Fantastic ableism and disability: Werewolves

Warning: spoilers for Being Human, Harry Potter, and True Blood after the jump.

Seeing as we’ve already covered the messy theoretical definitions of disability, it’s time to expand my earlier list of characters with disabilities in sci-fi/fantasy to compensate for the fictional universes of sff. In other words, rather than listing characters who would be considered disabled by 2012 USian terms, I’m gonna look at characters who are treated like or share common experiences with disabled people here on Earth. These are characters who might be completely able-bodied by today’s standards but experience oppression similar to ableism due to being werewolves or squibs or telepaths. You ken? Maybe not. Okay. Well, you know how on True Blood public attitudes toward vampires are compared to heterosexism (i.e., homophobia) like through that sign in the opening credits that says “God Hates Fangs” and vampires only being able to get married in Vermont? And you know how in Star Trek conflicts between species stand in for racism? Well, what I’m gonna be talking about is like those two things but with disability instead of sexuality and race.

Image: on the left, a screencapture of George Sands (portrayed by Russell Tovey) from Being Human. George is a white man in twenties with short hair. He wears glasses and a maroon shirt. He has blue eyes and prominent ears. On the right, a screencapture of Remus Lupin (portrayed by David Thewlis) from the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Remus is a middle-aged white man wearing a button up shirt and tie covered with a sweater. He has scars on his cheeks that look like scratch marks.

Let’s start with a fairly popular and well-recognized metaphor: lycanthropy as HIV/AIDS. We find two salient examples in Remus Lupin of the Harry Potter series and George Sands from Being Human. George and Remus are rather similar: smart, sensitive, British, not the best looking guys in their circle of friends, best mates with serial killers. George speaks six languages and Remus is a powerful wizard and the best teacher Harry had at Hogwarts, but neither can find meaningful, long-term employment because of their “conditions.” George is hesitant to put down roots and make serious commitments to the Human world because he fears being discovered. Remus, on the other hand, can’t put down roots because he’s always run out of town whenever someone finds out he is a werewolf.

In both texts, there’s an emphasis on finding a “cure” for werewolves. Remus is only able to work at Hogwarts because of Wolfsbane, a potion that allows him to keep his Human mind while transformed. Wolfsbane is ridiculously difficult to brew and therefore hard to come by and likely very expensive, putting it out of reach for werewolves like Remus who have difficulty finding and keeping jobs due to discrimination. This situation parallels the struggle some people with HIV/AIDS have in receiving adequate health care. According to Ban Ki-Moon, “One-third of all countries have virtually no laws protecting [people living with HIV’s] rights. Almost all permit at least some form of discrimination…” This means that in some places people can be refused employment, medical treatment, or health insurance just for having HIV/AIDS.

In series two of Being Human, George becomes obsessed with curing his lycanthropy, locking himself in a cage and tranquilizing himself on the full moon. This knocks the werewolf out while transformed, but for the rest of the month George has rage issues and swears uncontrollably. A shady religious organization headed by a doctor and defrocked clergyman also works to cure lycanthropy that series but only succeeds in killing several werewolves. Perhaps a metaphor for the ethics of double-blind studies and/or the Catholic church’s position on condoms?

Image: a screencapture of George Sands from Being Human in the episode "Bad Moon Rising." George is beginning his monthly transition into a werewolf and is still largely in Human form. His body is taut with pain. His fanged mouth is open in a scream. Behind his neck, George's upper back is protruding upward as his shift and grow during the transformation. On his left shoulder, there are five keloid scars that mimic scratch marks. Around his neck, he wears a Star of David necklace.

As a protagonist and friend of the protagonist respectively, George and Remus’ “furry little problem” is portrayed sympathetically in the text. Being Human does so mainly by showing the immense pain George experiences every transformation in excruciating detail. The images of George’s body wracked with pain as it essentially dies as a Human and is reborn as werewolf are accompanied by sound effects of his bones breaking, his screams (performed without reservation by Russell Tovey), and even a voiceover explaining what is happening to George on the biological level. It’s clear in the first episode that lycanthropy is not something he or anyone would choose. If George had known of its existence, he would have done everything he could to prevent it. Just like, the show implicitly states, with HIV/AIDS. This comparison is drawn early on in the pilot when George sees his former fiancee, Julia, for the first time after becoming werewolf. George tries to explain why he left home without a word.

