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The Disabled and the Superabled: A Conflation of Deviance

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Though the construction of identity in the Western world has, arguably, always entailed processes of assembly and consolidation of various biological and sociological factors, its invariable and inescapable foundation has been and will likely continue to be the physical human body. One of the most basic and familiar rhetorics of identity formation in a culture that has been plagued by the ghosts of dualism since the time of their induction into the philosophical arena, is the use of the binary. In other words, one quick and easy way to identify something is to situate it against something in a binary structure of is/is not and identify it differentially. Whereas a positive process of identification focuses on the unique aspects that the subject possesses that and that constitute the subject as an entity in and of itself, the negative, or differential, process of identification focuses on the qualities that the subject lacks or ways in which the subject is different from the expected/accepted original, the given, the norm. Thus, the differentially constructed identity is tagged as the negation of norm, the inverse of norm, the opposite of the self-sustained is. Without a doubt, the latter approach to identification is likely to be less labor-intensive and time-consuming than the former; picking out the differences between to subjects placed side by side is easier than fleshing out their each individual identities.
            Thus, the immediate and largely compulsory approach to identity construction appears to entail assigning the physical body of the subject to either the is or is not category, the normal or the abnormal. Of course, the obvious oversight is that while there is, presumably, one overarching paradigm of the culturally constructed normal physical body, there is more than one model of deviations from the norm. More precisely there is the body that falls short of the norm – i.e. the disabled body – and there is the body that exceeds it – i.e. the body of a superhuman/superhero. However, while it goes without saying that the two form an oppositional binary of their own, their primary categorical identity still remains fixed within their relationship to the norm, rather than each other. Thus, in within the construct of our cultural narrative the palpable opposition between the “cripple” and the superhero begins to conflate in favor of preserving the binary relationship to the monolith of the norm; the culture invariably seems to insist upon a simpler – that is, differential – mode of identification.
            Just as disabled bodies[1] become marked as spectacles of physical deviation, so do the bodies of superheroes. In a culture that remains obstinately norm-oriented, it’s no wonder that two models of physical form that seem to be so diametrically opposed still become subjected to the same rhetoric of looking as part of the social construction of their identities. Cultural theorist Scott Bukatman echoes the disabilities scholar Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s observation that we are “obsessed with …the disabled body” (337), in pronouncing the body of the comic book superhero as, similarly, “obsessively centered upon” (49). He maintains that the superhero body is ultimately that of a mutant; it is “an accident of birth, a freak of nature, or a consequence of technology run wild” (49). Indeed, in the established mythology of superhero origins, the hero defined by his powers is a product of some horrible mishap at birth or later on in life (a radioactive spill! a spider-bite!), an alien creature from the start (Superman!), or has learned new ways of either fusing with or manipulating technology (Iron Man!). The same descriptions, however, could easily be applied to the disabled body. Physical impairment con occur due to unseen complications at birth, they can be present in utero or in the genetic makeup from the start, or they can result from catastrophic encounters with machinery (car, lawnmower, chainsaw, etc, etc.).
            It is evident that through a norm-oriented cultural lens the delineated origins of deviation appear to be the same for both the super- and the crippled body. When pushed and investigated further, one can also see that way in which other aspects of identity, sexuality in particular, are being visually played out on the body is ultimately guided by the same overarching principle of deviation: alternating visions of desire and repulsion, not unlike exoticism. This makes both the super and the disabled body subject almost exclusively to either a hypersexualized or a puritanical portrayal.
In the case of male superbody hypersexualization, Bukatman points to images of obscenely broad chests and shoulders and bulging neck muscles, noting that “the body is now hyperbolized into pure, hypermasculine spectacle” (59). In depictions of the female superbody “the fetishism of breasts, thighs, and hair is so complete” that one cannot help but recognize elements of caricature. “Of course, the female form has absurdly exaggerated sexual characteristics,” stresses Bukatman, “of course these women represent simple adolescent masturbatory fantasies” (65). Similarly, the hypersexualization of the disabled body entails deliberate overemphasis to the point of complete departure from realism. This titillating mode of estrangement, says Thomson, “presents disabled figures as alien, often sensationalized, eroticized, or entertaining in their difference” (343).
