Fantastic ableism and disability: No supernatural powers

Warning: this post contains spoilers for the Harry Potter series and the Star Trek: TOS episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren.” This post also contains discussion of child abuse and the abuse of people with disabilities.

Just to recap: disability is socially constructed. In sci-fi and fantasy universe, characters who wouldn’t be considered disabled by Human 2012 standards are sometimes treated like or share common experiences with disabled people here on Earth due to their social status within their universe. Last time, I wrote about how werewolves (specifically Remus Lupin from Harry Potter and George from Being Human) stand in for people living with HIV/AIDS and experience similar ableist oppression. Today, I want to talk about characters without supernatural powers. In certain fictional societies, having what we might consider superpowers is the norm, so characters without those powers are disabled even if they just seem like normal Humans. Sometimes this comes in the form of what TV Tropes calls a Muggle Born of Mages–someone without powers born into a family of supernaturals. In worlds where not having powers is the norm and the parents are superheroes, the kid might feel divided between two worlds or excluded from the family. In societies where magic is the norm, a person without it can be subject to some pretty serious fantastic ableism. With the latter example in mind, I look to Squibs from Harry Potter and Alexander from “Plato’s Stepchildren” (aka The One Where Kirk and Uhura Kiss) in Star Trek: TOS.

Although pretty much everyone who isn’t a pureblood (a wizard or witch from a family composed only of witches and wizards) faces some degree of discrimination in the wizarding world, I’m gonna focus on the Squibs, because their treatment mirrors most closely that of people with disabilities in our world. Squibs are people without magical powers born to families of witches and wizards. Children born into wizarding families typically display some degree of magic before they receive their letter from Hogwarts. Usually this comes in the form of accidental or uncontrollable magic brought on by strong emotion or desire. Harry Potter, for instance, repeatedly made his hair grow out after being given embarrassing haircuts by his aunt. While accidental magic can be a cause of concern to Muggle parents, in wizarding families it is a reassurance that the child is indeed magical and not a Squib. When children fail to show signs of magic, wizarding families often become concerned. This is the earliest sign that parents and society favor magical children over Squibs. The fear of Squib children can be so severe that it results in abuse. Voldemort’s mother, Merope Gaunt, was suspected of being a Squib by her father, who abused her to “encourage” her to use magic. Neville Longbottom was a bit of late bloomer (ha ha because he’s an herbologist) magically. His family suspected that he might be a Squib. He proved them wrong after his great-uncle Algie “accidentally” dropped Neville out of a window and the boy bounced instead of dying a gruesome death. Previously, Algie had tried to prove that Neville was magical by throwing him off a pier, causing Neville to nearly drown. Although Neville survived these tests, they show that Algie was willing to risk the death of a Squib child. Better dead than Squib.

Being non-magical, Squibs are not allowed to attend Hogwarts, causing them to miss out on one of the foundational aspects of British wizarding society. Squibs instead attend Muggle schools and eventually integrate into the Muggle world. Squibs are therefore segregated and cut off from the culture of their birth. For example one of Ron Weasley’s distant relatives is a suspected Squib. He works as an accountant in the Muggle world and is never spoken of by the Weasley clan. In the films, a Squib member of the Black family was cast out of the family and burned out of the family tapestry.

It’s not just families that separate Squibs from the wizarding world. The wizarding world is designed around people who can use magic with small allowances given for children who cannot legally perform magic. Squibs can never function as adults in the wizarding community. They cannot Apparate (that is, teleport from one location to another), the magical equivalent of driving. Among other things, they can’t make invisible items appear, use certain magical artifacts and items (e.g., broomsticks, the Marauders Map), lock and unlock doors, and enter certain buildings. There are few jobs available to Squibs in the wizarding world because most require magic or the use of magical items.

Image: a screencapture of Argus Filch from the film Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Filch is a white man around sixty years of age. He has a stubbly beard and long brown hair, which is balding at the front of his head. He wears a raggedy brown jacket.