George: I caught something.

Julia: Like a disease?


Julia: You caught something. Is it… [she hesitates] Christ, I don’t know what to think. What is it?

George: It’s something old.

She smiles briefly, reassured that it isn’t something new like HIV.

Image: a screencapture from the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In the moonlit night, Hermione, Harry, and Ron stand across from a menacing, transformed Remus. As a werewolf, Remus is a furry, bipedal creature with a hunched back and large head and muzzle.

JK Rowling out-and-out says that Remus’ “being a werewolf is really a metaphor for people’s reactions to illness and disability,” specifically HIV. Her conscious attempt to portray HIV/AIDS-based discrimination as unjust and unfounded loses some of its bite when it came to writing the action sequence for PoA. No Harry Potter climax is complete without a member the Trio in mortal peril, so Remus had to forget his potion, wolf out, and try to eat the children. This makes for fascinating storytelling (and would have looked great on film if the CGI design for Moony wasn’t so god awful), but it reinforces the stereotype that werewolves (and their real-life metaphor-mates, people living with HIV/AIDS) are dangerous (especially to innocent children) and out to share their condition like memes on Facebook.

Turning someone else into a werewolf is a huge concern for both George and Remus. George’s relationship with Nina falls apart in series two after he passes on the curse. When they’ve reconciled, George and Nina are worried about their unborn child being a werewolf. Remus has similar concerns about his and Tonks’ baby, resulting in a major freak out. Remus very briefly abandons the pregnant Tonks because of his fear, but returns after being chided by a seventeen-year-old. In both cases, the curse isn’t passed on to the babies. The fear the parents experience however parallels public discourse about “AIDS babies.” (Mother-to-child transmission of HIV can be prevented, but access to preventative medication and information is mediated by poverty, race, nationality, and other factors.)

There are parties in those fictional universe who wouldn’t see a baby born with lycanthropy as such a bad thing. Other werewolves see their lycanthropy as a point of pride rather than an affliction. They respond to prejudice against werewolves by reclaiming their identities as something positive, unlike George and Remus who attempt to cure their lycanthropy to avoid werewolf discrimination (as well as horrific transformations). These two ways of seeing lycanthropy are roughly analogous to the social and medical models of disability. Fix the society or cure the werewolf. Tellingly, the characters who subscribe to the social model of lycanthropy are morally dubious if not complete and utter monsters. Early in series one, Tully encourages George to embrace his wolf side. He also tries to rape Annie and lies about having turned George. Later, in series three, we are introduced to Anthony MacNair who believes lycanthropy is a blessing that gives him superior healing capabilities. MacNair also killed a small family while transformed and kidnapped their son who he accidentally turned. He raises the baby boy as if he were his own, including never telling the kid about his birth parents. MacNair teaches the boy to hunt vampires and the two amass a large collection of fangs which they use as beads on a necklace.

Image: a screepcap from the Half-Blood Prince. On a brick wall, a parchment poster hangs. At the top of the poster, "WARNING" is written in bold, all caps, and underlined. Below that "FENRIR GREYBACK" is written in all caps and a smaller font. Under that are three pictures of Fenrir Greyback: a profile shot of his left side, a front on shot, and another profile shot of his right side. In the pictures, Greyback smiles at the camera. He has long hair and a beard. Below the pictures, there is illegible writing. Below that "*APPROACH WITH EXTREME CAUTION*" is printed. Text underneath that indicates that there is a reward for Greyback's capture.

