Last month I once again attended Geek Girl Con. I’ve been lucky enough to attend the con since its very first one in 2011, and it always impresses me, delights me, and most of all, makes me think.
The convention falls in early October every year, just before Halloween. At a time when many articles about when and how it’s okay or not okay to dress up as a person of a different race were making the rounds, there was a noticeable dearth of discussion on cosplaying people with disabilities. For this reason, as well as many others, I was excited to have the opportunity to attend “The Disability Politics of Daredevil”. I was not disappointed; it was one of the best panels I attended all weekend.
Elsa S. Henry, a self-proclaimed “molotov cocktail of snark and smarts”, was both moderator and guest. She sat onstage and discussed what it was like to engage with “Daredevil” as a person who knows exactly what it’s like to need a white cane in everyday life. Her discussion of what she liked and disliked about the show was – if you’ll excuse the term – eye-opening.
It’s easy to have mixed feelings about “Daredevil”. It’s wonderful to see a super-hero with a disability on TV, and potentially even in the movies someday! An opportunity for able-bodied people to identify with and understand what it’s like to live as a person with limited vision! Except, many of the ways in which Matt Murdoch interacts with the world around him are unrealistic at best and simply wrong at worst.
For example: early on Matt is shown studying law using books printed in braille. “Do you have any idea how expensive it is to print in braille?” Elsa asked us. “It’s REALLY expensive! Where did he get the money to buy all these law books?” These days, most people with limited vision use screen readers, she explained. It’s much cheaper and faster – and takes a lot less space! “The first volume of Harry Potter printed entirely in braille makes a stack of pages about four feet high!” Elsa noted. Of course, braille is an easy cue for people without limited vision. We grow up being taught that “blind people use braille to read everything”, never questioning whether this idea is outdated.
Why does it matter, though? It matters, because portraying people with disabilities in unrealistic ways is a form of erasure. If people with disabilities are depicted not as they actually live, but by using a series of outdated stereotypes, this isn’t really representation at all – it’s no better than putting a white actor in blackface and claiming that you’re representing black people on TV.
Another thing that bothered Elsa was the number of times Matt Murdoch throws away his white cane. She whipped out her own white cane, demonstrating how it unfolded and snapped together (which looked extremely cool), and spoke of how important it was to her, and how the idea of tossing it away made her cringe. I’ve written before about my own struggles to understand what it’s like to live with a disability, and I went back to an analogy which has helped me before. In my every day life I wear glasses (I only wear contacts when cosplaying) and they are a necessity for me. I’m not trying to equate my correctable vision issues to the difficulties that people with limited vision experience, but I used this comparison as a thought experiment to help me understand what Elsa was saying. I tried to imagine throwing away my glasses for any reason, and it made me me cringe, too. They are a just a tool, sure, but they are also something that helps me interact with the world. They are, in a sense, a part of me, even a part of my identity. I can swap out frames or get a new pair (at great expense), but I always need them, and probably always will. In the same way, Matt simply discarding his white cane so cavalierly cheapens it and makes it seem like merely an accessory which can be donned or not at his choice, rather than a necessity for a person with limited vision. “Plus, these are also really expensive!” added Elsa. She estimated that Matt must be spending $800 a month in canes alone!
Speaking of his white cane, Elsa also talked about something she felt the show did right. At one point Matt is sitting and having a conversation, and his cane is leaning against the wall, close at hand. He can easily reach out and grab it when he leaves, and he knows exactly where it is. She liked that it was included in the background, something which was unneeded at the moment, but could easily be accessed when it was needed.
Of course, discussing what she likes and dislikes about “Daredevil’s” portrayal means Elsa often hears the argument, “But Daredevil’s not REALLY blind.”
“He is blind,” she said. “He has developed other ways of compensating. But he is blind. Get over it. I can sense the people around me, too. I can feel if there is someone behind me or next to me on the sidewalk.” Daredevil’s super powers don’t give him the ability to see; they allow him to interact with the world in a different way from a sighted person. His point of view as a blind person with special abilities can be a valuable perspective, and claiming that “he’s not really blind” incorrectly and unfairly dismisses one of the very few portrayals of a person with limited vision on television.
The popularity of the show has led to a lot of people donning Matt Murdoch costumes. Elsa herself has been asked whether she was cosplaying, and how she got her white cane. “I really wanted to say, ‘rubella’,” she said dryly, “But you have to get it when you’re really young.” The problem with using a white cane when you don’t need one, she explained, is that endangers her and other people who genuinely need a white cane to get around. “I move quickly,” she said. “I’m used to it.” The white cane is a signal to sighted people that they need to get out of the way. When people who do not need a white cane and don’t know how to use it properly make it a part of a costume, it subtly changes the way people think of blindness and the way people interact with people with limited vision. Just as people who use wheelchairs when they don’t need them can make life more difficult for people that do by hogging resources such as wheelchair-only elevators, using a white cane fills a space that is reserved for those who genuinely need one. In fact, when an audience member called out “stop censoring yourself”, Elsa was even more blunt: “Stop cosplaying disabled people.”
At the question and answer session I asked her to expand on that statement. “I understand why using the tools of disability (such as a white cane or a wheelchair) is wrong,” I said, “As an able-bodied person, it ever okay to cosplay a disabled person?”
“This is really hard for me, because I hate to tell people not to dress up as characters they love,” she responded. “But my disability isn’t something I can take off at the end of the day. It’s not a costume. It’s real.”
Elsa can be found on Twitter at @snarkbat.