There is, however, one notable Squib who held a job at Hogwarts. He was the janitor. Okay, so, Argus Filch was technically the caretaker, which effectively rendered him something like a mix of janitor and hall monitor. He’s also the most prominent Squib in the series. Filch functions as somewhat of a villain, mainly because he rigidly enforces the school rules and occasionally mutters about reinstating torture as student punishment. Filch was also quick to join Umbridge’s side when she took over Hogwarts, because she was on board with torturing students. Casting Filch as betraying Dumbledore here is slightly problematic. As a Squib, Filch is supposed to grateful to the benevolent patriarch Dumbledore for giving him a job, just like Dumbledore’s other affirmative action hires (e.g., Hagrid the half-giant kicked out of school, Snape the half-blood Death Eater Spy, Remus Lupin the werewolf, Dobby the free elf). From a social justice standpoint, Filch shouldn’t have to be loyal to Dumbledore just because the man gave him a job, especially considering that Filch lives in his office. The prefects have their own luxurious bathroom but Filch sleeps in his office.

In Chamber of Secrets, Filch seems ashamed of being a Squib. He takes a correspondence course to try to learn elementary magic and hides being a Squib from the students. When Mrs. Norris, his beloved cat, is petrified by the basilisk, Filch assumes that she was attacked by Harry because he knows Filch is a Squib. It is possible that the basilisk happened upon Mrs. Norris because it was looking to attack Filch for being a Squib. It is not insignificant that Ginny-possessed-by-young-Voldemort’s-diary (it’s a long story) hanged the petrified cat next to where she/he/they wrote, “Enemies of the heir beware.”

Image: a screencapture of Argus Filch and Mrs. Norris in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Filch wears black dress robes while dancing with Mrs. Norris who he holds in his arms. Mrs. Norris is a fluffy Maine Coon cat with red eyes.

Filch’s close bond with Mrs. Norris, who JK Rowling insists is just a normal cat, might indicate that Squib’s have some magical powers. We know already that Squibs, unlike Muggles, can see Dementors, but might they have an affinity with cats beyond that of wizards and witches? The second most prominent Squib in the series is Arabella Figg, Harry’s neighbor and spy for the Order of the Phoenix. She also works with cats, crossbreeding them with Kneazles. However, by virtue of having more screen time, Filch demonstrates a more profound relationship with cats through Mrs. Norris. Filch and Mrs. Norris often stalk the halls of Hogwarts together, but they also split up and Mrs. Norris will fetch Filch when she witnesses students misbehaving. Mrs. Norris seems to be able to understand and take direction from Filch, which as any cat person knows is clearly evidence of magical intervention. There are only two other Humans who seem to have as great a command over and rapport with their familiars as Filch with Mrs. Norris: Voldemort with Nagini and Dumbledore with Fawkes. That’s right, the Squib janitor has as great of an affinity with his familiar as the two most powerful wizards of the day. Like people with disabilities in our world, the Squibs of Harry Potter have valuable talents, capabilities, and experiences that can contribute much to society but are overlooked due to oppression.

Image: a screencapture of Alexander from the Star Trek: TOS episode "Plato's Stepchildren." Alexander is a white man just under four feet tall with short, sandy brown hair. He wears a short Greek tunic over a plaid jumpsuit. He has brown sandals on his feet.

Squibs, as a social class, face deeply ingrained oppression that permeates all of wizarding society. Individual squibs can experience this oppression in interpersonal violence and abuse, like in the case of Merope Gaunt. Alexander, from the TOS episode “Plato’s Stepchildren,” faces kind of a smash up of institutionalized and individualized oppression as the only person on his planet who does not have telekinetic powers. His people, the Platonians, developed telekinesis after moving to a new planet. The natives foods contained contained kironide, a powerful substance that acts on the pituitary. Everyone developed the ability to move things and people with their minds. Everyone except for Alexander who has a pituitary condition that also made him, in his own words, a “dwarf.” While the Platonians make fun of Alexander for his size, because he does not have telekinetic powers, the Platonians abuse and enslave Alexander, making him perform for their amusement. As Alexander says, “I was brought here as the court buffoon. That’s why I’m everybody’s slave and I have to be ten places at once, and I never do anything right.”

