercy—I wanted my anger to be justified, to make sense, to be understandable. To mete out punishment that was as clear and unbiased as that from a goddess. I wanted them to love me, to be terrified of me, to want to be me. I wanted all of this even though I knew, already, that in a few years I would go to a different high school and meet other people and move on from this part of my life. I wanted all of this even as I gasped in my rage and pulled my chair back up to its regular position and heard the girl behind me right her own desk and chair, her laugh shaky and hard. I wanted all of this through the rest of that afternoon as I stared at my desk red-faced and hot.
I wanted all of this through the next day, and the next, and the day after that one and the week after that. Limping through the hallways, limping through my life.
I moved on to high school, eventually. I met other friends; life was indeed different. I traveled and lived in different cities and had lovers and felt beautiful and many of the things that I had wanted came true.
I have not stopped wanting this.
I still go back to that day. I still want them to love me, even though I know it isn’t worth it—even though I know, more importantly, that my anger and rage at the unfairness of it all is directly tied to the fairytale/superhero lens through which I was already, unconsciously, viewing the world. If my world was unfair, surely that meant that things would swing back around eventually. Surely events would put themselves to rights, surely I would get my happy ending, too, even if it took a little while—because isn’t that what happened in all of the stories I was told? Life could be unfair but the world itself was a fair place. Be good, do good work, and you would either be rewarded or find the strength within yourself to put your world to rights. That’s just how it went.
I didn’t fantasize, back then, about what the world might look like if it was fair, if there was no need for superheroes at all. I didn’t imagine what life might have been like in a world without bullying. I took it for granted that the bullying would come because I walked differently and occupied a different space, and the world that I lived in told me that that was what happened to bodies that were different. It seemed easier to imagine a world where I had magical powers than it did to imagine a world where different bodies just existed together side by side.
The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, yes, but sometimes that arc takes a preposterously long time. And in the world that we’ve built, it’s easier for us to imagine that only superheroes can bend the arc for us. Everything else just takes too long.
What might it have meant to me—at eight years old, at ten—to know, deep in my bones, that I didn’t have anything to prove to the classmates who told me that I walked funny, who sneered at the way I ambled through class? To understand that I wasn’t waiting to become a princess or a superhero or even waiting for an unconventional rescuer, but instead was not in need of rescuing at all because there was nothing wrong with my body?
What does it mean for me now, at 37, to understand that the world still sees my body in this different way? As a disabled woman, I am at once hyper-present and completely invisible. My limp can at times be mild and so I can sink into the background—an undercover agent in the able-bodied world, which is a kind of superpower and disguise that doesn’t feel quite right, although it feels better than those long ago days at school. My disabled body, bereft of both fairy godmothers and superhero change, is either an object of pity or an object of tender fascination, but rarely something other than this. We are sad Tiny Tims or we are everyday superheroes, inspiring those who can walk and run just fine with our inhuman strength in completing the impossible ordinary. Shopping in our wheelchairs, walking with our canes. Navigating the world with our guide dogs and scooters and other supports—augmentations that aren’t sexy like the claws that come racing out of Wolverine’s hands or the arc reactor in Tony Stark’s chest or the impossible body that gets to be Steve Rogers’, but are nonetheless tools that we use to make ourselves be more.
Building a world that either accommodates these tools or makes it so the tools aren’t necessary in the first place (why the need for a body that can fight wars if you build a world where there are no wars?) is a particular kind of magic, it would seem. One that still eludes us all.
A little over two years ago, I walked to work one day in my mid-sized Canadian city and felt, as I battled the wind, the familiar words that pound through my head on a regular basis, in rhythm to my lopsided, hurried gait.
You don’t walk like everybody else.
YOU DON’T WALK LIKE EVERYBODY ELSE.
It’s not unusual, this refrain. I think it every time I hear my footsteps on the ground. I hear it every time I catch my body passing by a window. And yet, for some reason, that day something changed.
It’s not that you don’t walk like everybody else, the little voice continued. It was my voice speaking something I had known all along.
It’s that no one else in the world walks like you.
Why did it take me 35 years to realize this? Something to do with the way that we tell stories—something to do with how we understand the body in both its regular variety and in what we perceive as its superhuman form.
“We are capable,” wrote the disabled academic Tobin Siebers, “of believing at once that the body doesn’t matter and that it should be perfected.” And so we fantasize about eradicating disability in the same way that we fantasize about superheroes and magic—taking it for granted that the different body is aberrant in the same way that superheroes are aberrant, though gifts—an act through which we will individually restore the world because systemic overhaul is too grand an undertaking. We’re all for subverting stories until it’s a change in the real world that needs work, at which point we fall back to our regular narratives and look to the one who’ll come to rescue us. We take it for granted that the world is flawed and in need of a Captain Marvel to save it; we take it for granted that the disabled body is a bug in the system and do not, instead, celebrate its difference as a feature.
But my walk, my legs, my body—I am, all of me, a feature. (We are, all of us, a feature.) I have no fairy godmother because I have no need of one. I am not waiting for an unconventional white knight to come crashing up a causeway to my castle because I have seen the castle and its darkest heart and nothing in it scares me anymore. I have no need of rescue. I want more than the stories that posit the strong as those who survive and protect the rest of us. I want stories where people are not applauded for embracing difference but instead reshape the world so that difference is the norm.
I have nothing to prove to the world because the world has everything to prove to me. It is the world’s responsibility to make space for my body, my words, my lopsided gait—our bodies, our words, our ways of moving through the world—to hold my childhood dreams of being a princess and a superhero close and help me understand that there is no need to want to be either. To start telling different stories about a body that might just look like mine, and reshaping the world to fit them.
I am already enough. There is no need to be more.