Editor’s note: contains some spoilers for ‘Star Wars’ episodes I-VI, ‘Rogue One’ and the Star Wars Expanded Universe
As great as Star Wars is as a franchise, it has some issues. One of these issues is what it does with people with disabilities.
Case in point: Anakin Skywalker. You probably know him better as Darth Vader, so you know he goes from getting a hand cut off (and a very utilitarian prosthetic) to becoming a quadriplegic burn victim who has to be on continual life support. His voice is so deep because it’s being filtered through a mask that supplies him with oxygen. Okay, if that were the only example we could possibly chalk this up to a characterization choice: wanting to say something about evil deeds coming back to haunt him. He’s a shell of the man he used to be, literally.
But that’s the thing. The only other people we saw for a long time with anything close to that was Palpatine. In Palpatine’s case, the disfigurement revealed how evil and repulsive he really was for all to see. Disfigurement became a visual cue that this character was evil, a threat. In Anakin’s case, he becomes “more machine than man,” a literal tool used by the Empire, and when he redeems himself at the end of the films we do not see the man wearing the life support system and the mask – we see Anakin as a teenager, relatively whole. Not disfigured, and not obviously disabled. This seems to further link disability -> disfigurement -> not human, either through reliance on technology and the implication it is soulless, or that they have lost their humanity.
Next we get to the three depictions we see in Rogue One. The most obvious is Chirrut Imwe, but as of now we do not know much about that character. Chirrut seems to have some sort of blindness, and with his catchphrase “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me”, seems to be playing at the archetype of the magical blind master. And even though “magical blind master” is definitely a type seen in martial arts films and fantasy films alike, I’ve seen it done with respect the last time I watched Avatar: the Last Airbender with regards to the character Toph. There were consequences, and her blindness still affected the way she perceived the world around her. But we haven’t gotten that with Chirrut, nor will I know if we will at all.
The second depiction is Saw Gerrera, and with his life-support system it is clear that Saw is meant to be a parallel to Anakin/Vader’s arc. Here is an extremist who may have gone in with good intentions, like Anakin. So here again, disability seems to correlate to being seen as not human.
The third depiction we see is easy to miss: it’s the informant that talks to Cassian Andor. All we know of the informant – apart from the information – is that he seems male, is heavyset, and has issues running. Because the informant worries how he’ll be able to escape with his life due to not being able to run easily due to physical limitations, Cassian swiftly kills him. This is disability as liability – we are not able-bodied, and people still think of people who have disabilities as being less than human. (This intersects with images and perceptions of fatness, which is too complex to get into right now.)
Which brings me to my last point, which illustrates why this is all so frustrating. Star Wars has done respectful portrayals of a character with disabilities before, without treating the character as either a portrayal of evil or as a liability. Ironically, this character is humanoid but not human.
It was in the 1990s, in the expanded universe, with the character of Tenel Ka. She was not born with an impairment; she was used to being able-bodied. But during training with newly-built lightsabers, there is an accident and Tenel Ka loses her arm. Throughout the rest of the book – and throughout the rest of series 1 and series 2 – the aftermath of this accident affects Tenel Ka’s thoughts about her body, her capabilities, and how others treat her. Emotions range from guilt to anger to regret to protectiveness. You follow along at her indignation of being treated as an inferior existence – you see her respond to threats, adjust her techniques. It isn’t karmic retribution like in the case of Anakin Skywalker; no one is even really at fault, the accident was understandable, and Tenel Ka is firmly on the light side in terms of behaviour.
The old expanded universe gave us a lot of issues, but it gave us representation of a person with disabilities as a character on her own, treated with dignity like the other main characters. So why can’t the current media mix do this?