While the statement, “I never do anything right,” indicates that Alexander has internalized messages about his worth from the other Platonians, after meeting other people without telekinesis in the form of the holy trinity, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, Alexander realizes his abusers were the ones at fault for his mistreatment, not him.

They were treating you the same way they treat me. Just like me, only you fight them. All the time, I thought it was me, my mind that couldn’t move a pebble. They even told me I was lucky they bothered keep me around at all, and I believed them. The arms and legs of everybody’s whim. Look down, don’t meet their eyes. Smile. Smile. These great people, they were gods to me. But you showed me what they really are. And now I know, don’t you see? It’s not me, it’s not my size, it’s them! It’s them! It’s them!

Alexander’s disgust for the other Platonians and their abuse of power extends so far that he refuses one of Bones’ miracle cures. By injecting kironide directly into his bloodstream, Alexander would not only gain gain telekinetic powers but become more powerful than Parmen, the Platonian “philosopher king.” Armed with a newfound sense of self-worth, Alexander turns down the opportunity to rule over his people.

You think that’s what I want? Become one of them? Become my own enemy? Just lie around like a big blob of nothing and have things done for me? I want to move around for myself. If I’m going to laugh or cry, I want do it for myself. You can keep your precious power. All I ask is one thing. If you do make it out of here, take me with you. Just drop me any place they never heard of kironide or Platonius.

By saying the hyperable Platonians “just lie around like a big blob of nothing and have things done for [them],” Alexander flips the script on disability stereotypes. Often disabled people are considered to be just lazy people who do nothing all day and have other people take care of them. Alexander’s saying, “No, able-bodied people are the ones being taken care of in our society. They’re the ones being catered to and coddled in all their privilege. Disabled people are the ones who have to adjust, who have to work to fit into society, who have to entertain able-bodied people.” Alexander refuses able-bodied privilege, saying “Fuck you, you can keep your precious power. I wanna live my life on my terms. I wanna go places. I wanna see things. I wanna be where the people are. I wanna see, wanna see ’em dancin’. Walking around on those… No, hold on. Sorry, that’s the Little Mermaid. But the point still stands!” Once Parmen is defeated (and Kirk and Uhura kind of kiss), Alexander gets his wish and leaves with the Enterprise.

Having the oppressed guy just leave rather than having the society become less oppressive might at first seem problematic. When looked at though  the lens of the Independent Living Movement, which prizes disabled people being able to make their own choices, this ending becomes more empowering. In the US, people with disabilities are fighting to be included in society and to make informed decisions about their own lives. According to the Independent Living Movement, if a person with disability is in an abusive situation (like Alexander was), they should have the power to get away from that situation. By the end of the episode, Alexander’s life is in his hands for the first time and he gets to decide what is best for himself, which in this case is leaving his abusers behind.

4 Responses to “Fantastic ableism and disability: No supernatural powers”

  1. May 15, 2012 at 11:03 pm

    Good choice, I thought. Interesting blog! (I love sci-fi.)

  2. July 27, 2016 at 6:41 pm

    In some ways Squibs are closer to Hearing CODAs (Children of Deaf Adults) than disabled people. Like CODAs, they’re born to a minority group but don’t belong to that minority themselves. Schools for the Deaf are also central to Deaf culture, and usually only admit students with a diagnosed hearing impairment (although recently inclusive ASL schools have started to emerge). And many Deaf parents mourn that their child can hear because they expect their child to grow up as a member of Hearing culture and leave Deaf culture behind, which is precisely the outcome that seems likely for most Squibs.

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Space Crip

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

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