An Essay for a Disability and Sexuality Course at Carleton University
My Cultural Artefact is a comic stripe featuring a disabled character named Oracle, entering the shower in three panels. Oracle, also known as Barbara Gordon and formerly the superhero Batgirl was paralysed in the 1988 comic The Killing Joke and from that point was established as the technological, strategic genius, Oracle. This character became a disability champion to many readers craving alternative superheros in comics and her popularity grew dramatically after 1988. In this specific artefact, Oracle is featured as stripping away her clothing and entering the shower in hopes of being on time for dinner plans. I choose this piece of a comic stripe because the representation or lack thereof of superheroes with disabilities allows for a unique analysis of both the visibility of the disabled community and the objectification and de-sexualization which comics have largely been criticized for.
In regards to the context and impact the creators had on my artefact, we must explore the very first appearance of Barbara Gordon in DC comic and the consequent plot-point which saw her being disabled later on. The original creators of Barbara Gordon and her super, alter-ego Batgirl were Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino, and later Alan Moore took the mantle. Batgirl was used periodically in the comics, so when Alan Moore wrote The Killing Joke in 1988, he and editor Len Wein felt that her character was disposable enough to end her crime fighting career permanently. Moore and Wein were critiqued by many for their treatment of the Barbara Gordon character as excessively violent and lacking female perspective. Furthermore, the creators of the Oracle character: Kim Yale and John Ostrander noted the use of Batgirl as an example of the “Women in Refrigerators Syndrome” within comicbooks and videogame storytelling where: “severe injury or death of a female character [occurs] as a means to antagonize a male superhero.” Later on, Yale and Ostrander took the depressed Barbara Gordon and turned her into the techno-genuis Oracle. In this context, the origin of Oracle as a disabled character lies in the laziness of ableist and sexist storytelling but was then reclaimed and embraced as a symbol of alternative heroes and a champion of disability representation within comics.
My initial analysis of this cultural artefact is one of mixed feelings, where the visibility of this disabled female superhero is a positive example of progress and yet there are issues of ableism and sexism in the objectification of Oracle within this particular three panel excerpt. Upon viewing the panels themselves, one sees a disabled woman provocatively undressing to enter the shower. The symbol of her disability, the wheelchair, is prominent within the first two frames but increasing the chair becomes invisible as her sexual appeal becomes more emphasized. She embodies the stereotypical sex symbol as she is soapy and wet from the shower and her privacy becomes invaded by the voyeuristic male gaze. Interestingly, she becomes objectified completely, after her wheelchair has disappeared from the frame. The sexism which pervades comicbooks is evident here as Oracle, a powerful, intelligent and independent woman is reduced to her sexual appeal, yet it is the intersection of her disability which is truly engaging.
This grouping of panels shows how ableism and sexism can interact in interesting ways, as the objectification of Oracle is counter to the stereotypical idea that those with disabilities do not have a sexuality and do not feel desire, nor are desirable. In Kattari’s article, she notes that “sexuality… love and [expression of] various desires is not usually recognized as a valid expression for people with disabilities” (501). Therefore, society sends messages of normality and abnormality in regards to sexual identity and expression, where those with disabilities “should be viewed as, asexual and/or deviant, lacking a capacity to be sexual and desirable” (501). Often times, those with disabilities are labelled by damaging stereotypes which hinder their participation in society, including within sexual cultures, such as: objects of pity, curiosity or violence, the “Super-Crip”, as a tool to create atmosphere or laughter, as non-sexual or sexual deviant and a burden on friends, family, society and themselves. Many of these stereotypes are damaging because they create a culture of dis-humanizing and Othering based on ableism that many argue is “natural” due to the construction of physical or intellectual disabilities. Yet, in this representation of Oracle, she is both sexual and disabled. I argue that she is able retain her sexual identity and appeal because she was physically disabled later in her life. As apposed to those who are born disabled, Oracle can be sexual because she was not born “abnormal”, but was instead disabled by an external factor. In essence, she can legitimately keep ties to her femininity and sexual accessibility because she is not a representation of the “horrifying erotic,” but is instead a symbol of the “Super-Crip” (Titchkosky, 78). As a “Super-Crip”, Oracle was physically disabled by an external factor and was able to excel despite her disability. A disability happened to her, and it was entirely out of her or her parent’s control, unlike the perceptions around those born with disabilities where the blame of entire Otherness can be placed on a lack of effort or poor parenting. Oracle was shot at the age of 18, and while she can be an example of an object of pity, her ability to overcome her disability and excel despite her body creates a sexual accessibility to the viewer, as she is different, but only to an extent. Furthermore, because she is extraordinary in her ability to overcome her disability, she gets back to the bar of normality, as her place in society (if she were a “normal” disabled individual) is lower but her “super” status regains some of her lost status as an able-bodied woman. Yet, how to negotiate her ability to retain her sexuality and sex appeal and the obvious disappearance of her wheelchair from the frame within my cultural artefact? While her disability is acceptable to able-bodied readers, the chair is still a symbol of difference. Titchkosky sees the universal sign of accessibility in public spaces as an indicator that for “a sign to point towards access, there must be an assumption of a general lack of access,” and her statement also applies to the wheelchair in the sense of sexual access. Oracle’s wheelchair is a sign of sexual inaccessibility and the increasing disappearance of it in her showering scene, shows the points of sexual access to her body, as if the chair is the embodying of sexual barriers. In this scene, Oracle is not exempted from the sexism which sees “normal” female comicbook characters objectified because her status as a “Super-Crip” and her increasing disappearance of the wheelchair makes her an object of sexual accessibility.
It is also important to note the triumph of having a female super-hero who is disabled within comics and how this cultural artefact may be a positive representation of disability. Oracle herself is a character which has a complex and wonderfully deep, real story as her struggle with depression, identity and a want for revenge after being shot and disabled is refreshing as a counter to the use of disabled individuals as atmosphere or tools for laughter. Furthermore, Oracle is portrayed as still incredibly independent and intelligent, where her disability takes her from being the sidekick of Batman to a super-hero in her own right. As a representation of the disabled community, Oracle is wonderfully empowering. It is important to note that Oracle as a character runs the risk of being tokenized as the sole representation of the disabled community and what other characters and people with disabilities should be considered by. Yet, even within this cultural artefact she is portrayed as living a full and interactive life as an independent woman, even to the point where she is contemplating modding her bathroom to be more wheelchair accessible. Even the consumers of comics have had a largely positive reaction to Oracle as a disabled super-hero as there is many blogs speaking to the positive inclusion of disabled bodies with the creation of Oracle.
My analysis of this cultural artefact is highly informed by a conflict of sexism and ableism as Oracle is a complex object of the male gaze in her objectification and yet is physically disabled and thus counters the construction of disabled individuals as non-sexual or deviant. Her role as a disability role-model or representation within comics is important and yet her ability to “Super-Crip” her way to sexual accessibility shows the progress still left to be made.
Kattari, Shanna. “Sexual Experiences of Adults with Physical Disabilities: Negotiating with Sexual Partners.” Sexuality and Disability 32.4 (2014): 499-513. Web. 12 Feb. 2015
Titchkosky, Tanya. “Disability Images and the Art of Theorizing Normality.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 22.1 (2009): 75-84. Web. 12 Feb. 2015