Every week, I listen to the podcast Gay USA to stay afloat on LGBT issues from around the world and movements against various forms of bigotry. But when host Andy Humm reported on the Pulse Nightclub massacre and the possible motives of the shooter, Humm displayed his own bigotry when he claimed that he thought the shooter was mentally ill, suggesting this was the primary cause of the tragedy. He made similar comments on later episodes as he continued to report on the massacre. My purpose in pointing these comments out is not to malign Gay USA, which I continue to listen to, but to indicate that even the most progressive, long-time activists don’t seem to know what to do with disability. Even with increasing attempts to fight for equal rights for various minority groups, people continue to make casual ableist remarks, including Humm’s theory that mental illness spurred a mass hate crime.
I bring this up now because I found a similar problem in the most recent Wonder Woman film. Again, we have something progressive: a film with a powerful, feminist superhero. And again, this progressive work contains something regressive: poor portrayals of the disabilities of two characters. The internet is in love with this film, and for some good reason. We finally have a great female superhero, and we actually have a good DC movie. Gal Gadot’s Amazonian feminist Wonder Woman never takes no for an answer, has a strong code of ethics, and kicks a lot of WWI ass. But she’s not a one-dimensional perfect woman; war changes her. She begins the movie naively believing that the god Ares causes all violence between men, and she embarks on defeating him and ending warfare. She finds, however, that things are not so simple. People suck, Ares or no Ares. By the end of the movie, she strives not to save the world in one swoop but to impact change overtime through love. And occasional fighting.
Wonder Woman offers a well-developed hero and challenges gender norms, but it lacks in its representation of disability by providing the one-dimensional, physically-deformed Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya). Dr. Poison is an evil scientist who makes deadly poisons during WWI for Germany, and her most distinctive feature is her porcelain prosthetic mouth. Throughout literature and media, including comic books, disability has often served as a mark of evil: The Phantom of the Opera, Captain Hook, The Joker (in The Dark Knight), Freddy Kruger. The latest Dr. Poison serves as another entry in the canon of villains whose evilness is marked by disability. DC offered this interpretation of the latest Dr. Poison: “With her primitive facial prosthetic and raspy voice, both due to the horrific scarring one has to assume was a result of her work, she comes off as vulnerable and haunted. However, that vulnerability helps mask the real darkness she hides within.” Her disability is a marker of her inner darkness. This tired stereotype of the disabled villain extends beyond the cinema. People with disabilities are often stigmatized as their disabilities have long been viewed as punishment from God or manifestations of moral vices. Such stigma continues to have repercussions as people with disability fight to be viewed as humans who deserve access to fundamental rights. Though Wonder Woman’s Dr. Poison continues the trend of disabled villains, I’m hoping for a better Dr. Poison in the future. The movie seems to set her up as a character who will reappear in future installments of the franchise, giving me hope for a more complex villain.
But Dr. Poison is not nearly as disturbing in terms of representations of disability as the character of Charlie (Ewan Bremner), a former sharpshooter with PTSD. Admittedly, I am one of the few netizens who take issue with his representation, and it would be a mistake to characterize the depiction of Charlie’s PTSD as a complete failure. Including a character with PTSD at all is noble, considering that it is a stigmatized disorder. Furthermore, we have a sympathetic character. He does not remain the stereotypical, unhinged drunkard who we meet in a scene at a London pub. Though not fully developed, we do find that he is a kind guy who even loves to sing. Additionally, he is a shooter who cannot shoot. The film showed restraint by never showing Charlie “overcoming” his trauma by successfully shooting an enemy. By showing that Charlie’s PTSD has not been magically cured, the film offers a small dose of realism to the portrayal of the disorder.
Despite the film’s noble goals in depicting a character with PTSD, there is one tremendous flaw: why does he remain on Wonder Woman/Steve Trevor’s team to take down the German military laboratory even after his trauma and inability to shoot is revealed? Besides being completely useless in a battle as a shooter who can’t shoot, this is tremendously cruel treatment that the film seems to try to pass off as good for this character. After all, he isn’t getting drunk in bars, and he’s joyously singing with a new group of friends. So, taking this battle-traumatized former sniper into battle was a great idea, right? The film establishes that Wonder Woman is no dumb-dumb. It seems that at some point she would’ve questioned whether it was a good idea for Charlie to join this mission. But instead she cheers on his singing, and Charlie continues on their quest to take down the enemy’s laboratory.
The film does not intend for Charlie to serve as a fleshed-out character who provides an accurate portrayal of PTSD; the film wants Charlie to join Wonder Woman’s crew so he can develop Wonder Woman’s character and contribute to the film’s theme. Originally troubled by the rag-tag force that joins her to fight in WWI, Wonder Woman recognizes through Charlie that people are not divided into good and evil and finds compassion for Charlie. In a movie about the evils of war, Charlie’s PTSD also serves as a devastating example of the horrors of warfare. Characters should develop the plot and theme of a movie, but when they are not fully-developed characters, —especially if they are marginalized characters—they run the risk of providing dangerous representations of already under-represented or misrepresented people. This is exactly what we have with Charlie: a character who serves the film thematically but whose lack of depth and ridiculous role misrepresents the experiences of people with PTSD.
This is a character with PTSD in a film set during a time when PTSD was not a term. Instead, there was only the term “shell shock” and complete ineptitude in regards to treating people who have experienced trauma. This makes exploring Charlie’s trauma a tricky but potentially exciting task. A few minutes of that awfully long fight between Wonder Woman and Ares would have been better spent fleshing out Charlie’s character and exploring shell shock a bit more. Actually, maybe we don’t even need extra time (but we could still shed off several minutes from that last fight). When Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) is first putting together a team to take down the laboratory, we could see Charlie fighting in the bar. The curious Wonder Woman could ask about Charlie’s antics and hear from another frequent pub-goer all about his experience (flashback time!). Wonder Woman could then ask why this man is in a bar instead of getting treatment somewhere. And then someone else will supply her with the harsh fact: nobody knows what to do about trauma. Perhaps this isn’t the best solution, but it’s better than portraying a sniper with PTSD as benefiting from returning to warfare.
Whether it’s a feminist film or a progressive podcast, nobody seems to know what to do with disability. Even critics/bloggers struggle with discussing representations of disability. In the case of Wonder Woman, the mere inclusion of a sympathetic character with PTSD was cause for acclaim from many writers, despite the problems of his portrayal. I also wonder if I am too soft on the representation of Dr. Poison. When it comes to portrayals of disability, our standards are so low that we sometimes overlook horrible misrepresentations because of our excitement over just a little bit of sympathy or potential for character development. But we need to stop mishandling representations of and conversations about disability, and we should demand more from media. Elena Anaya offered her insight on the importance of cinema in an interview with The Verge: “I want to show people, while they’re in the movie, what kind of characters are in life, even though it’s a fiction movie. This movie talks about the world, about how we all have to do something — with power or without power, we have to try to get a better world.” To advocate for a better world, to show the range of people and experiences in the world, films must figure out how to improve portrayals of disability.