The other way in which sexuality is manifested on the super- or disabled bodies is in its arranged absence. A considerable number of bodies from the superhero cannon are plagued by limited, if not non-existent, access to sexuality precisely because of the physical nature of their mutant superpowers. Whether it’s ugliness or frighteningly uncontrollable potential for inadvertent harm – as with X-Men’s Nightcrawler and Rogue or the Thing of The Fantastic Four –  these superbodies evoke revulsion or fear of touch. Although sexuality is usually only denied to some degree, it is no coincidence that “the most explicitly monstrous bodies in the superhero canon…are often objects of self-pity,” burdened by loneliness (64). Whatever advantages the superbody has over the normal, its deviation is still the more important matter at hand. “Power… is a cross to be silently borne” (64) insists Bukatman. As is the condition of the (super)body.
Similarly, when sexuality is presented as an absence in the disabled body, that absence is likely to be rooted in the perceived ugliness of a deviant physical appearance, fear and discomfort regarding the body’s self-control and (in)capabilities – an epileptic could go into seizure at any given moment, a paraplegic could soil himself without warning – and the potential fear or discomfort of touch. Nancy Mairs, a writer with multiple sclerosis, contends in her memoir that, “most people, in fact, deal with the discomfort and even the distaste that a misshapen body arouses by dissociating that body from sexuality in reverie and practice. ‘They’ can’t possibly do it, the thinking goes, therefore, ‘they’ mustn’t even want it.” (51).
The cultural reasoning appears to be that since both the super- and disabled bodies bear the visual marks of deviance from the normal human body, sexuality as one of the functions of those bodies must also lie somehow outside the realm of the norm. Yet, regardless of the direction in which the super- and the disabled bodies are made aberrant, the result is that – in the words of Thomson – “we have made…the human seem inhuman” (337). After all, in both cases our society is engaged in what Bukatman identifies as “a corporeal rather than a cognitive mapping of the subject into a cultural system” (49).
Having successfully established the deviant bodies as the differently-abled Other, we must now deal with the inherent threat they carry to the hegemony of norm; for although logically the norm needs the deviant in order to assert its (dominant) identity, the very existence of the deviant has the potential to undermine the norm. The threat of the super- and the disabled bodies is that in being, first and foremost, simply differentially defined, the exact extent (and functional consequence) of that difference is unknown. Bukatman aptly speaks to the dangers implicit in the superbody’s potential inability to control his abilities in saying, “these are traumatized, eruptive bodies” (68), and it is not incidentally that the same can accurately be said of the disabled body; again we are made uneasy by visions of a “cripple” accidentally knocking over hazardous objects, harming the self and/or others.
Bukatman assertion that “such ‘marginal beings’” as superheroes, or rather their deviant bodies, “pose a question and a threat to the social body, which must somehow reincorporate this ‘ambiguous species’ or brand it as taboo” (69), soundly parallels Thomson’s remark that “as a culture, we are…intensely conflicted about the disabled body. We fear, deify, disavow, avoid, abstract, revere, conceal, and reconstruct disability” (337). The anxiety felt by the norm-oriented society due to the presence of the deviant, disruptive bodies is brashly and artificially resolved by forceful appropriation, rather than incorporation. The abnormal is forced to remain inside, though in the margins, trapped within and by the very same culture that seems so hostile to its presence in the first place. The superbody is permitted to function in society only in guise of costume (whether that costume is mask, cape, and spandex or a business suit is still up for debate); its ability to exist is, in a way, conditional. The disabled body is limited in its function by the presence or absence of medical support, government-enforced accessibility and accommodations, and the individual behaviors of others. Its ability to survive is similarly conditional.
The question that begs to be answered is: precisely what presumably invaluable function does the deviant body serve in the hegemony of the norm? (Again, it is worth noting that this is a question of negatively defined function, insofar that it exists only in its relation to the hegemony and not in and of itself.) As mentioned before, our inherent cultural hostility towards the deviant Other seems to conflict with the fact that our society still deliberately leaves marginal spaces in which the Other is forced to exist. The answer, cynical and hackneyed as it might sound, may, in fact, be: to ensure the continuation of the hegemonic norm. After all, wherein lies the purpose of the superhero’s body if not in the compulsory practice of selflessly helping and defending the innocent, decidedly normal masses? Does not the disabled body serve as a handy image of the incapacitated abnormal against which we can establish the reassuring normalcy – and dominancy – of our own?
Bukatman, Scott. Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century
Durbam & London: Duke University Press, 2003.
Mairs, Nancy. Waist High in the World :A Life Among the Nondisabled. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.
Thomson, Rosemary Garland. “Seeing the Disabled: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography.” The New Disability History: American Perspectives. Ed. Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umanski. New York: New York University Press, 2001. 335-372.

[1] For the purpose of this essay I will discuss limit my parameters of disability mostly to visible physical impairment.