Remus was turned by Fenrir Greyback:

Fenrir Greyback is, perhaps, the most savage werewolf alive today. He regards it as his mission in life to bite and to conta­minate as many people as possible; he wants to create enough were­wolves to overcome the wizards. Voldemort has promised him prey in return for his services. Greyback specialises in children… Bite them young, he says, and raise them away from their parents, raise them to hate normal wizards. . .  At the full moon, he positions himself close to victims, ensuring that he is close enough to strike. He plans it all. (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Rowling 334-335)

As you can see, those werewolves who believe lycanthropy is a social condition are some of the worst people to ever walk the planet, while those who believe lycanthropy is a curse that needs to be cured through medical intervention are portrayed more sympathetically. Those who buy into the dominant model are rewarded. Not to dismiss Remus and George’s desire for a cure. I realize that being a werewolf, like having an impairment, can really suck as an embodied experience. I’m not one of those people who are so gung-ho about the social model that I believe impairments can’t hurt like a trasnik sometimes. Or even all the time. It can be painful as all get out to have an impairment or transform into a wolfman once a month. This we know. But I think it’s just as important (if not more so in some cases) to fight for society to be less of a dick to people with disabilities and werewolves as it is to discover and provide the types of medical care so desired by said people with disabilities and werewolves. And that’s the moral for today.

As a post-script, I’d like to acknowledge that not all werewolf mythologies fall into the HIV/AIDS metaphor. Not all werewolves are space crips. In some texts, lycanthropy resembles ethnicity or race more than it does disability, usually because lycanthropy is an heritable trait in those universe. Take, for instance, True Blood. The werwolves in that series are tight-knit group that likes to drink beer around bonfires. From what we’ve seen, werewolves and werepanthers are very concerned about carrying on the bloodline and maintaining their culture. The werepanthers seem to have their own religion and story of how life originated. Perhaps these weres’ ability to see themselves as an ethnic group stems from the manner of their transformations which are painless and generally voluntary. There’s really no downsides to being a were, just the upsides like a good sense of smell and the ability to turn into another species animal. (Weres might be more susceptible to vampire blood addiction. All of the werepanthers and about half of the werewolves we’ve seen so far have V addictions. There is no conclusive evidence to say that this is solely a result of were physiology. It could be sociological in nature.) Like the social model werewolves, weres who follow the ethnicity model are portrayed as villains. The only sympathetic were in True Blood is Alcide. The rest are portrayed as neo-Nazis, rapists, murderers, and drug addicts (which in and of itself is not negative but is highly stigmatized in US culture). However, all supernatural creatures are portrayed as dangerous to Humans in True Blood.

4 Responses to “Fantastic ableism and disability: Werewolves”

  1. April 3, 2012 at 5:34 pm

    Re: True Blood: THE SHOW FUCKED UP WERES. Weres are a lot more broadly sympathetic in the books, and Hotshot (The Were Panther Community?) is not made out to be a meth den of sorts. It’s actually, while secluded, like what small towns are *actually* like rather than what popular media would like to think of them as.

    Indeed, Jason happily marries Crystal- though she ends up being a minor sociopath, in true murder mystery fashion- and it’s Crystal’s ex alone who turns him into a “turned” were. The ex, BTW, is promptly punished for turning him against his will.

    There’s more extensive genetic restrictions that explains some of the incestuous or animalistic things in the books- only first borns of a pair of two born weres can produce a new born were.

    Even the Debbie arch is utterly different. The V addiction is an exception in the books for weres rather than a rule due to a cultural anti-pathy towards Vampires.

    Additionally, Alcide isn’t the only obvious suitor for Sookie who is a were- There’s another character who is a were Tiger.

    Additionally, the further into the books you get, the more elaborate the culture of the various were communities are. even the were wolves!

    Um, I *might* be a bit sore on how the show screwed the weres over. And completely re wrote sam’s back story.

    • April 4, 2012 at 12:41 am

      I’d heard previously that Alan Ball really screwed over the were panthers, but I didn’t know how much he altered the werewolf characters. In the series, I feel like the weres are cast as white trash/hillbilly stereotypes of working class white folk, which was something the show did a pretty good job of avoiding previously considering that it is set in the South.

  2. November 27, 2012 at 11:43 am

    I feel like I should mention here that Teen Wolf also fits into the themes discussed here, featuring, among other things, cure plotlines and characters discussing the difference between born werewolves and werewolves bitten later in life (egosyntonic vs egodystonic lycanthropy, as it were.) There’s some wildly terrible literal disability content in the show itself too, but the metaphors are good.

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People with disabilities? In my sci-fi? It's more likely than you think.

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